What’s the Difference Between Tarot & Oracle Cards?

So you’ve heard of Tarot cards (obviously!) and you’ve probably also heard of Oracle cards. Are they the same thing? Or are they totally different? And which is better?

This is a question I get asked all the time. And it’s not always easy to explain. But let me do my best…

Oracle cards and Tarot cards are similar in that they are both used for the same purpose – doing readings, exploring oneself and divining the future.

The two differ in their structure

A Tarot deck follows a particular formula. An Oracle deck is more free-form.

harlequin-novelA Tarot deck is similar to a Harlequin Romance novel. There’s a formula and structure to it. Certain things have to be present.

For example, the traditional Harlequin novel always features a virginal heroine. The hero she falls in love with is always rich and oh so manly – he is usually either a cowboy, billionaire or tycoon. Never a school teacher, chef or janitor. Can you imagine the novel on the left being called Between the Gas Station Attendant’s Sheets? Didn’t think so! But I digress…

Like a steamy Harlequin, A Tarot deck must follow a particular structure. There is always five suits – the four minor arcana suits and the major arcana.

A Tarot deck has 5 suits…

The minor arcana consists of cups, swords, wands and pentacles. This can vary depending on the deck as some decks get crafty with renaming the minors. There might be coins instead of pentacles or bows instead of wands. But essentially, the gist of each suit is the same.

A Tarot deck has 22 major arcana cards numbered 0 through 21. For a complete list of all the major arcana cards, go here. Some decks will have an extra card that is unique to that deck. For example, the Crystal Visions Tarot has an extra card called “The Unknown Card”, making it a 79-card deck, instead of the standard 78 cards.

Just as some decks will rename the four minor arcana suits, the major arcana cards can also be renamed. In my Druidcraft Tarot, the Wheel of Fortune is called The Wheel and The Devil is called Cernunnos. But the general meaning of the card stays the same.

Don’t let alternate card names get your panties in a twist…

I know this concept is really confusing, but think back to the Harlequin novels. Underneath all the details of a steamy bodice-ripper – like character names, job titles and location – lies a storyline that is pretty much identical from novel to novel.

One romance novel’s heroine may be called Chastity Dewstorm, while a different novel’s heroine is named Vanessa Lovejoy. But they both fall in love with a high status male by the novel’s end, despite their breathy protests and desperate mews.

Another element that all Tarot decks share is that there are four court cards - King, Queen, Knight and Page - for each minor arcana suit. So there are 16 court cards in total. Again, some decks get creative with the names and might have prince and princess instead of Knight and Page, but the meanings of the cards do not change.

Now onto Oracle cards!

Oracle cards can be anything – there are no rules that must be followed. If a Tarot deck is like a Harlequin, then an Oracle deck is like a novel that just happens to have romantic elements in it. Perhaps there are even some Harlequin-type aspects to it, but it does not follow any set formula to a tee. Maybe that’s not the best analogy….

Okay, think of Tarot cards and Oracle cards as being non-identical twins (like me and my slutty other-half Veronica!). The Tarot deck is prim, proper and follows the rules. She wants to marry, have children and pay her taxes.

The Oracle deck is the rebel who makes her own rules, traveling wherever the wind takes her, spending time in communes and ashrams, embarking on sexual escapades and making pottery while high.

This is NOT to say that Oracle cards are more interesting than Tarot cards, only that they are not bound by any rules.

An Oracle deck can have any number of cards in it. Most of them tend to be less cards than a Tarot deck, but some can have more. Some Oracle cards will have phrases on it – something that is rare for a Tarot deck – but some decks might only have images and no words.

Most Oracle decks have Tarot-inspired cards in them. So if you get to know your Tarot cards really well, you will spot some similarities in your Oracle decks.

Angel cards are a popular form of Oracle cards – these are basically Oracle cards with an angelic theme. Most Angel cards have uplifting phrases written on them, making them easy to use for beginners and gentle enough to use on those days when everything’s total shit.

So which is better? Tarot or Oracle cards?

This totally depends on you! Learning Tarot requires more time and energy, while Oracle cards are easy to read right off the bat for most people since the meanings are usually written on the cards.

Some people find Tarot cards intimidating and “scary” with their dramatic images of crumbling towers and scythe wielding skeletons. In that case, its best to start with a gentle Oracle or Angel card deck.

So why bother learning Tarot at all?

Tarot has a depth to it that Oracle cards often lack. Reading Tarot is more challenging, forcing you to flex your intuitive muscles.

Think learning Tarot requires tons of boring memorization? Think again! And check out my 7 Tips for Learning Tarot Card Meanings.

Going back to the romance novel analogy, Tarot cards are like a leather bound copy of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, while Oracle/Angel decks are like a Harlequin paperback with a glistening cowboy on the cover. Yes, it’s comforting and it’s boatloads of fun, but don’t neglect the classics!

Now that I have thoroughly confused you by saying Tarot is like a Harlequin, I mean no, its like a romantic classic, I would love to hear your thoughts…

Which do you prefer? Tarot or Oracle cards? Or do you like both? Share your opinions in the comments below!

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14 Responses to What’s the Difference Between Tarot & Oracle Cards?

  1. Amy says:

    I use both. I have several tarot decks and only one oracle deck at the moment (Gateway Oracle Deck by Denise Linn). I do a weekly oracle card reading and it sets my week up in a positive way. I like oracle/angel cards because of their uplifting and positive messages. I use tarot for daily draws and specific questions. I find that oracle cards are like warm and fuzzy friends who try to encourage you, while tarot cards are the friends who keep it real and can offer the hard, cold truth even when you don’t want to hear it!

    • Kate says:

      Absolutely! That’s a great way of looking at it – Tarot and Oracle decks do have distinct personalities and it just depends what you feel like – do you want honest (but possibly hurtful) advice? Or do you want to be comforted?

  2. Sunny says:

    I liked your analogies for both types of cards. My answer for the favorites question would be like your analogies. ‘The classics are always nice because thats where the creators of the spin-offs get their own ideas from.’ Meaning they both have ups and downs. But classics are worth ‘reading.’ Hope that made sense. Nice article.

  3. Hi Kate,
    haven’t worked a lot with Oracle cards as I love the Tarot so much!

    Thinking about it, your analogies to books and characters is so spot on and maybe telling me to lighten up a bit and play with the oracle cards instead of being so intense—
    Thanks as always. love your posts.
    Denise

  4. Jamie Morris says:

    Hi!

    This post is amazing. I’m just inspired, interested, engaged both as a taro-ist and as a writer to see how you differentiate. I especially love (LOVEEEEEEE!) the analogies to different kinds of books and types of people. Fantastic.

    You are a rock star!
    jme

  5. Aina says:

    Hey Kate, love your all articles. They are like nuts and snacks – small, light, simple and addictive! Love getting your newsletter everyday :D

    I do not think I CAN read Tarot right now. If anyone asks for a reading, I first try to make them change their mind.
    In any case I do lots of readings when I’m on my own with imaginative people or stars or about stars and thing on the papers. It’s called “learn while comparing”. So I love Tarot but it’s “difficult”. You’re right about the “intuitive muscles”.

    I just have some oracle cards and I think oracle can be good to sometimes sum up a Tarot reading or get a divine advice from an ascended master. Oracles are easier and, I think, better when use less often than Tarot. One phrase can be worth working on for a month or more!

    So I like both but Tarot the most!

    • Kate says:

      Thanks for weighing in here, Aina – I also sometimes feel that Oracle cards, especially angel cards seem like messages from the divine. I am curious why you don’t feel like reading Tarot lately? I get that way sometimes too, if it feels like whoever I am reading for has really heavy questions and they see the Tarot reading as “the answer” to their problems.
      Thanks for the compliment – I am very delighted that my posts are addictive!! :)

  6. EG says:

    I like both. If I want to have more depth, more clarification on an issue, or on a special situation, I use Tarot. But for example for daily advice I think, Oracle decks are excellent.

  7. Ellen says:

    I like both type of decks. For me oracle decks are like sweet candy. They taste yummy; I can’t get enough of them, but in the end they don´t sustain me long enough. Tarot decks are more like whole wheat bread. Sometimes hard to chew on but o so nourishing. You never grow tired of bread. Lately I tend to stick more with tarot, because you can always learn more about the decks you already have. I have noticed that with oracle decks I am like a sugar addict: I want more of them; I like de pictures of almost every new deck that is published, but in the end they wind up on the shelf while I am playing with my tarot cards.

    • Jamie Morris says:

      Ellen–

      I’m in complete agreement with you on every point! I’ve finally had to make myself stop buying oracle decks (but not tarot decks!) for just that reason.

      jme

    • Kate says:

      Ellen – wow, you summed it up well – I feel very similar to you in that I feel like I absolutely have to have every new oracle deck that comes out, but often the cards really don’t have the depth that Tarot has. So many oracle decks feel like just a pretty picture and a positive message. Fun and happy, but like cotton candy, doesn’t keep you satisfied very long. By the way, I love your food analogies!!!!

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