Hey there tarot lovers! Today I want to talk about something that’s kind of not-tarot-at-all: using oracle decks and other kinds of cards for cartomancy, self-exploration, advice and other tarot-like activities.
What actually is an oracle deck, and how is it different to tarot?
Oracles decks are similar to tarot, in that they are still sets of cards, each with their own symbolism and meaning. You can draw cards for advice about a situation, you can do spreads just like you can with tarot, you can pull a card a day. But oracles are separate to the system of tarot. Where a tarot deck should (really) have a numbered major arcana following a recognisable journey, plus a minor arcana with four suits, oracles are free…to be whatever they want! They can have any number of cards, ordered any way the creator likes. They don’t have to follow an established system, but can explore concepts, feelings and experiences in their own way.
A typical oracle deck will have an image on each card, along with a single word, (though not always.) Often, they’ll come with a book that gives a deeper exploration of what that word might mean in a reading, though other decks will leave the interpretation completely up to you. I’ve seen oracle decks based on such themes as animals and their ancient meanings, crystals and their lore, energy chakras, angles, goddesses, ravens…just like tarot, the list goes on.
I’ll confess, in the past I’ve been something of a snob about oracles. Those I’d come across seemed to be all ‘angels and pastels’ (not my aesthetic at all) and filled with sentimental concepts. As someone who deeply loves the underlying systems of tarot cards, the consistent structure of the four suits, the numbers, the major and minor arcana, oracles felt… lacking. Too easy, perhaps.
Lately I’ve come across so many really beautiful, thought-provoking oracle decks that I’ve been forced to change my mind. A guest post on my own blog, which tells the story of how one oracle deck helped a young queer woman figure out their identity and boundaries (where tarot felt distant and inaccessible) sealed my appreciation and I’m ashamed of my snobbish ways. I currently own four decks — and I use them regularly.
What I’ve come to really love about oracles is exactly this freedom. Freedom of creation, in that the creators can do pretty much whatever they like, free from tarot’s structure. And freedom of use, in that you don’t need to have knowledge of any system in order to use them. It’s a much more accessible form of cartomancy — less intimidating than tarot, more readily available for anyone to understand. I’ll think twice before pulling out a tarot deck among friends. Folks often have a lot of ideas and feelings about tarot which aren’t always fun to deal with, whereas an oracle deck can seem a lot ‘lighter’ (I’m not saying they necessarily are lighter, but it feels a lot easier to pull one out in mixed company than it is a tarot deck!)
A few of my favourite oracles include…
The Earthbound Oracle by AL Swartz. A deck filled with earthy symbolism – bones, crystals, feathers, decay. These have stunning illustrations and the words on each card really hit you deep. This is a powerful deck and the oracle I use most.
Dori Midnight’s Dirty Tarot by Dori Midnight. Sadly no longer in print, but I really must share this truly special deck with you as it’s queer as hell and celebrates the symbolism of all the dirty, beautiful stuff of our lives. Dori’s introduction really sums up the beauty of oracle decks:
I call this deck dirty because it is not in any way ethereal or pure; instead it is a collection of symbols of things that we have, touch, desire, or tend to in our messy lives. … I seek to righteously reclaim these symbols, to share them, and to derive beauty, meaning and essence from each. I invite you to discover your own meanings for the cards as well.
Mirrors of the Heart: A deck of favourable cards by Lily S May. Simple, hand-made cards bringing encouraging messages and gorgeous folk-style lino-cut illustrations. This is a gentle, warm deck — to me, pulling a card feels like a hug.
(The Original) Angel Cards. Different to the many ‘angel wisdom’ decks out there, these are tiny, almost like mini flashcards, each with a single word.
There are many decks that seem to straddle both worlds — tarot and oracle. For example, my newly-acquired Dark Goddess Tarot follows the traditional system of tarot, but has a goddess on every card. I can read with it like I would a tarot deck, or I can use it as a goddess oracle.
Another interesting take on this idea is a charmcasting oracle. Rather than shuffling and laying cards, you shake and cast (throw) a selection of charms. They can be read according to how and where they fall — here’s a really great article about how to create and read your own!
So, how do you use oracle decks? Here are some ideas:
Setting the scene before a group activity
My friend Barbara is a builder/teacher who often works with groups. At the start of each day on site, she gathers everyone in a circle and pulls an angel card, bearing a single word. This gives everyone present a common idea to focus on, to consider as they work. It’s a simple, beautiful practice and it’s amazing what comes up throughout the day, based on what the card meant to different participants.
If you’re a facilitator or you lead group activities, consider using a simple, non-threatening oracle deck before beginning, to establish common ground.
Rounding up a tarot reading
For face-to-face client readings in particular, oracles provide a great way to draw things to a close.
I’ll do a tarot reading as normal, and if it feels like the conversation could go on and on, or it’s circling, or the client is asking for ‘one more card,’ I’ll bring out the oracle deck. I’ll explain that this card is to provide context, a final word of advice, or a take-away point. Usually I’ll hand the deck to the querent and ask them to shuffle and pull a single card, and then I’ll let them interpret it for themselves.
Mix and Match
You know how sometimes you seek advice from a few different people, because you value the different perspectives? You can do the same with your cards! Often instead of doing a ‘proper tarot reading’, I’ll shuffle several different decks — perhaps one tarot, and a couple of oracles —and read the cards as a group, as if I’m chatting with three different friends.
Single card readings
Just as with a daily tarot card, you could pull a card in the morning for daily advice or for a ‘thought for the day.’ Struggling with an issue? Pull a single card and see what it advises. It’s also nice to combine this with a tarot card — if you currently do a daily draw with your tarot deck, consider adding a single oracle card to the mix.
There’s nothing to say you can’t use oracle cards just like tarot, in spreads (though for some reason, I never do this myself.)
Keep them with you and see what happens!
I used to carry my tarot cards with me wherever I went, so that I was always ready to give an impromptu reading or get advice when I needed it. Now that I’ve discovered oracles, however, I’ve switched! Slipping the wee Earthbound Oracle into my pocket feels like less of a weight. I find that I pull it out so much more often than I did my tarot — I’m less concerned about people’s reactions and it’s much easier to simply offer someone a card. And because they have words printed on them, it’s much easier for the recipient to do the interpretation themselves — I’m not providing a ‘reading,’ I’m simply offering a card, and the recipient takes it from there.
Yes! I NEEDED this.
I have the Cosmos Oracle..only because it came with the Cosmos Tarot. I’d never engaged with oracle cards before this. They seem like nice images/concepts to meditate to, but besides that I’ve been at a loss.
Tarot has this overarching story/world, and when I do a reading I see which parts of that world are highlighted. Since I can’t see a ‘big picture’ with the oracles cards, I can’t bring myself to understand the ‘little picture’.
Seems I need a new approach.
Also: I wish pogs were still a thing, because I would totally charm-cast with them. I used to be loaded with Goosebumps and My Little Pony pogs. If I still had them, Rainbow Dash and the Swamp Thing could be guiding my life right now..
YES to charmcasting with pogs!! I’ve been meaning to put together my own oracle for ages, created over time with found things. Love the though of doing a playground charm oracle with childhood collectables… :)
I like the tarot and love my Animal Medicine cards. Thank you for exploring their uses! I find tarot cards more responsive to being the focus of spellwork (along with plain playing cards) while oracle decks speak to me more plainly for divination. Different strokes for different folks, but I’m glad for the variety in cartomancy.
I’d love to hear more about how you use tarot in spellwork @mariko – they do have that bit of extra ‘weight’ to them which lends itself to the more magical/mystical/darker side of things, where oracles ‘speak plainly’ as you say. Have you ever used oracles as part of your spellwork?
I have when it relates to my journey/evolution rather than trying to shape a specific outcome. Tarot cards become a lens or container for the energy I channel during spell craft when I have a picture of what I want the result to be. I invoke a specific facet of the cards (recently used the Lovers in spell designed to help me invest energy in my passions and be able to walk away from things and people who don’t feed the love in my life).
My oracle cards are more like catalysts, I guess? I did a spell with my Medicine cards at the beginning of the year to affirm my commitment to building lasting change and to listening to the wisdom of my surroundings. I don’t know what that will end up looking like, but I told the universe that I’m open to it!
I love this! I love having my Tarot read by others, but working with the cards myself has felt kind of intimidating, like it’s a lot to take on. But I can see myself working with oracle cards, even making my own!
Awesome! Oracles are such a great ‘leveller’. Let us know which deck you get @rstoeve!
I 100% agree that Oracle cards feel less intimidating and more accessible. I have an intense fear of doing things “the wrong way” (I feel like this might be do to my Capricorn Rising, the idea that there is a right way and a wrong way to do everything, or in psychological terms “all or nothing thinking). Oracle cards seem like a way to break apart that false belief. I LOVE my Wild Wisdom of the Faery Oracle cards by Lucy Cavendish. I’m really excited to try out some more decks, especially more “pocket friendly” ones. I’m so, so sad every time you mention Dori Midnight’s deck because I want it so badly and I can’t have it!
Yay! So glad you’re exploring oracles @lebraswell – I totally get that it that tarot can intimidate with how much there is to learn and this feeling that you have to know so much in order to work with the cards – it’s a shame because it’s really not true (I really want to break down this conception in this column).
Yeah it’s sad about Dori’s deck. I asked her if she would consider reprinting, but it’s a no go. SIGH!
kuan yin oracle cards by alana fairchild are da bomb
Oh wow, these look powerful.
Yes! I am exploring tarot now, but have connected with oracle decks for a while. It has been easier for me to really personalize and internalize the card meanings with oracle decks. A deck that has long resonated with me is the Vertical Oracle by Antero Alli and Sylvie Pickering. From the decks highlighted here, I’m excited to see more of the Mirrors of the Heart. Thank you!
Oh wow, that Vertical Oracle is quite a trip – just checked it out! Mirrors of the Heart is *adorable*, I really recommend everyone have this and keep it close by for moments when you need a little encouraging wisdom! You can get it from Lily S May’s Etsy shop (or if you’re in Europe I sell it in my shop :))
Wow, I really love her Etsy shop. I really want her deck, now. I love her artwork and the techniques she uses. So cool!
Seconding the recommendation for the Earthbound Oracle! So gorgeous. So sad that that Dirty Tarot is out of print. :(
Right? I posted my Earthbound Oracle to my partner last week cos I felt that she needed it…and argh, I’m really missing using it each day!
Thank you Beth! Today I used my oracle cards instead of one of my tarot decks because of this, and I’m glad I did.
Oooh, which deck do you have @alioh?
@littleredtarot The Alchemist’s Oracle. It’s honestly a little too woo for me normally? I know, that’s rich coming from a person with three tarot decks now and also this oracle deck, but it doesn’t feel structured and it includes chakras (which I’ve never identified with). But it’s BEAUTIFUL. And as I’m avoiding it for the above reasons, sometimes I just forget that it’s beautiful and pulling a card from it is nice sometimes, even if it vibes a bit more wishy-washy than my tarot decks do.
Ah yeah, I’ve seen this deck – it feels very ‘wild unknown’-ish and yes, so beautiful!
I definitely had that ‘ack, oracles are wishy washy’ thing too (hence snobbery)…but I’ve really changed my mind, especially when sharing cards with others.
“It’s honestly a little too woo for me normally?…But it’s BEAUTIFUL.”
I too have these feelings about certain decks. Those abject decks/cards/tones/symbols/whatever that repulse you yet you’re undeniably [in one aspect or another] attracted to; I can’t help but imagine that intersection of reactions would unearth some quite intimate revelations.
(Which then makes me wonder–is that what I’m feeling repulsed by? does a part of me know that these images could reveal something i’ve been trying to bury?)
Aaaaand I’m done.
I’m so much more familiar with oracle cards than tarot, so hell yeah to this! I only have one, Brian & Wendy Froud’s Heart of Faerie deck. (I….actually have a ton of free readings that i should be getting done ahahahahaha heLP ME) It’s all about relationships, which sounds like a narrow sort of thing until you realize that you have relationships with everything & everyone around you. So it’s not just love life stuff or whatever.
And of course, because they’re fae, they can be a little… tricky? Snarky? I did a spread before going to A-camp in 2014, & everything was all great & shiny until the takeaway card, which turned out to be The Crone. And yet, how appropriate did it turn out to be? HAHAHA welP. It’s awkward, though, to try & explain it to someone over the internet, especially when there’s a card that’s basically saying “illusions & glamours don’t last forever; there’s gonna be consequences.” Like, please don’t get mad at me, you asked for a reading & here’s what’s happening
And, because it’s Brian Froud, the art is amazing. ;)
I have both his decks. They’re so fantastic. Faerie can really kick your behind.
I really like the idea of the oracle deck as a daily practice. I feel like I definitely need a pause or change to the chaotic ‘routine’ (I’m not even sure at this point it’s a routine) of my mornings and I really like the idea of a brief moment of being present with an idea that is digestible at face value.
Yeah. I really really believe in the practice of pulling a card a day, but do appreciate that with tarot, this can be a pretty big ritual and take a lot of time and/or energy. Oracles feel less *learning* and a lot more self-caring if you find tarot a lot to take in :)
That Dirty Tarot deck so needs to be back in print.
I’ve always love the art of Tarot but actually learning it has always seemed out of reach, so this is perfect.
So I’m definitely in the oracle card camp, here’s my collection:
I have been thinking about getting into tarot thanks to this column but I just haven’t found *the* deck for me just yet. I’ve seen a few that I’d like but money is an issue at present. I like to play with decks in person first and my closest shop that sells them has a tiny range.
I guess I’m into the angels and pastels aesthetic enough that it works for me. I do feel there is snobbery in the oracle vs. tarot opinions. Tarot is kinda intimidating if you know nothing about it, it can be a little scary! Swords and arcanas, eek! Whereas big soothing pictures and reassuring messages can be great if you are less experienced.
Thanks for this great column!
Coming back to this regularly, trying to work up the energy to finish the cards I started at camp