A common thing that I see all over the place is the use of the word Tarot to mean literally any divination done by any type of cards other than playing cards. It’s become like a catch all term. It’s not uncommon that when someone learns I love Tarot that they tell me they, too, read Tarot. Then they start telling me about their favorite Oracle deck and know absolutely nothing about Tarot or that what they do is not Tarot.
Okay, so what is Tarot and what is an Oracle Deck? I’m glad you asked! Both are forms of what is called Cartomancy, which is defined as divination using cards. So, if you were to say that you loved cartomancy, then proceeded to talk about your favorite Oracle deck, you would be correct! However, if you are calling your Oracle Deck a Tarot Deck, you are wrong. This isn’t simply semantics, it’s actually a thing.
Tarot – What it is and isn’t
So, Tarot is a very specific form of cartomancy. In much of the Western world it is the most popular form of cartomancy which is what has given rise to the idea that all divination with cards is Tarot. It is, however, not a catch-all term. Tarot comes from an old French game of the same name that used a deck of 78 cards, just like modern Tarot decks. When it was played as a game there weren’t decks with 78 fully illustrated cards as we have now, but rather only some were fully illustrated – the 22 Trumps and the 16 Courts. The 40 Pips, or number cards, were not illustrated fully and looked more akin to modern day playing cards than anything else.
The 22 Trumps are what are now known in Tarot is that Major Aracana. This typically begins at card number zero, “The Fool,” and continues to number 21, “The World.” There are variations on these cards in modern decks, but this is typically what they are. The Courts from the original Tarot game are actually still known as the Courts, they are your Page, Knight, Queen, and King – typically in that order. There are some decks that use Prince, Princess, Queen, and Knight, but it’s still essentially the same. Like a playing card deck these courts are divided into four suits. The suits from the original French game, as far as we know, were the Chalices, Staves, Coins, and Epee’s. These have become, in most modern decks, Cups, Wands, Pentacles, and Swords respectively. Even in the decks that change these suits there are still four suits.
All modern Tarot decks follow this convention. There are almost always 78 cards. If there are more there is a reason for that and it’s explained by the creator. Typically, if anything, there are additional Major Aracana. All cards that are not the 22 Major Arcana are known as the Minor Arcana. I do actually know of one deck that adds a fifth court to each suit. It’s amazing and the reasoning is well thought out.
In the image above you see the High Priestess, the Ace of Swords, the Queen of Wands, and The Devil from the Tarot Nova, the Thoth Tarot, and the Hanson-Roberts Tarot from top to bottom. Notice that each of these decks have dramatically different art styles, yet the cards are the same cards and ultimately convey a very similar image but with different nuances. You will find this to be the case with all Tarot decks. Now, these three are pretty standard and traditional suits and titles. What happens when we get out of traditional? Well, let’s look at the same four cards in three less traditional decks below.
Here we have the English Magic Tarot at the top with more modern comic book style art. Under that is the Lost Tarot of Nostradamus which has dramatically different suits and even different names for the Major Arcana. Beneath that is the Druidcraft Tarot which changes many traditional Tarot elements to make them align more with Druidic traditions – not the least of which is the change of The Devil to Cernunnos. In each of these four decks we see the same essential cards, but in a very different way. Even the Lost Tarot of Nostradamus with it’s Papess, Lady of Suns, One of stars, and Devil is still essentially the same: it’s a deck of 78 cards – 22 Major Arcana, Four Suits with 10 number cards and 16 Courts. This is Tarot. If it is not this, it is not Tarot.
The other thing about Tarot is that within its 78 cards one can find nearly any situation that one can experience in life. There are countless spreads, each that will divine different meanings and different answers. Each card is a full story in and of itself, yet when combined with others can tell amazingly deep, profound, and sometimes shakingly accurate stories about the Querant (the one sitting for a reading). Oracle decks, on the other hand, are a different beast entirely!
What’s An Oracle Deck Then?
If we think of Tarot as being the full buffet of life with every possibility able to be pulled out then we should think of Oracle as more specific dishes designed for a specific purpose. With Tarot you can divine all sorts of things. With some Oracles decks this is true, too, but not with most of them. Most Oracle Decks are designed with a very specific purpose in mind and often cannot be used properly without a resource by the author that accompanies them. This certainly isn’t to say you can’t use them in a way not intended by the creator, but you will typically get the best and most meaningful use out of them when using them as they were designed. Another thing about Oracles decks that is different from Tarot is that there is not a base deck size or style. Whereas Tarot has the 78 cards divided into the different types and suits, Oracle decks can have any number or division of cards. Let me show you a few examples:
The deck above is the Zenned-Out Oracle. It is a 14 card deck. That’s it. There are no suits, no arcana, just 14 cards. The purpose of this deck is encouragement and peace, hence the colors and the messages. One is intended to take the cards and shuffle through them until they reach the card they feel is calling to them, then turn that card upright. There are no spreads, no nothing. Simply one card at a time. This card then has the message that you need. It’s a very direct message as you can see in the messages such as, “Be Brave.” It’s actually a pretty great deck and one I use when I find that I need some kind of encouragement or to know how I’m doing on things.
This is the Star Child Oracle. In a dramatic contrast from the Zenned-Out Oracle this deck at 128 cards. Again, there are no suits or any types of division. Just 128 cards. As you can see, each of these cards have stars in the background, hence the name, and something incredibly simple as a message. Some simply have stars, others have words, still others have elemental symbols. This Oracle does not have an accompanying book with the meanings. The explanation from the creator is that this is intended to be an entirely intuitive Oracle. It is intended to give guidance to you personally and is not intended to be used to read for others. What kind of guidance you get from these cards is your own. If you choose to use them in spreads, that’s fine. The point is that you are intended to entirely follow your intuition in the interpretation of these cards. This deck is different in nearly every possible way from the Zenned-Out Oracle. The next deck is just as different yet again.
This is the Law of Attraction Oracle. This is a 38 card deck, different than either of the two before it. Again, no suits or division of any kind. This deck is intended to help you remember mindfulness and that what you focus on is what you manifest into your life. Each card has a title and art on one side and a quote to match that art and title on the other. The way this deck is intended to be used is at the beginning of each day. You are supposed to close your eyes and clear your mind and ask the universe for what you need to focus on. With your eyes still closed you are to draw a card. Once you open your eyes you are invited to meditate on the art for a few minutes before turning to read the quote. The quote is what you should focus on for the day. It’s a powerful way to remain mindful.
The last Oracle I will share is the Druid Animal Oracle. This is a companion to the Druidcraft Tarot. This deck has 33 cards each depicting an animal in their habitat. It is accompanied with a book explaining the meaning of each card – these aren’t interpretable, these are the meanings of these cards. The book also explains the types of spreads that are meant to be used with the deck and how to work and read each one. This deck is meant to help you communicate with the spirits of nature and/or nature deities to get guidance and messages for specific things. In addition to this it’s a great deck to learn about yourself and where your mindset is during specific times.
Hopefully from this you can see that Tarot and Oracle are incredibly different things. There are definitely decks out there that blur the lines, often intentionally, but for the most part they are distinct things. One thing that makes this even more maddening is that there are Oracle decks that call themselves Tarot while knowing full well that they are not, for example the Psychic Tarot is a 33 card Oracle deck that for some reason has chosen to be called Tarot… it isn’t.
Tarot is a grand and complex system of cartomancy. There are clear delineations of what Tarot is and what it isn’t. While there is ability to have decks out of the standard, there needs to be a reason for the change and it needs to work within the confines of that deck. Also, without the different types of cards it can’t really be called Tarot. Oracle, on the other hand, is a self-contained cartomancy system. Each Oracle deck is beholden on ly to its own rules. There has to be no similarity from one deck to the next. Just because you know one Oracle doesn’t mean you can say you know Oracle well. You now that deck, or the specific decks you have. Tarot, while you need to learn each deck, you can be assured that the same basics apply to all and then grow from there with each new deck you come across.
I hope this has been helpful!
Love and light.