Ancient Greek goddess Tyche, which represented fortune, or luck, whether good or bad may not have been one of the twelve Olympians, yet her powers exceeded theirs.
by Patrick Garner
Ancient Greeks believed in supernatural causes for almost all events and attributed them to the goddess Tyche. The Romans believed in her, too, renaming her Fortuna. The English word fortune is derived from Fortuna. Some even call her Lady Luck, from the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls and Frank Sinatra’s hit, Luck be a Lady Tonight.
The goddess was not one of the twelve Olympians, yet her powers exceeded theirs. As a result, gods and mortals alike gave her a wide berth. Her powers surpassed Zeus’, yet today, she is largely forgotten.
Tyche represented fortune, or luck, whether good or bad, although she was believed to bring more good fortune than bad. She was a perfect divinity for the times. By 500 BC, she had become so popular that dozens of Greek cities adopted her as their patron deity. Later when Alexander the Great attributed his battlefield victories to her, she became even more popular.
Nevertheless, because she was unpredictable, when her worshippers erected shrines they often combined Tyche with other goddesses to hedge their bets. For instance, statues of Athene-Isis-Tyche were common throughout the ancient world. The triple goddesses represented Athene for wisdom, Isis for benevolence and Tyche for good fortune.
Sharing acclaim could prove dicey, though, because Tyche didn’t like to share. A farmer who found a vase of coins in the field he plowed could easily lose them if thanks were awarded to the wrong goddess.
Ancient Greek influencers
Tyche was not alone in determining life’s events. She worked in opposition to the goddess Nemesis. They were considered to be in a constant divine wrestling match.
Today we think of Nemesis as being someone’s enemy. To the ancient Greeks, Nemesis was the goddess of resentment and retribution. Yet she was also a goddess who valued balance. While Tyche often spread chaos by being arbitrary, Nemesis sought to counter Tyche’s actions.
Of course, as we discuss Tyche, we can’t ignore the Fates — the three sisters who determined every human’s fate. Ancient Greeks viewed fate and fortune differently. They believed the three Fates decided everyone’s lifespan. At birth, the Fates determined the number of years, days and hours a person would live and then let the clock run.
What happened in between — what events transpired to a person, whether good or bad — was Tyche’s choice.
If you were in a small village when pirates attacked, your fortune had been determined by Tyche, not the Fates. If you were captured by soldiers and enslaved, that, too was Tyche’s doing. These were day-to-day events, and she regulated each.
Tyche, like the Fates, was more powerful than Zeus or the other gods combined. She toyed with events in the god’s lives as commonly as she did hu-man’s. When Hephaistos was thrown off Mt. Olympus by the goddess Hera, it was not his fate as much as it was his misfortune.
Whatever her actions, she was largely indiscriminate, detached and unemotional. She simply did as she wished without a second thought.
Ancient Greek goddess Tyche was sensitive to criticism
Still, Tyche was sensitive to criticism. Aesop writes in one of his fables:
A workman had thoughtlessly fallen asleep next to a well. While he slept, he heard the voice of Tyche, the goddess of fortune, as she stood there beside him.
“Hey you,” the goddess said, ‘“you’d better wake up! If you fall into the well, I’ll be the one that people blame, giving me a bad reputation.
“I’m tired of people blaming me for everything that happens!’”
Aloof to consequences
Tyche was consistently aloof or disinterested in the result of her actions. In one of the most famous tales of the Greek gods, she allows Hades to kidnap Persephone.
Hades, ruler of the Underworld, snatched young Persephone, who was the goddess Demeter’s daughter, to be his queen. Demeter was so distraught that she caused the crops to fail, which Zeus knew would eventually eliminate the human race. If there was no food, he reasoned, there would be no humans left to worship the gods. In a compromise that created the four seasons, Persephone was allowed to return to earth every spring.
The startling part of this tale is that Tyche was Persephone’s friend. They were in a meadow picking flowers with other girls when Hades swept in.
Persephone screamed and fought against him as the chariot disappeared, but Tyche did nothing to stop Hades. Persephone’s fortune was to become his queen.
The Greeks couldn’t figure Tyche out
In time the Greeks partially rationalized Tyche’s actions by claiming she was blind. They said that she couldn’t see what resulted from her choices.
How else could one understand how the wicked and unworthy could prosper?
It was obvious that what Fortune decreed, happened. Even Zeus was rarely able to convince Tyche to make the slightest change to a decision.
Many of us today still try to anticipate the whims of Tyche, but we do so by using fortune telling, Tarot cards, horoscopes or games of chance. Humans have always looked for a sneak preview of what’s to come. Where Tyche was involved, predictions served no purpose — no one could forecast what she would do next.
Patrick Garner is an author, podcaster and artist. In addition to The Naxos Quartet, his four novels about the Greek gods, his breakout podcast, Garner’s Greek Mythology, has listeners in 169 countries.