Lady Luck and her Wheel of Fortune

Lady luck is is a phrase we use without much thought. She is often used with gambling, and decides the fate of those who are willing to risk their money for a fortune. It is incredible to think that so many of the gods from the ancients have disappeared  but for some reason lady luck has prevailed.

To understand its place in modern society we must cast our net of understanding back to the ancient Greeks. Moira is the personification of fate and she is made up of three sisters, collectively known as moirai. Clotho, were we get the word cloth from, spins the thread of life. The thread symbolises the fragile nature of our existence and what small part we play in the universe. As Clotho spins the thread Lachesis measures the length, decides before hand what our destiny is and how long our life is. Atropos would cut the thread, she would decided on the manner of a person death and what time it would come at. Her Roman equivalent is Morta, meaning Death.

The sickle that is used in portrayals of death during the middle ages is used to depict the harvesting of souls, and to cut their ‘thread’ of life.

Another Greek goddess that governed human affairs is Tyche. Her name essentially means ‘luck’, but her role is not always that of good she is equally bad as well. Nothing is left to chance everything is left to luck, and in this case Tyche. The Greeks and the Romans at the time were not particularly in favour of things occurring without side of someone’s or some-things control. The idea of chaos was a worrying thought, especially in stoic philosophy. We must remember that the world of the ancients was conceptually an entirely different place, they found it difficult to imagine a universe not governed by the gods, while for us in the 21st century the idea is commonplace. So the personification of fate seems to have had a very strong beginning, with numerous cults of Tyches springing up in the 4th Century. She retained a position that more of the traditional gods had declined in popularity.

The Moirai sisters became the three fates in Roman mythology, and Tyche became Fortuna.

Interestingly the coin flip we so often  use to make a distinction more than likely originates from the Romans, as their coins had Fortuna on the ‘Tails’ side and an emperors ‘Head’ on the other. The origin of the phrase heads or tails most likely refers to the top and bottom of an animal. In reference to coins the head is at the front, the desirable side and the tail of an animal or of someone’s coat is at the less desirable side. So we have a duality good and bad, and the coin flip is a perfect way for fortuna to decide for you.

Fortuna is often depicted with a wheel. As she spins the wheel ones fate changes, as we are symbolically tied to the wheel.

The four main stages of the wheel have different names. On the left the figure is regnabo (I shall reign), and on top of the wheel is regno (I reign).  On the right regnavi (I have reigned) and the at the bottom, the most unfortunate of all, sum sine regno (I am without a kingdom). The wheel is a popular symbol within world mythology, we have the wheel of Karma, which also turns deciding our fortune, and the solar wheel of Norse mythology which gives us the turning changes of the seasons and our fortunes.

During the Middle ages Rota Fortuna, the wheel of fortune was a very popular concept. One of my favourite depictions of it is in Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy. He depicts Fortuna and personifies Philosophy, all in all its a great read. It was a standard text in Medieval Universities and incorporated a lot of ideas from Plato and Aristotle. A famous poem from the 13th century depicts the cruel fate which Fortuna has decided form him in ‘O Fortuna’. Carl Orff used the poem in a piece of classical music, which has become so popular and so deeply ingrained into pop culture that it has become instantly recognisable.

Interestingly enough a Catherine wheel was used during the middle ages as a form of torture.The wheel of fortune being the last place were they seal their fate, or for that matter select it.

I am reminded of the role and importance that the wheel has played in technology. Not only does it symbolise one of the greatest and earliest of inventions, its use has played a crucial role in technology. The most notable example in history is the Spinning Jenny, invented in 1764 and kick started the industrial revolution in Britain. As a result the luddites rebelled again the success and replacement of manual labour with machines. The Spinning Jenny was quiet literally a wheel of fortune, it gave profits to the company’s owners and bad luck to the workers who were laid off. The wheel – technology – brings fortune to some and bad luck to others. There is a price to pay with this kind of progress. The Omega man (1971), a film adaptation of Robert Matheson’s ‘I am Legend’. It is set in a post apocalyptic city, in which a prophet rightly named Matthius, blames technology for the worlds disasters, calling the protagonist, a scientist played by Charlton Heston, ‘a user of the wheel’.The film deals with the misuse of technology and how it can be used to do good and bad.

Lady luck has in recent years has been featured in films, novels and in comic strips.She has remained popular and has managed to transform herself throughout time to adapt herself to our own culture. I imagine on of the reasons why she remains so popular is due the fact that everybody questions fate, when good or bad fortune strikes us. Lady luck personifies perhaps one of the greatest and oldest questions in philosophy: Do we have fate or do we have free will? Is everything a result of chance or of order. I’ll let you flip a coin on that one.