We have been talking about survivals of the Roman religion. Of the goddess Fortuna or goddess of Luck remain 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.
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.
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.
3. 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 the small modern reproduction above).
But only the wheel survived and this is 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. Cicero had already mentioned the wheel but it was Boethius’ work which made the goddess Fortune and her wheel so popular during 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.
We’ll conclude by mentioning how in 1803 AD some medieval poems ( 228 ) mostly in Latin 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 movement is incidentally “O Fortuna“, which opens and closes the work (following the last link you can read the Latin original text, with an English translation).
(see an additional note on Roman Fortuna)