Of all the pagan deities, Fortune was the most absolute and the most universally worshiped; for she kept all men at her feet, the prosperous through fear and the unfortunate through hope. She was also an eccentric goddess, not only favoring the brave, according to the familiar maxim of Terence, but likewise being decidedly partial to fools, if we may believe another classical saying, Fortuna favet fatuis. And again, as an ancient poet wrote, Legem veretur nocens, Fortunam innocens. The satirist Juvenal said that, if men were discreet, Fortune had no power over them. When she entered Rome she folded her wings as a sign that she wished to remain there; and, as has been aptly remarked, she is there still, for the modern Roman is as firm a believer in luck, whether good or bad, as was the Roman citizen two thousand years ago. Among the ancients, a lucky event, something opportune occurring unexpectedly, was ascribed to a sudden caprice or whim on the part of the goddess, while success in an undertaking was thought to be due to her favor when in a sober mood.
"Why was Fortune made a goddess?" asked St. Augustine, since she is so blind that she runs to anybody without distinction, and often passes by her admirers to cling to those who despise her. And Cicero remarked that Fortune was not only blind herself, but often deprived her votaries of sight.
Pliny, in discoursing about the religious beliefs current in his time, says:--
All over the world, in all places and at all times, Fortune is the only God whom every one invokes: she alone is spoken of; she alone is accused and is supposed to be guilty; she alone is in our thoughts, is praised and blamed, and is loaded with reproaches; wavering as she is, conceived by the generality of mankind to be blind, wandering, inconstant, uncertain, variable, and often favoring the unworthy. To her are referred all our losses and all our gains, and, in casting up the accounts of mortals, she alone balances the two pages of our sheet. We are so much in the power of chance, that chance itself is considered as a God.
The representations of Fortune, which are to be seen in ancient statues, bas-reliefs, medals, and coins, exhibit the many different attributes of her character. The earliest image of the goddess was probably at Smyrna, and was the work of the eminent sculptor Bupalus, who lived in the sixth century B. C. She was here shown as bearing on her head a hemisphere, and with the horn of Amalthaea in her left hand, thus typifying the distribution of all good things.
Her lack of discernment has been symbolized by artists, who have portrayed her with a bandage before her eyes; with a rudder, as guiding worldly affairs; or with a wheel or ball, as types of instability. In a painting by Sulzer, Fortune is shown seated on a throne, which is borne aloft in the air by contrary winds. In her hand is a magic wand, and her countenance expresses inconstancy and fickleness, while in her train follow Riches, Poverty, Despotism, and Slavery. In the Villa d'Este, near the Italian town of Tivoli, is a painting by Zucchari showing Fortune astride of an ostrich, which has been supposed to be an allegorical intimation that the goddess has a preference for simpletons. In her temple at Thebes, she held Wealth in her arms. Sometimes she was accompanied by a winged youth named Favor, to denote how speedily her favors may fly away from us; or by a winged Cupid, which has been thought to signify that, in Love, Beauty has a less permanent influence than Fortune.
Her numerous titles were usually complimentary, as Golden or Royal Fortune, but she was disrespectfully spoken of by Horace, Ovid, and other writers, by whom she was characterized as unjust, fickle, and delighting in mischief. One reproachful epithet applied to her was viscosa, tenacious or sticky, because men are caught in her toils like birds in quicklime.
The Abbé Banier, in his "Mythology and Fables of the Ancients," thus moralizes regarding Fortune, good and bad:--
As men have always highly valued earthly goods, 'tis no wonder that they adored Fortune. Fools! who thus instead of acknowledging an intelligent Providence that distributes riches and earthly goods, from views always wise, though dark and placed beyond the reach of human discovery, addressed their vows to an imaginary Being, that acted without design and from the impulse of unavoidable necessity; for 'tis beyond question that, in the Pagan system, Fortune was nothing else but Destiny. Accordingly she was confounded, as we shall see afterwards, with the Parcae, who were themselves that fatal Necessity, which the poets have reasoned so much about.
We learn from the historian Suetonius that the early Roman emperors were wont to cherish small images of Fortune, which they venerated as special tutelary deities.
The goddess is said to have once appeared in a vision to the Emperor Galba, who reigned A. D. 68-69, and to have informed him that she was standing weary before his door, and that, if she were not quickly admitted, every one dear to him would become her prey. On awakening he found outside the entrance-hall of his palace a bronze figure of Fortune, which he concealed beneath his garments and carried to his summer residence at Tusculum. There he set apart a sanctuary for the image, and offered prayers to it each month, keeping, moreover, in its honor an all-night vigil every year. On one occasion Galba had intended to present his little guardian genius with a necklace of pearls and precious stones, but changed his mind and gave it to the Capitoline Venus. The following night Fortune, in angry mood, again appeared to the emperor in a dream, complaining that she had been cheated out of the intended gift, and threatening to take away the many benefits which she had bestowed upon him. Alarmed at this, Galba sent a messenger early in the morning to prepare a sacrificial offering, and he himself hastened to Tusculum, but found on the altar of the sanctuary nothing but warm ashes; and near by stood an old man clothed in black, holding in one hand a glass plate containing incense, and in the other an earthenware vessel full of sacrificial wine.
Some verses containing uncomplimentary allusions to the character of Fortune were formerly to be seen on the wall of a chamber in Wressell Castle, Yorkshire, a building of the latter part of the fourteenth century, which was destroyed by fire in 1796:--
The Proverbis in the syde of the utter chamber above of the Hous in the Gardyng at Wresyll.
No thynge to fortune thou apply,
For her gyftis vanyshithe as doth fantasy,
The more thou receyvethe of her gyftis moste unsure,
The more to the aprochethe displeasure.
Then in blynde fortune put not thy truste.
For her brightness sone receyveth ruste.
Fortune is fykill, fortune is blynde.
Her rawardes be fekill and unkynde.
Forsake the glory of fortune('s) fyckillnes,
Of whom comythe worldly glory and yet much unkyndnes,
Put thy trust and in hym sett thy mynde,
Whiche when fortune faylithe will nevyr be unkynde.
Among most civilized nations of the present day the Goddess Fortune is not openly worshiped, although the Japanese have their seven Gods of Luck, which are comparatively modern deities, brought together from various sources, including their own primitive Shinto religion, Buddhism, and the Taouism of China.
The Lamas of Tibet perform each year a peculiar scapegoat rite called the Chase of the Demon of Illuck. One of their number, in fantastic garb and with grotesquely painted face, sits in the market-place for a week previously, and on the day of the ceremony this worthy, who is known as a ghost-king, wanders about shaking a black yak's tail over the heads of the people, whereby their ill-luck is in some mystic way transferred to him.