Few sources of tattoo symbolism are as ancient and mysterious as those of the tarot. From individual cards of the major or even minor arcana to a full spread of multiple cards, there seems to be no end to what the tarot has to say. They have found a natural place in tattoo symbolism, in somewhat the same way that astrological symbols also have: by allowing tattoo wearers to reveal something about themselves through their symbol choices.
Invented in Italy in the 1430s, the original tarot was created by adding new cards – that would eventually become the major arcana – to an existing deck with four suits. It was an era when experimentation with cards was not unusual but it would be centuries before tarot cards were used for fortune telling.
In France, in about 1780, tarot cards began to be used in the way that we know today, with each tarot card given its own meaning. In general, the 22 cards of the major arcana relate to larger issues in a person’s life, including the spiritual, while the four suits of the minor arcana deal with the more mundane, but no less important, issues: wands for business, cups for love, swords for conflict, and pentacles for money.
Like all of the other symbols of the tarot, the image of the Hermit has seen some changes over time. In the Marseilles version of the tarot, published as early as 1650 (drawn by Jean-Claude Flornoy), the Hermit is a slightly bent old man but he bears some distinct symbols that give us a clue as to his character. His staff represents his pilgrimage and also his weapon against what he may find on it. Blue, the color of his cloak, is the color of the initiate and novice student. The six-panelled lamp is a light in the real sense but also in the symbolic sense of knowledge and wisdom. However, he covers it a bit with part of his blue cloak, suggesting that the light is an inward one and not for dazzling the uninitiated.
Even as a single color tattoo, the distinct symbolism of the tarot is immediately recognizable. However, only the wearer of the tattoo knows whether to take its meaning as the philosopher-pilgrim who takes his own path in search of wisdom, or perhaps the Rider Waite Smith divinatory defintion of prudence, or even an interpretation of roguery.