The Goddess Fortuna: Thinking about Darwinian Contingency Metaphorically

I really think that Fortuna should be the matron goddess of all who have tried to absorb the full import of evolutionary contingency. Below, for example, is a painting of Fortuna by Henri Gascar, circa 1670. In this painting, Fortuna captures three key aspects of our Darwinian reality: (1) its reproductive urges (both sexual and in the gathering of resources); (2) its capriciousness (fortune looks on you if you just happen to be at the right place at the right time); and (3) its flowing (in this painting, everything about Fortuna suggests a spilling out—her hair, her open dress, her fair-skinned youth, the abundance and waviness of her clothing, and, of course, her horn. Anything spilling is in the process of coming undone—and so not lasting; and the dropping of any horn’s fruits suggests something that is fast-running to ripeness and decay).

So let’s bring these three aspects of reality together with a Darwinian question about selection: Is Fortuna’s gaze a sign that she has chosen the viewer to partake in the plentiful treasures—womanly and material—spilling from her? Or does her flat and enigmatic expression—vaguely Mona Lisa-like in its unsettling nature—a sign that she is not so sure about you, and is evaluating you for your worthiness (by whatever capricious standard upon which she decides)? In short, is the viewer being teased? I suppose your response to this painting depends entirely on the contingencies of how well things are going when you happen to look at it. And that’s rather ironic, isn’t it?


Malcolm Bull, in The Mirror of the Gods: How Renaissance Artists Rediscovered the Pagan Gods  (Oxford 2005, pg. 2), says this about Fortuna:

Horace made Fortune ‘mistress of the ocean’, for, as Cicero said, when we enjoy a favorable breeze we reach a haven, and when she blows against us we are shipwrecked. Petrarch and many others picked up the image, and from the mid-fifteenth century onwards Fortune is often personified as a nude woman on the sea. She looks rather like the goddess Venus herself, but she stands precariously on a boat, a ball, or even a dolphin, and holds a sail. The other common image of Fortune was derived from Boethius, who had pictured Fortune turning her wheel, deposing kings and raising up the humble. And in the Middle Ages, the variability of Fortune was often illustrated by four figures clinging to a turning wheel, or by the inscription ‘I will reign, I reign, I have reigned, I am without reign.’

Below are some images of Fortuna illustrating the elements that Malcolm Bull highlights. Here, for example, is Fortuna, overwhelming in her influence, hefting directional winds into the sails of a ship and Ferris Wheeling a man to a dizzying height over a community.

Are you sure it’s good to be the king?

And here is Fortuna blindfolded, dropping coins like seeds, and balancing precariously on her ball (which, in this case, is depicted as winged, and so especially flighty):

And here she is, once again blindfolded, and turning her wheel. The king sits rather precariously, and the other men do their best to hold on:

And here she is again, with wheel and horn, being erased by time. Carpe diem.

And here is the “‘I will reign, I reign, I have reigned, I am without reign’ formula made explicit:

And here again is the ‘I will reign, I reign, I have reigned, I am without reign’ formula. Notice that Fortuna sits at the center of her wheel, turning it from within. She looks world-weary, making and breaking the fates of men. And look at the man at bottom. It is not pleasant to be at the foot of Fortuna:

CarminaBuranaFortunaWheelPublicD-1.jpg image by Temple_Of_Fortuna

Fortuna at the center of a wheel, the shrew of the grasping self at her mercy, recalls for me Shiva from Hindu myth. But Shiva, unlike the sitting Fortuna, dances. I take that to be a superior symbolic touch: score one for the East. But the Hindu depiction is also a bit more dour; the shrew of the self looks condemned to always be pressed by the foot: a not-so-subtle call to the little self of the ego to abandon, for the sake of the monistic Big Self, its ambitions and desires all together:



Darwinians, like the Hindus, soberly understand that the world is burning. Despite this, I think I’ll take the West’s Fortuna over the East’s Shiva, and Madonna’s delusive assertion of individual persona  over both of them.

Carpe diem.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to The Goddess Fortuna: Thinking about Darwinian Contingency Metaphorically

  1. Mama Fortuna says:

    I am enjoying all the wonderful images of the Goddess Fortuna on your blog today!

  2. Pingback: The Twelve Missing Explanatory Links in the Atheist v. Theist Debate « Prometheus Unbound

  3. Pingback: The Multiverse Returns, or “Daddy, Is There A God”? « Spritzophrenia

  4. Anonymous says:

    your mom

  5. Pingback: Goddess Fortuna « Journeying to the Goddess

  6. Pingback: Goddess Fortuna Redux « Journeying to the Goddess

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