Riding the Wheel of Fortuna

Craig Chalquist, PhD

Now and then I am asked, in person or by email, how one might use knowledge of the mind’s depths to grow one’s career. The inquirers are usually Americans.

They ask me this, presumably, because I am a depth psychologist, which means I study the symbol-laden interactions between conscious and unconscious in the tradition of Janet, James, Freud, Campbell, and Jung, among others. Our tradition’s ancestors include Aesara of Lucania, who wrote the first book on human nature, and Muhammad ibn Umail al-Tamimi, a tenth-century philosophical alchemist. “Turn the gold into silver,” he advised.

I propose to do that here, looking behind the literal issue about finding career luck for a glimpse at the psychological, cultural, and archetypal background and treating Fortuna as an imaginal entity in her own right. By doing this I also implicitly address the question of how knowledge of myth and archetype can be practical.

The gowned figure of the goddess Fortuna (to begin with the archetypal) takes her origins from the sky as the zodiac, the glittering wheel of constellations as observed by the ancient Babylonians. From the start, then, she bears associations to cycles of time, to “following my star,” to gazing upward, and to the arts of prediction.

Fortuna is her Roman name, derived from a Proto-Indo-European root that means “to carry.” The Greeks knew her as Tyche, usually translated as “luck.” Versions of her appear everywhere. In Asia the famous Wheel of Fortune looks like the wheel of Samsara, the spinning round of fleeting appearances, attachment to which brings longing and suffering. It is diagrammed in the bhavacakra first drawn by Buddha to awaken an avaricious king from ambition. Chaucer mentions the Wheel of Fortune, as does Dante, and it appears on a Trump in the Tarot.

Western depictions show Fortuna, the daughter of expansive Jupiter, bearing implements, usually the horn of plenty, a ship’s rudder, a globe representing the world, and of course her famous Wheel, duplicated in every casino, imitated by every conveyor belt, and clenched by every automobile driver taking his life into his hands.

Fortuna is often depicted wearing a blindfold. Some say this indicates her impartiality. A scoundrel wins a lottery two blocks away from a poor family working itself to death to put food on the table. From a depth perspective, however, the blindfold could hide other meanings: the inner sight that opens, for example, when daytime vision fails. How many of those lottery winners kept their money instead of pissing it away? The ancients believed that sudden wealth could be a punishment for hubris, the sin of the fattened and ambitious ego making godlike demands.

When we forget the difference between earning and scoring; when we feel ourselves entitled to wealth without struggling for it; when we lose the crucial sense of where making a living stops and greed takes hold, we wear Fortuna’s blindfold and find ourselves propelled at high velocity around her spinning samsaric Wheel. Loss of inner bearings, humanity, patience, and soul: the ruddy signals of possession by an archetype.

Easy to do with Fortuna, especially here. At the national level, this country, bought and sold by Founding Fences day-trading the slaves who built the White House, is ruled by a de facto plutocracy of unelected bankers, with a sly nod from Pluto, the invisible god of hidden wealth and death. In Gold We Trust since even before Washington was inaugurated in a bank on Wall Street. When the wealthy break the law, they either go free (especially when white) or receive lighter sentences, notwithstanding the occasional high-profile financier jailed to prop a thin mask of fairness over the skeletal face of a corrupt system hollowed out by casino capitalism and campaign loot.

Wealth in the wrong hands drives wars for oil, poisonous processed food, destruction of mountains for minerals, toxins infesting everyday products from which there is no escape. It powers racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, and every other “ism” plaguing this planet. It exploded the atom and now tampers with the genetic scaffolding of life itself. It keeps guns in the hands of the violently paranoid.

It stoops to branding sharing, a basic value of every religion in the world, “socialism,” and therefore bad. It has warped Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” to mean, “Anyone can succeed.” It has even tried to co-opt Jesus, who drove corrupt bankers from the temple–a house of worship!–and who relentlessly condemned selfishness, greed, and unjust use of power. Meanwhile, half the American kids who even get to school arrive there hungry. Think about that.

Irving Berlin dubbed that Statue “Miss Liberty,” but she actually resembles Fortuna. Her visage overlooks New York City, metropolis of fiscal gain and loss. Her ball rises and falls in Times Square, the Crossroads of the World, on New Year’s Eve. The Dutch once built carriages there.

Incidentally, this rotating archetype also appears as the Ferris wheel, named after its inventor. George Washington Gale Ferris erected one for the 1893 Exposition to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s journey to the New World. The event was funded by financiers with names like Schwab, Morgan, Vanderbilt, Armour, and Astor. A banker persuaded Congress to hold it in Chicago, home of the skyscraper, a word taken from the highest sails of incoming trade ships like the one found below the ruins of the World Trade Center.

We can no more blame Lady Luck or her wealth for all this than we can blame a storm through which we foolishly try to sail. When we ride blindly along with her, or try to, we forget that, even for the fortunate, careers are built on many patient acts: knowing our desires, making friends with our intuitions, forging connections and alliances, marshaling support, managing the inner critic tearing away at our hopes, learning from our mistakes, earning trust, acting with integrity, trying things out with no guarantee of safety or success. Sharing, serving, and giving back. Some of us also watch our dreams (more on that below) for hints and guidance beyond what the conscious mind alone can foresee.

On the material level, how many of us know what it means to have a conscious relationship to money, whose name derives from the frugal goddess Moneta? Like psychic energy, money is in its element and essence when it flows and circulates (hence “currency”), but when still for too long it stagnates and turns to poison. The other extreme is the dangerous high velocity of the spinning Wheel, which when unrestrained acts as a juggernaut of speculation and fraud rolling over entire populations.

Because archetypes like Fortuna are not just personal but collective fantasy images, with all the weight of tradition and history charging them, they exert an enchantment difficult to pierce. According to myths and fairy tales, knowing the name of your enchanter is the first step to breaking the spell. That uncanny pull, that ambition, that entitlement, that desire to get ahead quickly with minimal effort: that is the archetype speaking, a chunk of psychology bigger than any individual, a meme on psychic steroids. If we refuse to wake up from its influence for too long, we crash.

“Whatever Fortune has raised on high,” Seneca tells us in a play named after the tragic Agamemnon, “she lifts but to bring low. Modest estate has longer life; then happy he whoe’er, content with the common lot, with safe breeze hugs the shore, and, fearing to trust his skiff to the wider sea, with unambitious oar keeps close to land.” Fortune favors the bold but downs the bloated. Know when to ride, she whispers alluringly, know how fast to go, know how to hold on–and know when to get off.

King Arthur didn’t. With ambition that grows with every victory, he achieves the overlordship of the entire world, having conquered his enemies and enforced peace everywhere, whereupon a disturbing dream of warning visits him.

In it a beautiful woman lifts him from the ground and sets him on a wheel equipped with seats, some rising and some falling. He takes his place at the top. (As Jung pointed out, dreams use metaphors to show us how things really are.)

“Arthur,” she asks, “where are you?” This being a dream, the question is probably not literal. Where are you in life, in aspiration, in your psyche?

“My lady,” he replies, “I am on a high wheel, but I do not know what kind of a wheel it is.”

“It is the Wheel of Fortune.” Then, “Arthur, what can you see?” An interesting question from a figure so often blindfolded.

“My lady, I think I can see the whole world.”

“You can,” she said, “and much of it do you rule. But such is pride that no one is so high that he can avoid being hurled from the seat of power.” With that, she pushes him out of the seat, casting him so far down that on impact he breaks all his bones.

We know how that story ends. Had Arthur unhooked himself from the rotating archetype sooner, he would have kept his good health, and Camelot had not fallen. In the States some version of this tale plays out every day.

Not long ago I dreamed that

I disembark from an airliner. Beautiful Fortuna is waiting to greet me. She beckons me forward, smiling beneficently, the spires of a great city behind her. Come join me, her arms seem to motion as they rise and circle. Pay me a visit, stay with me a while, and I will be your friend.

I wake up feeling grateful, blessed, and cautious.

This is a nice time for me, occupationally. My star is rising. My work, a child of decades of study and labor, receives attention and respect. I feel lucky, and I’m fully resolved to take the initiative and move forward–while the luck lasts.

Because it won’t. What goes up….

As Fortuna’s Wheel turns, I fasten my seatbelt, glad to be seated in an exit row, the next ride’s ticket already in my pocket.

© 2015 Craig Chalquist.