Outrageous Fortune

A companion piece to Episode 8: Destiny's Child. Written by Laurel Hostak.

"Men at some time are masters of their fates./The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves, that we are underlings." Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare

It’s time to play Wheel! O! Fortuna!

If you think that doesn't sound as fun and high stakes as buying a vowel, think again. This week on the Midnight Myth Podcast, Derek and I looked at stories dealing with prophecy, fate, and free will. Starting with the Ancient Greeks and Oedipus, heading through to Shakespeare's Macbeth and concluding with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, we traced the evolution of destiny in storytelling as worldviews changed. We published this episode and blog around the infamous "ides of March," so a spooky feeling about fate and superstition is hanging in the wintry air. But on this blog post I wanted to look a little closer at some of the popular ontological concepts that influence these stories--namely The Rota Fortunae (Wheel of Fortune) and the Great Chain of Being.

Picture a wagon wheel, if you will. (I’ll also throw you a bone with this picture…)


There are countlessdepictions of the Wheel of Fortune, but some themes recur that give us some clarity. Often the Roman goddess Fortuna herself is shown, usually painted blind to illustrate her capriciousness and instability. She is the spinner who may lift up some men whilst catapulting others into despair, seemingly without order or agenda. In these pictures, we also see men, women, and sometimes anthropomorphic beasts caught in the spokes or riding the wheel upward or downward. There is typically a figure poised atop the wheel, in the position of greatest prosperity. This might be a king. And he may look happy now, at the height of his reign, but as we all know, what goes up must come down. The apex of the wheel is full with the potential for sudden decline.

The Rota Fortunae is prevalent in Ancient and Medieval philosophy, always referring to the wicked and unpredictable Fate, who might one day be your ally, and the next might spell your doom, all with the random spin of a wheel. In Ancient thought, Fortune is one with chance. This is the kind of philosophy that governs the universe Oedipus lives in. The nature of tragedy is that fall from grace. A character must, as we explored a few weeks ago, rise to some height and then hit rock bottom. Oedipus, who upon hearing the Oracle’s prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, took pains to subvert his destiny. He made what he thought was a decision to break free from Fortune’s wheel, and in doing so, spun it faster toward its purported ends. What the wheel represents to us is a lack of control over our own lives and destinies, the idea that we cannot claim ownership or responsibility over the way our lives turn out. We are all spokes on an ever-spinning disc that knows no morals, manners, or empathy. Oedipus’ story, as we know, teaches us fear and worship. We must never underestimate the power of the gods, and anyone so proud as to attempt to escape their will only exacerbates his situation.

Fortune and her wheel appear frequently in Medieval and Renaissance art, becoming absorbed, like many traditions, into Christian tradition. Fortuna is a common motif in the Medieval series of dramatic poems Carmina Burana (you’ve heard O, Fortuna from the Orff arrangement in a million movie trailers.) She figures heavily in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, some Arthurian romances including Malory’s Morte D’Arthur and many of the plays of Shakespeare. Henry V, King Lear, Hamlet, and more all curse or plead with Fortune to spin her wheel kindly. But the world in which Shakespeare wrote was governed by an opposing ontology.

In Elizabethan England, individuals subscribed to an idea called The Great Chain of Being, the internal hierarchy of every being in existence. The Great Chain, along with many Christian institutions (like the Eucharist, Corpus Christi, and the Holy Trinity) is based on the idea of correspondences. In the same way that the Ancient medical tradition of balancing the four humors corresponded to the four elements/four seasons/four ages of man, the links in the Great Chain of Being show patterns that interpolate and extrapolate to each other. The chain is pictured below:


At the top is God, then the angels, then demons (who are fallen angels, like Lucifer). Then we see the internal hierarchy of man, and below that is a hierarchy of beasts with lions at the top and serpents at the bottom (they just can’t shake that association with the Garden of Eden, can they?). The lowest links in the chain are plants and minerals, each with their own hierarchies.  The determination of one’s place in the chain refers to the ratio of matter and spirit in that creature. So God and the angels are all spirit, no matter. Beasts, plants, and minerals are all matter and no spirit. Man is poised in the precarious position of being  both matter and spirit. They are capable of the divine search for knowledge, truth, love, understanding, and reason… and yet they also succumb to fleshly desires, sins like lust, gluttony, and sloth. Man must balance the matter and spirit within himself to remain healthy, and must maintain his position in the hierarchy to avoid disorder in the world.

The preservation of this order in the chain was a useful political and religious tool in Elizabethan England, encouraging peasants and lower aristocrats to remain content with their lot, and in Machiavellian fashion, encouraged rulers to maintain power by any means necessary. After all, a king was ordained by God, and was a mortal stand-in for God in the chain. All links in the chain serve God, and any disorder in the hierarchy of man causes similar disorders in heaven and in the animal kingdom. Thus, it was in one’s best interest to stay in line. When Macbeth and Lady M take the life of Duncan as a guest in their home, they not only commit a mortal sin, they defy the chain, and subsequently, God. Their restless ambition manifests as tremors in the cosmos, and we hear thunder and rain. The night of the murder, we are told that an owl has killed a falcon, and that Duncan’s horses broke free from their stables and went wild—the natural world echoing the disorder and chaos in the chain of man.

When a story lives under the governance of the Great Chain of Being, the impact of a tragic fall is compounded by the introduction of choice. Macbeth’s choices to kill his king, assume the throne, and brutalize women and children, are not excused by the fact that he is in some ways under the influence of the witches’ premonitions. Though Macbeth may think himself guided by Fate, he does terrible things to achieve the prophecy’s ends. By disrupting the order of his world, he sets off a reaction that must, according to the rules set forth, result in his downfall. The microcosm, the little world of Scotland (and of Macbeth’s mind) falls into chaos. The macrocosm, the world of the heavens, crashes and bangs until the destructive agent is removed. We see the same things in Hamlet, King Lear, and the Tempest. Disorder on earth leads to chaos in the mind and in the skies.

It’s funny, when you remove the governing ontology from the Oedipus and Macbeth equation, how similar those two stories are. A good man hears a prophecy, jumps into action, kills a king, becomes king, and falls from grace. But Oedipus doesn’t fit in the world of the Great Chain, and Macbeth, I’d argue, could never just be a spoke in the Wheel of Fortune.  It’s a fascinating meditation on the nature of tragedy, and the distinctiveness of the two characters. One remains pure in the face of terror and despair, and one succumbs to mortal sin and greed with the smallest encouragement. Macbeth’s is a tragedy of his own making, rather than the random and natural turn of events.

Yet we might say that Oedipus and Macbeth commit the same sin—the defiance of the will of the higher power. Oedipus attempts to escape the prophecy of the oracle of Apollo. Macbeth slays the stand-in for God on earth and throws the chain into disorder. Men are unmade, as tragic characters often are, by pride. By thinking they can outrun the gods.

There's so much more I could say (and has been said) about these two stories and the metaphysics that govern them. But I’ll leave you with a little Easter Egg I can’t get enough of:

Upon arriving at Thebes, Oedipus discovered that the city was held at the mercy of the Sphinx, and only one who could answer its riddle would set the place free. The riddle: "What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?" Oedipus famously answered “man, who crawls in infancy, walks upright in his youth, and carries a walking stick in old age.” Those ages of man, I think, are masterfully illustrated in the cycle of Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear (and sometimes the Tempest), but that’s another story for another day. This beautifully simple riddle, concerned with the natural order and progression of life, illustrates a sort of bird’s eye view, a broad understanding. A pattern you could only recognize by looking down from on high. Any man who could answer with this perspective must have a similar vantage point…

The Wheel of Fortune, an enduring symbol, shows up again as the tenth trump card in most tarot decks. Here is a picture of how it’s drawn:

From the A. E. Waite deck

From the A. E. Waite deck

The creature at the top? A sphinx.