These days you can’t walk into a Barnes and Noble without seeing colorful decks of cards overflowing the shelves and spilling onto the display tables. Where do you even start? Tarot, oracle, Lenormand? What do these things mean? What’s the difference? Does it matter?
A Tarot deck is typically a 78 card deck with three major divisions between the cards:
Minor Arcana: Pips.
These derive from playing card pips. There are four suits numbered Ace through Ten. The Tarot suits are usually Wands or Rods, Swords, Pentacles or Coins, and Cups or Chalices. Often (but not always) the pips have illustrated scenes such as three ladies dancing and drinking wine rather than simply three cups. If you’re a beginner these illustrations make learning the cards easier, so one criteria you may ask for in a deck is: Does it have illustrated pips?
Minor Arcana: Court Cards.
These also derive from playing cards but instead of King, Queen, Jack there are four cards in each suit, usually King, Queen, Knight and Page but individual deck creators have gotten creative in renaming and re-envisioning these.
These are the cards that make it a Tarot deck and in fact the 22 cards of the Major Arcana are sometimes sold as a majors only deck. These cards are familiar things like The Fool, The Devil, and the favorite of so many dramatizations, Death. Even when you’re using a 78 card deck, the Major Arcana cards have more “weight” in a reading than the other 56 Minor Arcana. Majors refer to archetypes and spiritual development, while Minors refer to the ins and outs of everyday life.
Within Tarot, there are at least three major divisions:
Traditional decks like the Marseille Tarot that date back centuries in Europe. They often have a card called The Pope and there are no scenes on the pips but instead there are ornate designs.
Rider Waite Smith (RWS) decks, which are derived from a deck created by A. E. Waite in 1909 and brought to life by the illustrations of Pamela Coleman Smith. A lot of people don’t love the old-timey stilted artwork but will still recommend you start with one of these decks because they are the progenitor of an entire lineage of decks and most of the decks available show influence from these. In decks that derive from the RWS system, no matter how much the illustrations vary from the standard, they will almost always make reference to or be commentary on the RWS deck.
Aleister Crowley’s Thoth and decks inspired by it. Crowley was an infamous occultist and his deck, illustrated by Lady Frieda Harris between 1938 and 1943, lays out his vision of philosophy and theology. It has pips that have more in common with the Marseille tradition than with RWS, with the addition of keywords. Though I’m not sure how much the keywords will help you in a reading unless you know what you’d say off the top of your head if you drew a card labeled, for example, “Debauch.”
I’d recommend choosing a deck whose illustrations you love, which contains the standard 78 cards, and which comes with a book. As you gain experience you won’t need a book for every deck but for your first one it’s immensely helpful to see where the deck creator was coming from. Heck, with any deck it’s still helpful to have some idea where the creator was coming from.
You might have noticed how I qualify a lot by saying it’s often like this or usually like that. That’s because there is so much amazing vibrancy and diversity within Tarot that it’s hard to say anything definitive that applies to every Tarot. Even saying that it’s a “deck of cards” means overlooking the fact that it might be dice or tiles.
Another popular type of deck is oracles. An oracle deck does not derive directly from playing cards and doesn’t usually have suits or court cards or a Major Arcana. They might have categories of cards, such as earth cards, air cards, fire cards and water cards or people cards and animal cards. Or they might just be a deck where every card has equal weight. They often have keywords or a short message printed on the card.
Oracles can have any theme but there are a plethora of angel-themed decks. There are also hybrid decks that are partially inspired by Tarot but which deviate enough that they are no longer a Tarot deck. The number of cards in an oracle deck can vary, although with some publishing houses it averages about 44.
Some oracles are designed to be used alongside Tarot, such as the Everyday Witch Oracle. You don’t have to do it this way; an oracle deck can always stand alone, but a lot of people draw several Tarot cards and one oracle card at the end. There are also Rune decks, which illustrate the concepts of each rune and can be used either to help you learn runes or as an oracle deck.
One thing to remember about oracle decks is that each one is a unique system. With Tarot, learning one deck will give you a head start learning a new deck but each oracle is its own system. Of course, you might not care about ever getting another deck. You might find an oracle to work with a read exclusively from that deck for several years.
Lenormand is an entire system of its own that has been around almost as long as Tarot but without being influenced by Tarot. It has 36 cards which have set meanings and playing card correspondences. Once you learn those meanings, you can read with any Lenormand deck or with a deck of playing cards.
When a person reads Tarot, they might not use the meanings of the cards at all. They might read the body language and see that the person in the card looks sad or they might notice that someone on the card is wearing headphones and listening to music. In this way the cards can be read completely differently from one reading to another and from one deck to another. A deck where everybody looks angry will read differently than a deck where everybody looks dreamy and ethereal.
Contrast this with Lenormand, where the cards mean what they mean regardless of what deck you use. Mice means something that nibbles away on your resources. It doesn’t matter how attractive or repulsive you find the actual illustration on the card. Once you have the meanings down, you can switch between decks without getting a new book or learning a new system every time. You could even write the names of the cards on a stack of index cards and spread those out without any illustrations at all and it would not affect your reading.
For the last several years Tarot has ruled the market, towering over oracle and Lenormand decks. In fact, the Lenormand system was all but forgotten in the United States until the last 10 or 15 years, when it has made a huge resurgence.
What deck should you get?
This depends on what your goals are and what draws you to want a deck in the first place.
If you want to use the cards for fortunetelling or simply for quick answers to short questions, try a Lenormand deck. Lenormand may also appeal to you if you like the idea of learning a set system that has been around for the past two hundred plus years and that can be used to lay out impressive 36 card spreads.
If you want to draw a card every morning as a word of encouragement before you start your day, you may be drawn to an oracle. They tend to have uplifting messages and lend themselves to pulling a single card.
If you want to use the cards for journaling, creative writing, guided meditation, shadow work, and all manner of spiritual and psychological uses, Tarot is quite versatile.
It also matters what appeals to you personally. If you’re blown away by the artwork on one deck but someone is telling you that you’re only a serious card reader if you go with the deck they prefer, then tell them where to shove it and get the deck you fell in love with. Your deck is going to be your companion when Mr. Bossypants is not around, so why listen to his opinion on how only the decks he approves of are valid?
Get a deck you love, spend time getting to know it, and enjoy the process. And if you really take to it, you’re going to answer the question of which to get the way most aficionados do: Gotta catch ’em all!