Last Month On The Bookworm Is In: Oracle Decks

 This month’s topic was requested by my fellow writer K. A. Parker and is all about Oracle Cards.

Cartomancy Minus the Tarot
What’s the Deal With Oracle Cards?

It is hard to track the history and origins of Oracle Cards (also called wisdom cards), mostly because the term itself is a bit misleading. Any deck of divination cards not associated with the Tarot can be considered an Oracle Deck. They can be anything from ordinary playing cards to Lenormand decks to angel cards to index cards with quotes on them.


Disclaimer:  I was not able to find a whole lot of reputable sources about the history of Oracle Cards so most of this section is based on an article by Tarot historian and deck maker Robert M. Place. 

According to Place, the first cards in Europe were the Mamluk deck, an Islamic card game that was introduced to Spain in the 14th century and had four suits: coins, cups, scimitars, and polo sticks. The cards spread throughout Europe and changed with the cultures they encountered, eventually taking on divinatory purposes as well as gameplay. According to Place, “Historian Ross Caldwell has also discovered numerous Spanish references to divination with cards, in literature and in the records of the Inquisition. His work has shown that, at least in Spain, there have been professional card readers at work since the 16th century.

That deck became the root of Tarot cards as well as moral and divinatory decks such as The Game of Hope (1799), Coffee Ground Cards (1794), S. Hooper’s Conversational Cards (1775) also known as the Tragedy and Comedy Cards, and the one of the longest lasting oracle decks: the Lenormand, which first appeared in 1845. The Lenormand became one of the most popular deck in Europe and even today is used more commonly than the Tarot in Germany (Dunn, 4). It is not nearly as popular in America and carries regional variations where it is popular. There are few resources in English about it. It should be said that despite its staying power, “Oracle decks are not a variation on the Lenormand deck but the larger group to which Lenormand belongs. The Lenormand is an oracle deck and the earliest oracle cards contained moral allegories and references to divine figures,” according to Place.

Nowadays Oracle Decks are very much based on the preferences and beliefs of the creators. The number of cards, size, shape, style, quality, and themes vary. There are decks with imagery about faeries (oh boy are there a lot of faeries), angels (also super popular), vampires, cats, Arabic, love, nature, etc. So how do you pick a deck?

Picking/Creating a Deck

Like picking a Tarot deck, it is all about how you personally connect with the cards and their imagery. The symbolism should make sense to you and the cards should be a good size for your hands. In addition, Patrick Dunn, in his book Cartomancy with the Lenormand and the Tarot, warns against decks that are too happy-go-lucky. “Sometimes one comes across a divination system, usually sold in boxed sets, that is made up by an individual or channeled from some supposedly spiritual source. Some of these fortune-telling decks are excellent, but some of them are ‘imperfect.’ They sometimes have, for example, no indication of anything negative that could ever happen to anyone. Such a deck might be pretty and comforting but probably not terribly accurate. If you don’t give the Anima Mundi [Dunn’s idea of the conscious universe that communicates in symbols] a way to say ‘watch out!’ how will she warn you about the sharks?” (Dunn, 197).

I personally like the Lenormand, because it still retains some of the playing card/Tarot structure that all decks which call themselves Lenormands must adhere to. However, I do not have a lot of experience with Oracle decks beyond admiring my friend’s or selling them to customers.

If you don’t want to or can’t afford to buy a deck, playing cards are a low-key, cheap alternative. In The Book of Ordinary Oracles, Lon Milo Duquette outlines a system for divining with an ordinary deck and even for using solitaire as a cartomancy spread. Additionally, he makes an oracle deck out of Mark Twain quotes and includes that of his student who took the idea and applied Shakespeare quotes.

Oracle decks are flexible and have no real rigid systems attached, opening them to a range of creative possibilities, not all of them of high quality. In the end though, it’s best to go with what feels right to you and what carries enough symbolic variety to communicate the bad as well as the good in a reading.

Exploring Further

On Topic

The Book of Ordinary Oracles by Lon Milo Duquette – Duquette is, as always, funny, down to earth, and informative in this book. He gives the reader several methods of divination with things found around the house and puts forth an interesting theory as to where the power to divine comes from.

Cartomancy with the Lenormand and the Tarot by Patrick Dunn– Dunn gives an in-depth and funny dive into the Lenormand and the Tarot. It’s mostly a Lenormand focused book but it’s good for a beginner in either type of cartomancy.

The Dreaming Way Lenormand– I bought this deck to experiment with and love it. It has beautiful art and is easy to work with (for me). Pictured above with The Oracle of John Dee which my partner favors.

“A History of Oracle Cards” by Robert M. Place – Tarot historian and deck maker Place wrote this very in-depth rundown of the history of Oracle decks. Additionally, if you want to see pictures of old Lenormand decks, check out this article by Tarot scholar and deck maker Mary K. Geer.

Off Topic

Queer and Trans Artists of Color: Stories of Some of Our Lives by Nia King – This diverse book of interviews is eye-opening and a must-read for any artist or reader looking to expand their horizons.

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock – If you’re curious about trans women, Mock writes an amazing and brave memoir that pulls no punches. Trigger warning: child sexual abuse.

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul – This book made me laugh so many times it was almost embarrassing, mostly because I was reading at my day job. If you love David Sedaris, you will love Scaachi Koul. I know I did.

The Forbidden Hearts series by Alisha Rai – Rai is one of my favorite writers and this series is some of her finest work to date. It’s sexy and addictive, so it’s probably best to just get the whole series because if you like it you’re not going to want to stop.

Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask by Anton Treuer – This short but informative guide is something every American should read. It’s a disgrace how little we’re taught about the people who were here first and this book is a step towards remedying that.

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper – Cooper is scathing but compassionate about showing the reader the issues faced by black people but especially black women in this country.

This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins – Jerkins writes in a similar vein as Cooper but her essays are more stylistic. Both books should be read by anyone who is confused or needs more clarification about the racial tensions in this country.

The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley – If you ever asked the question “Why are feminists so angry?” Hurley has the answer for you. But be warned, she won’t coddle you. A must for writers, especially in the speculative fiction field.

To see this newsletter in full HTML glory click here. The next newsletter will be going out July 7th, so if you want to learn all about easy home magick be sure to subscribe.


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