X. The Wheel of Fortune




Meaning: All things happen according to their place and time, their cause and effect.  Change rules all of life.  Do not lose your free will trying to beat the system.

Reversed:  You have lost control of the situation.  Let the situation play itself out, analyze the results and find your way to the best position.  Expect the problem to repeat until you have fixed it.



Cary-Yale Visconti

“…on trump number 10 of the Pierpont-Morgan deck, all four figures in the picture “speak” by means of a ribbon or scroll by their mouth, almost as today’s cartoons: the figure on the top of the wheel says regno (“I reign”), the one coming upwards says regnabo (“I will reign”), the one going downwards says regnavi (“I reigned”), while the old man on his fours says sum sine regno (“I am without a reign”)…”


15th Century.  Looks like the side effects of using arsenic skin lightener were beginning to sink in.

The Wheel of Fortune is one of those widely admired cards for its variety and license.  The general depiction is that the wheel is in no way a varied thing of chance that gives out prizes.  The Tarot Wheel is nothing less that a moving structure of conflict and station, all at once as a kind of apparatus.  Sometimes Fortuna is presumably present, she is blindfolded of course.  Typically the figure at the top is sitting pretty, top of the world, in charge.  Meanwhile one climbs, one falls, and sometimes, one crawls carrying the whole damned wheel.  The Italian cards with Fortuna and Wheel standing on an old man resemble the story of Phyllis and Artistotle, popular among a variety of women in positions of power and revenge that appeared during the time.  The strangest may be the Marseilles version above, with a sort of monarch unchallenged save two abandoned looking costumes nailed to the wheel, a picture of stasis.

In modern esoteric decks there is sometimes a triumphant sphinx at the wheel’s top, a dragon underneath.  Whoever plays on the wheel plays in the same respect, contribution to the motion of the whole.

Bronze Aquamanile, Phyllis Rides Aristotle

Fortuna of course is the goddess of Luck, but not that long ago she was the most popular goddess of Rome.  The Etruscans and Romans had been late comers to the Mediterranean world, but by late Antiquity it had devoured the ancient Phoenicians, razed the Gaul civilization to the ground, institutionalized the Ptolemaic world of the East and was working on the Germans.  The Empire didn’t have the clout of having the oldest shrines in the known world, so they absorbed them literally (as with Pallas, the Palladion of Troy), militarily, and figuratively, by rearranging their tribal gods to loosely match the Olympian model.   But one thing they were quite proud of, is that their goddess Fortuna had come to the top and was popular all over, because on the one hand, Rome had clearly won the cake, and on the other, they claimed to be the first to have a shrine to Lady Luck.  It gives a glimpse of cultural pride that surrounded these sort of places, indeed that wars were fought over (the shrines and the hilltop forts of the old cities were usually one and the same).  By the time of the Humanists, Fortuna was an example of a path to reform, and a antique Roman precedent at that.

The shrine of Fortuna Primigenia (the Original) in Pallestrina grew so popular as an attraction in the last century BCE that like most religions in Rome was expanded.  An edifice making a great deal out of the feature of climbing stairs, one wonders about the origin of ‘climb these steps to good fortune’.  As with religious sites involving stairs today, one could imagine a routine of climbing them on one’s knees, as what is continued today surely reflect earlier behaviors.  The shrine features two long, narrow covered stairways as an option of approach, or perhaps these were painted galleries filled with the miracles of Fortune.

Model, Partial Elevation of the Fortuna Primigenia
Model, Partial Elevation of the Fortuna Primigenia


Elevation Drawing showing the remaining half of the climb to the temple.
Elevation Drawing showing the remaining half of the climb to the temple and the lower sanctuary.

Fortuna is a great example of the way the modern occult will tell you that a particular god or goddess was unimportant, when the name is still in use today because it is more modern.

At the very top, Fortuna's Wishing Well
Near the very top, Fortuna’s Wishing Well

As the centuries went on the Tarot found its way into the hands of other cultures, especially around port cities where games and fortunes with the Marseille could be found.  The Wheel’s interpretation retained its ‘stations of life’ moral illustration, the old ‘what goes up must come down’ and rarely focusing on the cult person of Fortuna.

Artemisia Gentileschi, St. Catherine of Alexandria, 16th Cent.
Artemisia Gentileschi, St. Catherine of Alexandria, 16th Cent.

Seeing that the card depicts a message of the cycle and not so much that of luck, it might have been a natural time to think about Saint Catherine, because the Tarot is full of strong women symbols, she was the one most closely associated with the loss of Joan of Arc.   The story of Catherine of Alexandria is potentially a great Humanist trump like Fortuna.  As a saint the earliest account of her story does not surface until five centuries after her death, which could make it any blend of successful local story, a case of intentionally changed identity, or a pagan deity that had been Christianized.

Catherine the Great breaking the wheel, Queen Mary Psalter
Catherine breaking the wheel meant, despite the saw blade embellishment, to break her back, Queen Mary Psalter
Scourging of Catherine
Scourging of Catherine
Beheading of Catherine
Beheading of Catherine

A considerable candidate that might have been on the minds of Renaissance mythologists was Hypatia of Alexandria, a ‘good Pagan’ that history remembers as being unjustly handled, and wrapped up in the mystique of ancient learning.  Teacher, possibly director of one of the great libraries, she lived during a time of building mass hysteria, with an eye towards herself and her Serapeum as a symbol of evil.  Politically, she certainly could be said to have avoided being broken on the wheel.   Hypatia was torn apart with broken roofing tiles by a mob, and images of Catherine being scourged resemble the horror of many wounds.

Konrad Witz, Saints Mary Magdalen and Catherine the crowned scholar.
Konrad Witz, Saints Mary Magdalen and Catherine the crowned scholar.

Catherine is depicted as a crowned scholar in the Renaissance, and the saint who ‘had good pagan parents’ was known on some level to be exceptional, to the point of having her own significant pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where her remains were said to have been found secreting a healing oil.  Adding to the mystery was the belief that the monastery founded by Catherine in Egypt is one of very few clinging edifices of the first Christian centuries to survive into modern times, made exempt from tax and protected by personal order of Mohammed.  Whoever this woman was, she has been protected into modern times as an example of how to break the wheel of Fortune and live with self-determination.