The Steampunk Tarot: Wisdom from the Gods of the Machine is a new contribution to the world of mainstream, fantasy and science-fiction themed tarots by Caitlin and John Matthews, and illustrated by Will Kingham.
As the subtitle announces, there’s a focus on wisdom. Caitlin and John Matthews write with clarity and incisive pondus and take us through a short cultural and literary history of steampunk. However, as with the very genre of steampunk and its focus on stealing wisdom from the Gods, the emphasis is more on external, rather than experiential and personal gnosis. In other words, this is not a tarot deck that is conducive to spiritual work, but rather a deck that one can enjoy for its lessons in alternative histories.
When asked by Tatter Publishing to review this deck I said yes, simply because I happen to be in the camp of now long since grown-up kids who used to read every single word that Jules Verne ever wrote. I was curious to see how the steampunk adventurous spirit ties in with the internal steams of our metaphysical questions.
While I can say with certitude that I think a younger audience interested in cross-over steampunk productions will enjoy this deck for its pragmatic take on the process of self-discovery, it is not clear how the writers bridge the archetypal steampunk unto internal processes. While it can be argued that the mainstream authors of steampunk literature have also dealt with the representation of facing demons, or those found in the machines their heroes participated in creating, the representation of how a machine can help us sleep better at night is more one-sided, and not always driven by the steam in the ‘know-thy-self’ machine.
Here I like the apt point that Caitlin and John Matthews make in connection with the use of sympathetic magic as a bridge that links the idea of ensouling a machine with giving it agency. For why else think of a machine as a God, if it can’t do things for us? So, perhaps this tarot can be used with that in mind, namely the idea that the process of self-discovery is fuelled by action and the question of whether something works or not. Using this steampunk tarot as a way to crafting talismanic magic may just prove to be the missing link between machines as structural devices and our use of them in ecstatic dances with adventure.
As a way of bridging the potential gap and lack of connection between structure and spirituality, the writers of the Steampunk Tarot have devised a set of questions connected to each of the trumps in the major arcana, and which are more aligned with the attainment of personal gnosis. In this sense the Steampunk Tarot may appeal to more people that just the young. In addition, the book is packed with useful information on how to use the cards, what novel idea in connection with the traditional meaning of each card we may consider, and a number of inventive spreads that draw on the general theme of how to fuel our personal engines.
One of the aspects of this tarot that has not appealed to me as much as the idea behind it is connected with what I see in the images on the cards. The images are haphazard airbrush work, and have little to do with the otherwise straightforward and standard explanation of each tarot card in the book accompanying them (mainly in the tradition of the Golden Dawn, specifically following the Waite-Smith tarot). These images are not tarot. If it weren’t for the keywords indicating which card goes with what tarot archetype, I would never guess what is going on. In places, the images can be quirky and whimsical but also tacky and banal. I see the machines. But I have trouble seeing the gods of wisdom or those of the tarot in them.
But let us be fair, and as is tradition here on Taroflexions, there’s no discussion of a deck without actually using the deck to see what it can do in spite of the general objections.
Here then is a short reading of the cards, following one of the trumps that prompts us with the questions aimed at self-discovery.
I take Judgment, or here, card XX, Regeneration Machine. Usually I think of a concrete question, but I find that the positional meaning of the cards makes it easy not to formulate one. I thus let the position determine the question. I might mention, however, that in my personal practice, I never lock cards in any position, as I find this reductionist. But for beginners, this is a good place to start. The advantage of devising questions for people to ask also has to do with the fact that not all come to the cards with a specific routine or experience of asking questions. And yet, generally in the process of self-discovery we all, in fact, come up against the wall that’s called ‘the blind spot’. So, questions that inspire what we’re looking for are always welcome. The ones formulated in the Steampunk Tarot are all relevant and can have impact.
The questions to be answered here by looking at cards in position are the following (the layout is 2, 1, 3, 4; page 71 in the book):
- What needs to awaken? Ten of Submersibles (Cups)
- What gift does it bring? Six of Leviathans (Coins)
- What do you choose to lay down? Navigator of Submersibles (Knight of Cups)
- What becomes available as a result? Eight of Leviathans (Coins)
A straightforward reading in one line of this (according to the meanings attributed to the cards by the authors of the Steampunk Tarot) would be to say that a rekindling of all things family could be rejuvenated, for it brings a mutual recognition of generosity in a relationship. You choose to lay down your poetry and navigating by stargazing, and in exchange you get to stick your nose into some hard and detailed work.
Clearly the questions get concrete answers. Here, however, what I would like as a variation – and as indicated by the possibility of doing micro-work by reading according to the layout assigned to card XX – is an actual, logical progression from question 2 to 1, and then on to 3 and 4. For what sense does it make to ask question 2 in place of question 1? What gift does IT bring? What does IT, refer to here? I’m not sure what the authors had in mind with these micro-spreads, and there’s no explanation of it in the section on spread layouts. But I may be missing something.
Also, when the images do, on occasion, relate to the standard formulation of the meanings of the cards, they still seem to be off, averting themselves from both, cartomantic and taromantic meanings. For instance the 10 of cups in the tarot is often associated with the culmination of emotional affairs – and indeed perhaps a sense of ‘enough of this now’, rather than’, ‘oh, how rosy and blissful my life is’. In the Steampunk Tarot, this card is associated with reunion both graphically and verbally, which presupposes that the whole suit of cups is about waiting for something to happen. The Captain returns to his family, who has supposedly been diligently waiting for him. The status quo is maintained and all is well. Right.
Apart from the various ways in which we all interpret the cards, I would say that the questions themselves illicit an element of surprise, and the images seem to support this – as they should in any working with tarot imagology. The cards in positions 3 and 4 depict for me a challenging situation. As I’m quite fond of stargazing and navigating by pleasure rather than by imposed duty, to give that up only so that I can dig hard work is scary. But then, as with all context, it very much depends on what the aim is. If the aim is to ground some lofty ideals, then the realization of some micro-detail is a fortuitous result. But what if the aim is another? And how can you ground something that you choose to lay off to begin with? This is the trouble with positional meanings, namely that they determine for the querent what he or she is to think about her situation, even before he or she may articulate something relating to her coming to the cards in the first place. The logic is off, as we end up making too many assumptions. As with assumptions, while we can make tons of them and they can all excite us, it is not so that they also all turn out to be right. But this is not a reflection related to this tarot, so I’ll keep this remark in low-key.
Overall, this is an interesting tarot, offering some insights that are both traditional and novel in their take on how we may find wisdom in the technology we surround ourselves with. The images engage us on a level where we find some pleasure in associating our questions with what we want from a world that is, in principle, alienating. Ultimately it comes down to us to choose what we make of our ability to steal the wisdom from the gods through means that are entirely our own imagining, while also considering the experiential spirituality that such endeavors may open the gates to.
Note on the deck:
The Steampunk Tarot: Wisdom from the Gods of the Machines. John and Caitlin Matthews, with illustrations by Wil Kinghan. Tuttle Publishing. 2012 (Cards, case, and book, 160 pages)
For words of power and other unexpected offers, sign up for a cool monthly newsletter.