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The Consolations of Philosophy

Lady Liz asked me: “Who would ever want to look at a photo like this? He’s just an ugly old man.”

I replied that he reminded me of a folk tale that originated centuries ago near the village of Buonopane, perhaps on that same narrow path beneath the spring of Nitrodi. It goes like this:

Once upon a time there was a well-dressed wealthy gentleman who gave a fisherman 40 ducats to row him to a rock out on the sea. When they arrived, the gentleman called out:

“Fortuna! Fortuna!”

But no one responded.

He shouted again, “Fortuna! Fortuna!”

Finally a beautiful girl appeared. “What do you want?” she asked.
“I have no place to put all my abundance,” he replied, “so you must stop sending me money!”

The girl laughed. “I will send you even more money, so that you will drown in it!”

The fisherman, hearing this, was astonished. “Good heavens!” he said to himself. “My children are hungry and go around barefoot! So tomorrow I, too, will come here to visit Fortuna!”

The next night the fisherman rowed out to the rock. “Fortuna! Fortuna!” he called.

There was only silence, so he called again. “Fortuna! Fortuna!”

Suddenly an ugly and filthy old man appeared and asked him, “What do you want?”

“Give me some penny!” the fisherman cried. “My children have no shoes, and they are starving. It is cold and I don’t know what to do!”

“Idiot!” the old man shouted. “You received those 40 ducats from the gentleman yesterday only because I was asleep. If I had been awake you would have gotten nothing!”

* * *

Alain De Botton, in his beautiful book “The Consolations of Philosophy,” tells us that in the Roman Empire Fortuna was a fertility goddess, the firstborn of Jupiter, and was honored in temples throughout Italy.

She was “…visited by the barren and farmers in search of rain. But gradually her remit had widened, she had become associated with money, advancement, love and health.”

Her image appeared on many Roman coins. She held a cornucopia in one hand and a rudder in the other. She was beautiful and usually wore a light tunic and a coy smile.

“The cornucopia was a symbol of her power to bestow favors, the rudder a symbol of her more sinister power to change destinies,” De Botton explains. “She could scatter gifts, then with terrifying speed shift the rudder’s course, maintaining an imperturbable smile as she watched us choke to death on a fishbone or disappear in a landslide.”

Where’s the “consolation” here?

Well, De Botton explains, it’s like this:

“Because we are injured most by what we do not expect, and because we must expect everything (‘There is nothing which Fortune does not dare’), we must… hold the possibility of disaster in mind at all times. No one should undertake journey by car, or walk down the stairs, or say goodbye to a friend, without an awareness…of fatal possibilities.”

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The Roman goddess Fortuna was the same as an earlier Italian goddess who presided over the earth's abundance and controlled the destiny of all human beings. Her name, derived from Vortumna, "she who turns the year about" come to symbolize the capriciousness of life and luck, the vagaries of fate as the wheel of life turns around. Her festival was celebrated in October.

Fortuna gives us a way to approach the ups and downs of life, a perspective that can offer us some equanimity as we proceed on our journey.
Called Fors, then Fors Fortuna, she represented fate with all its unknown factors. Her name derives from fero. She was from remotest antiquity venerated in many Italian provinces, but her most important cult was celebrated at Praeneste in Latium where a certain Numerius Suffustus, digging in a cliff, discovered some tablets in oak inscribed with mysterious formulas, by means of which oracles could be delivered.

At Praeneste Fortuna was called Primigenia - firstborn (of Jupiter) - and, with an inconsequence which is not rare in the history of ancient myths, she was considered to be Jupiter's nurse and daughter at the same time.

Fortuna Primigenia was introduced to Rome in 204 B.C. during the second Punic war. However, the Romans already had a Fortuna who, they said, had favoured the astonishing political career of Servius Tullius, the slave who became king. One legend makes Servius Tullius the son of Fortuna; another said he was her lover. The goddess, in order to visit him, would slip during the night through the skylight. The Porta Fenestelia in Rome recalled this memory.

Fortuna was honoured under many names. In Rome she was Fortuna publica populi romani. Fortuna Mullebris - protectress of matrons univirae namely, only once married - persuaded Coriolanus to raise the siege of Rome at the prayers of his mother and the Roman wives. A golden statuette of Fortuna had always to remain in the sleeping quarters of Roman Emperors. Citizens who were distinguished by outstanding good or bad luck had a Fortuna. When overtaken at sea by a storm Caesar said to the terrified pilot: What do you fear? You carry Caesar and his Fortuna.

The countless representations of Fortuna show her chief attributes to be the wheel, the sphere, a ship's rudder and prow, and a cornucopia. The goddess is sometimes seated, sometimes standing. Occasionally she has wings.
Sometimes, as the representation I've at home, she's blinded. Thus in Italy we always say: "Fortuna è cieca".

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