Using the Tarot for Creativity and Empowerment

Tarot 101: Oracle Decks vs Tarot Decks

This is a post in my Tarot 101 Series

There are many, many decks out there that are used for divination. Not all of them, however, are Tarot decks even though some of them are strikingly similar to Tarot. So the question is then, what exactly makes a Tarot deck a Tarot deck?

Over the past few posts, we’ve looked briefly at the structure of Tarot and have seen that a Tarot deck:

  • Contains 22 Major Arcana cards
  • Contains 40 Minor Arcana cards, each numbered 1 through 10, divided into 4 suits
  • Contains 16 Court Cards, 4 court cards in each suit (part of the Minor Arcana)

Thus, a standard deck such as the Waite-Smith or Thoth deck contains 22 majors and 56 minors. There are some decks that refer to themselves as Tarot decks but in actuality, are not. For instance, The Psychic Tarot resembles a standard Tarot deck in that it has 22 major arcana cards and 40 numbered minor arcana cards. There are, however, no court cards or people cards. Given that the court cards are considered an essential part of standard Tarot, the Psychic Tarot is an Oracle deck rather than a Tarot deck.

So we might say then, that often, an oracle deck has no set structure and no set number of cards. While some are used for divination, others may be created specifically for meditation, magical or self-help purposes. There are oracular systems that do in fact have a set structure, such as Runes, I-Ching, Lenormand or the Ogham – but their structure is not the same as Tarot. While these oracle systems can certainly be useful for divination, to refer to them as Tarot is incorrect.

The authors of some Tarot decks have included additional cards. For example, The Fifth Tarot includes the standard suits of Fire, Water, Air and Earth but includes a fifth element: Ether. Is this still considered a Tarot deck? In my opinion, yes. It still contains the standard 22 majors and 56 minors (including courts) and could still function the same as a Tarot deck if you removed the extra suit.

These are all just my opinions however; some may disagree or have a different view on what constitutes an oracle deck vs a Tarot deck. But if you want to really learn the “Tarot”, it is best to start off with a standard deck of 78 cards. Once you’re comfortable with it, then by all means feel free to branch off and experiment with oracle decks as well. I personally have quite a few of them in my own collection.

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