Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Wheel of Fortune: Destiny

Wheel of Fortune: Your Destiny

Where are you today in your life? Is it unfolding the way you would like? Do you wonder if your experiences are just a twist of fate or part of a larger plan? What is your destiny?
Spin the “Wheel of Fortune” for some answers.

“The fundamental building blocks of nature, the wheel, is the circle of life flowing through all aspects of existence.” Anodea Judith “Wheels of Life” Llewellyn, 1988

The Wheel of Fortune in a Tarot deck essentially symbolizes the ups and downs of a person’s life experiences, including phases of having to deal with good and evil.  Where did this concept of “fortune” originate? Why is it included in the Tarot?  As an art form, early illustrations and little paintings of the Wheel of Fortune are found in many old manuscripts from Medieval times and throughout the Renaissance. In these, the Roman goddess Fortuna turns a crank and four figures, who are attached around the edge of the wheel, are seen rising and falling and one is being crushed underneath. Constant change and instability of the human condition is reflected in these illustrations. Over the centuries, the Wheel of Fortune has been interpreted as an allegorical symbol of cycles of ever changing circumstances, the result of chance, fate, happenstance, or just plain luck. In many illustrations, these persons are either moving upward or downward seemingly enduring or mastering life’s lessons, or being defeated in tackling the challenges of life’s complex activities. It’s like gambling. In the game Wheel of Fortune, you choose a number and take a chance, hoping to win on the spin of the wheel if it stops on the number you chose. If not, you may be unhappy to lose and either keep putting more money foolishly on your bet, or go home broke. The future is unpredictable.

“The Wheel of Fortune in the Tarot and in European tradition in general, has long symbolized the role of chance in life.” Brian Williams, “The Book of Fools,” Llewellyn, 2002

Medieval European imagery of the Wheel of Fortune
Petrarch’s Poem
In Petrarch’s poem, De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae, in a 15th centuryMedieval manuscript, we see the Wheel of Fortune is illustrated in several little paintings. (See the excellent essay by Michael J. Hurst on Petrarch’s poem, including the paintings.)  The goddess Fortuna is in the background cranking a wheel and people are either going up or down on it. In the picture, “Prosperity,” Fortuna’s face is white on one side and black on the other. People on the left side of the wheel are moving upward and experience good fortune with prosperity and happiness. While on the other side, people are subjected to bad fortune and experience betrayal, adversity, hate, and pain. Some illustrations have a little mock king at the top with ass-ears.

Wheel of Fortune in Carmina Burana
(This is from a collection of poems from “Benediktbeuren”, a Latin manuscript of the 12th century; the figure of the Wheel of Fortune illustrates its first page. The poems are satirical and moralizing about gambling, drinking, and bawdy love songs, and other ribald tales. The following is a translation from the album, Carmina Burana; music by Carl Orff).

Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi
I bemoan the wounds of fortune
On fortune’s throne
I used to sit raised up,
The many-colored flowers of prosperity;
Though I may have flourished
Happy and blessed,
Now if I fall from the peak of glory.
The wheel of Fortune turns
I go down demeaned;
Another is raised up;
Sits the King at the summit
Let him fear ruin
For under the axis is written
The queen Hecuba.

Visconti - Wheel of Fortune: Visconti-Sforza Tarot (Pierpont Morgan Library, 15th century)
In the illustration, a young kingly figure sits at the top but upon closer examination, he has ass-ears. This card is about the futile desire for power. The figure on the left aspires to power (also wearing ass-ears) and the figure on the right (with an ass-tail) falls from a position of power. The figure on the bottom has lost everything. Goddess Fortuna is in the center forever turning the wheel. We can take this as a warning about the dangers of “asinine ignorance” and “animal instinct” in the climb to the top.
 (Notes from Visconti Tarot by Giordano Berti and Tiberio Gonard, Lo Scarobeo, 2002.)

Ship of Fools
In “The Book of Fools Tarot” (Llewellyn,2002) Brian Williams has portrayed at least 16 images of the Tarot discovered in Sabastian Brant’s illustrated 15th century book The Ship of Fools” (Das Narrenshiff, 1494). He has re-drawn the Wheel of Fortune much as it was in the original woodcut. Brant’s book is a satirical allegory of moralistic poems about the follies and vices of humans. (By the way, Plato wrote about the dysfunctional crew on the ship of fools in Book VI of The Republic.) On the left side of the wheel, a fool, a man with an ass’s behind is falling, and an ass with a man’s lower body is rising on the other side. A long-eared donkey straddles the top (the Fool). in the Tarot of Marseilles, the Wheel of Fortune is similar.
 (There is a possibility Brant’s book was seen by Hieronymous Bosch as he also painted a version of the ship of fools as an allegory of follies and vices.)

Other similar wheels
The Wheel of Samsara: Symbol of cycles of life in Hindu and Buddhist thought
In Hindu and Buddhist teachings, “Maya is a projection of consciousness…” Anodea Judith
The word “Maya” describes the illusion of separateness. To seek enlightenment means to gain release from the Wheel of Samsara and stop going around and around in an endless fog of illusions. In Hindu thought, this represents a belief in cycles of life, death and rebirth, forever occurring over and over, where one is reborn again and again, according to one’s karma. Hence, the believer is always seeking escape. Cycles of life’s experiences are constantly changing in an endless rotation. Some seek Nirvana, which is realized in overcoming a sense of separateness and experiencing the unity of oneness.

Tibetan Wheel of Life -Bhavachakra
In Tibetan Buddhist paintings of the Wheelof Life, we see, on the white half of the circle, that people move to higher states of existence of happiness and prosperity. Contrary to that, on the black half, people are experiencing miserable conditions because of negative actions and false desires. They are being drug along by demons. In Buddhism, the desire to have this and that and the other leads to suffering and sorrow. Release comes from understanding the consequences of impermanence of everything and letting go of all desire

Six realms of human activities are shown on the wheel as an allegory of people’s lives.

1.     Realm of the gods – a temporary paradise where prosperity is achieved by good deeds but, in their vanity and haughtiness, the people don’t recognize the suffering of others.
2.     Realm of titans – endless warring against the gods and each other because of ambition and competition, and the will to power.
3.     World of men - people are trapped in egoism and ignorance and experience endless cycles of birth, sickness and death.
4.     World of animals – beasts of burden are examples of oppression, who eat each other, and are stuck in mindless misery.
5.     Realm of greedy ghosts – Strange beings suffering from insatiable hunger/thirst for more. Realm of addictions, and obsession where they never get what they want.
6.     Realm of Hell – places of hot and cold torment where people are tortured for evil deeds, and consumed with hate and anger.

The wheel is held by Yama, a monstrous symbol of impermanence; the Lord of the Dead, who weighs the deeds of the deceased. Buddha is seen in various places and postures on the wheel and brings the flame of light and jewels of spiritual life. He points to the moon of hope and possible release from suffering.

Buddha taught that anyone could attain enlightenment by expressing the spiritual jewels of the Four Noble Truths:
1.     Truth of suffering: living righteously
2.     Truth of origin of suffering: restraining the “monkey mind” of turbulent thoughts
3.     Truth of the goal: overcoming suffering by eliminating egotistical desires
4.     Truth of the path: expressing compassion and practice of meditation
(Notes from Ghogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Shambhala, 1973)

In Zen Buddhism, the practice is more an exercise in logic in distinguishing reality from unreality.

"It takes tremendous effort to work one’s way through the difficulties of the path and actually get into the situation of life thoroughly and properly." Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

The Wheel of Fortune in the Waite deck in present time
In the popular Waite deck, we see different symbols on the Wheel of Fortune card, which are Egyptian rather than Medieval, and so represent the mystery of life. The Sphinx on top indicates a more mystical approach pertaining to the mystery of the Self. Who am I? What am I? What is my purpose in this life? Do I have a purpose? Rachael Pollack discusses the meaning of the figures on this wheel in her book, Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom. She sees the snake as Set, the god of evil who brings death. The jackal headed man is Anubis, the giver of new life; the guide of souls. The sphinx is Horus, god of resurrection and secrets of life.

“Life is powerful, chaotic, surging with energy. Give way to it and Horus, the god of resurrection with bring new life out of the chaos.”
Rachael Pollack, Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom

Evolution and involution- another way to think about the Wheel of fortune
In “Meditations on the Tarot” by Anonymous, the author discusses the meaning of the rotation of the wheel from rising up, to falling down, in terms of evolution and involution. Evolution begins with a primitive state and rises to a higher and higher status, while involution means turning in on oneself – the spiritual inner path of the soul, so to speak. He talks about Teilhard Chardin’s proposal of “a prototype for all beings.” He sees life arising from a potential state at a higher level in an emanationist cosmology where creation is flowing from a so-called God-head. Plato’s “theory of forms” in the Republic, discusses the reality of the Idea behind the material form, or model, as in the blueprint of a ship, and that these forms are reflected imperfectly in human activities. For example, a drawing of a circle may never be quite perfect but it exemplifies the Idea of circularity.

The human condition
The Wheel of Fortune is all about the cycles of the human condition: destiny, fate, change, chance, luck, surprises and unexpected events.

“…Men constantly create their own self-made conditions... “Foremost in our minds at this moment is of course the enormously increased power of human destruction; that we are able to destroy all organic life on earth and shall probably be able one day to destroy even the earth itself.” Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

What should we do when we receive this card in a reading? The lesson is to be prepared for sudden unexpected situations and shocking surprises. “Hang onto your hat’” and be open to new opportunities that may come into your life. Don’t be afraid to act on whatever might come up. Your goals may change and you may go in a different direction. New people may come into your life and everything takes on a different meaning. Whatever happens, it’s time to “go with the flow.”

Ship of Fools Tarot, Brian Williams, Llewellyn, 2002
The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt, “University of Chicago Press, 1958
Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Chogyam Trungpa, Shambhala, 1973
78 Degrees of Wisdom, Rachel Pollack, Aquarian Press, 1980

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Hermit versus monsters

A Halloween discussion of the Hieronymus Bosch painting of “The Temptation of St Anthony”

A popular book in the Middle Ages was The Golden Legend read by many of the common people in the lowlands of Europe, written by Jacobus da Varagine.  (Printing books was in vogue by then.) It told the story of St. Anthony (251-356), a fourth century hermit who took up residence in a cave in the northern desert of Egypt. There he was hounded by a horde of monsters (evil demons of all sorts) and confronted with vile temptations, including visions of swooning, seductive women. He also fought enormous giants and armies of soldiers. In a contemplative atmosphere of prayer and spiritual meditation, he fought off these tempting fantasies and warded off the “Devil,” so to speak. He was called the “Father of Monks” and produced a book: The Sayings of the Fathers, which was widely read in early monasteries.

“…a monster is no more than a combination of parts of real beings, and the possibilities of permutation border on the infinite.”  Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings

In art, St Anthony’s life was examined by many Renaissance artists, most significantly by Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), who had no fear of portraying hideous monsters and human beings in absurd positions.  He painted a large-scale phantasmagoria of “The Temptation of St. Anthony” (4 1/2’ x 7 1/2’), which depicted a “witches Sabbath” going on beside St. Anthony at the altar, while the area around him swarmed with ugly demons. A so-called priestess wore a Mitre covered with thorns and vipers, and presided over a poisonous chalice. Bosch seemed to be making a parody of the actual Christian Mass. A beastly, fox-faced Bishop conducted a “Black Mass” reading from a dark book watched over by creepy demonic forms.  A sickly frog holds up an egg in place of the “Host” and a horde of demons pour out of a huge red gourd. This all seems to be symbolic of perverse human folly.

Bosch belonged to a group called the “Brotherhood of our Lady.” A swan was on their coat of arms. This is suspicious because in his painting of “The Wayfarer” (the fool), the swan was displayed on a brothel – a pagan symbol for Venus, the goddess of love. So, what did this mean? This group presented mystery plays complete with devil dances, ballets of ghosts and skeletons in comical parodies and farces about human nature. Their favorite was the temptation of the hermit. They probably read the book by Erasmus called “The Praise of Folly” as he lived for a while in Bosch’s hometown of Hertogenbosch (1485-87). Bosch was also probably influenced by Sebastian Brandt’s book “Ship of Fools,” which was published around the same time, with lots of graphic illustrations of foolish behavior.

“These silly people never tire of listening to preposterous tales of specters,
ghosts, evil spirits and hell fire.”  Erasmus (1509)

Most of Bosch’s paintings were full of social messages and moral lessons about the corruption and obscenities around town, especially about the hypocrisy of the church in collecting money from people who were buying their way to heaven in “indulgences” who paid up according to the severity of the sin. He shows the punishment of sinners in scenes of what would be called today as “shock tactics.” (And they didn’t have TV then to taunt everyone with murder, mayhem and horror movies, or the “daily horror” on the news networks - all furnished by ads featuring the drugs that could kill you and sleek fast cars driven by pretty women.)

Religious themes were explored of: “…how we ought to behave, what should we do and what shouldn’t we do.” (See catalog of a recent exhibition: Hieronymous Bosch, the Complete Paintings and Drawings, Abrams, 2001).  In a strange coincidence, the exhibition opened in Rotterdam on September 11, 2001.

The Lowland Painter, Bruegel, was greatly influenced by Bosch’s work as he continued to use Bosch’s fantastic monster images in his prints such as, “The Seven Deadly Vices and The Virtues,” which were sold everywhere. His paintings led to the new trend of depicting the everyday working life of peasants in the Netherlands and Germanic countries, rather than religious paintings commissioned by the Church, or scenes from Greek and Roman mythology.  Was all this a precursor to the Reformation? Something else to ponder.

When we think of The Hermit in Tarot, the usual meaning is to take time out to reflect upon your life; to examine how you have lived and what you have done both good and bad. Think about what imaginary beings have influenced your experiences and haunted you, especially on this Halloween night.  Whoeee!

Other references:
“Bosch:  A Biographical and Critical Study,” Robert L. Delevoy, Crown Publishers, 1960
“Bosch,” Mario Bussagli, Grosset & Dunlap, 1967
“The World of Bruegel,” Timothy Foote, Time-Life Books, 1968

“Signs and Symbols in Christian Art,” George Ferguson, Oxford University Press, 1954