The Wheel of Fortune
by Jean-Michel David
There are a few cards in the sequence that were especially influential in sending me scurrying through historical connections and developments. This is one of those, the other two being XVI and XXI. Not that other cards lack such aspect, of course.
The Wheel has numerous details worthy of careful attention and reflection, not least of which are the beings depicted on its periphery, and yet it is these that had proved amongst the most elusive. Certainly numerous authors exegete the animals in various ways, what I found ‘strange’, however, is that even amongst the earliest of depictions there was consistency, yet no apparent explanation.
This article is in large part extracted from a chapter from my [former] online course (and book Reading the Marseille Tarot), and the main points which arise further down have also been posted on forum.tarothistory.com, and the more general ones on Aeclectic’s tarotforum.net.
Let’s first go through some historical antecedents for sourcing the card’s imagery
We need go no further than Boethius’s immensely influential early 6th century Consolation of Philosophy (or, more aptly, ‘Consolation of Philosophia’, as Philosophy is therein allegorised.) to find the basis for the Mediaeval (and later) European pervasiveness of the image and allegory.
The whole text is image rich, and it is no wonder that it formed one of the most popular works in Mediaeval times and that it was translated in various vernacular languages (including English by both Chaucer and Elizabeth I, as well as in Old French and German). In Italy, it was highly influential in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Llull, Boccaccio, Malory, as well as the works of Chaucer and of Shakespeare, and indeed the very imagery used on major Lumière (‘Gothic’) Cathedrals, all show direct evidence of his incredible importance and influence. Furthermore, the manner in which Aristotle came to be understood by the scholastics of subsequent years was in large part via Boethius – though in this case his other and earlier philosophical works rather than his final prison-written work.
The opening section of Book II of the Consolation of Philosophia is of principal import when it comes to Fortune herself:
‘If I have diagnosed the cause and nature of your condition, you are wasting away in pining and longing for your former good fortune. […] I know the many disguises of that monster, Fortune […].
If you are trying to stop her wheel from turning, you are of all men the most obtuse. For if it once begins to stop, it will no longer be the wheel of chance.
With domineering hand she moves the turning wheel,
Like currents in a treacherous bay swept to and fro:
Her ruthless will has just deposed once fearful kings
While trustless still, from low she lifts a conquered head;
No cries of misery she hears, no tears she heeds,
But steely hearted laughs at groans her deeds have wrung.
Such is the game she plays, and so she tests her strength;
Of mighty power she makes parade when one short hour
Sees happiness from utter desolation grow.
Here Boethius listens to Philosophia (c. 1460):
Such is his influence in the world of philosophy and of ideas that I personally rank him as one of the most influential European thinkers of all time. And the work for which he is best known remains readily accessible to readers from a wide variety of background (unlike, I would suggest as an example, many of the works of Aristotle).
To be sure, the concept of Fortuna antedates Boethius – the works of especially the neo-platonist Proclus and Plotinus are influential. What Boethius does, however, is raise Fortuna to a specific mental picture such that what becomes of great noteworthiness is not the figure of Fortuna herself, but of something he really brings afresh and anew: the wheel upon which we inevitably travel throughout our lives. In contrast, Fortuna was Tyche (‘luck’) in Ancient Greece, a concept at times overlaid with the workings of the three fates.
Looking at the image (above) of the Wheel of Fortune adjacent which Boethius speaks (or listens) to Philosophia shows well some of the various other aspects I also discuss in other parts of my course: it draws us in to participate in the event, especially if we read his text at the same time. Also, the very words used, viz, “if it once begins to stop, it will no longer be the wheel of chance” (or, in the words of another and earlier translation: “if Fortune begin to stay still, she is no longer Fortune”) brings our imagination to active participation. For it is Fortuna that is represented, and for that the wheel must move.
Yet, she is capricious and inconstant, unlike the ‘eternal’ movement of the stars which can be forecast by their constancy. Whereas the celestial realm moves and is constant, here below Fortune may play and move with erratic fickleness. This, for the Ancients, was very much one of the key factors in not being able to predict the future unless ordained by one of the gods. Either it was ordained and hence able to be communicated by the sibyls (or equivalent), or it was left to the vicissitudes of Fortuna.
Compared to the other TdM’s, Noblet shows some clarity of spokes that appears to have slowly eroded over time. Let’s see what I mean: The card images below are from, respectively, a Visconti-type, the Noblet, a Dodal, and a Conver.
If in the Visconti we still have the very traditional depiction of Fortuna actually included in the image (in her slightly less usual form as hoodwinked) and turning the wheel directly with her hands on the spokes, by the Noblet, not only has she disappeared, but there is now the common wheel axle and handle and, instead of four figures around the wheel, only three remain.
These three figures also seem to lose detail over time. In the Noblet, they appear more like an ape or monkey-like figure descending, an ass-like figure ascending, and a human-like crowned figure atop. By the time of the Conver, the three are far more difficult to distinguish – yet still sufficiently clear if the symbolic meaning is known (to which we shall return shortly).
These animal-figurines are quite different to the more classical depictions showing, generally, all human beings in different parts of the wheel (though there are exceptions to which we shall also return).
The images I show above also have distinct differences of direction of rotation: the TdMs move counterclockwise (as judged by the orientation of the side figures, presuming, to be sure, that the head leads movement). In contrast, the Visconti and the other two previous images have the figures move clockwise – though, again, there is no universality of represented direction even in very early imagery, something that can be seen from the image below.
If we look at the centre of each wheel, what is striking in the TdMs is that the ‘hub’ is depicted as a representation of the world – or, to be more precise, the Earth, divided in the mediaeval three-fold division encountered both in mediaeval maps as well as in the Empress’ and Emperor’s sceptres. Admittedly, the both the Dodal and the Conver already show the loss of clarity of detail retained by the Noblet.
Platform as stability
If we look again carefully at the card, there is something different about the position atop the Wheel: it appears to have a platform upon which the individual is seated.
If there is indeed a platform, it may be that this also stands, though located atop, as untouched by the Wheel’s rim and its constant motion.
Such equipoise requires a sense of inner tranquillity, acceptance and equanimity, together with a certain control of thoughts and action, perseverance, as well as tolerance to what may be heading one’s way and impartiality to its provenance (Cf Steiner’s Knowledge of the Higher Worlds) These, of course, also form part and parcel of some of the virtues to be cultivated by each of us as we meet destiny’s onslaughts.
The Ass and the Monkey
As already mentioned, there remains clarity and consistency that the two figures on the sides of the TdM Wheels are of Ass (or donkey) and of Monkey, with the former seeking to ascend, and the latter in the descending (or ‘falling’) position.
For many years I considered that such must have been of symbolic significance, yet no tarot book (nor other materials I had read) satisfactorily addressed this aspect. It is only during a revision of the course a couple of years ago that the specific details emerged. I mention this as there are still numerous details to tarot that have yet to be unveiled which only careful attention to detail, familiarity with early decks, and an increased understanding of symbolic representations in use in late mediæval and renaissance imagery will bring to light.
For myself, it was not ‘just’ that these animals are consistent across various TdMs, but also that they are evident if one looks very closely at the 15th century Visconti decks: not the main image, but the gold-leaf bears lines that makes of the ascending figure an ass, and the descending one have a monkey’s tail.. To be sure, other similar details are also included on that card, such as ears also appearing on the crowned figure atop, and Fortuna being winged. (see the close-up below).
So what of these?
I suspect that this is one of those ‘transformations’ of human-to-symbolic animal that was ever-so ‘natural’ to those of the times, and that the ascent as Ass and fall as monkey were more commonly understood than we may even presume.
According to the mediæval Physiologus, the devil was ‘simia Dei’ (God’s monkey), and the monkey was associated with humanity’s fall and continued to represent human sin into the Middle Ages (Cf, for example, Corbey’s Metaphysics of Apes, p.66 – on a different note, that the monkey was considered a representation of the fall was perhaps another, albeit unconscious, reason for viewing evolutionary theory with some trepidation and suspition)
As for the Ass, it probably derives from a joke that confounds ‘Bisodia’ as the name at times used for Christ’s Ass but also infers fantasy (or more properly speaking phantasm). The Ass can also therefore be seen to represent false aspirations (the Ass upon which Christ sat is not to be confused with the Christ).
So we have, on the one side, the striving ascent beyond the natural position of the ass; and on the other the fall (as monkey) by his own disobedience to divine precept. Yet each, by the whim of Fortuna, may also find itself in a position inappropriate to its ‘natural’ position!
The above shows that many details from early standardisations display a wealth of meaning, some of which have yet to be re-discovered. With this card alone, as example, one of the details that remains to be clarified through reference to contemporary notes is precisely what is depicted atop.
Of all decks, in terms of the standardisation of tarot, the Noblet also remains unique: though some details are definitely of poor rendition, there is no other deck that maintains the precision is contains. Antecedent decks, such as the Visconti, remain of course highly important in the development of tarot yet, as is shown by this card, it also remains a ‘pre’ standardised pattern.
What would be incredible would be to find a full deck exemplified by the World card found in the Sforza Castle!