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the house of your colleague rang with song and cymbals while he himself danced naked at a feast, wherein, even while he executed his whirling gyrations, he felt no fear of the wheel of fortune


In many versions of the Tarot, the Goddess Fortuna takes on attributes of the Sphinx on the Wheel of Fortune card (usually card number 10). The sacred Wheel of Fortune contains many mysteries and is a key to many riddles. It corresponds primarily to turning and change. The wheel conveys concepts of “rolling,” including cyclicity (ordered repetition), evolution (to unroll, as with a scroll) and revolution (to turn again, to re-turn). It is the reflection of the anima, individual and collective, and is the source of its movement. In images of the Goddess, the wheel usually rests beneath Her, showing Her sovereignty, or to Her left side. The left hand (sinister) placement suggests the mutability of luck, and that cycles of luck generally work passively. Cyclicity is a “Law of Fortuna” that functions without Her active intervention. Because of the same passivity, She is sometimes represented blind or blindfolded. This is the domain of Natural Law. (In Hindu and Buddhist iconography, and on the flag of modern India, the wheel is a symbol of law). Attributes on Fortuna’s right (dexter), like the rudder or plow, suggest a more active engagement on Her part—intervention and deliberate steering. This is the domain of Grace. With endless variation, the wheel repeats what has been. The rudder or plow splits the sea or earth, however, and bring forth new things.

Fortuna’s wheel is of a type developed after 2000 BCE, a wheel with joined spokes radiating out from a central axis. Sometime in the first millennium, Celts introduced an outer rim of iron that contracted around the wooden elements as it cooled to stabilize the structure and increase the wheel’s strength and durability. This type of spoked, iron-rimmed wheel predominated worldwide until the advent of rubber in the 1870s CE. Fortuna’s wheel usually has four or eight spokes, seldom six. In classical representations, it almost always stands alone, unattached to any vehicle or other contrivance. The spokes suggest plurality existing along distinct trajectories, bounded by circle and meeting at the axis. They suggest a radiant power, a united and functional diversity. The even number of spokes suggests balance and equanimity—essential qualities in a wheel—and imply an even distribution of burdens through rotation as well as the attributes of symmetry and poise. Opposites exist, but the opposites constantly change places and role; all opposites have their unique point on the circumference, but meet at the "round table" of center. There is no randomness, and only speed seems variable. Everyone appears to change places with everyone else, though it is actually the whole wheel that has moved rather than individual spokes. Speed is linked to the perception of time and is relative; this variabilty may be in the eye of the beholder more than in the essential nature of the Wheel, which otherwise suggests fairness and constancy, rise and fall and rise again for all. The numbers four and eight link the wheel to solar and elemental mysteries and establish many rich correspondences, as to the elements, humours, seasons and sabbats, etc.

The Wheel is linked to the sun, and as wheels became more common, wheel imagery replaced the image of a solar barge in many cultures. This is a very understandable evolution of the symbol. For those who can "hold tension," it adds and enriches layers of meaning. (Try to hold these sorts of things all at once without being overwhelmed--not only will you acquire a taste for it, you'll also increase your measurable intelligence). Wheels are, of course, round and therefore posssess an affintity with the earlier solar disk evidenced in very ancient petroglyphs and time-keeping devices like Stonehenge. Early spoked wheels had four spokes, symbolizing the four stations of the sun at the equinoxes and solstices, as well as the noon zenith (the cross bars create a midpoint) and summer solstice (the ancient Egyptian New Year, which then corresponded to the beginning of the Nile innundation and the rising of Sothis, the Star of Isis). The winged solar disk of Sumer and Egypt became a winged wheel.

Like the sun with its rays, the spoked wheel has been a symbol of monist mysteries in several cultures, including Egypt and Vedic India. Monism is the idea that the Divine is both many and one simultaneously, a position distinct from either monotheism or hard polytheism. It is a position that generally affirms our eventual equality with the Gods, holding that the individual soul is both one with and distinct from its Divine Matrix. Monism is reflected in the clear differentiation of spokes at the outer rim and their convergence at the center. The outer rim of this wheel meets the earth and is driven forward—it is subject to constant change, rising and falling. The center of the wheel, however, is the axis—the stable, still center where all converges, where real weight is borne, from which all radiates. The center is not constantly rising and falling, like the rim. The pattern suggests that any point in space can radiate outward to encompass all space, and so the spoked wheel or radiating sun represents a seed of the Infinite, a resonant relationship between any part and the cosmic whole, above and below, macrocosm and microcosm. A common statement that attempts to suggest the nature of divinity has it that “God is a circle whose center is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere.” This differentiation seems to apply to all life, including human beings and Gods.

The fact that the wheel stands alone suggests that it is an all-encompassing cosmic teaching: everything is the Wheel, both change (rim) and changelessness (axis). Many Gods have borne wheels or disks, and the halo or nimbus--a circle drawn about the head, to indicate completedness of consciousness--as a marker of wholiness is often wheel-like in its representation. These facts suggest that the circle, and the wheel as a type of circle, is intended to convey ideas about essential, universal divine attributes. A stand-alone wheel may imply a barrow or chariot or ship, but usually none is represented--it conveys a generalized power of motion (recall that Hellenic culture saw motion as evidence of the presence of the soul, the animating power). Motion is there already; all else is added by different powers--including the steering power of mind and the awe-full Necessity of obstacles, entropy and centrifigual force. (Despite entropy, this Wheel is never stopped). In the sacred image of the wheel, moving (rim) and non-moving (axis) are placed together, always. Everything has cyclic elements, and everything contains a still small center that is its origin and refuge, its real source of nourishment through which its energy is transmuted. So the wheel has a transcendental aspect in which difference is resolved without being erased, in which Infinite and particular coexist, in which we are reminded of and pointed to spiritual center and the question of origins. It also has a very immanent aspect and teaches us something about the nature of suffering, the nature of pleasure and pain, the relationship between higher and lower selves, microcosmic self and cosmos. If the center is a place where there is neither injustice nor the need for justice, the rim is a place where injustice and justice (or any other set of opposites) enact a constant dance of shifting prominence. On the rim, pleasure is sure to be followed by pain (and vice versa). To master life on the rim, we must learn to “go with the flow” and expect all things to change, to become their opposites over time. More than any other tradition, Taoism seems to be the custodian of these particular mysteries, and I imagine that we can learn a great deal about the principles of Fortuna's Wheel by listening to Taoist wisdom--not only on principles of opposition, but also in the eight-fold structures of the Ba-Gua that seem to correspond to Her eight-spoked Wheel and the Wiccan Year.

-- A Medieval Epigram --

Cursus Fortune variatur in more lune:
Crescit, decrescit et eodem sistere nescit.
Elevor in primis, regno tuo utor, in imis
aufero ecce nimis: raro distant ultima primis:
regnabo, reno, renavi, sum sine regno.

The course of Fortune changes like the moon:
It grows and shrinks, and knows not how to stay the same,
At first I'm raised, and I enjoy the reign; at last,
Behold, I take too much: the ends differ seldom from starts:
I shall reign, I reign, I hae reigned, I have no reign.

My fate circles on the shifting wheel

Of divine reversal, and still suffers change;

Like the pale moon's face, that cannot stay

For two nights ever in the same aspect,

But first comes issuing from the dim--then grows

With lovelier visage waxing to the full--

And once at her bright fairest--then forthwith

Lapses and fades,and comes to nothingness.

Sophocles, Tantalus


Nor do you fear the power of Fortuna standing on Her swaying Wheel

OVID, Tristia 8.7-8


The Great Wheel of Samsara.
The Wheel of the Law. (Dhamma.)
The Wheel of the Taro.
The Wheel of the Heavens.
The Wheel of Life.
All these Wheels be one; yet of all these the Wheel of the TARO alone avails thee consciously.
Meditate long and broad and deep, O man, upon this Wheel, revolving it in thy mind!
Be this thy task, to see how each card springs necessarily from each other card, even in due order from The Fool unto The Ten of Coins.
Then, when thou know'st the Wheel of Destiny complete, may'st thou perceive THAT
Will which moved it first. [There is no first or last.]
And lo! thou art past through the Abyss.

Aleister Crowley,The Book of Lies
(Some say he was a mad prophet of the Dawning Age of Horus)

Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis may be inspired by Lucius Apuleius's GOLDEN ASS, an ancient Roman novel that includes Isis and Fortuna. The main character is turned into a donkey. In Kafka's novella, the main character is turned into a cockroach. The name of this character, Gregor Samsa, suggests an egregoire or magically engendered, soulless entity and samsara, the Buddhist concept of the Wheel of Rebirth.

In the Wheel, Fortuna also shares the wisdom of the Buddha. Buddhism employs the symbol of the wheel to "drive home" the point that in mundane life, pleasure and suffering alternate and go together eternally. This is represented as the Wheel of Samsara, a symbol shared with Meditterranean Orphics--it says that pleasure and pain accompany one another, and that identification with sense objects draws us into repeated births and deaths. Monist Paganism differs from some forms of Buddhism in recognizing that some wish to live on the rim. Paganism affirms their conscious choice as a sacred vocation. This world will never possess the changeless peace of Divine Center--this world is always going to be a realm of process and reorientation. This world is not ideal, but its perfection is manifest in its dynamic balance--it is a different sort of perfection from that manifest in the Heavenly Realms (neither is static, hence their relationship and interdependence). However, the game of life in all its manifestations is sacred, and the rim is just as sacred and holy as the axis. Axis and rim together are a metaphysical whole with an eternal relationship between them--the Center alone is not the whole and the whole Wheel is golden.

The choice to embrace the rim is different from being ignorant about the structure of the Wheel or the reality of Center. This ignorance is not desirable, and the image of the Wheel bears witness to the Truth and the actual spiritual choices presented to our wills. This Wheel is a sun of illumination, a window on our richly plural options. It has been misread as fatalistically determinist, but in reality it empowers choice. All it guaruntees is change within the iron-girt energy structure that preserves all things. From my perspective, this is "Right Understanding," the first injunction of Buddhist ethics represented as the eight-spoked Wheel of Dharma.

The Wheel also teaches survival by necessary adjustment to an ungrounded culture. In the contemporary world, few of us have a lifestyle that is directly grounded in the earth. In most human cultures, however, the majority of people have been involved in food production through agriculture, hunting and gathering, or secondary (organic) processing. People directly involved with food production are necessarily more conscious of a living relationship with nature, and are more conscious of nature's immensity and power. Perhaps we can someday successfully recreate a culture of connection to the earth, and perhaps the turning of the wheel will compel us to do so. In the meantime, we have to learn to be grounded in an effective way despite our lifestyles. The wheel teaches something here: A turning wheel touches the earth all the way around, and though it journeys many miles it is supported by the earth all the way. Its adjustment is constant. The wheel is a grounding device that accommodates change, bearing a load and transferring the burden to the earth, but without getting bogged down—it is the “rootedness” of the sun instead of the rootedness of a tree. It kisses and caresses the surface of the earth. Like the sun in its daily and annual revolutions, the wheel is a survivor, one who goes out and returns. An actual wheel requires maintenance and is improved by lubrication. If it needs to be "healed," it must stop and "rest."

To the down-and-out, the Wheel offers consolation: you will surely rise again. To those in power and prime, it offers warning: change is certain, you are human and will die. Anything can be taken away or restored anew.


"As Fortune rotates the headlong fates of kings"

Note that the Wheel of Fortune presents an interesting model of polarity. There are no fixed poles. Though positions on the rim are in opposition, they are also in rotation, moving like the hands of a clock in a predictable sequence. This is a dynamic polarity, one of constant balancing readjustments. All who attempt to rest on the rim will be displaced, unless temporarily held in place by centrifugal force. Roles and experiences are constantly being exchanged. This fluidity of opposites is also captured in the Taoist yin-yang symbol and in the fluidity of I Ching energies that reflect their interactions and primary manifestations (and which are goverened by the number 8, suggesting further resonance with the eight spoked wheel). All “opposites” exist on a continuum, never in true opposition. So, there’s a “rim polarity” that corresponds to the Buddhist concept of samsara or to the Buddhist and Orphic concept of a “wheel of rebirth”. In this realm, opposites alternate and nothing is constant, but it is rich in experience and constitutes a kind of game or gamble. There is an “axis/rim” polarity, however, that is different and that seems to indicate a way out, if we desire it, of the endless alternations of pleasure and pain, birth and death, love and loss. (In the section on the cornucopia, I’ll suggest that this model is extended in three dimensions, showing an opportunity to move in a spiral or helix rather than a flat, repeating cycle—this may be the pattern of our movement from rim to center, spiraling our own unique journey around the spoke of our path).

One of the deepest opposites of the cultures that gave rise to Fortuna, at least in their earliest metaphysical writings, is the tension between eros and strife, unity and division. Parmenides, in the short shamanic-visionary poem that is all that survives of his work, draws attention to the chariot wheels that convey him to the Goddess, then goes on to expound on the eternal relationship of eros and strife. The spoked wheel is a perfect visual metaphor for the interrelationship of these forces and the swiftness with which they can operate. Early Greek myth includes Ixion, who is lashed to a flaming wheel in perpetuity for crimes of murder and betraying Divine hospitality. The wheel stopped, according to tradition, only while Orpheus played. The wheel is also a symbol of Nemesis, the swift justice of energetic returns, in ancient Greek art.

The Wheel of Goddess Fortuna is linked to other sacred wheels and circles, including the Medicine Wheel, stone "henges", solar symbols like the swastika, spinning wheels (Besides spinning and weaving Goddesses like Isis, think also of the Moirae and Norns and their connection to fate), mandalas, crop circles, and haloes. Unifying themes seems to be energy in motion and transformation, the dynamics that lead to conscious wholeness. There are also processes involving punctuated units of 2, 4, or 8. An eight-spoked wheel seems resonant with the enneagram (it has nine points, counting the center), though it might not imply the same relationships between the "stations" and with the Chinese bagua. The eight stations also correspond to the traditional "rotation of the elements" in Pythagorean lore. John Opsopaus has a wonderful explanation of the rotation of the elements
here. (This essay also shows a profound link between the circular dynamic of the wheel and the dimensional spiral dynamic of the cornucopia).

The wheel is girt by a band of Iron. The mystery here takes us deep in the chthonic divinities of the ancient classical world and to the doctrine of four ages. The wheel is constrained by an “iron will” or by Necessity. Necessity is a divine force, a Goddess in Her own right, who attends Isis-Fortuna. Iron represents to densest and most "base" metal, the plentiful stuff of transformation. Iron is also a clue that Fortuna's Wheel is linked to the teachings of four ages. Here we see the reason for the “dark age” as a kind of delimiting container, and we glean that subjection to the revolving wheel is confined to the "space" within the iron band of Necessity, beyond which is a Divine State of Being that contains the opposites rather than being subjected to them, and that this is the supporting ground on which the Wheel of Rebirth revolves. The Wheel of Rebirth is not eternal and may be elective, but it seems to be about "purifying" or refining the soul in some way. Iron also has alchemical and astrological significance. I believe that the four ages mirror the four seasons, and have ascending and descending components, making 8— the four main points on Her wheel correspond to the solstices and equinoxes, and the Wheel of Eight corresponds to the Wheel of the Year in Wiccan and Pagan practice.

Murder of Servius Tullius by chariot?