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.