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Reading Oracle Cards

What are oracle cards, exactly? How are they used? Once people learn that oracle cards are sort of like tarot cards, then the very next question is, What’s the difference?   

Let’s start with tarot cards, because many people have had at least a general introduction to them in pop culture… after all, they’ve appeared in shows from The Simpsons to Mad Men to Sherlock Holmes, and dozens more too. Usually they are portrayed as magical fortune-telling cards; however, tarot cards only came into use for cartomancy (divination with cards) after being in existence as a card game in Europe for a century or more. Likewise, one can also use standard playing cards for fortune-telling, and many people do. 

For a really excellent book on the history and cultural significance of tarot cards, I recommend Patrick Maille’s “The Cards,” published by University of Mississippi press. Maille makes the excellent point that while the tarot does not contain supernatural powers, it does provide symbolic meaning in each reading for thought and contemplation. 

Tarot decks contain 78 cards consisting of 22 major arcana and 56 minor arcana. The minor arcana are then identified by suits (just like common playing cards): typically pentacles, swords, wands, and cups. Each suit has a thematic meaning related to the elements, and each card positioned within the suit has a meaning related to its numerology. Meaningful tarot card reading is of course only possible if one invests time in learning the language of tarot. What’s the point of looking at a card called the “3 of Swords” if you’ve not familiarized yourself with numerology (“what’s the 3 stand for?”)  or the thematic subjects of each card suit (“what do the swords mean?”).

That’s where oracle cards come in, and are particularly well-suited for beginner card readers. Because oracle cards do not strictly follow any common set of symbolic principles, there’s an oracle deck out there for just about anyone. Are you a gardening  enthusiast with lots of knowledge about botany? There are botanical oracle decks for enhancing your intuition,  for self-help, or even for fortune telling. Likewise there are oracle decks featuring animals, dragons, angels and may other easily approachable subjects. Others are  very  obscure, and require probably at least as much knowledge as tarot. The main difference is this: tarot decks share a common format and set of symbols, whereas oracle decks are open-ended. I often recommend this short and sweet article about “how to use oracle cards.”

When you first acquire an oracle deck, whether you acquire it for yourself with intention or obtain it as a gift, it’s important to establish a connection with the cards. There are many ways that card readers achieve this sense of intimacy with their cards, in order to strengthen the bond of trust between message and recipient. You don’t need an oracle cards tutorial for beginners, because with the right match of deck and owner, the answers just come to you naturally.

One thing you might do is to slowly flip through each of the cards, considering each one briefly in order to familiarize yourself with its stories. There is no need to memorize or fully understand each card—a casual awareness of the cards may actually be preferable, in order to keep you open to future and alternative interpretations. Leave your impressions very light at first.

Another option is to make a ritual out of meeting your cards. You might light some nice candles— I recommend something very Southern Gothic for this oracle deck… do you have antique brass candlesticks, perhaps? Make yourself a hot cup of tea, or take a warm bath first, in order to relax your mind and prepare yourself for meditation and self-examination. 

Think of your cards as empty vessels, waiting for you to imbue them with your own meanings and, more importantly, your own spiritual energy. The best oracle and tarot decks are the ones that connect with you, and send you messages that you feel are especially relevant and poignant. The cards should challenge you to be a better version of yourself, and to seek higher awareness. If you are using the cards to read for others, take the time to understand the querant’s life situation a little bit, and what their immediate concerns are. This will help you to guide them through the range of meanings and messages offered in the card deck.

Reading Oracle Cards for Others

If you are a newcomer to card reading, or perhaps have only used cards for personal reflection, the idea of reading cards for another person may seem pretty daunting. For some people, the idea of reading for a family member is slightly less frightening than reading for a stranger, but only because perhaps the assumption is, I know a lot about my sister’s life so fortune-telling will be so much easier.

Let’s begin by taking the pressure off of you to be the supernatural psychic card reader that you’ve perhaps seen in movies. Hollywood has made card reading seem very magical and other-worldly, which it may be for many people, but this notion is something that turns a lot of people off about the idea of having their cards read. 

Pulling cards from a deck in order to receive a message is an ancient practice known as divination, or more specifically when it refers to cards, cartomancy. Many people are familiar with tarot card readings, and oracle cards can either be used in conjunction with tarot or for a stand-alone reading.

One thing that both oracle and tarot cards have in common is this: they are both based on the universal truths of the human condition. The characters in the tarot deck are based on classical archetypes, which many say represent the life paths of us all, no matter where we come from or how unique our lives are. We all go from innocence to experience, from happiness to sadness and back again, and so forth. In this way, you can remind yourself that, whether you’re reading for your sister or a total stranger, there are universal and important themes in the card deck that speak to us all.

When you hold space to read for others, you are also sharing your own energy, because it’s present in the cards that you have developed a relationship with. Don’t be shy to bring your own interpretations to a card as you encounter it, and talk the other person through what you are seeing. Invite them to share what they see, or what the image reminds them of.

With less structure to an oracle card deck, there is more room to allow intuition and the universal guidance of the spirit to shape the reading. This exercise is about relying on your instinct to guide you. 

In the Southern Gothic Oracle, as with many divination card decks, the booklet provides a handful of suggested card layouts that you might try. Before you read for another person, you might familiarize yourself with two or three (at least) common card layouts that work for others. That way you can choose one that you think might be best suited for your querant.

For example, a common 3-card pull is “past, present, future.” In other words, the first card you pull represents the past, the next one the present, and so forth. If you sit down to read with a querant, and ask them what question they would like to ask the cards, they may freeze up and not know what to say. However, if you ask them what big challenge has been  on their minds lately, they might say something like, “Well, I’m moving into a new apartment next month” or “My mother is not well, and I think she is going to need me more often now.” With someone facing big life changes in the immediate future, a 3-card reading like this might be a great fit to help them think about stepping mindfully into their new life chapter.

When it comes to The Southern Gothic Oracle, as its author I invite you to simply take the cards at face value, and rely on your own intuition to examine what a particular object or image might signify to you personally. If there’s one thing that we Southerners agree on, it’s fierce individuality. Ask yourself what wisdom the universe might be sending to you personally, based on the context of your own goals, relationships and challenges. If you wish to enrich this reading with more information about the objects in the cards, please enjoy the information in this blog and in the card’s booklet as a guide to the origins of these items. I have made brief notes about each object’s symbolism in the context of Southern beliefs. This will deepen your appreciation of the cultural significance of each piece, and add to the spiritual rewards that you might achieve by delving deeper.

Trust your intuition to interpret the cards. Remember that as a child of the human family, your perceptions and readings are as valid as any other person’s interpretation. Enjoy the process and observe yourself growing wiser and more perceptive with each new reading.