The Wheel of Fortune, or Rota Fortunae, is a concept in medieval and ancient philosophy referring to the capricious nature of Fate. The wheel belongs to the goddess Fortuna, who spins it at random, changing the positions of those on the wheel - some suffer great misfortune, others gain windfalls. Fortune appears on all paintings as a woman, sometimes blindfolded, "puppeteering" a wheel.
The origin of the word is from the "wheel of fortune" - the zodiac, referring to the Celestial spheres of which the 8th holds the stars, and the 9th is where the signs of the zodiac are placed. The concept was first invented in Babylon and later developed by the ancient Greeks.
The concept somewhat resembles the Bhavacakra, or Wheel of Becoming, depicted throughout Ancient Indian art and literature, except that the earliest conceptions in the Roman and Greek world involve not a two-dimensional wheel but a three-dimensional sphere, a metaphor for the world. It was widely used in the Ptolemaic perception of the universe as the zodiac being a wheel with its "signs" constantly turning throughout the year and having effect on the world's fate (or fortune).
Vettius Valens, a second century BC astronomer and astrologer, wrote:
- There are many wheels, most moving from west to east, but some move from east to west.
- Seven wheels, each hold one heavenly object, the first holds the moon...
- Then the eighth wheel holds all the stars that we see...
- And the ninth wheel, the wheel of fortunes, moves from east to west,
- and includes each of the twelve signs of fortune, the twelve signs of the zodiac.
- Each wheel is inside the other, like an onion's peel sits inside another peel, and there is no empty space between them.
In the same century, the Roman tragedian Pacuvius wrote:
Fortunam insanam esse et caecam et brutam perhibent philosophi,
Saxoque instare in globoso praedicant volubili:
Id quo saxum inpulerit fors, eo cadere Fortunam autumant.
Caecam ob eam rem esse iterant, quia nihil cernat, quo sese adplicet;
Insanam autem esse aiunt, quia atrox, incerta instabilisque sit;
Brutam, quia dignum atque indignum nequeat internoscere.
Philosophers say that Fortune is insane and blind and stupid,stupid, because she can't distinguish between the worthy and the unworthy.
and they teach that she stands on a rolling, spherical rock:
they affirm that, wherever chance pushes that rock, Fortuna falls in that direction.
They repeat that she is blind for this reason: that she does not see where she's heading;
they say she's insane, because she is cruel, flaky and unstable;—Pacuvius, Scaenicae Romanorum Poesis Fragmenta. Vol. 1, ed. O. Ribbeck, 1897
The idea of the rolling ball of fortune became a literary topos and was used frequently in declamation. In fact, the Rota Fortunae became a prime example of a trite topos or meme for Tacitus, who mentions its rhetorical overuse in the Dialogus de oratoribus.
Fortuna eventually became Christianized: the Roman philosopher Boethius (d. 524) was a major source for the medieval view of the Wheel, writing about it in his Consolatio Philosophiae - "I know how Fortune is ever most friendly and alluring to those whom she strives to deceive, until she overwhelms them with grief beyond bearing, by deserting them when least expected. … Are you trying to stay the force of her turning wheel? Ah! dull-witted mortal, if Fortune begin to stay still, she is no longer Fortune."
In the middle ages
The Wheel was widely used as an allegory in medieval literature and art to aid religious instruction. Though classically Fortune's Wheel could be favourable and disadvantageous, medieval writers preferred to concentrate on the tragic aspect, dwelling on downfall of the mighty - serving to remind people of the temporality of earthly things. In the morality play Everyman (c. 1495), for instance, Death comes unexpectedly to claim the protagonist. Fortune's Wheel has spun Everyman low, and Good Deeds, which he previously neglected, are needed to secure his passage to heaven.
Geoffrey Chaucer used the concept of the tragic Wheel of Fortune a great deal. It forms the basis for the Monk's Tale, which recounts stories of the great brought low throughout history, including Lucifer, Adam, Samson, Hercules, Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Nero, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and, in the following passage, Peter I of Cyprus.
- O noble Peter, Cyprus' lord and king,
- Which Alexander won by mastery,
- To many a heathen ruin did'st thou bring;
- For this thy lords had so much jealousy,
- That, for no crime save thy high chivalry,
- All in thy bed they slew thee on a morrow.
- And thus does Fortune's wheel turn treacherously
- And out of happiness bring men to sorrow.
Fortune's Wheel often turns up in medieval art, from manuscripts to the great Rose windows in many medieval cathedrals, which are based on the Wheel. Characteristically, it has four shelves, or stages of life, with four human figures, usually labeled on the left regnabo (I shall reign), on the top regno (I reign) and is usually crowned, descending on the right regnavi (I have reigned) and the lowly figure on the bottom is marked sum sine regno (I am without a kingdom). Dante employed the Wheel in the Inferno and a "Wheel of Fortune" trump-card appeared in the Tarot deck (circa 1440, Italy).
In the medieval and renaissance period, a popular genre of writing was "Mirrors for Princes", which set out advice for the ruling classes on how to wield power (the most famous being The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli). Such political treatises could use the concept of the Wheel of Fortune as an instructive guide to their readers. John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, written for his patron Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester is a noteworthy example.
...fortune is so variant, and the wheel so moveable, there nis none constant abiding, and that may be proved by many old chronicles, of noble Hector, and Troilus, and Alisander, the mighty conqueror, and many mo other; when they were most in their royalty, they alighted lowest. ~ Lancelot in Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Chapter XVII.
Like the Mirrors for Princes, this could be used to convey advice to readers. For instance, in most romances, Arthur's greatest military achievement - the conquest of the Roman Empire - is placed late on in the overall story. However in Malory's work the Roman conquest and high point of King Arthur's reign is established very early on. Thus, everything that follows is something of a decline. Arthur, Lancelot and the other Knights of the Round Table are meant to be the paragons of chivalry, yet in Malory's telling of the story they are doomed to failure. In medieval thinking, only God was perfect, and even a great figure like King Arthur had to be brought low. For the noble reader of the tale in the Middle Ages, this moral could serve as a warning, but also as something to aspire to. Malory could be using the concept of Fortune's Wheel to imply that if even the greatest of chivalric knights made mistakes, then a normal fifteenth-century noble didn't have to be a paragon of virtue in order to be a good knight.
The Wheel of Fortune motif appears significantly in the Carmina Burana (or Burana Codex), albeit with a postclassical phonetic spelling of the genitive form Fortunae. Excerpts from two of the collection's better known poems, "Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi (Fortune, Empress of the World)" and "Fortune Plango Vulnera (I Bemoan the Wounds of Fortune)," read:
Fortune and her Wheel have remained an enduring image throughout history. Fortune's wheel can also be found in Thomas More's Utopia.
William Shakespeare in Hamlet wrote of the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" and, of fortune personified, to "break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel." And in Henry V, Act 3 Scene VI are the lines:
- Bardolph, a soldier who is loyal and stout-hearted and full of valour, has, by a cruel trick of fate and a turn of silly Fortune's wildly spinning wheel, that blind goddess who stands upon an ever-rolling stone—
- Now, now, Ensign Pistol. Fortune is depicted as blind, with a scarf over her eyes, to signify that she is blind. And she is depicted with a wheel to signify—this is the point—that she is turning and inconstant, and all about change and variation. And her foot, see, is planted on a spherical stone that rolls and rolls and rolls.
Shakespeare also references this Wheel in King Lear. The Earl of Kent, who was once held dear by the King, has been banished, only to return in disguise. This disguised character is placed in the stocks for an overnight and laments this turn of events at the end of Act II, Scene 2:
- Fortune, good night, smile once more; turn thy wheel!
In Act IV, scene vii, King Lear also contrasts his misery on the "wheel of fire" to Cordelia's "soul in bliss".
Shakespeare also made reference to this in "Macbeth" throughout the whole play. Macbeth starts off halfway up the wheel when a Thane, but moves higher and higher until he becomes king, but falls right down again towards the end as his wife dies, and he in turn dies.
Selections from the Carmina Burana, including the two poems quoted above, were set to new music by twentieth-century classical composer Carl Orff, whose well-known "O Fortuna" is based on the poem Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi.
Jerry Garcia recorded a song entitled "The Wheel" (co-written with Robert Hunter and Bill Kreutzmann) for his 1972 solo album Garcia, and performed the song regularly with the Grateful Dead from 1976 onward.
The term has found its way into modern popular culture through the Wheel of Fortune game show, where contestants win or lose money determined by the random spin of a wheel. Also, the video game series character Kain (Legacy of Kain) used the wheel of fate.
Fortuna does occasionally turn up in modern literature, although these days she has become more or less synonymous with Lady Luck. Her Wheel is less widely used as a symbol, and has been replaced largely by a reputation for fickleness. She is often associated with gamblers, and dice could also be said to have replaced the Wheel as the primary metaphor for uncertain fortune.
The Hudsucker Proxy, a film by the Coen Brothers, also uses the Rota Fortunae concept and in the TV series Firefly (2002) the main character, Malcolm Reynolds, says "The Wheel never stops turning, Badger" to which Badger replies "That only matters to the people on the rim". Likewise, a physical version of the Wheel of Fortune is used in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, a film by George Miller and George Ogilvie. In the movie, the title character reneges on a contract and is told "bust a deal, face the wheel." In the science fiction TV series Farscape, the fourth episode of the fourth season has main character Crichton mention that his grandmother told him that fate was like a wheel, alternately bringing fortunes up and down, and the episode's title also references this. Unlike many other instances of the wheel of fortune analogy, which focus on tragic falls from good fortune, Crichton's version is notably more positive, and meant as a message of endurance: those suffering from bad fortune must remain strong and "wait for the wheel" of fortune to turn back to eventually turn back to good fortune again.
In the Fable video game series, the wheel of fortune appears twice, somehow perverted. The Wheel of Unholy Misfortune is a torture device in Fable II. It is found in the Temple of Shadows in Rookridge. The Hero can use the wheel to sacrifice followers to the shadows. In Fable III, Reaver's Wheel of Misfortune is a device that, once activated, sends to The Hero a round of random monsters.
- "The Consolation of Philosophy (Trans. W.V. Cooper, 1902)". Etext.lib.virginia.edu. Retrieved 2011-11-24.
- "The Monk's Tale, Modern English - Canterbury Tales - Geoffrey Chaucer (1340?-1400)". Classiclit.about.com. 2009-11-02. Retrieved 2011-11-24.
- "Le Morte d' Arthur - Chapter XVII". Worldwideschool.org. Retrieved 2011-11-24.
- "King Henry V by William Shakespeare: Act 3. Scene VI". Online-literature.com. 2007-01-26. Retrieved 2011-11-24.
- "Act II. Scene II. King Lear. Craig, W.J., ed. 1914. The Oxford Shakespeare". Bartleby.com. Retrieved 2011-11-24.
- Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. W.V. Cooper (London: J.M. Dent, 1902)
- Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales: The Monk's Tale
- Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur, Chapter XVII'
- William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act 3 Scene VI
- William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 2 Scene II
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