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 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.
OriginsThe 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.
In the second century BC, the Roman tragedian Pacuvius wrote:
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.
, eccentric deferent and equant point. Georg von Peuerbach, Theoricae novae planetarum, 1474.
In the second century AD, astronomer and astrologer Vettius Valens wrote:
to Christine de Pizan's Epitre d'Othéa; Les Sept Sacrements de l'Eglise, c. 1455 at Waddesdon Manor
BoethiusThe goddess and her Wheel were eventually absorbed into Western medieval thought. The Roman philosopher Boethius 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."
In the middle ages
Religious instructionThe 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, 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.
~ 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, on the top regno and is usually crowned, descending on the right regnavi and the lowly figure on the bottom is marked sum sine regno. Dante employed the Wheel in the Inferno and a "Wheel of Fortune" trump-card appeared in the Tarot deck.
Political instructionIn 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. 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.
Carmina BuranaThe Wheel of Fortune motif appears significantly in the Carmina Burana, albeit with a postclassical phonetic spelling of the genitive form Fortunae. Excerpts from two of the collection's better known poems, "Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi " and "Fortune Plango Vulnera," read:
Later usageFortune and her Wheel have remained an enduring image throughout history. Fortune's wheel can also be found in Thomas More's Utopia.
Shakespearein 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:
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:
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.
Victorian eraIn 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.
Modern daySelections 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.
Literaturedoes occasionally turn up in modern literature, although these days she has become more or less synonymous with. 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 . 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.
Popular musicrecorded a song entitled "The Wheel" 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.
Folk musicSeveral 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 televisionVarious 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, 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 : 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 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.
GamesThe video game series character 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 card by that name that forces all players to discard their hands and draw new ones.