Understanding Oracle Decks
Oracle decks are similar to Tarot in that they are used for seeking advice, foretelling future outcomes, gaining a clearer perspective, and more. However, they are stylized differently than Tarot decks.
Tarot decks are typically fashioned after the Rider-Waite-Smith decks which is a deck published in the early 1900’s and really the first deck to be mass-produced and one which is responsible for bringing Tarot mainstream and into pop culture. It is a deck of seventy-eight cards with four suits of pentacles, cups, wands, and swords (though there are numerous variations on the suit names) known as the Minor Arcana and which consists of ten “pip” cards numbered one-ten and four court cards of page, knight, queen, and king (again, there are variations). There is also a suit known as the Major Arcana which is made up of twenty-two cards that depict archetypal people or concepts such as The Moon, The High Priestess, or Judgment.
Oracle decks follow no such “rules.” An oracle deck might be thirty cards or it might be eighty-it all depends on the publishers or authors. These decks are still themed such as goddesses and gods, or vampires, maybe its baseball or it might be based on popular literature or television. But, there typically are no suits and no Major or Minor Arcana. I own The Goddess Oracle Deck & Book Set by Marashinsky which is approximately thirty images of different female deities. I also have the Color Wisdom Cards by Hartman that depicts people with fun and quirky color names.
With oracle decks readers may come across a form of ‘writer’s block’ when trying to write their own interpretations for the cards. Of course, any decent Tarot deck creator will write an accompanying guidebook to explain the meanings of the cards, but readers like to add in their own personal and meaningful interpretations as well. With Rider-Waite decks we have a ‘universal message’ that is going on. That is to say that we know the Two of Swords means this and the Sun card means that. Decks based on that system will adhere to similar interpretations. So, if I pick up a dragon deck but one based on Rider-Waite I can still read the cards knowing what I know about what that card means in Rider-Waite.
With oracle decks, or any other non Rider-Waite based deck we don’t have that advantage and it can be difficult to write or develop personal interpretations for a card. However, it is not impossible and here are a few tips for understanding oracle decks and writing your own interpretations or developing personal meanings and attachments to the cards.
- · Peruse the Deck
I am a firm believer of looking through a deck before ever using. We look through books and magazines before delving deeper into it and reading each page, don’t we? Sort through the deck and look at all the pictures and see what they are depicting. Already your subconscious-and possibly conscious-mind is at work forming correlations, attachments, feelings, and word associations with the cards.
- · Word Association
At some point, sit down with the deck of cards in a stack facedown and flip them over one at a time. As each card is lain face up write the first thought that pops into your head. It can be a phrase, just one word, or a series of words. Don’t give it much thought and don’t worry if it ‘feels wrong’ at first. You might flip over a presumably innocent and happy card but immediately think “danger is lurking.” Write this down, your subconscious is picking up on things your conscious may not realize. After really looking at the card and noting every detail in it you may see that while its happy and sunny there is a dark cloud hiding on the horizon, so your first thought of danger lurking is accurate. Do this for all the cards
- · Elements & Numbers
Oracle decks might not have any elemental or numerical divisions amongst them as seen in Rider-Waite based Tarot decks. However, there may be elemental items or animals in a card. Maybe someone sits in a pool of water and since we know water is emotions this may indicate a person is wallowing (or drowning) in their emotions. There are also numbers of items such as three snakes. Knowing the symbolism of the number three and snakes, what does this tell us about a card?
- · Colors & Symbols
No matter what theme the deck is there is going to be color and symbols. Granted there are black and white decks with no color but there is still shading or maybe something is bolder or less detailed in the drawing. Colors play an important role in reading the symbolism of fortune-telling cards, especially when combined with the symbol itself. For example, when we see a heart we typically think of love or emotions. How does this view change if the heart is colored black or green instead of red? A card’s overall color scheme might also give us an indication of its meaning: Is it done in pastels? Is it very dark colors? Is there a lack of color?
- · People & Animals
Animals tend to have a universal message such as dogs are loyal, foxes are cunning, owls are wise, etc. Seeing animals can tell us a lot about a card’s meaning as can the people and what they are doing, and even how the animal and people interact. With both animals and people look at their actions, gestures, facial expressions, whether they face the ‘camera’ or face away, etc. Their every little nuance will tell us something. In real life we often know if someone is lying or doesn’t want to be near us, we know if they like us or if we can trust them and we pick up on all this through subtle physical cues. The people and animals in oracle decks give the same cues.
- · Read the Guide Book
Of course it is very important to read the accompanying guide book. The author went to great lengths to create a deck you would enjoy and benefit from and a book that explains their interpretations of those cards. Read it and see what they have to say. Your own ideas may or may not agree with theirs and that’s okay, but don’t ignore all the hard work someone did to help you better understand the deck they created. Sometimes the guidebooks are teeny folded pieces of paper with nothing more than key words or one-line interpretations, but its still important to at least peruse it.
- · Practice with the Cards
The best and most practical way to learn to read oracle cards is to practice with them. Do practice readings on yourself, on your friends, do one for a pet or a fictional character, or do a daily draw every day for a month (or longer). The more a person practices and uses any fortune-telling deck the better they will become at reading them. Mom was right on this one: practice makes perfect! (or at least better!)
To learn more about oracle decks and learn prompts or activities for working with them check out Deanna Anderson’s “365 Tarot Activities” released January 2014.