Tuesday, October 26, 2010


The Wheel of Fortune, or Rota Fortunae, is a concept in medieval and ancient philosophy referring to the capricious nature of Fate. The wheel belongs to the goddess Fortuna, who spins it at random, changing the positions of those on the wheel - some suffer great misfortune, others gain windfalls. Fortune appears on all paintings as a woman, sometimes blindfolded, "puppeteering" a wheel.

Modern day

Selections from the Carmina Burana, including the two poems quoted above, were set to new music by twentieth-century classical composer Carl Orff, whose well-known "O Fortuna" is based on the poem Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi.

Jerry Garcia recorded a song entitled "The Wheel" (co-written with Robert Hunter and Bill Kreutzmann) for his 1972 solo album Garcia, and performed the song regularly with the Grateful Dead from 1976 onward.

The term has found its way into modern popular culture through the Wheel of Fortune game show, where contestants win or lose money determined by the random spin of a wheel.

Fortuna does occasionally turn up in modern literature, although these days she has become more or less synonymous with Lady Luck. Her Wheel is less widely used as a symbol, and has been replaced largely by a reputation for fickleness. She is often associated with gamblers, and dice could also be said to have replaced the Wheel as the primary metaphor for uncertain fortune.

The Hudsucker Proxy, a film by the Coen Brothers, also uses the Rota Fortunae concept and in the TV series Firefly (2002) the main character, Malcolm Reynolds, says 'The Wheel never stops turning, Badger' to which Badger replies 'That only matters to the people on the rim'. Likewise, a physical version of the Wheel of Fortune is used in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, a film by George Miller and George Ogilvie. In the movie, the title character reneges on a contract and is told "bust a deal, face the wheel."

Carmina Burana
The Wheel of Fortune motif appears significantly in the Carmina Burana (or Burana Codex). Excerpts from two of the collection's better known poems, "Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi (Fortune, Empress of the World)" and "Fortune Plango Vulnera (I Bemoan the Wounds of Fortune)," read:

Sors immanis
et inanis,
rota tu volubilis,
status malus,
vana salus
semper dissolubilis,
et velata
michi quoque niteris;
nunc per ludum
dorsum nudum
fero tui sceleris.
. . . . . . . . . .
Fortune rota volvitur;
descendo minoratus;
alter in altum tollitur;
nimis exaltatus
rex sedet in vertice
caveat ruinam!
nam sub axe legimus
Hecubam reginam. Fate - monstrous
and empty,
you whirling wheel,
status is bad,
well-being is vain
always may melt away,
and veiled
you plague me too;
now through the game
bare backed
I bear your villainy.
. . . . . . . . .
The wheel is turned by Fortuna;
I go down, demeaned;
another is carried to the height;
far too high up
sits the king at the summit -
let him beware ruin!
for under the axis is written
Queen Hecuba.

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