Why I Don’t Read Oracle Decks

I’m a Tarot purist. I have never liked oracle cards, and even Tarot decks that veer too far from what I consider traditional (i.e. RWS, Thoth, or TdM) make me squirm in my seat like a four-year-old who doesn’t want to eat his cauliflower. However, my reasons for disliking oracle decks are not the same as those I most often hear expressed in the divination community.

I don’t think I’m misrepresenting when I say that most Tarot people, upon hearing the phrase “oracle cards”, think of Doreen Virtue. There are, of course, hundreds of non-DV oracle decks on the market, with themes ranging from colors to herbs to Celtic mythology, but–for better or for worse–Doreen Virtue is the name that has come to be synonymous with “oracle”.

This means that oracle decks get a bad rap from the outset. They are perpetually maligned as “fluffy”, “sugarcoated”, or “love-and-light”. Even though there exist lots of brilliant oracle decks that are anything but sugarcoated, and that encourage people to explore difficult, painful questions,* there’s an assumed guilt by association. Anything calling itself an oracle deck must be like a Doreen Virtue deck and therefore must be without substance.

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Love, light, and angels–oh, my!

When I hear Tarot readers say “I don’t use oracle cards”, this is most often the reason they give. It’s contempt for an assumed lack of depth in any non-Tarot divinatory deck. People have said things to me along the lines of “I don’t use oracle cards because there’s never anything negative in them, and that’s just not reflective of life. I can’t give someone an honest reading with a deck full of rainbows and unicorn farts.” (Okay, so maybe I’m paraphrasing a bit. But that’s the sentiment.) This is not to say that this is the only reason other people have for avoiding oracle decks, or even that it’s the most common one; however, it is the most common one that I have encountered.

It is not, however, my reason. And I think we could benefit from unpacking this logic a bit. First off, as we’ve already pointed out, most oracle decks are not tripe. (Just look at SOULCARDS if you need evidence of that.) One can certainly turn one’s nose up at Doreen Virtue** and still find value in decks from other creators.

And, secondly, I think there’s sometimes a place for tripe on the divinatory dinner table. Sure, oracle cards have a reputation for being full of overwhelming, inescapable love and positivity, but is that really so terrible? Sometimes people need divination to help them confront ugly truths, but there are also times where people just need to be told that everything is going to be all right. A lot of people come to cartomancers because they’re in really crappy situations, and they don’t need to be told how crappy those situations are. They need to hear about the ways that their situations could improve, or about the non-crappy things going on that they hadn’t been paying attention to. For that, even the most tripey decks can be valuable.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a snobby, prissy elitist, and I am 100% in favor of Tarot readers picking arbitrary, factually inaccurate reasons to believe that we’re better than people who use other methods of divination.*** I just also want to concede that those reasons are arbitrary and factually inaccurate.

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What, then, is my personal reason for eschewing the use of oracle decks? To understand that, you need a bit of my personal history as a Tarot reader. I know I’ve written about at least some of this before, but I have no idea where, so I’ll just give you the rundown.

I got my first Tarot deck for my birthday when I was a child. I dragged my parents to Barnes & Noble and got a RWS pack, complete with a flimsy 20-page LWB. The clerk at B&N had advised me, with deadpan sincerity, that my cards would only work if I kept them wrapped in silk and stored in a wooden box. I didn’t have any silk lying around, but I had a yellow polyester handkerchief from a 101 Magic Tricks for Kids book, so I wrapped my cards in that and kept them in a drawer in my nightstand–reasoning that a wooden drawer would work just as well as a wooden box.

Shortly after I got this deck, our house was broken into. The roguish fiend of a burglar mistook my cloth-wrapped parcel for something of actual value and took it. Consequently, I never had time to get serious about Tarot with this deck. I only really started to learn Tarot when, on a family vacation in the French Caribbean, I picked up another Tarot deck. This is the deck I consider my “first”, even though technically I had one prior to it, because this is the deck with which I learned how to read Tarot.

It was the Tarot Nouveau, a playing deck used for the game of French Tarot. (For anyone not familiar with French Tarot, it’s a trick-taking game similar to Bridge.) And because it was a playing deck, not a divinatory deck, it didn’t have any esoteric card imagery. The Minor Arcana weren’t even pips like in the TdM; they were just regular playing cards, in suits of Wands, Hearts, Spades, and Diamonds. The Major Arcana were illustrated, but not with anything particularly mystical or esoteric. They were just scenes from French colonial life, completely disconnected from any divinatory meaning that the cards might have.

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Let me know if there’s a copyright issue.

Learning to read with this deck was the best thing that ever happened to me as a Tarot reader. Because I had to learn the cards. I couldn’t fall back on visual cues from card imagery. I had to know, really know, what each card meant on its own and in combination with others.

What I ended up doing was learning Tarot as a system. I straight-up memorized the meanings of 78 cards, yes, but the more important part of my learning process was in exploring the fundamental structure of Tarot. I learned the elemental dignities. I learned the elemental correspondences of the Court Cards. I learned how the Tarot deck matched up to astrology.**** I (reluctantly) learned about Kabbalah. I learned about the septenaries, and that weird numerological trick where the Chariot and the Tower are somehow reflections of each other. And so on, and so on. You get the idea.

For me, learning Tarot was inherently about structure. It was not just about the specific meanings of the cards I turned up in a reading, but about the systems underlying those meanings, and the way that they interacted. Why was it significant that I turned up all four Knights? Why were there no Pentacles in this reading? What did it mean that I had drawn the Two of Wands, Nine of Swords, and Ten of Cups (all associated with Mars) together? This kind of structural thinking became the core of how I read Tarot. It made me a much, much stronger reader, and frankly I think that everyone seriously interested in Tarot would benefit from learning to read in such a systematic way.

Now, let’s return our attention to oracle cards. The problem with oracle decks (well, not the problem, but my problem) is that they lack this systematicity. Oracle decks rely on evocative artwork, sometimes in combination with a keyword or phrase, to trigger a reader’s intuition and provide a divinatory message. And that’s great. That’s amazing. I have seen querents have incredible breakthroughs because of readings that were performed that way.

It’s just not the way that I prefer to work.

I can do it, and I have done it. But this style of intuitive-only reading feels so limited to me. Intuition is present in any divinatory art, and of course I rely on my intuition (and, when I’m using a deck that has artwork, I rely on visual cues) to help spark a reading. But for me, it’s only one tool among many. Reading with an oracle deck, where I can only use my intuition and not the other analytical tools I’ve come to love, kind of feels like carving a turkey with a butter knife. Sure, I probably could do it, but why would I?

Understand that this is not meant as an objective reproach of oracle decks. At the end of the day, it boils down to a question of taste. There are people who would find my hyperanalytical approach to Tarot abhorrent, and for those people, oracle decks are probably great. But it is an inherent feature of oracle cards that they lack (at least some of) the underlying structure of Tarot. It’s precisely that structure that I love about Tarot, and it’s the reason that I think Tarot is hands-down the most comprehensive esoteric system in existence. Oracle decks, Doreen Virtue or otherwise, are dissatisfying to me because they feel incomplete–because I want the structure of Tarot.

Other people’s preferences may be the exact opposite. I have heard people express the view that the rigid structure of Tarot is too confining, and I’ve been accused many a time of using various correspondences and systems as a crutch to substitute for an underdeveloped intuition. But for myself, I doubt that I will ever find an oracle deck that fulfills my need for structure as well as Tarot does.


*And even Doreen Virtue’s own work isn’t necessarily as insipid as people make it out to be. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fan, but her Goddess Guidance Oracle is actually decent for what it is.

**I actually don’t have anything against her. Her decks aren’t for me, for reasons we’ll get to later in this post, but if other people want to use the Angel Tarot, go for it. That said, contempt for Doreen Virtue does seem to be what all the cool kids are doing these days, and I so desperately want to be cool, so I guess I have to keep dissing her.

***I’m looking at you, rune-readers.

****In fact, I knew nothing about astrology prior to reading Tarot. I learned astrology through studying its correspondences to Tarot. For this reason, my body of astrological knowledge is still rather lacking. I’m only really comfortable with classical seven-planet astrology. All this fancy nonsense about Pluto and Uranus and Chiron just goes in one ear and out the other.

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5 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Read Oracle Decks

  1. I am really glad that you posted this because I am learning tarot and have stayed away from oracles because when I view/read other’s readings utilizing them, I feel both of these responses (that it’s fluffy and lacking in correlative structure).

    What do you think of those people who create their own and what would you recommend somebody do who wants to include that “systematicity” into their deck?

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    1. I am all for people creating their own oracle decks! I personally lack the artistic skill for it (I can barely draw a recognizable stick figure), but I think the amount of creativity and consideration that goes into a project like that can create a wonderful, personally meaningful tool.

      As for how you’d go about integrating the structural advantages of Tarot into an oracle deck, I think it’s all about finding what’s important to you. If you’re designing your own deck (even if it’s something you plan to sell to other people eventually), then the biggest factor is what works for you. Which are the systems that you find important? If you rely on elemental symbolism and numerology, you can totally still create a deck with four suits. If you like astrology, then you could create a deck with cards for the Zodiac signs, or for the planets. Or you could create cards for other things entirely, and then just make a note that certain cards corresponded to certain signs.

      When you’re making your own deck, especially an oracle deck, the world is your oyster. You can totally model off the structure of Tarot, but you have the freedom to come up with a completely new and awesome structure all on your own. The only limit is what you’re able to think of.

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  2. This. All of this. I felt like I was reading something I could have written when I was reading this essay. Except, you know… it was you who wrote it, and you wrote it more clearly than I could. *slow, steady applause*

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    1. Thank you so much! Although you’re an excellent writer, and I’ve no doubt you could (and would) write something flawless on the subject. It’s nice to know there are other people out there whose thoughts on the matter are similar to mine.

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