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DOC121/15230 - Fortuna - Hans Sebald Beham

Engraving (1541).

KAPPELMAYR, Barbara (Red.) (1995). Geïllustreerd handboek van de kunst. VG Bild-Kunst/De Hoeve, Alphen aan de Rijn. ISBN 90 6113 763 2


P. 451 -460 in: FOUR - A Rediscovery of the 'Tetragonus mundus' - Marten KUILMAN. Falcon Press, Heemstede. 1996/2011. ISBN 978-90-814420-1-5


The symbolism of the wheel of fortune deals with the cyclic movements in human life. In its original form, it figures a wheel (circle), divided in four compartments. The goddess Fortuna Panthea and her wheel are, in a general and historical sense, connected with Fate (fatum) and Moira, and therefore with the relative notions of boundaries in life. The gods are subordinate, in Greek cultural history as recorded by Homer, by a higher power called Moira. The original meaning of the word is 'part' or 'assigned piece of land' (CORNFORD, 1912). The Moira is the act of the first division of place, and therefore of division-thinking in general.


OTTO (1954) pointed to a gradual broadening of the term: Homer envisaged Moira as an impersonal being (the inescapable fate) and used the expression in singular. Hesiod described already three Moirai (Parcae), daughters of the goddess of the night, envisaged as abstract figures (FIELD, 1977). They were called Clotho (the spinster), Lachesis (the partitioner), and Atropos (the unavoidable). The primary partition-aspect (of Moira) was less important in the later popular belief. The notion of a trinity prevailed, with names as the Dirae (Furiae), Erinyans and Eumenideans, as the guardians of Tartarus (GUERBER, 1907/1981). Fate (or 'Tyche') lived in the Greek cultural period through a full cycle of development, which reached its highest visibility in an oppositional environment.


The meaning of the word 'Fortuna' is derived from 'fors' (luck) and 'ferre' (to bring). Fortune - in its original implication - is related to the verb 'to bring': that which is brought. The goddess Fortuna is she who brings something, in a neutral sense and plural (PITKIN, 1984; FRAKES, 1988). The image of the goddess changed during the Roman Empire to a person, with a positive aura: she was the source of all good, the 'bona dea' (good goddess), to be identified with Isis.


Fortuna Panthea and Fortuna Populi Romani were favored personifications. Her three symbols - the cornucopia (abundance), the rudder of a ship (to steer the course of life in the right direction) and a ball or a wheel (the cyclic change and the turning of destiny) - pointed to an optimistic approach. The aspect of uncertainty and unpredictability was only added in the latter years of the Roman period when the culture itself was on the decline. Fortuna is one of the few Roman gods, which made the change - in the early fourth century AD - to Christianity (PATCH, 1927). Apparently, the personification of chance was strong enough to survive in the monotheistic Christian world.


The wheel (of Fortune) became a symbol in its own right. It was first mentioned, according to ROBINSON (1946), by Cicero ('In Pisonem'). No illustrations before the Roman period are known. The idea of a recurrent-dualistic valuation (good and bad) within a cyclic-tetradic context (radiae of a wheel) might have been fairly original at the time. However, there are - as earlier described by ROES (1933) - Greek connotations to the cult of the sun-wheel. Furthermore, the names of Ixion (punished by Zeus to an eternal turning wheel), Triptolemus (established the agriculture), Circe (a sorceress who helped Odysseus), Medea (the daughter of the king of Colchis, who helped Iason) and the iynx (a mythological bird from the Persian area) are all related to (dramatic) changes in circumstances.


Cicero was followed by a long trail of writers who used the 'rota fortunae' and the unpredictable character of Fortuna: Tibullus ('Elegy'), Propertius, Ovid in the 'Tristia' and the 'Epistulae ex Ponto' (Letters from the Black Sea), Horatius ('Carmina'; Songs, later called 'Odes'), Seneca ('Agamemnon'), Plinius and Tacitus in the 'Dialogus de oratoribus' (Dialogue about the orators).


Remarkable are four sculptured Tyches, used as ornaments on a chair (so-called 'sedia gestatoria'), dated from the middle of the fourth century (360 - 370 AD) and found in 1793 in a silver hoard on the Esquiline Hill in Rome. The female figures are representations of the four most important cities in the later Roman Empire: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria en Antioch (TOYNBEE, 1934, 1947; WEITZMANN, 1979). Three Tyches are fairly equal in shape, representing a seated figure on a throne in frontal view. Antioch, as the exception, is in an oblique position on a piece of rock, with a stylized young man, symbolizing the river Orintes. There is a similarity with the Tyche of Antioch, a lost work of the Greek sculptor Eutychides of Sicyon from c. 300 BC.


The work of Boethius (sixth century) provided a link to the symbolism of the wheel of fortune from the Middle Ages to modern times (FRAKES, 1988). The ideas of Proclus (the variability of fate) and Plotinus (God as a central point in a moving world) were joined together in the 'Consolation of Philosophy' to manipulate fate in a dynamic way (WATTS, 1969).


The wheel of fortune (rota Fortunae) is a symbolic tool of Fortuna. Often she is depicted in the act of turning the wheel. The movement of the wheel was associated (in a dual mind) with the interpretation of fate: 'what comes up must go down'. The 'Axi Rotor' provided an ascending movement (Ad Alta Vehor), leading to an apex (Glorior Elatus). The inevitable downward movement (Descendo Mortificat) ends in a nadir. The classical picture of the 'rota fortunae' was given in a commentary of Gregory ('Moralia in Job'), a Spanish manuscript from 914 AD (the drawing is of a later date).


The four stages in personal fortune (regno, regnavi, sum sine regno and regnabo) are written near the figures on the wheel, which is turned by the goddess Fortuna. The movement is counter clockwise. Drawing from a ninth century Spanish manuscript of Gregory's 'Moralia in Job'. The illustration is of a later date. John Rylands Library, Manchester. Ms 83, fol. 214v.


The theme of transitoriness was also incorporated in the 'Theatre Francois' of the Frères Parfaict (II, 113ff) in the form of a 'Mystère de Bien-Advisé et Mal-Advisé'. A well-known encyclopedic work titled the 'Margarita Phylosophica' (Strasbourg, 1504) described the cyclic movement in human life (in Lib. VIII) under the heading 'De Principiis Rerum Natura'.

The tetrapartite character of the 'rota fortunae' is of direct relevance for the present investigation. PATCH (1927; p. 60/165) called the division, personalized in four figures holding the wheel, the 'formula of four'. The four positions on the wheel have the following Latin names:


regno - regnabo - sum sine regno - regnavi


These phases deal with the extremes of up and down, but also with the intermediate stages. They are a blueprint of all communications: the fortune of love, of the sea (ventosa), of stride, of glory, of time (Occasio versus Fortuna), and of death (the dance of death). The moving wheel reminds the participants in a communication to the instability and relativity of human endeavor. Fortuna appoints kings and rulers but will plunge them eventually in misery as well (as Tangred found out in Sicily). The meaning of the four aspects of luck is, in a counter-clockwise direction:


Regno - I reign at the top of the wheel. Fortuna favours me and means good (the top);


Regnavi - I reigned for a short moment, but Fortuna has left me and taken the good from me (downward movement);


Sum sine regno - I have nothing left to rule. Fortuna has taken all my favours (the lowest point);


Regnabo - I will reign when Fortuna let me and the wheel moves to the top (upward movement).


This division was not always strictly applied. The number of figures around the wheel - giving some clue on the type of division - vary widely. In particular, when the driving spirit behind the rotating wheel was of an oppositional nature, any number of people or attributes could be used. Very often the picture of the wheel of fortune is a direct reference to the philosophical background of its maker.


A good example of this observation is a woodcut in John Lydgate's 'The Fall of Princes', published in London in 1554. Fortuna, with her hair as the rays from a sun god, has a Janus-face, symbol of a two-division, and three pairs of hands reaching for six (or seven) persons on a wheel. A king, a rich merchant, and a bishop are at the top. One of the lower men going up holds a banner with the inscription 'Fortuna'. An ordinary man falls down and will bump on his head at any moment. To the right is a scribe or administrator, who reaches for his head in an act of incomprehension.


The illustration of the 'Wheel of Fortune' in the 'Ship of Fools' (Das Narrenschiff) of Sebastian Brant had a great influence on the imagination of the readers of the early sixteenth century. The book was printed in Basel in 1494 and can be regarded as one of the first 'best-sellers' after the invention of the printing press (WEHMER et al., 1971). His poem lacks the stable environment of tetradic thinking. The fools refer directly to an unbalanced state and derangement. The woodcut, of which the authorship of Albrecht Dürer is questionable, shows a triple division with three hybrid fools/donkeys turning around a wheel. The hand of God (not Fortuna!) reaches from the top left through a nimbus, while an open grave marks the lower corner. The spirit is dualistic.


Fortuna and 'having luck' is closely related to the unpredictability of affairs. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 - 1527) believed in the possibility to influence and reduce the power of Fortuna by practical knowledge and decisiveness. However, he also knew, that in the outcome, unexpected elements could play a role. His well-known book 'Il Principe' (The Prince) was a manual for the pursue of 'Realpolitik'. Power is the visible version of belief, and can only be active when the material world is close at hand.


Machiavelli openly posed the effectiveness of limited thinking. Dualistic concepts like power, success or honor were carried to their ultimate end. A nation is, in his view, based on good law and good armament. 'Most of the excitement and repulsion which 'The Prince' has generated comes from its frank acknowledgment that in practice successful governments are always ready to act ruthlessly to attain their ends' (BULL, 1961/1975, p. 24).


The goddess Fortuna does exist, but can be helped by a powerful action of man in his decision-making: that is the message. It is a repeat of the old knowledge of the Greek and the Romans, who saw in Tyche the goddess of Chance, who could, to a certain extent, be manipulated.


Machiavelli, who had a persistent preoccupation with manhood and had 'disdain for the household, the private, the personal and the sensual' (PITKIN, 1984), attributed Fortune with 'female' qualities, in particular, unreliability. The writer of 'The Prince' and the 'Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius' was an oppositional thinker 'pur-sang', who despised all kinds of utopian idealism. He placed 'virtu' - as a 'male' quality characterized by success, skill, strength, and power - against the 'female' quality of 'effeminato', including the earlier mentioned 'household' attributes. Machiavelli called her 'The Goddess is a lady and must be taken by storm' (PATCH, 1927) or on another occasion: an 'aged witch with two faces'.


The goddess Fortuna offered, in those (pivotal) times of great activity, in which worlds were discovered and new and strange horizons were opened, a viable option to understand the incomprehensible: life was a matter of chance, take it or leave it. Her companion Ventura, or the adventure, was gradually incorporated in her all-embracing providence. The Christian culture of Europe has always been uncomfortable with the trust in the goddess of luck because it was seen - in lower division thinking - as interference with heavenly providence, provided by God. The distribution of God's gifts in life was not a matter of luck, but could - to a certain extend - be earned.


Belief in ‘Fortuna’ is still strong in the present day. Her power is the same as ever, only her appearance has changed. She is dressed now in the clothes of statistics and probability calculation. The computer is her faithful servant to do the dirty work. Mortgage banks and pension funds are able to calculate the average lifespan of their contributors and know to outwit Lady Fortuna. Only in the individual cases do they have to admit defeat.


MacINTYRE (1981/1984) distinguished in his 'post-modern' approach to virtue four sources of systematic unpredictability in human life (pp. 93 - 100). The original sequence in MacIntyre's book (in the present numbering: 2 - 4 - 3 - 1) is changed, to show the place of uncertainties in a quadralectic visibility-spectrum:


1. 'Pure contingency' (p. 99) or: total unpredictable.


Mentioned last by MacIntyre, this is essentially the foremost reason that prediction can never be a 100%-affair. Small events can lead to great consequences, but it can never conjunctured afterwards, that such an event necessarily led to the fortune or misfortune, which was the result. Therefore it can also not be included in any sort of prediction. This is the birthplace of Fortune in its purest form.


2. 'The nature of radical conceptual innovation.


Any invention, any discovery, which consists essentially in the elaboration of a radical new concept cannot be predicted, for a necessary part of the prediction is the present elaboration of the very concept whose discovery or invention was to take place only in the future. The notion of the prediction of radical conceptual innovation is itself conceptually incoherent' (p. 93).

Nobody could - before the wheel was invented - predict when the wheel would be invented, because there was no reference to the 'wheel' as such. The addition 'radical new' (to the conceptual innovation) means a point in time with no history and points to linear time.


3. 'The game-theoretic character of social life' (p. 97).


It is possible to present the interhuman endeavor as a great game, which can be studied with the formal structures of game theory. The outcome of a predictive theory is governed by law-like generalisations. A limitation of the players and the rules is implicit, making this approach, in essence, a static exercise that can only successful within its own boundaries and rules.


4. 'The unpredictability of certain of his own future actions by each agent individually generates another element of unpredictability as such in the social world' (p. 95).


Because some decisions are contemplated but not yet taken - which in turn will influence the results of other decisions - there will always be an element of uncertainty in communication.


The theory of probability has reached in modern science a high degree of perfection, but every statement will still be subject to the division environment, which governs the communication. In the case of tetradic thinking the above-presented systematic uncertainties are incorporated in any predictability made in this environment. In lower forms of division thinking some of these uncertainties are not even noticed, and the absence is translated in misguided confidence.


The standard work of Antoine Augustine COURNOT (1843/1977) about the theory of probability can be summarized with the motto 'exceptio firmat regulam' (exception confirms the rule). This particular state flourishes in a system, which leaves enough space to cater for these exceptions. It also holds that the greatest conceptual space occurs in the highest form of division thinking.




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CORNFORD, Francis M. (1912). From Religion to Philosophy. A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation. Edward Arnold, London.


COURNOT, A.A. (1843/1977). Exposition de la theorie des chances et des probabilites. Oeuvres completes. BRU, Bernard (Ed.). Librairie J. Vrin, Paris.


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ISBN 0-268-00610-5


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PITKIN, Hanna F. (1984). Fortune is a Woman. Gender & Politics in the Thought of Niccolo Machiavelli. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 0-520-04932-2


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TOYNBEE, Jocelyn M.C. (1934). The Hadrianic School. A Chapter in the History of Greek Art. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.


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WATTS, V.E. (1969). Boëthius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Penguin Books Ltd., London/Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England.


WEHMER, Carl; OHLY, Kurt & RATH, von, Erich (1971). Deutsche Buch-drucker des fünfzehnten Jahrhunderts. Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden. ISBN 3 447 01277 3


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- (1979)(Ed.) Age of Spirituality. Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. Catalog exposition, Nov. 19, 1977 - Febr. 12, 1978.


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Taken on September 18, 2020