Tarot Cards vs. Oracle Cards: What’s the Difference?

Tarot cards and oracle cards are both used as inspiration for spiritual wisdom, both made of cards with images and text to inspire psychic intuition. They are used by both professional and amateur card readers to divine insights into life’s difficult situations, but what’s the difference?

The difference between Tarot cards and oracle cards is that Tarot cards follow more of a set structure, with a deck of exactly 78 cards sorted into suits and organized by number and type. Oracle cards look similar but are much less structured and more open to individual interpretation.

This article will discuss the basics of Tarot cards and oracle cards, comparing and contrasting these two kinds of sacred decks.

What Are Tarot Cards?

Contrary to popular belief, the purpose of Tarot cards is not to predict the future or tell your fortune, but to enable contact with your inner, essential self. A psychic reader is meant to tap into deep aspects of your personality through Tarot cards in a way that will offer hope and guidance about where your life is and where it’s headed.

History of Tarot

There are multiple competing historical accounts of the origin of Tarot cards, and it is most likely that different versions of the practice originated on their own in different places and at different times, converging into the Tarot that we know today.

In one account, Tarot cards were originally created as “triumph” cards used in a European game of the 1400s similar to bridge. As the game spread across the continent, the name changed, and it became known as tarocchi, the Italian version of the French word tarot, by 1530.

According to this record, it wasn’t until 1781 that the French and the English began deriving divine inspiration from the pictorial cards and incorporating them into occult philosophy.

In another account, Tarot cards were created by ancient Egyptians as hieroglyphical keys to life and made up the only book that survived when the libraries of Egypt were destroyed in a great fire.

Types of Readings

Tarot cards are a part of two kinds of readings: question readings and open readings. Question readings are in response to a specific question, usually open-ended questions geared towards soliciting some kind of moral or emotional advice. Ideal questions are focused on you and what you can do and do not involve a high level of detailed information.

Tarot readings can answer these questions with insights about values and priorities. In the best cases, the questions ask how to manifest some kind of positive future outcome, like how to find a balance between work and home life or how to get along better with a spouse.

Open readings are geared towards bigger life questions, rather than a specific problem, and are usually done before major life events or when entering a new phase of life. Sometimes these readings are guided in a general direction, like career, but besides that, the reading is open to the psychic’s intuition.

The Tarot Deck

There is no one set of Tarot cards, but all decks include the same types of cards and meanings. Tarot decks have been invented and reinvented in various forms since the mid-twentieth century, including the most popular Rider Tarot Deck, the Miriyan Classic Tarot Cards Deck, or a newer style, like the Modern Witch Tarot Deck.

The deck is split into two kinds of cards: Major Arcana and Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana cards represent major influences and life-changing events or transitions and are numbered to illustrate the passing of time.

The Minor Arcana cards reflect ordinary, everyday events with minor influence and small, daily transitions. These cards come in four suits, each with ten numbered cards and four court cards. Here, the number represents the timing of the event, and the court cards represent the depth of wisdom we have about an event.

The four suits of the Minor Arcana (Wands, Swords, Pentacles, and Cups) each represent a distinct part of life.

Wands Fire: Passion, inspiration
Pentacles Earth: Money, physical reality
Swords Air: Intellect
Cups Water: Emotions

Getting Started

The best way to get started reading Tarot cards is to become familiar with the practice, either by working with a friend familiar with card readings or by using a simpler oracle card deck. Then, find a deck that you like the style of and can connect with. Many decks come with a guidebook that can help you learn the process of Tarot reading.

Spend time reading about how to interpret Tarot cards, either online or with a guidebook. Then, look through your cards and practice reading and interpreting different combinations of cards before finally conducting your first readings for yourself and then others.

How to Conduct a Reading

The ability to draw meaning from a Tarot deck depends upon your own intuition and narrative ability. However, there are common steps for building a scene with the pictorial language of Tarot cards.

  1. Lay a cloth on the surface you’ll be using for the reading to protect your cards.
  2. Shuffle the deck. This should be meditative, offering an opportunity to clear your mind and deck and focus on the question at hand.
  3. Cut the deck into three piles.
  4. Reorder each of the three piles.
  5. Draw three cards, one from each pile. These can each represent a category of your choosing (e.g., the past, the present, and the future).
  6. Observe the cards and make sense of the bonds and dynamics between them. Pay attention to how you feel, and create a story to connect the cards’ meanings.

You may develop particular interpretations of cards over time and practice, but in all cases, your own intuition is at the heart of the Tarot. The cards are meant to inspire introspection and draw forth wisdom, all of which comes from the source of the reader.

Some readers also choose to pull five cards instead of three, using a set of five categories to interpret each one (e.g., what is happening now, how can I handle it, what can I learn from it, what is entering my life, and what is leaving my life).

For more on Tarot cards and how to use them:

What Are Oracle Cards?

Oracle cards are meant to be a sacred guide to the inner self, a set of spiritual images and text that you can use to get in touch with your inner voice for intuitions about yourself and other people. They can be used in a personal setting or in a professional setting, by a psychic or layperson.

History of Oracle

Modern oracle cards are generally derived from Tarot, but because of the loose definition of oracle cards, many different versions of divination from imagery or from cards can be considered an oracle.

The Oracle Deck

Oracle cards have no suits, numbers, or patterns, and can be made according to endless different themes and mythologies. There are hundreds of different themed decks to choose from, all of which have their own themes and purposes devised by their creators.

Collecting multiple decks is a good way to increase the number of different intuitive messages you can interpret from your cards, whether you’re reading the cards for yourself or on someone else’s behalf. Different decks are more appropriate than others for different moods and circumstances.

Getting Started

The best way to get started with oracle cards is to first spend time browsing the many different decks available to you, then choose one or more that speak to you. Always find a deck that you can really connect with to be sure that your reading will be accurate and meaningful to your life.

Then, spend time looking through the cards, taking in the artwork, and practicing dealing out the cards. Some sets come with a guidebook to help you learn how to interpret different cards, which can be useful for an absolute beginner.

Overall, oracle cards are very beginner-friendly and can be a good first step towards learning how to read Tarot cards.

How to Conduct a Reading

Start by creating a calm, quiet place where you can keep an open mind free from distractions or negative influences. Tune in to your inner voice, and if applicable, listen to everything the person you’re reading for is communicating, verbally and nonverbally. Then, follow these steps to proceed:

  1. Shuffle the deck, meditating on the area where you or your client currently needs guidance.
  2. Decide how many cards you will pull. You could pull just one or one per each question or area you’d like to address.
  3. Either let the cards separate while shuffling or finish shuffling, then pull directly from the top of the pile.
  4. Lay your card or cards facedown on the surface in front of you.
  5. Turn the cards over one by one, revealing your intuitive impressions of each as you do.
  6. Sit with the cards for another minute or two to see what comes to mind.

Some decks do come with guidebooks that define possible meanings for each of the cards, but experts advise against too much reliance on the guidebook because the interpretations will be less personal to your own life or your client’s life than your own intuition.

Some cards have a guiding theme or principle spelled out in addition to an image, which can be a great way to incorporate both the artist’s intent and your own read on your or your client’s life situation. The images included are also typically intentionally complex, so that there are many possible symbols to notice and draw from.

See the following for an example oracle card reading:

Of course, a pre-recorded reading does not give the reader the opportunity to develop insight about your unique situation, and so is less likely to give useful or accurate interpretations.


Tarot cards and oracle cards are very similar in purpose, look, and feel. Both Tarot cards and oracle cards are used by psychics and hobbyists to find insight through intuitive reading of sacred cards. Because of this major similarity, many readers choose to combine both Tarot cards and oracle cards into their rituals.

The Decks

Both Tarot decks and oracle decks have artistic pictures and text to guide the reader towards finding meaning and are interpreted through the revelation of cards and an attempt to draw connections between them.

Tarot cards and oracle cards are both available in many different forms and themes according to the interest or impressions of the particular reader and are meant to be interpreted in personal ways, rather than standardized ways. However, both kinds of decks do often come with guidebooks to help lead interpretation.

Getting Started

Tarot cards and oracle cards both generally come with a guidebook with card meanings and common interpretations explained for the reader, and are wise to consult before conducting a reading. Readers can also learn a great deal about both kinds of cards by simply looking through them to get a feel for different cards before doing a reading.

Conducting a Reading

The process for conducting a reading with Tarot and oracle cards is very similar. In both cases, the reader shuffles the deck, meditating on the subject of the reading, and then pulls a certain number of cards according to particular questions or areas of life that they wish to address. These are interpreted through a narrative connecting concepts.


Tarot cards differ from oracle cards in that they have a more complex system of suits and numbering to guide the reading process. They take longer to learn how to use and offer more specific insights about the timing and significance of different readings.

Although oracle cards are open to many kinds of interpretations, Tarot cards connect more directly to specific life events and the greater life story.

The Decks

While Tarot decks always have exactly 78 cards, oracle decks may have any number of cards depending upon the reader’s wishes. The purpose of the deck is open to interpretation, and so it can be built in whatever way the reader desires.

Because of the freedom and flexibility in creating oracle decks, different decks can be made with very different purposes and uses.

The Moon Deck, for example, is meant to create rituals that enhance self-love and acceptance. Each card in this deck has not only an image and text but a ritual assigned to it to prompt actions that promote healing.

This deck took years of intense research for the creator to put together, and the help of her friend, an illustrator.

Unlike Tarot cards, oracle cards are not split between major and minor types and can be interpreted as either related to major life events or related to daily happenings depending on the intent and intuition of the creator and the reader.


Tarot cards are generally considered the ancestors of oracle cards, and so although Tarot cards are sometimes adapted, oracle cards are generally more modern than their Tarot relatives. However, oracle cards are so loosely defined that many practices throughout history may be considered oracle card practices.

Getting Started

Oracle cards are much easier to get started with than Tarot cards, so much so that oracle cards are often seen as a stepping stone towards learning Tarot. Where Tarot requires the reader to learn certain sets of rules and categories before getting started, an oracle reader can simply familiarize themselves with a deck by sight, and maybe with a guidebook, before starting.

Conducting a Reading

Tarot cards are different from oracle cards in that the cards dictate a specific part of the interpretations during readings, meaning that the way a narrative is put together in the reading is dependent upon the numbers and suits of the cards, and not just the imagery and text on the particular card.

Tarot readings also typically involve three cards, or sometimes five, whereas oracle readings are conducted with any number of cards.

Final Thoughts

Tarot cards and oracle cards are both used as sacred decks to give insight into life’s dilemmas but are different in that Tarot cards follow more of a set structure and are tied more directly to specific situations and events. Oracle cards are very free-flowing and more open to different interpretations.