“Swear not by the moon”

If there’s one thing literature through the ages has been clear about, it’s that fortune is fickle. Changeable. Mischievous.

Shakespeare knew it in the late 1500s, when he has Juliet beg Romeo to “Swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, That monthly changes her circle orb, Lest that they love prove likewise variable.”

The Carmina Burana poet(s) knew it too, in the 1230s. While possibly best known due to being set to music by Carl Orff in the 1930s, O Fortuna is actually a very old poem.

“O Fortuna, velut luna, statu variabilis, semper crescis aut decrescis” translates to “Oh Fortune, like the moon, you are changeable, ever waxing, ever waning.” It’s a bit of a lament about the nature of fortune – essentially that if often ends badly for its recipient.

Fortuna was once a Roman goddess, though she may have originated as a farming goddess tied to prosperity and fertility.

It’s funny, I keep thinking, how these interconnected themes re-emerge through the ages.

Prosperity is something that is often seen as within the realm of our control. If we study hard enough, work hard enough, have the right friends, say the right prayers, follow the right life script, then we, too, can prosper! In Christian tradition, prosperity has been seen as a sign of God’s favor. And that particularly pernicious belief has infiltrated our culture here in America, in certain fundamentalist circles.

But the Romans knew better. Fortuna was more of a neutral force – fortune gives, and fortune takes away. It’s an ebb and flow, inconstant like the moon, moving through our lives like the tide – in and out, high and low.

Perhaps that’s thing we need to re-learn – that there are forces that impact our lives that we have no direct control over. That when you have privilege, the turning of fortune may not impact you as negatively as when you don’t. That you can work hard, and still have nothing; that you can do very little, and get back a lot. That it has nothing to do with being chosen, or favored.

Today, I see Fortuna no longer as a deity, but manifesting itself as hegemonic systems of power that we both can and cannot control. It’s out of our control in that things like racism and sexism are so deeply embedded in our power systems and collective psyche that it impacts all of us – favoring some, oppressing others.

It is, however, within our control in the sense that if enough people change that cultural chemistry, if enough belief systems evolve, if enough of us – both privileged and not – say “this is no longer acceptable,” we can change the system. We can change our fortune. Slowly, by achingly small degrees at times, but it can be done.

Fortune still be fickle, inconstant like the moon, ever waxing and waning, and we shouldn’t swear by it.

As individuals, we can never completely control that. That ancient lesson, that medieval lament, those Shakespearean words of caution still ring true today. Fortune – whether the favor of a god or goddess, or a hegemonic system of power – will always be beyond our grasp.

But the old adage about strength in numbers holds true here as well. Alone, we are at the mercy of the forces around us. United? Well, that’s a different play altogether.

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