The Steampunk Tarot (Llewellyn, 2012) authored by Barbara Moore and illustrated by Aly Fell, is a traditional 78 card deck. Combining a Victorian aesthetic in sepia tones with the wisdom of one of tarot’s greats, it is an excellent genre deck, but also a very readable one. A first question might be: what is steampunk? Blending the Victorian past with futuristic technology that never was, it is an aesthetic which combines old and new; practical, scientific and magical aspects.
The deck is on good quality card stock, with cards measuring 7cms by 11.7cms (2 ¾ x 4 ⅝ inches). A lot of effort has been put into the packaging and execution of both the cards and companion book, and it shows. The card backs are non-reversible, with an interesting, brown-toned pattern that incorporates all the suit objects. The colour contrast has been done with a careful hand, so that the dark sootiness of Victorian London does not detract from the colours and images of people, places and things both familiar and “other”.
Personally, I adore the colour palette, and in fact the whole aesthetic of the cards. The people that are to be found here wear anything from fabulous ball dresses to embroidered corsets, from chimney sweep rags to dandified suits. There is a great deal of subtle detail, both in the apparel and environments of the characters, as well as in more regular symbolism and the faces and body language of the people portrayed – it is a highly expressive deck.
The Court cards are wonderfully rich in symbolism, with Knights evenly balanced between male and female depictions, and with the Pages being fairly androgynous. The Queens are beautiful and poised, while the Kings seem wise, each in their own way. Much use is made of landscape and setting, as well as costume and props, to bring subtle cues for interpretation into play.
I find this deck to be extremely appropriate to a modern, urban audience, despite its “historical” aesthetic. The fact that there is plenty of technology depicted, yet not technology as we know it, fits well with allowing for modern interpretations without limiting them to our actual everyday experiences. A dirigible could just as easily be interpreted as a car, a motorbike, a train or an airplane; being none of these, yet embracing the notion of travel and adventure. So, too, it could indicate getting a different perspective on life – opening up both literal and metaphorical interpretations. Due to the urban, technological images on the cards, they connect easily with our own experience, yet retain enough difference to allow more spiritual and magical readings.
Going through the deck to pick some favourite cards, I was overwhelmed with the choices, and it took me a long time to whittle my pile down to a few, just to give a flavour of the deck. For example, the Seven of Pentacles shows someone looking at a plant growing on a seven-pentacled trellis. Instead of a labourer resting on his hoe, we have a scientist, with note pad, pen and glasses, studying how the plant is reacting to the experiments he is performing. It will be a long wait to see how things turn out, but that is the nature of the card: we put in work and then have to wait for the fruits of our labours. I love that there is the additional sense of science added to nature, in tune with the deck’s genre, and the idea that the fruits we are expecting may be far more long-lasting than a single harvest, contributing to material well-being for generations to come.
Another great example is the Three of Wands. Wands are traditionally associated with action, yet the Three of Wands is often a very passive card. Not so here, with a man standing on a bluff looking out over ships at sea. His three wands act as both beacon holders and as a tripod for his telescope, as he both watches and guides the projects he has sent out into the world.
The Hierophant is a card that many readers (myself included) often have issues with, but it actually falls in my favourites pile in the Steampunk Tarot! A cuddly-looking old man with a beard sits comfortably in a chair, dressed very casually, and talks with two children. The kids sit on a comfy carpet, although they are all outdoors, and there is a huge pile of books to the Hierophant’s side. This card gives me a sense of learning from experience, from books, and from nature – the passing down of information through multiple paths, rather than the limiting of understanding and belief to a single “way”.
And what, you might ask, of the Court cards? Given these are often considered the toughest cards to interpret, having good Court cards can make a huge difference to the reader-friendliness of a deck. On my first pass, the entire Swords court and half of all the other Court cards were in my favourites pile! These cards really are so full of character, it was hard to pick a single example.
In the end, the hot air balloon won: the Page of Swords. A jaunty young uniformed woman stands, legs akimbo, in front of her ride. She has a sword in one hand, the other on her hip, a cape draped over her shoulders, and an aviator’s cap at a cheeky angle on her bob-cut head. Her balloon has landed on the seashore, as she wants to explore everything, and isn’t afraid to go out of her element to do so. While she usually rides up in the sky (air) in a hot air balloon (air and fire), she has come down to the scrubland (earth) just by the seashore (water) to look and experience and catalogue. Enthusiasm, curiosity and quick wits are all easy to interpret from this card, as are situations where we are called to be open-minded and willing to leave our comfort zone to learn something new.
Altogether, this is a very well planned, beautiful and charismatic deck, with lots of nods to tradition, subtle jokes, and deep wisdom. It is very easy to read straight out of the box, but also offers plenty of depth and variety for the more experienced reader or collector. Its “genre” should not put anyone off, as it is an excellent deck, appropriate for any situation or type of reading.