If you're wondering, you're SO not alone! A question we get pretty often at The Treasure Palace is how oracle decks differ from tarot decks, and which one is easier to work with. Let's compare!
While there are a TON of different tarot decks by a ton of different artists, every tarot deck follows the same basic structure: 56 "minor arcana" cards and 22 "major arcana" cards (78 cards total).
The major arcana contains archetype cards like The High Priestess and Death, which illustrate major themes and concepts. The minor arcana deals in daily life and is similar to a common deck of playing cards, made up of 4 suits that contain number cards Ace (or 1) through 10, and 4 court cards. The standard suits are Wands (Clubs), Swords (Spades), Pentacles (Diamonds) and Cups (Hearts). In fact, before they were used for divination, Tarot cards and their contemporaries were intended to be played with! Mystics will make magic out of anything though, and games like the Italian Scopa turned into a method of folk magic. Tarot as fortune telling is an especially big part of Romani tradition, which you can learn more about in this episode of The Romanistan Podcast with our friend Jezmina Von Thiele (Jezmina is hosting Tarot with Ancestors at The Treasure Palace on March 16th 2024!)
Pamela Colman Smith, the artist behind the iconic Smith Waite Deck, was really the first artist to give personality to the minor arcana rather than just focusing on the majors. Most tarot decks today are based on her symbolism, so we always say if you learn on a Smith Waite deck you can work with basically tarot any deck! Of course, there are thousands (maybe millions?!) of decks out there these days, and artists get creative with their own interpretations. Rachel Howe of Small Spells takes an effective minimalist approach to the cards, while Megan Wyreweden uses animals to illustrate the point. Some tarot decks show coins instead of pentacles or apprentices instead of pages, some follow different themes entirely like 4 elements in place of the 4 suits, but that 4 suit/10 number/4 court structure is pretty universal.
That was a lot of information about Tarot decks, so I bet you're hoping oracle decks won't be as intricate! And for the purposes of this article, you're in luck.
Oracle decks don't follow one standard pattern like tarot decks do. Every oracle deck is different, themed by color, animal, historical figure, and every unnameable theme in between. You don't need to know the language of tarot to read an oracle deck!
Some have their own internal structures, like Color Vision which is divided into solid color cards and multisensory descriptors. Some are great for single-card guidance pulls, like The Seashell Oracle which reveals an oceanic touchstone that can help you deal with daily life. Some are entirely channeled by the artist, like the gorgeously collaged Runners of the Sun, introducing entirely unique concepts that only the provided guidebook can explain. The rules for oracle decks are pretty boundless, which is why it’s easy to amass a huge collection!
So, does that answer the question? In a nutshell: Tarot decks all share the same structure. Oracle decks are more loosey-goosey. Both are fun and effective, and both are learnable as well as intuitive. Even tarot which employs standardized symbolism can be interpreted by the most novice reader simply by looking at the cards and connecting with the illustrations. We always say “don’t be intimidated!” As long as you choose a deck that you like looking at, you’ll be able to (and WANT to) work with it.