Tyche: The Greek Goddess of Chance

Human beings have always believed in and indeed relied on the thought of luck or chance. However, this is also a two-sided coin. It has been a terrifying prospect to most people throughout history, the idea that they might not be in full control of their destinies and that some unforeseen circumstance could quite easily derail their lives.

Therefore, it is no surprise that there existed a Greek goddess of luck and chance who also had two faces, the guiding and protective deity looking after one’s fortunes on one hand and the more frightening whims of fate leading to destruction and misfortune on the other. This was Tyche, goddess of fate, fortune, and chance.

Who was Tyche?

Tyche, as part of the ancient Greek pantheon, was a resident of Mount Olympus and was the Greek goddess of chance and fortune. The Greeks believed that she was a guardian deity who looked after and ruled over the fortunes and prosperity of a city and those living in it. Since she was a city deity of sorts, that is the reason that there are various Tychai and they are each worshiped in different cities in different ways.  

Tyche’s parentage is also very uncertain. Different sources quote different Greek gods and goddesses as being her sires. This might be a product of the way Tyche’s worship was so widespread and diverse. Thus, her true origins can only be guessed at.

The Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess of fortune was called Fortuna. Fortuna was a much more conspicuous figure in Roman mythology than her shadowy Greek counterpart ever was in Greek mythology.

Greek Goddess of Chance

Being the goddess of chance was a two-sided coin. According to Greek mythology, Tyche was the embodiment of the whims of destiny, both the positive side and the negative side. She began gaining popularity as a Greek goddess during the Hellenistic period and the reign of Alexander the Great. But she remained significant well afterwards and even into the Roman conquest of Greece. 

Various ancient Greek sources, including Greek historian Polybius and Greek poet Pindar thought that Tyche might be the cause of natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and droughts that had no other explanations. Tyche was believed to have a hand in political upheavals and even victories at sporting events.

Tyche was the goddess you prayed to when you needed a change in your own fortunes and a guiding hand for your own destiny, but she was much larger than that. Tyche was responsible for the entire community, not just the individual in himself.

Goddess of Good Fortune: Eutychia

Not many tales of Tyche exist in ancient Greek mythology, but it was said of those who were very successful in life without having any particular skills or gifts that they were undeservedly blessed by the goddess Tyche. It is fascinating to note that even when Tyche is recognized for good things, it is not to unmixed delight and acclamation. Even wearing the mantle of good fortune, Tyche’s motives seem to be unclear and opaque.

Another name that Tyche was probably known by was Eutychia. Eutychia was the Greek goddess of good fortune. While her Roman equivalent Felicitas was clearly defined as a separate figure from Fortuna, there does not exist any such clear separation between Tyche and Eutychia. Eutychia might very well have been the more approachable and positive face for the goddess of chance.

Etymology

The meaning behind the name Tyche is very simple. It was borrowed from the ancient Greek word ‘Túkhē,’ meaning ‘fortune.’ Thus, her name literally means ‘luck’ or ‘fortune’ in the singular form Tyche. The plural form of Tyche, which is used to refer to her different iconic forms as a city guardian, is Tychai.

Origins of Tyche

As mentioned before, Tyche rose to importance during the Hellenistic period, especially in Athens. But she never did become one of the central Greek gods and has remained a largely unknown figure to modern audiences. While certain cities venerated and revered Tyche and many depictions of her have survived even today, there is not much information of where she came from. Even her parentage remains unknown and there are conflicting accounts in various sources.

Tyche’s Parentage

According to the most reputable source that we do have about Tyche’s parentage, which is the Theogony by the Greek poet Hesiod, she was one of the 3,000 daughters of the Titan god Oceanus and his consort Tethys. This would make Tyche one of the younger generation of Titans who later got incorporated into the later periods of Greek mythology. Thus, Tyche may have been an Oceanid and was sometimes categorized as Nephelai, a nymph of the cloud and rains.

However, there are other sources that paint Tyche as the daughter of some of the other Greek gods. She might have been the daughter of either Zeus or Hermes, the messenger of the Greek gods, with Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Or she might have been Zeus’s daughter by an unnamed woman. Tyche’s parentage has always remained a little hazy.

Iconography and Symbolism

One of the most well-known and popular representations of Tyche is the goddess as a beautiful young woman with wings on her back and a mural crown on her head. The mural crown was a headpiece that represented city walls or towers or fortresses, thus cementing Tyche’s position as a guardian or city deity.

Tyche was also depicted as standing on a ball at times, meant to portray the vagaries of fate and how uncertain one’s destiny was. Since the Greeks often considered fortune to be a wheel that went up and down, it was apt that Tyche was symbolized by the ball as the wheel of fate.

Other symbols of Tyche were the blindfold to show her impartiality in distributing fortunes and the Cornucopia or the Horn of Plenty, which symbolized gifts of fortune, prosperity, wealth, and abundance. In some depictions, Tyche has a plow shaft or rudder in hand, showing her steering fortune one way or the other. It can be seen that the Greeks believed any shift in human affairs could be fairly attributed to the goddess, explaining the vast difference in the fates of mankind.

Tyche’s Association with Other Gods and Goddesses

Tyche has very interesting associations with many other deities, whether they be Greek gods and goddesses or gods and goddesses from other religions and cultures. While Tyche may not actually appear in any myths or legends of her own, her presence in Greek mythology is hardly non-existent. 

Her many images and icons, which are as varied from one another as can be, give us proof that Tyche was worshiped in many regions and through different time periods and not just by the Greeks. In later times, it is believed that Tyche as the benevolent goddess of good fortune was the persona that was more popular. In this form, she was linked with Agathos Daimon, the ‘good spirit,’ who was sometimes represented as her husband. This association with the good spirit made her more a figure of good luck than of chance or blind luck.

Other goddesses that Tyche has become synonymous with in later times are, apart from the Roman goddess Fortuna, Nemesis, Isis, Demeter and her daughter Persephone, Astarte, and sometimes one of the Fates or Moirai.

Tyche and the Moirai

Tyche with the rudder was considered to be a divine presence guiding and navigating the affairs of the world. In this form, she was believed to have been one of the Moirai or the Fates, the three goddesses who ruled the destiny of a man from life to death. While it is easy to see why the goddess of fortune may be associated with the Fates, the belief that she was one of the Fates was most probably an error. The three Moirai had their own personalities and origins, which appear to be well-documented, and Tyche was in all probability not linked with them in any significant way other than the similarity of their job descriptions, as it were.

Tyche and Nemesis

Nemesis, the daughter of Nyx, was the Greek goddess of retribution. She meted out the consequences of a person’s actions. Thus, in a way she worked alongside Tyche as the two goddesses made sure that good luck and bad were distributed in an equal, deserved way and no one suffered for something they should not. Nemesis was considered something of a bad omen as she often worked to check the excesses of Tyche’s gift-giving. Tyche and Nemesis are often depicted together in ancient Greek art. 

Tyche, Persephone, and Demeter

Some sources name Tyche the companion of Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, who roamed the world and picked flowers. However, Tyche could not have been one of Persephone’s companions when she was taken by Hades to the Underworld as it is a well-known myth that Demeter turned all of those who accompanied her daughter that day into Sirens, creatures who were half-bird and half-women, and sent them out to search for Persephone.

Tyche also shares a special connection with Demeter herself as both goddesses are supposed to be represented by the constellation Virgo. According to some sources, Tyche was the mother of the god Plutus, the god of wealth, by an unknown father. But this can be disputed as he is usually known as the son of Demeter.

Tyche and Isis

Tyche’s influence was not confined to just Greece and Rome and spread out quite a bit throughout the Mediterranean lands. Worshiped as she was in Alexandria, it is perhaps not a surprise that the goddess of fortune began to be identified by the Egyptian goddess Isis. The qualities of Isis were sometimes combined with Tyche or Fortuna and she also came to be known as lucky, especially in port towns like Alexandria. Seafaring in those days was a dangerous business and sailors are a notoriously superstitious group. While the rise of Christianity soon began to eclipse all the Greek gods and goddesses, the goddesses of luck were still in popular demand. 

The Worship of Tyche

As a city goddess, Tyche was venerated in many places in Greece and Rome. As the personification of a city and its fortunes, Tyche had many forms and all of them needed to be kept happy for the prosperity of the cities in question. In Athens, a goddess called Agathe Tyche was worshiped alongside all the other Greek gods. 

There were also temples to Tyche in Corinth and Sparta, where the icons and depictions of Tyche all had individual features. These were all different versions of the original Tyche. One temple was dedicated to Nemesis-Tyche, one figure that incorporated the traits of both the goddesses. The mural crown in the Temple to Tyche at Sparta showed the Spartans fighting against the Amazons.

Tyche was a cult favorite and cults to Tyche could be found all over the Mediterranean. That is why the Tychai are so incredibly important to study and know about because Tyche was one of the few Greek gods and goddesses who became popular over a wider region and not just in her Roman avatar of Fortuna.

Ancient Greek Depictions of Tyche

Despite the lack of myths surrounding Tyche, she actually appears in a lot of different kinds of Greek art and literature. Even when she remained unnamed, the specter of Tyche lingered in the Hellenistic romances where the wheel of fortune controlled the plotlines of stories like Daphnis and Chloe, a novel written by Longus during the Roman Empire. 

Tyche in Art

Tyche was depicted not just in icons and statues but also in other art such as on pottery and vases with her mural crown, cornucopia, rudder, and wheel of fortune. Her association with the ship’s rudder further cements her position as an ocean goddess or Oceanid and explains the reverence for Tyche in port towns like Alexandria or Himera, which the poet Pindar writes about.

Tyche in Theater

The famous Greek playwright Euripedes referenced Tyche in some of his plays. In many cases, she was used not so much as a character in herself but as a literary device or a personification of the concept of fate and fortune. Questions of divine motivations and free will formed the central themes of many Euripidean plays and it is interesting to see the ways that the playwright treats Tyche as a rather ambiguous figure. Tyche’s motivations seem unclear and it cannot be proved whether her intentions are positive or negative. This is especially true of the play Ion

Tyche in Poetry

Tyche appears in poems by Pindar and Hesiod. While Hesiod gives us the most decisive indication about whose daughter Tyche actually is of all the Greek sources, Pindar indicates that she is the goddess of fortune who bestows victory during athletic competitions.

Tyche in Coins

Tyche’s image has been found on many coins during the Hellenistic period, especially after the death of Alexander the Great. Many of these coins were found in cities around the Aegean Sea, including both Crete and the Greek mainland. There have been a surprisingly larger number of such coins found in Syria than in any of the other provinces. The coins depicting Tyche range from the highest to the lowest bronze denominations. Thus, it is clear that Tyche served as a shared symbol to many people of varied and diverse cultures and that the figure of the goddess of luck spoke to all of mankind, irrespective of their origins and beliefs.

Tyche in Aesop’s Fables

The goddess of chance has also been mentioned a few times in the Aesop’s Fables. They are stories of travelers and simple people who appreciate the good fortunes that come their way but are quick to blame Tyche for their bad fortunes. One of the most famous fables, Tyche and the Two Roads, is about Tyche showing man the two roads to freedom and slavery. Whereas the first looks difficult in the beginning, it grows smoother towards the end while the reverse is true for the latter. Given the number of stories she appears in, it is clear that while Tyche was not one of the major Olympian gods, she was important to mankind in her own way.

The Tychai of the Hellenistic and Roman Periods

There were certain specific iconic versions of Tyche in different cities during the Hellenistic Period and the Roman Period. The greatest cities had their own Tychai, a different version of the original goddess. The most important ones were the Tychai of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch. The Tyche of Rome, also known as Fortuna, was shown in military dress while the Tyche of Constantinople was the more recognizable figure with the cornucopia. She remained an important figure in the city even into the Christian era. 

The Tyche of Alexandria is the one most associated with naval matters, as she is depicted holding sheaves of corn in one arm and resting one foot on a ship. Her Oceanid legacy is also symbolized in the icon of Tyche in the city of Antioch. There is a figure of a male swimmer at her feet which is supposed to represent the Orontes River of Antioch. 

The figure of Tyche and the coins that she was featured on were also adapted by the Parthian Empire later on. Since the Parthian Empire took a lot of their influences from the Hellenistic period along with other regional cultures, this is not a surprise. However, what is interesting is that Tyche was the only one of the Greek gods whose likeness continued to be in use well into ADs. Her assimilation with the Zoroastrian goddess Anahita or Ashi may have played a part in this.

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