Tyche was the Greek goddess of chance and was known as Fortuna by the Romans. According to Greek poet Hesiod (fl. 800 BCE), Tyche was the daughter of the Titans Oceanus and Tethys, although other writers claimed that Zeus (king of the gods) was her father.
The ocean has always been notoriously unpredictable, and its mythological inhabitants shared in its fickle nature. Tyche, whose name can be translated as "chance," "fortune", "fate", "success", "destiny," or "luck," belonged to a small group of deities such as Eros (god of love) whose names described their functions. While Tyche was recognized as a goddess fairly early, her personality did not develop until quite late, during the Hellenistic period (323–30 BCE). At that time cities and officials adopted Tyche as their patron deity, and people made dedications and sacrifices at her shrines.
Tyche was associated primarily with good luck. She was depicted as a female wearing a turreted crown and carrying a horn of plenty in one hand and a ship's rudder in the other. The crown of city walls symbolized the fact that she directed cities' destinies, the horn represented the prosperity she brought, and the rudder symbolized fortune. Tyche's rise in popularity after the classical period (in Athens this was about 479–338 BCE) signified the extent to which the Greeks believed that chance governed their lives.
Like most people, the Greeks desired to understand their world, both to control it and to render it less arbitrary and frightening. The Olympian gods were the earliest systematic attempt to account for everyday events.
Tyche was the default explanation for anything that was not attributable to these deities. It was no contradiction for Tyche to mean both "chance" and "fate." In Greek thought, fate was unstoppable. Fortune was the revelation of that fate, and destiny was the fulfillment of that fortune. When fortune was beneficial, it was called luck or success, and when not, it was chance.
While early writers sometimes personified Tyche as a goddess, most of the time they referred to an impersonal tyche. One of the earliest mentions of Tyche was in the 12th Olympian ode of Greek poet Pindar (c. 522–c. 438 BCE), which celebrated an athletic victory. In the poem Pindar called Tyche the daughter of Zeus, unlike Hesiod's genealogy, which made Tyche and Zeus cousins. Perhaps Pindar wished to imply that Zeus had some sway over Tyche, and that the universe was under his control and was not subject to the whims of chance.
Tyche was entirely absent from the epics of Greek poet Homer (c. ninth–eighth century BCE), simply because there was no need for a goddess of chance in Homer's world— everything in his stories developed under the careful providence of other deities.
In the Greek dramas, Tyche occasionally engineered unexpected outcomes—an unforeseen reprieve or a sudden catastrophe. She was often addressed euphemistically, as if by naming her "kindly" or "savior" she might be persuaded to bring good luck instead of bad.
Greek comic dramatist Menander (c. 342–c. 292 BCE) called Tyche a blind goddess, although this description may have referred more to her indiscriminate ways than to her physicality. Tyche delivers the prologue in Menander's play The Shield, announcing that she plans a surprise ending.
Hellenistic historian Polybius (c. 200–c. 118 BCE) used Tyche to explain otherwise inexplicable historical events. Tyche also presided over human affairs in Greek novels, which date from the Roman period (after 30 BCE). In these, Tyche personified the chaotic world: pirate raids, slavery, shipwrecks, mistaken identities, and chance occurrences. The novels are equally ambivalent about how to cope with Tyche. In some, another god overrides her mischief; others reduce her to the expression "by chance." Tyche represented the unknown, and people alternately appeased and disparaged her as human hopes rose and fell.
Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428–c. 348 BCE) identified Tyche as the spontaneous cause of divine actions, and his pupil Aristotle (384–322 BCE) conceived of her impersonally as spontaneity itself. The philosophical schools that grew out of Platonic and Aristotelian thought, notably Stoicism and Epicureanism, dealt particularly with the problem of chance. The Stoics defined Tyche as "a cause unclear to human understanding," suggesting that her workings would be logical to a higher intelligence. The Epicureans adopted a mechanistic view of the universe—in their view there was no such thing as chance, and even seemingly random occurrences could be explained by the movement of matter.
There were three famous ancient Greek statues of Tyche, now lost—two by Praxiteles (370–330 BCE) and one by Eutychides (third century BCE).
See also: NYMPHS; OCEANUS; ZEUS.
- Bulfinch's Mythology. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2006. .
- The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
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