In medieval and ancient philosophy the Wheel of Fortune, or Rota Fortunae, is a symbol of the capricious nature of Fate. The wheel belongs to the goddess Fortuna (Greek equivalent Tyche) who spins it at random, changing the positions of those on the wheel: some suffer great misfortune, others gain windfalls. The metaphor was already a cliche in ancient times, complained about by Tacitus, but was greatly popularized for the Middle Ages by its extended treatment in the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius from around 520. It became a common image in manuscripts of the book, and then other media, where Fortuna, often blindfolded, turns a large wheel of the sort used in watermills, to which kings and other powerful figures are attached.
The “Queen of Fortune”, helped by four other personifications, turns her 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).
In the second century BC, 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,
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;
stupid, because she can’t distinguish between the worthy and the unworthy.
—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.
In the second century AD, astronomer and astrologer Vettius Valens 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.[This quote needs a citation]
Illustration by Jean Miélot to Christine de Pizan’s Epitre d’Othéa; Les Sept Sacrements de l’Eglise, c. 1455 at Waddesdon Manor
The goddess and her Wheel were eventually absorbed into Western medieval thought. The Roman philosopher Boethius (c. 480-524) played a key role, utilizing both her and her Wheel in his Consolatio Philosophiae. For example, from the first chapter of the second book:
I know the manifold deceits of that monstrous lady, Fortune; in particular, her fawning friendship with those whom she intends to cheat, until the moment when she unexpectedly abandons them, and leaves them reeling in agony beyond endurance.
Having entrusted yourself to Fortune’s dominion, you must conform to your mistress’s ways. What, are you trying to halt the motion of her whirling wheel? Dimmest of fools that you are, you must realize that if the wheel stops turning, it ceases to be the course of chance.”
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.
~ Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, The Monk’s Tale
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).
The wheel of fortune from the Burana Codex; The figures are labelled “Regno, Regnavi, Sum sine regno, Regnabo”: I reign, I reigned, My reign is finished, I shall reign
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.
Many Arthurian romances of the era also use the concept of the Wheel in this manner, often placing the Nine Worthies on it at various points.
…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:
rota tu volubilis,
michi quoque niteris;
nunc per ludum
fero tui sceleris.
. . . . . . . . . .
Fortune rota volvitur;
alter in altum tollitur;
rex sedet in vertice
nam sub axe legimus
Fate – monstrous
you whirling wheel,
status is bad,
well-being is vain
always may melt away,
you plague me too;
now through the game
I bear your villainy.
. . . . . . . . .
The wheel of Fortune turns;
I go down, demeaned;
another is carried to the height;
far too high up
sits the king at the summit –
let him beware ruin!
for under the axle we read:
Fortune and her Wheel have remained an enduring image throughout history. Fortune’s wheel can also be found in Thomas More’s Utopia.
Wheel of fortune in Sebastian Brant`s Narrenschiff, woodcut by A. Dürer
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 firm and sound of heart
And of buxom valor, hath by cruel fate
And giddy Fortune’s furious fickle wheel
That goddess blind,
That stands upon the rolling restless stone—
By your patience, Aunchient Pistol. Fortune is painted blind, with a muffler afore his eyes, to signify to you that Fortune is blind; and she is painted also with a wheel, to signify to you, which is the moral of it, that she is turning, and inconstant, and mutability, and variation. And her foot, look you, is fixed upon a spherical stone, which rolls, and rolls, and rolls.
Fortune is Bardolph’s foe, and frowns on him;
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”.
Rosalind and Celia also discuss Fortune, especially as it stands opposed to Nature, in As You Like It, Act I, scene ii.
In Anthony Trollope’s novel The Way We Live Now, the character Lady Carbury writes a novel entitled The Wheel of Fortune about a heroine who suffers great financial hardships.
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.
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. In his novel, The Club Dumas, Arturo Pérez-Reverte includes a wheel of fortune in one of the illustrations that accompany the text. Ignatius J. Reilly, the central protagonist of John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces, states that he believes the Rota Fortunae to be the source of all men’s fate.
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 song “Wheel in the Sky” by Journey from their 1978 release Infinity also touches on the concept through the lyrics “Wheel in the sky keeps on turnin’ / I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow”. The song “Throw Your Hatred Down” by Neil Young on his 1995 album Mirror Ball, recorded with Pearl Jam, has the verse “The wheel of fortune / Keeps on rollin’ down”. The Trip-Hop group Massive Attack refer to the Wheel of Fortune on their track “Hymn Of The Big Wheel” on the 1991 album Blue Lines.
Several old folk tunes mention the wheel of fortune, most notably ‘Fakenham Fair’ with its chorus lyrics of ‘So spin me around on the merry-go-round/Give the wheel of fortune a whirl’.
Film and television
Various games of chance involve spinning a wheel marked with preset outcomes, mirroring the “wheel of fortune” concept. This is notably done on the long-running, internationally syndicated game show Wheel of Fortune, where contestants win or lose money determined by the spin of the wheel. Such a wheel is also featured in the game show The Price Is Right, in the “Showcase Showdown” segment. In the 1985 film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, such a wheel was used to determine punishments for criminals.
The 1994 film The Hudsucker Proxy refers often to the Rota Fortunae concept, especially in its use of circles as a visual motif. 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”. In the science fiction TV series Farscape, the third-season episode “Self-Inflicted Wounds (Part 2): Wait for the Wheel” has main character Crichton mention that his grandmother told him that fate was like a wheel, alternately bringing fortunes up and down.
In the episode The Bitter Suite of the 1995 television show Xena: Warrior Princess, Xena spins the wheel of fortune at the start of her journey through Illusia, a mystical land where the main characters Xena and Gabrielle will ultimately have to face both their pasts and their relationship in its current state. Later in the episode a rope of flame appears and starts to drag Gabrielle though the Fortune Wheel, then drags Xena along as well.
The video game series character Kain (Legacy of Kain) used the wheel of fate. 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 Wheel of Fortune is featured in a Magic: The Gathering card by that name that forces all players to discard their hands and draw new ones.
This artifact is a part of SwordTemple Library