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Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna

Temple of Fortuna Primigenia in Praeneste

Temple of Fortuna Primigenia in modern Palestrina (ancient Praeneste)

Italian translation

We have been talking about survivals of the Roman religion.

Of the goddess Fortuna or goddess of Luck remain at least today 1) our recurrent personification of Fortune; 2) something of the oracular function of this deity, linked to future-telling; 3) one of her emblems, the wheel, a symbol of mutability in human life.

ψ

1. Personification. When we use phrases like “they invoked their fortune” or “the tricks of fortune” we have here a personification of something capricious which is deeply impressed in our mind and that can be traced back to the ancient Roman goddess Fortuna.

A tetradrachm from Hardrian's (76 – 138 AD) time, with Fortuna holding rudder and cornucopia

A tetradrachm (a silver coin) from Hardrian’s (76 – 138 AD) times, with Fortuna holding rudder and cornucopia. Click for credits and for both sides of the coin

2. Future-telling. Not far from Rome, in Antium and in Praeneste, were two well-known shrines of the goddess Fortuna. The Romans went there to know about their future, among the rest. At the oracle in Praeneste connected to the impressive sanctuary (see remnants on top) of Fortuna Primigenia (the fortune of a firstborn child at the moment of birth), a small boy gave oak rods to temple-goers, called sortes (lots), with words on them that revealed their future.

Similarly, we go today to the ‘fortune teller’ to get predictions about our fortune, namely our future. If these two words, fortune and future, are synonyms in this context it is also because of the ancient oracular (future-telling) role of the Roman goddess Fortune.

Wheel of Fortune in Singapore. Fair use3. The Wheel of Fortune. I think very few spectators of the Wheel of Fortune, one of the most popular TV shows ever produced, suspect they are in front of a fossil from the ancient Romans. Fortuna was in fact often represented standing on a ball or close to a wheel indicating that our future is as uncertain as the random spinning of a wheel (or the random rolling of a sphere.) She also bore a cornucopia, which symbolized abundance, and a rudder as controller of man’s destiny (see Hardrian’s tetradrachm above.)

ψ

Only the wheel though survived and this was probably due, among the rest, to the influence of a great book, Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, an author descendant of a noble Roman family which issued emperors and consuls.

The tomb of philosopher Severinus Boetius

The tomb of Roman philosopher Severinus Boetius (early 6th cent. AD) in the crypt of the church of San Pietro in Pavia, Italy (Wikipedia: click for source)

Cicero had already mentioned the wheel but it was Boethius’ philosophical work that made the goddess Fortune and her wheel so popular in the Middle Ages (read Boethius’ text here):

I know how Fortune is ever most friendly and alluring to those whom she strives to deceive, until she overwhelms them with grief beyond bearing, by deserting them when least expected … she turns her wheel of chance with haughty hand … This is her sport: thus she proves her power; if in the selfsame hour one man is raised to happiness, and cast down in despair,’ tis thus she shews her might.

The Benediktbeuernm, a monastery founded in 739 AD. The Carmina Burana manuscript was there found, later set to music by Carl Orff. Written mainly in Medieval Latin; a few in Old French and Provençal; some vernacular, Latin, German & French mixed up. Click for credits and to enlarge

The Benediktbeuernm, a monastery founded in 739 AD. The Carmina Burana manuscript was there found, later set to music by Carl Orff. Written mainly in Medieval Latin; a few in Old French and Provençal; some vernacular, Latin, German & French mixed up. Click for credits and to enlarge

We’ll conclude by mentioning how in 1803 AD some mostly-in-Latin medieval poems ( 228 ) were found in the Bavarian monastery of Benediktbeuern.

This collection, written around 1230 and now known as Carmina Burana, satirized the Church and was created by university students at a time when Latin was the European lingua franca. Some poems are dedicated to Fortuna and her wheel.

In 1937 the German composer Carl Orff put into music some of these texts. The most famous composition is “O Fortuna“, incidentally, which opens and closes the work.

While listening you might want to read the Latin original, with an English translation (source.)

ψ

O Fortuna / velut luna
(O Fortune like the moon)
statu variabilis
(you are changeable)
semper crescis / aut decrescis;
(ever waxing and waning;)

vita detestabilis / nunc obdurat
(hateful life first oppresses)
et tunc curat / ludo mentis aciem,
(and then soothes as the sharp mind takes it;)
egestatem, / potestatem
(poverty and power)
dissolvit ut glaciem.
(it melts them like ice.)

Sors immanis / et inanis,
(Fate monstrous and empty,)
rota tu volubilis, / status malus,
(you whirling wheel, you are malevolent,)
vana salus / semper dissolubilis,
(well-being is vain and always fades to nothing,)
obumbrata / et velata
(shadowed and veiled)
michi quoque niteris;
(you plague me too;)
nunc per ludum / dorsum nudum
(now through the game I bring my bare back)
fero tui sceleris.
(to your villainy.)

Sors salutis / et virtutis / michi nunc contraria,
(Fate is against me in health and virtue,)
est affectus / et defectus
(driven on and weighted down,)
semper in angaria.
(always enslaved.)
Hac in hora / sine mora
(So at this hour without delay)
corde pulsum tangite;
(pluck the vibrating strings;)
quod per sortem / sternit fortem,
(since Fate strikes down the strong man,)
mecum omnes plangite!
(everyone weep with me!)

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Related posts:

An additional note on Roman Fortuna
Survivals of Roman religion

About Man of Roma

I am a man from Rome, Italy. I’m 60 and a Roman since many generations. In my blog, manofroma.wordpress.com, I’m writing down my meditations. The idea behind it all is that something 'ancient' is still alive in the true Romans of today, of which few are left.

29 responses »

  1. I really think that Latin was used, historically, in the same way as English is used today. Only for an educational or political elite.

    I live in London and if anyone says to me “everyone speaks English” my answer is “Listen and look around you”. If people in London do not speak English then the whole question of a global language is completely open.

    The promulgation of English as the world’s “lingua franca” is unethical and linguistically undemocratic. I say this as a native English speaker!

    Unethical because communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is how English is used internationally at the moment.

    Undemocratic because minority languages are under attack worldwide due to the encroachment of majority ethnic languages. Even Mandarin Chinese is attempting to dominate as well. The long-term solution must be found and a non-national language, which places all ethnic languages on an equal footing is long overdue.

    An interesting video can be seen at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a former translator with the United Nations

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

    Reply
    • I usually erase promotional comments like this one. But since I tried to learn Esperanto when I was 15-16 your comment made me curious. Yes, Latin in the Middle Ages belonged to the elites, like probably English now (much less though). As far as I remember Esperanto is very easy to learn, hence in some way more democratic. Unfortunately, being a constructed language there is something artificial about it, even though some people are raised speaking this language. The fact that Esperanto is not biological but artificial makes me nonetheless think it is probably not a good solution for world communication.

      All the best

      MoR

      Reply
  2. I agree with you, Man of Roma, Esperanto is not biological but artificial. That’s the problem.

    Yes Rob, plus a natural language has the additional advantage of allowing communication with a culture made of real people, a literature etc. Esperanto has already its own literature, but it cannot compete with Milton or Shakespeare.

    Reply
  3. Merry Christmas dear Man of Roma! As I read your post, I was reminded of my grandmother who was from Apulia. She had a deep disregard for fortune tellers and wouldn’t even tolerate us visiting one for fun at the Italian festas. I wonder where this came from? I wonder if it was cultural or just something personal to her beliefs.

    Reply
  4. @Maryann

    Merry Christmas to you too, dear Maryann!

    I’m afraid my reply will be long, since these things fascinate me. I believe your grand-mother’s reaction was cultural, not personal. It probably reflected the Church’s reaction against possible survivals of paganism (the Roman religion) during Italian festas.

    These so-called superstitions are widespread among Italians for the simple fact that Italians were highly civilized long before (9-10 centuries earlier) Christianity arrived. While many Northern Europeans were instead brought civilization together with Christianity (the Angles, the Saxons, the Irish, the Frisians, generally the unromanized Germans etc.). This makes us a bit more pagan, whether we like it or not.

    The Catholic Church had to tolerate the remnants of the Roman religion (take the Saints, which she encouraged, in order to facilitate the rural people into the new religion) while other times she fought against them. The idea of a Fortuna, of a power totally capricious that can be though probed through oracles, fortune tellers etc., was against the Catholic Church’s idea of a Divine Providence, of a God’s loving care for man. So Fortuna was not tolerated and all its related practices considered superstitious.

    As far as I know, there is not a saint as a substitute for goddess Fortuna, while, for example (the list could be long), San Nicola at Bari (St. Nicholas) seems linked to the survival of the Roman Neptune, the god of the sea (almost all scholars agree on that). In many villages on the Adriatic coast (no idea if still at Bari) boatmen and fishermen carry the statue of the saint down to the seashore. Then the saint is set on a decorated barge and taken out to sea. Dozens of boats follow. Not entirely different from what happened during the Poseidon-Neptune ancient festivals.

    This ancient past might also be a reason why Italians are less strict as far as religion goes. This could explain the difference between, for example, the Irish and the Italian attitudes towards the Catholic religion, the difference for example between the famous Irish nuns and the Italian nuns (hope you weren’t raised by Irish nuns lol).

    Grazie e buon Natale a te e tutti i tuoi!

    MoR

    Reply
  5. I never thought (or at least equating) of the historical angle of Italians being civilized before Christianity thus making them a bit more pagan. Of course, the Romans were pagans!

    Let me ask you: where do the Italians derive their realistic and cynical posturing? Did it begin after the fall of Rome? Did Machiavelli instill it? Was it years of foreign conquering?

    Speaking of superstitions, why are conspiracy theories so strong in Italy?

    Reply
  6. @exposrip

    Thanks for your stimulating (but vast) questions, dear Exposrip. I’ll try to reply (being long again.)

    I never thought … of the historical angle of Italians being civilized before Christianity thus making them a bit more pagan.

    There are a lot of survivals of this Roman pagan past in Italians. In other countries as well (in England, for example), but I think here it is much stronger. These survivals regard religion, ways of thinking, codes extraneous to Christianity which also implies sexual habits a bit puzzling vis-à-vis today’s moral standards. I tried to investigate this a bit in the *Sex and the city (of Rome)* series.

    Where do the Italians derive their realistic and cynical posturing? Did it begin after the fall of Rome? Did Machiavelli instil it? Was it years of foreign conquering?

    Cynicism. If you ask about this within a discussion on Italian pagan survivals, you probably suspect there is connection. I am convinced there is.

    Glories and defeats, foreign conquering, the influence of intellectuals like Machiavelli – all this must have contributed. But Machiavelli to me is more like a product of a civilization. He has reinforced elements already existing. Thus we get back to our survivals. I believe that what we see as cynicism comes in truth from a different view of things.

    Which were these Classic Pagan ways? What I can say here is that the Greeks and the Romans seem to us intrinsically amoral. In this a-morality they found a powerful balance of mind. Their conscience was not torn between good and evil, virtue and vice, pleasure and sin. They could enjoy beauty, taste the delights of life (or do dreadful things) without a pang of conscience (C. P. Rodocanachi).
    As long as honour and the laws of the city were respected. More a civic thing than a personal one.

    A civilization as elegant, noble and complex as the Greco-Roman cannot disappear like dust. Allow me some rambling.

    I was in San Francisco recently and at a shop of Mexican handicraft in the Mission district this Mexican lady, clearly Indian, not at all Spanish looking, said to me: “Like we use English here for mutual understanding, we use Spanish in Mexico since many of the old languages still survive.”

    I told her: “I feel sorry the Spaniards wiped out your civilization.”

    She looked proudly at me: “They have just cut the tree – she said – but not the roots. Look at us! We are still there. We still speak our language. See the colours and patterns of these carpets, the amulets etc. Our culture is still alive.”

    Civilizations do not die easily (to be continued)

    Reply
  7. Great answer, Man of Roma. Thank you and Merry Christmas! :)

    Reply
  8. @Maryann
    Thanks for your thought provoking question Maryann! Merry Christmas to you and your family! – and merry Saturnalia as well … :-)

    Reply
  9. @exporsip

    Getting back to our civilisation and to why we may be seen as cynical let’s see what happened to the Roman Pagan culture. I’ll be a bit extreme, to make my points stand out clearer (I have deepened this topic here, and have received some insulting comments which I had to erase)

    In the Middle Ages the influence of the Church was pervasive because middle and upper-class education had disappeared. The great and noble ancient philosophers were neglected. There was no real debate anymore since the monopole of knowledge was in the hands of the clergy only. Even kings sometimes could not read or write, you can imagine the rest of the population. In a more articulated society the Church Fathers’ views (with sin obsessively concentrated on sex and heresy) would not have dominated in such an absolute way.

    So in Europe there were ancient folks with a latent paganism and the newbies who had embraced Christianity (and its puritanism) with the full enthusiasm of the novice.

    Problems arrived when after the year 1000 AD European societies started to stir again and new middle classes arose.

    And the time arrived when, with humanism and the Renaissance, the Italian secular classes rediscovered the roots of their ancient civilization. Like in Mexico, they had cut the tree, not the roots!

    “The delights of existence were augmented, manners polished, arts developed and a golden age of epicurean ease was made decent by a state religion which no one cared to break with because no one was left to regard it seriously … Christian virtues started to be scorned by the ablest Italian thinkers of the time.” (Preserved Smith, Renaissance, Britannica 1956).

    The Church itself (popes and cardinals had lovers!) encouraged a pagan ideal of life. The Christian religion was mainly felt here as a political thing, namely a way of governing the minds of men, in ways similar to the times when Rome was governing the nations. It was kinda cynical, yes. The Church of Rome was after all a child of imperial Rome. Realpolitik was in its DNA.

    Between 1929 and 1935 Gramsci wrote in Notebook IV: “There is no doubt that Italian religious feelings are superficial, as there is no doubt that religion here has a character which is mainly political, of international hegemony”.

    No scandal in Gramsci’s time any more, but in 1500 AD the Christendom of the novices was outraged. Luther revolted. Rome with all its renewed splendours (not inferior to Florence) was brutally sacked in 1527 AD (even though Luther was against this deed). The rest of Europe had mixed feelings: admiration, apish imitation, and moral repulsion as well towards the Italians.

    I made things a bit extreme. I think it was especially in this period that Italians began to be considered amoral, cynical, decadent, rotten.

    Are we rotten, cynical, amoral? Or maybe somebody isn’t fully capable of understanding us? Besides, was the Reformation such a step forward or backwards? Hard to say. Maybe it was good for Northern Europe, it freed energies, but not so much for our South. In some respects it was bad for everyone. The Catholic Church had to counter-react in order not to lose ground. A new era of fanaticism arose everywhere (Inquisition, Puritanism, witch hunts, wars of religion etc.). It took loads of generations for societies to open up again.

    Speaking of superstitions, why are conspiracy theories so strong in Italy?
    I don’t know if they are stronger here than elsewhere. The idea of a September 11 conspiracy wasn’t born in this country, for example.

    PS
    I’ll obsess you with one last note, this time about Caesar and sex (!), and make a post out of all this. I really have to thank you and Maryann for your stimuli. You have been really thought provoking! :-)

    Reply
  10. @exporsip

    (Promise you’ll not get scared by this chatter-box and will continue to comment! Ok?)

    Cynicism, amorality. Why not facing possible remnants of a pre-Christian way of living one’s sexuality? This could explain why Casanova was Italian or why Don Juan was Spanish. And this helluva Latin lover thing? Italians do it better? Not quite sure, but people say there is something sensual about them (about the French, the Spanish etc.), something that is felt as sinful and almost amoral but, for this same reason, irresistible.

    (hope what I’m saying is not seen as self-indulgence: I wasn’t a Latin lover)

    Some Italian behaviours are irritating. When young males from here go to Oktoberfest in Munich, after everybody is drunk they think they are entitled to seduce the German women, and of course they are very much frowned upon.
    Italian males from the Italian South tend to be sexually free, while the women are kept under control. A patriarchal behaviour, typical also of Islamic societies. Southern Italian men try to seduce women, no matter what or how: they think they are all Casanovas.
    And Italian (French, Spanish etc.) women? They are very provocative too, not many doubts about it.

    Julius Caesar & Sex

    There is something we have to understand. Searching far back in the past of our civilization may shed light on present behaviours. Let us consider one of the most admired Romans of all times, Julius Caesar.

    He had greatness in all he did, such a great great soul, more rational than Alexander, abstemious, with intense intellect, courage, utmost strength and daring even in old age. And yet there is another side of Caesar we might like less.

    He was totally addicted to sexual pleasure (only ambition in him was greater). Caesar was very good-looking and narcissistic. He tried to hide his lack of hair (like our prime Minister Berlusconi). He plucked the hairs of his body and made use of the most expensive perfumes. He liked his skin to be as perfect as the skin of a woman.

    He changed wife four times. He had an affair with the King of Bithynia, Nicomedes (Caesar was bisexual), with Cleopatra, with Eunoe queen of Mauritania. He slept with many of his soldiers (possible but not sure). He chose himself extremely beautiful male slaves (in secret, same-sex love being not such a misdeed but less accepted in Rome than it was in Greece).

    He cuckolded and was made a cuckold. He made love to Tertulla, the wife of Crassus; to Lollia, the wife of Gabinus; to Posthumia, the wife of Servius Suplitius; even to Mutia, the wife of Pompey, to whom he later gave his daughter Iulia as a wife.

    He also had a life-long affair with Servilia, the sister of Cato, his great enemy. Servilia was the mother of Marcus Brutus, one of Caesar’s murderers – Caesar being probably Brutus’ father.

    Ok, ok, ok.

    (If these were the ways of the best man in Rome …)
    :-)

    All the best

    Reply
  11. Scared?

    Are you kidding?

    I LOVE this!

    I have to digest it. Especially Caesar. What a character.

    Reply
  12. @exporsip

    I have to digest it myself too! You have forced me to do some nice idea linking. Yes, Caesar is such a guy. I’m afraid that Sex and the city (of Rome) will pop up again soon :-)

    Reply
  13. Pingback: “Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial” « Man of Roma

  14. Thanks for the good post

    Reply
  15. Pingback: Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan) « Man of Roma

  16. Boethius is a favorite of mine. You might be interested to know that there is a novel, “Confederacy of Dunces,” that refers to The Consolation extensively. [The author had a short, tragic life. The circumstances of its publication are remarkable.] The book is a “cult” item, although some establishment critics praise it to the skies. Personally, I was underwhelmed.

    Perhaps this will amuse you:
    http://iamyouasheisme.wordpress.com/2008/09/11/wheel-of-fortuna/

    Reply
  17. @lichanos

    I checked the ‘Confederacy of Dunces’ in the Wikipedia. Even if you were ‘underwhelmed’ by it, it could be interesting to a person like me (wonder if the dialect will be too hard). This Ignatius especially, a mixture “of a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas”, with his preference for Medieval philosophy and Boethius; and the promise of a well depicted New Orleans.

    I am fascinated by the American South – and the rest of your huge country – although I have no direct knowledge of the South. I learn from your blog that you live near NYC but grew up in California. California has a special meaning to me. I wrote positively and negatively about it in a post of mine. I read your post on Boethius. I might comment on it. Ciao!

    Reply
  18. I too am fascinated (and repelled) by the South. I have no direct experience of it. Mostly, I want to visit it and hear people talk and eat the food. I too love dialects.

    If you read Dunces, I don’t think you will have trouble with the dialect. That was, by far, the best part of the book. Worth reading for that, I would say, for people who enjoy regional speech. Not too much on New Orleans per se…the protagonist leads a narrow existence.

    I think Americans, maybe foreigners too, underestimate the importance of slavery and the Civil War in US culture. Strange…There is nearly 400 years of race-based slavery in our past – the effects don’t disappear overnight. And the South in American political history is ABSOLUTELY crucial to understand. Right from the start, when slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person in the Constitution.

    Reply
    • @lichanos

      Interesting what you say about the South and slavery. So I guess many people from there were not happy about Obama’s victory. If I remember well, most of those states were red (not only because of Obama, it seems clear).
      I am tempted to think that people in the South of the United States wanted to keep slavery because of their economy (the plantations etc.) but also because of their mentality, influenced by the French and the Spanish. It could be a stupidity though.

      I too love dialects, regional speech, any sort of slang. What bothers me in my blog is that I cannot play with English as much as I can with Italian. Literary English you can learn a bit from books, slang much less, even though J.D. Salinger taught me a lot. Of course now that slang is out of fashion.

      Reply
  19. Obama’s victory margin was only 6%, so clearly, many people in many places didn’t like him. The South, however, went solidly against him.

    It seems strange to relate, but the South used to be solid Democrat. (Lincoln was a Republican.) Now the Republican Party is shriveling, I hope, to a southern regional party. The only way to make sense of this is to see it as the long drama of the Civil War and Reconstruction echoing on through the decades…

    I can’t help you with literary references that might bring you up to date on American colloquial speech and slang because I tend to restrict my reading to books written before 1900! I’ll keep an eye/ear out for you, though.

    Reply
  20. @lichanos

    Thank you, lichanos, I much appreciate that.
    I also mostly read classics, more than contemporary literature (which in some way could be a drawback). As far as American literature, I recently discovered Walt Whitman, which I really adored. He seems to me incredibly advanced for his age. It’s been my company during my recent trip around California.

    I didn’t know that the South used to be Democrat. This terrible civil war must have really influenced America, like a wound not yet healed.

    I was in California, Santa Barbara, the night Obama was elected. We were all so happy that night! You know, I feel that racism and intolerance are mounting everywhere here in Europe and other parts of the world. A black American President is a good sign of hope.

    Reply
  21. I didn’t know that the South used to be Democrat…

    Try “The Strange Career of Jim Crow,” by C. Van Woodward. It’s an old book, and short, but unmatched. You will know more about the subject than most Americans.

    I am cautiously optimistic about Obama (I try not to hope for too much.) The image of a black family as the First Family of America is remarkable. Even I can’t help but be moved by it. Sometimes it seems that anything is possible here…

    Reply
  22. @Lichanos

    Try “The Strange Career of Jim Crow,”

    Thanks, I will try it. I also think that in America anything can be possible. It seems to me the fascinating land of extremes.

    Reply
  23. Pingback: Is the Human Mind like a Museum? « Man of Roma

  24. Pingback: Ancient Roman Deities and the Veneration of the Saints (1) « Man of Roma

  25. The ancient Romans and Greeks believed in a wide range of gods and goddesses.
    Many of these may originally have had a connection with forces of nature, natural phenomena and may have had characteristics similar to the characteristics they displayed in human life.
    If you want luck in order to get the one you are after, it is now possible to add the classic touch to your place with beautiful Ithaca’s hand-crafted wall art sculptures, representing the goddess of chance, success and fortune.

    Fortune in Roman mythology, the personification of chance or luck is the equivalent of the Greek goddess Tyche.
    Daughter of Oceanus, she differed from her sisters’ Fates who were goddesses engaged in spinning the thread of human life, in that she worked without rule, giving or taking away at her own pleasure and dispensing joy or sorrow indifferently.
    She might bring good or bad luck and she was often represented as veiled and blind, as in modern depictions of Justice, and came to represent life’s capriciousness.
    Greek artists generally depicted the goddess Fortune with a globe or a rudder, as emblems of her guiding power, or wheel or wings as a symbol of her mutability.

    Famously renowned for favouring the brave and the fools, the Roman and Greek goddess of chance and luck always favoured those willing to take a chance and those who used the opportunities that were presented to their full advantage.
    The goddess Fortune rewarded those who embraced life and who did their best to flow and learn from the ebbs and currents that are a part of it.
    The Romans proudly declared that when she entered their city she threw away her globe and took off her wings and shoes to indicate that she meant to dwell with them forever. Later, she is represented with a bandage over her eyes and a sceptre in her hand, sitting or standing on a wheel or globe.

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    Reply
  26. Pingback: Primo Vere | Man of Roma

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