Fortune: "All is but Fortune"

January 18, through June 10, 2000
Leslie Thomson (University of Toronto), Curator

Good Fortune, Bad Fortune: which will it be? who will rise? who will fall? These are timeless questions about love, politics, war--about life. But the answers are uncertain, and often the successful fail, the good suffer, the bad win. The Romans of the classical world, who knew this as well as we do, created the goddess Fortuna to represent the arbitrary in life. The colorful image of the goddess from Thomas Trevelyon's pictorial commonplace book (1608) incorporates virtually all the attributes typically associated with her: wheel, sail, blindfold, sceptre, and tree.

The word fortuna is from the Latin fors, or luck, derived from the root of the verb ferre (to bring), so that the meaning is that which is brought and Fortuna is the one who brings it. The figure depicted in Roman art is Fortuna Gubernans, the helmsman, or Fortuna stabilis, with the appropriate attributes of rudder or wheel shown at rest. The Roman goddess brought bona fortuna, external goods such as wealth, health, power, progeny, and physical beauty, all things that are vulnerable to good and bad fortune.

. Pantheum mythicum From Francois Antoine Pomey, Pantheum mythicum, Utrecht, 1697

This is Fortune as the Romans imagined her. The medals at the top of the image depict the goddess in various classical manifestations. But of course Fortuna is not easily controlled. Hence the position of the Stoics that the way to endure life's ups and downs is simply to accept them by realizing that although we cannot control our fortune, we can control our response to it. One response, which fed directly into Christianity, was that of contemptu mundi (contempt of the world), based on the view that life in the world of time is only a temporary condition and that the eternal afterlife is what really matters. The most famous and influential exponent of this idea was Boethius who, in his Consolation of Philosophy, summarized the Christian belief that human life is ruled not by Fortune but by Providence.

Title page of Ulrich von Hutten, Dialogi . . . Fortuna, Mainz, 1520.

The printer's device shows a naked Fortune with her usual accoutrements. Her wheel, however, is being turned by the hand of God, placing this illustration very much in the Christian tradition. Despite the insistence of Christianity and, no doubt, widespread belief in the idea of an unknowable Providence, the everyday experience of Fortune's power was unchanged. Perhaps as a direct consequence, Fortune gradually took on the attributes of Occasion and Nemesis. This change in the iconography of Fortune implies that she can be controlled by those who are ready to take advantage of opportunity and who practice self-restraint.


From Stirpium, insignium nobilitatis, Basel, 1602?


This conflation of Nemesis and Occasion with Fortune shows Fortune on a sphere, naked except for a veil, tossing away material goods, but also with the bridle associated with Nemesis and the forelock of Occasion. By the height of the Renaissance in England and northern Europe, Fortune had become more an emblematic encapsulation of certain accepted ideas than a goddess having influence on the world.


From George Wither, A collection of emblemes ancient and modern, London, 1635.©

Wither gives a summary of conventions already long associated with the figure and provides an explicit moral reading that emphasizes Puritan values. The linking of Fortune with the moon goes back to classical times: Fortune is like the moon in being always and quickly moving, and she is the goddess who reigns in the sublunar realm, the world of change.



From Otto van Veen, Emblemata Horatiana, Antwerp, 1612.


The idea that Fortune favors fools is pictured here with Fortune, blindfolded and holding her rudder, standing protectively beside an ape wearing the robes and crown and holding the sceptre of royalty.



That the ways of Fortune are uncertain and unpredictable has not stopped human beings from wanting to know the future. For as long as religions have advocated endurance and the acceptance of what comes, there have been astrology, palmistry, and other forms of fortune-telling. Today predicting the future is big business, as any glance at a newsstand or telephone book will confirm, but we have merely inherited practices with their origins in pagan antiquity. As we look toward a new century and a new millennium our awareness of the revolutions of time, pictured in the turning of Fortune's wheel, is especially acute, and centuries after she was born Fortune is still the goddess of the changing world we experience every day.

This page updated 7/6/00