Can we control our fate – or is our destiny carved in stone?

destiny, fate, Colin FalconerIt’s the basic question of life, of all philosophy and religion. Those who believe in Fate say that we only find peace through acceptance and that struggle is futile:

If a man is destined to drown, he will drown even in a spoonful of water.

Others court Luck as if she were there to be wooed – in the words of Frank Sinatra, luck be a lady tonight.

Others say that we can control our own destinies, if we can but unravel life’s mysteries;

“It is we that are blind, not Fortune; because our eye is too dim to discern the mystery of her effects, we foolishly paint her blind, and hoodwink the providence of the Almighty.” (Sir Thomas Browne)

Or as the metaphysicist James Allen would have it: “Man is manacled only by himself; thought and action are the jailers of Fate.”

It is this dilemma that forms the central them of Elizabeth Stroud’s novel, The Wedding Shroud. 

The story is set in 406 BC, when the orphaned daughter of a Tribune is given in marriage destiny, fate, Colin Falconerto an Etruscan nobleman to shore up a shaky truce.

Her new husband, Mastarna, is a battle scarred and world weary veteran twice her age. After they are married he takes her home to Veii, and a totally alien culture, where she is held in contempt by most Etruscans. But her duty to Rome bends her to obedience.

Does she try and change her destiny or is it futile?

destiny, fate, Colin Falconer

photograph: Swiss Museum of Games

Mastarna is a gambler and his tesserae, his dice, make constant appearances throughout the novel. For him, all life is a gamble and he continually tempts Fate. He struggles against it and he is contemptuous of it.

Blind Fortune – or Nortia as she is to the Etruscans – has hurt him so badly he no longer cares if he lives or dies anyway.

Nortia was Fortuna, and she became one of Rome’s major deities.

destiny, fate, Colin Falconer

photograph: Christian Chirita

She was usually depicted holding a cornucopia in one hand, representing her ability to bestow prosperity; in the other she has a ship’s rudder, because she alone controls how lives are steered. Often she was also blindfolded; because good luck does not always come to those who most deserve it.

As Fate would have it, she lost her temples over time – but not her adherents, even after the advent of Christianity. She still appears on card 10 of the Tarot Major Arcana, the “Wheel of Fortune.” We still wish each other luck, some of us wear lucky charms. Most superstition is actually belief in Fortuna.

Ask any gambler.

But it was Rome that identified Fortuna with virtus – strength of character.

Public officials who lacked virtus brought bad luck on themselves and on Rome. destiny, fate, Colin FalconerChristianity took this belief a further step when Saint Augustine railed against Fortune:

“How, therefore, is she good, who without discernment comes to both the good and to the bad?”

Augustus was outraged that bad people should have good luck. It may have been why he and other church fathers invented hell.

Boethius, in his Consolation of Philosophy, written as he faced execution, concluded that even the most random and ruinous events were part of God’s hidden plan, and it was pointless to resist. Fortune must be God’s divine instrument.

God’s instrument or random chance?

destiny, fate, Colin Falconer

Click picture to read more about the Wedding Shroud

Irreversible fate or the consequence of our own action -or inaction?

For all man’s history it remains an underpinning tenet of belief on which no two people seem to exactly agree. From it springs all drama, in fiction and in life.

Throughout The Wedding Shroud Caecilia is forced to choose between confronting her own destiny or accepting it, as a Roman and as a woman. This is not just a clash between two warring states but between two philosophies. The Estrucans are not only in conflict with Rome but with each other.

If the Gods decide our fate – can the Gods be forestalled or even swayed?

 It’s a question each of us face every day.

In the end Caecilia’s own fate hinges on this one irony; that we ultimately meet our destiny on the very road we have taken to avoid it.

destiny, fate, Colin Falconer

photograph: Swiss Museum of Games

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About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
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  1. Trish De says:

    Colin, you’re addressing the most primal of questions here with your usual fearlessness. (I’m a fan of that virtue).

    Augustines objections to superstitions were objections to godless fatalism. His faith would be of course laughable to many but he knew “God will not suffer man to have the knowledge of things to come; for if he had prescience of his prosperity he would be careless; and understanding of his adversity he would be senseless.” Our ‘free will’ is the gift of faith and trust in what put us here (with love and purpose) in the first place.

    If you ever decide to to the alternative Spanish camino “Camino Ignaciano “… the walk that St Ingatius Loyola took in the 16th century from Loyola to Manresa (not far from Barcelona)… make it a group project, (cos I’ll definitely join that walk! It’s a lot easier than the St James walk!)

  2. Julia Robb says:

    Colin, the church fathers did not invent the concept of hell. Christ talked about hell over and over. He used a word meaning destruction, though, not a place of everlasting fire.

  3. I believe that I am in control of myself. However, I also don’t believe in an afterlife, so what I do on this Earth during my time here is all there is.

    …..and another Russel Ray camping trip comes to an end………………..Hope all is well.

  4. Colin, apologies for not commenting sooner as I have been away. I’m pleased the theme of The Wedding Shroud has sparked discussion about this age old dilemma. It was interesting enough when writing from a classical perspective but including Christian philosophy into the mix certainly adds another dimension to the question. And I’m so glad you featured the tesserae. The Etruscans were inveterate gamblers and used dice with numeric symbols rather than dots. (I love historical trivia!) In fact, the sequel is entitled,The Golden Dice, because of Caecilia’s continued struggle to make sense of Fortuna’s purpose.

    • No worries, Elizabeth. I think it’s a very real dilemma for all of us: at the bottom of it all, what do we believe controls our lives? And based on what we think about that is how we make decisions about we’ll live. Did you ever see a movie called The Cooler – it’s set in an Las Vegas casino and it’s a brilliant look at luck and how it works.

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