Steampunk tarots suffer the same identification difficulties as witch tarots. From the top of my head, I am aware of the Witches Tarot (Cannon-Reid), Tarot of the Witches (Fergus Hall), and the more recent [equally unimaginatively titled] Witches Tarot (by Ellen Dugan). Similarly, within the Steampunk branch of tarot decks, I can bring to mind four I am aware of, all with a slight variation of the same title.
This is the one by John and Caitlin Matthews, with illustrations by Wil Kinghan; thankfully subtitled ‘Wisdom from the Gods of the Machine’ for easier reference. To my knowledge, it came out after the self-published one (Charissa Drengsen) and the Llewellyn set (by Barbara Moore and Ally Fell), but proceeded the Victorian Steampunk Tarot, released in 2014 by Liz Dean.
For anyone who doesn’t already know, Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction, usually set in an alternate Victorian setting. It suggests what the past might look like if the future had happened sooner. It most often features advanced machines and other technology based on the steam power of the 19th century.
While this Steampunk Tarot does conform to traditional tarot structure, many of the titles have been changed. The Major Arcana has been transformed, leaving only the Empress, Emperor and [Stricken] Tower recognisable by name. In the Minor Arcana, Airships replace Swords (Air), Engines replace Wands (Fire), Submersibles replace Cups (Water) and Leviathans replace Pentacles (Earth). The court hierarchy has also been changed – to Messenger (Page), Navigator (Knight), Lady (Queen) and Captain (King). The Messengers are all female. I like the balance here, since it is the gender set up in Moore’s Steampunk Tarot which I found the hardest to get my head around, leaving only one of her four Knights as male.
It’s kind of hard to review one Steampunk or witch deck without referencing the other editions available. The strengths of one plays heavily on the weaknesses of another. When I first encountered this set, published by Connections, I’d already purchased the Moore version. Moore’s Steampunk Tarot is moody and dressed in variations of brown and gold. It plays with tarot’s traditional gender roles in the court, but on the whole, follows the Rider Waite pattern tidily. This tarot is traditional too, but you wouldn’t notice the comparisons to the Rider right out of the box. This deck is more masculine than Moore’s; not only in subject matter, but style. The palette is brighter and the edges are harsher. In short, it’s in your face and has a greater intensity. It’s like the difference between Monroe and Madonna.
One of the reasons why this deck became attractive to me is due to Caitlin Matthews. I own her Da Vinci Enigma Tarot, which I rate as one of the most interesting sets in my collection. Setting aside the beautiful artwork by Leonardo Da Vinci, there is an imagination and thought in the set’s foundations (by Matthews) which gives it an edge that many new tarot decks lack. The choosing and commentary of the images used in that pack is what provides the substance, so I was eager to see what she would do within the world of Steampunk.
When you first view an image from this tarot, Rider Waite associations are not immediately obvious for all of cards, but with John and Caitlin’s direction, they begin to open up under the Waite lens. For example, a captain takes some down-time while his airship is repaired in the 4 of Airships (4 of Swords), some developers activate an engine and consider their future options in the 2 of Engines (2 of Wands), and three nations come together to celebrate a treaty as their respective ambassadors meet up in the 3 of Submersibles (3 of Cups).
From all of the Steampunk decks I have encountered this far, I lean towards the artwork in this one. It is not romantic, like Moore’s, or repetitive like Dean’s. It is computer collaged and complex. If you are the kind of reader who enjoys to delve into detail intuitively, this would be a great choice. The only downfall here might be that there is just too much going on for a reader who wants to find messages quickly and within a small time frame.
The manual is a great read. It goes beyond your usual companion book, providing a great deal of information about how the cards interact and a selection of spreads and sample readings are included. On top of this, an original spread has been created for each of the Major Arcana cards. For The Explorers (traditionally The Lovers), there is a four-card layout entitled Explorers Meeting Spread, guiding the single seeker towards a new relationship.
As with many decks that have been altered through their titles and theme, this one will possibly be more confusing to the seasoned reader than the beginner. Although enjoyable to work with, when reading with this pack, I have spent most of my time trying to relate the cards back to the traditional versions they derive from so that I can get a real handle on their meaning. This is not so difficult in some cards, but in many cases, the image does not reflect what I’d expect initially and the new titles for the minor suits only adds to the confusion. This is, by no means, meant to discourage because I think that this Steampunk Tarot is a well-crafted tool. If you have chosen it as a first or main deck, it will serve you well. However, if you are wanting it as just a fill-in on your reading table, the twists and changes might be more trouble than they are worth if you are not prepared to immerse yourself within its narrative and practice with it a lot.
It had been suggested to me that the deck could be used by novelists to unlock a writer’s block and I can see how this could work. Because the entire deck is built around the framework of fantasy, it already has a story within it. It would be an asset for those who read intuitively, since without the constraints of the Rider Waite connotations it was born from, it would make a remarkable oracle.
Would I recommend this deck? Absolutely. While I have no real beef with the others on the market, I enjoy Kinghan’s illustrations. I am not a Steampunk enthusiast but I have been to a couple of conventions and this has an authentic feel to it. Caitlin and John Matthews have put a lot of effort into this set’s creation and it shows. These days, many deck creators jump on the band-waggon of trend, but real passion for the theme is evident here. This is not a light deck, by any means, but it will not shut out the persistent or passionate reader alike. The real key to this set is interest and commitment. If you can find those, then it will reward you with consistently deep and meaningful readings.
Illustrations from The Steampunk Tarot: Wisdom from the Gods of the Machine by John and Caitlin Matthews, with illustrations by Wil Kinghan, published by Connections.