The Difference Between Tarot Cards and Oracle Decks

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When it comes to cards, things can get pretty confusing pretty quickly. Tarot cards are not the same thing as oracle decks. For divination purposes, different types of cards can sometimes be better suited to particular situations. Using different decks can also provide complementary information at times. Here are a few baseline ideas that point out the distinctions between the two.

The Basics of the Tarot Deck

Italy is the recognized birthplace of the game of tarot, according to scholars Ross Sinclair Caldwell, Thierry Depaulis, and Marco Ponzi in their slim historical volume packed with interesting information Explaining the Tarot: Two Italian Renaissance Essays on the Meaning of the Tarot Pack (2010, Maproom Publications, Oxford; sadly, currently out of print). One of the essays examined in the book is from 1565 (Francesco Piscina’s Discorso) and the other is an unsigned, undated Italian manuscript that the scholars conclude was written “only shortly after 1562.”

The reason I mention this before going into the specifics about tarot is to actively dispel the New Age nonsense surrounding the cards’ origins, and also to share with you that the cards weren’t originally used for divination. Tarot was a trump-taking game played by the “idle people” of the noble class in which the 22 trumps of the Major Arcana, according to these 16th-century essays, “succeed one another by logical and moral necessity,” and, further and perhaps more surprisingly to our modern sensibilities, their order and symbolism was meant “to raise his (the player’s) mind to the contemplation of God.”

Given their playing card origins, tarot cards have similarities to today’s modern playing cards: four suits, each with Ace to 10 (clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades; corresponding to tarot’s wands, coins, cups, and swords) and three or four court figures in each suit (Jack, Queen, King; tarot has Page, Knight, Queen, and King).

There are 78 cards in a tarot pack. Twenty-two trumps and 56 pips.

Nowadays tarot cards are used for divination, but Italian playing cards (40-card deck) still retain a striking resemblance to the Marseilles pips and can be read for divination as well, just as our modern poker deck of playing cards (52-card deck) can also be used to tell fortunes.

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Photo credit: Tarosh

The game-playing distinction is perhaps the most distinguishing feature of tarot when compared to oracle decks.

What Makes Oracle Decks Different

Oracle decks, as their very name implies, were created for the sole purpose of oracular divination. The varieties abound (just look at this list on Aeclectic Tarot), but there are a few that are more well-known than others.

The most basic oracle decks on the market require no interpretation skills. You simply ask a question, and the answer is what’s written on the card. Many of these are quite New Age and general in nature, but they can still be fun to play with. They also vary widely in the number of cards in the deck. There’s basically no pre-set structure or origin story for oracle cards as an overall category, like you find with tarot.

However, two of the more structured oracles are Lenormand and the Sibille decks, which are worthy of their own sub-categories. Both spring originally from card games as well, hence their more structured nature.

Lenormand

“Lenny” is an oracle, to be sure, but it requires the ability to read the cards based on meanings and function and tell a coherent, logical story. Lenormand decks have 36 cards. Mary K. Greer tells on her blog that these cards were “created in Germany in 1846, based on an earlier multi-purpose game called the ‘Die Spiel der Hoffnung’ (The Game of Hope) created by Johann Kaspar Hechtel in Nuremburg in 1799.”

If you’re interested in learning more about Lenormand, I recommend starting at Camelia Elia’s website and browsing her teachings. I also use Cafè Lenormand and Learn Lenormand for basics. Greer is also a good authority, and here is a thorough interview with her regarding the deck.

Sibille

“Sibyl” decks are Italian cards whose name is in direct reference to the mythological women the ancient Greeks believed were oracles. The Italian sibilla decks (sibille is plural) have 52 cards and came about in the 19th century. Some of the decks have only 32 cards, because they were used for the card game piquet, one of the oldest still played today (first mentioned in Rabelais’ 1535 work Gargantua and Pantagruel).

Hybrid Decks

The “Maybe” Lenormand

This original Lenormand was created by art director, illustrator and cartomancer Ryan Edwards of Inset Studio. It’s a truly beautiful deck. It’s called “maybe” Lenormand because it has 52 cards, unlike the traditional Petit Lenormand that has 36. On his site, Ryan says added cards 37-52 “are derived from the ‘Gypsy Witch’ and ‘Old Gypsy Fortune Telling Cards’ among others from an off-shoot lineage of decks.”

Gypsy Witch

In fact, the Gypsy Witch deck from US Games is like a Lenormand/playing card hybrid deck for telling fortunes. It also has 52 cards with playing card insets. Unlike the Lenormand decks, however, it also has a short oracular phrase on each card, as well as favorable and unfavorable card combinations where applicable. Mary Hawkins over at Living With Cards has done a bit of writing about using this deck. It’s a weird one but strangely appealing – I own it and much like Mary’s initial post, I played with it for a bit and tossed it aside, not quite knowing how to make heads or tails of it.

Which Should I Use? Tarot or Oracle?

It’s not an either/or question. Cartomancers read the cards they want to read. Just study a bit of method and then get on with it! You may find, as I often do when combining divinatory systems (as with Tarot and I-Ching), that the answers complement, reinforce, and round each other out.

Your thoughts? Share in the comments section and let’s chat.

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2 comments

  1. This is very well-written and informative! One small comment regard word usage – the word “oracle” actually refers to any divination tool, any diviner and also the message that is revealed. So, tarot decks are oracles, tarot readers are oracles and the reading that is produced is also an oracle.

    Yes, we do commonly refer to non-tarot divination decks as oracle decks, and your discussion of non-tarot structured oracle decks is brilliant. However, I don’t think you can say that tarot is not an oracle, regardless of its mundane origins or specific structure.

    I would also say that many people use oracle decks not only for divination, but also for magick and meditation.

    Cartomancy is so complex! Thanks for breaking it down for us!

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