“What’s the difference between tarot and oracle cards?”
I get this question at every event where I vend. It also comes up regularly when I tell people I run a business selling independently produced tarot and oracle decks. It’s one of my favorite questions to answer – I love demystifying divination. If you’re interested in learning to read cards but feel like you don’t know where to start, this is a good place.
The main difference between tarot and oracle cards: structure
Tarot cards follow a specific system. A full deck includes 78 cards, divided into the Major Arcana and Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana, numbered 0-21, follow the Fool’s Journey – these cards reflect archetypes and significant points in our lives. The Magician, the High Priestess, Death… you may recognize these cards from different cultural references. The Minor Arcana has four suits, like playing cards, typically associated with the elements. In addition to cards numbered 1-10, each suit includes four court cards, which typically correspond to people and personality traits in a reading.
Oracle cards, on the other hand, don’t follow a set system or structure. The artist may choose to draw any number of cards, focusing on a specific theme or keywords they find meaningful. Oracle cards typically have a card name or keywords printed directly on them to guide your interpretation.
Is one system better than the other?
One system may be better for YOU as a reader. That’s the only criteria that matters. Some people can comfortably work with either type of deck, others strongly prefer one over the other. If you get clear messages from a deck, go with it. Period.
Common variations in tarot
The tarot suits usually align to the four elements, but different decks may use different names:
- Earth: Pentacles, Coins, Disks, Stones. This suit represents the physical body and material wealth.
- Air: Swords, Blades, Feathers. This suit represents thoughts, logic and communication.
- Fire: Wands, Candles, Batons, Flames. This suit aligns with creativity, motion and passion.
- Water: Cups, Chalices, Elixirs. This is the suit of emotion and intuition.
The court card names may also vary. Some decks rename the cards to remove traditional gender associations, while others maintain two male and two female court cards:
- Page: Princess, Messenger, Student, Apprentice
- Knight: Prince, Warrior, Guardian
- Queen: Mother, Keeper
- King: Father, Master, Ruler, Leader
The court cards typically reflect a progression, with the pages as beginners, just starting the journey and kings as leaders or mentors who have mastered a particular skill or domain. The Fortuna Tarot, pictured here, renames the Earth suit to Talismans and uses the names Princess and Prince instead of Page and Knight for the court cards.
Some of the cards in the Major Arcana may also get new names: The World may be renamed the Universe, Temperance is sometimes called Alchemy, some decks refer to the Wheel of Fortune as Fate.
Examples of oracle decks
Oracle decks offer artists more creative leeway, as they don’t conform to any set system or number of cards. A deck creator may opt to draw 47 cards featuring different crystals, the 28 days of the moon’s cycle, 55 goddesses, or cards aligned to any number of keywords. The Inner Star Oracle, pictured here, has simple messages printed on each card, paired with designs featuring sacred geometry.
What about guidebooks?
Some decks come with guidebooks, some don’t. Because tarot decks follow a common structure, most general tarot books offer relevant guidance on how to interpret the cards. As oracle decks are all unique, if your deck doesn’t come with a guidebook, you’ll have to rely on your intuition -- which isn’t a bad thing.
In general, Tarot tends to work better for readers who like system and structure, where oracle decks are great for those who are more flexible. Again, plenty of readers are able to use the two together in ways to beautifully complement one another. Pick up a deck, draw a few cards and have fun figuring out what works best for you.