The Wheel of Fortune, Fortuna and St Catherine

At the end of every year people start putting wreaths on their doors. Scandinavians began this tradition to commemorating another turning of the Wheel and the start of a New Year.

The Wheel of the Year, is a circle illustrating that time revolves back to its point of origin, and that every ending is a new beginning.

Medieval society had a strong belief in aspects of mysticism Fortuna's wheel and St Catherine's Wheel are strong examples of this. Fortuna’s Wheel (Rota Fortunae) known by some is an ancient and medieval philosophy that refers to the constant changing nature of fate. It is a wheel that is owned and spun by Fortuna. It can change individual places on the wheel at random, thus determining their “fate.” One can be blessed one day and find themselves in great need another.

The Tarot card Wheel of Fortune depicts this concept, that what comes up, must come down, and no one is impervious of the wheel. Pictured here is the Wheel of Fortune card from the Tarot of the Saints by Robert M. Place, published by Llewellyn (from the Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery. It depicts St. Catherine, whose feast day is November 25.   

St. Catherine, whose feast day is November 25, her legend is pretty gruesome, as are many stories about martyred saints. For refusing to marry an emperor, she was condemned to be placed on a contraption of wheels designed to tear her apart and because of this, Catherine is matron saint of all who use a wheel, spinners (and spinsters!), potters and the like. She is considered to be the Christian version of many goddesses of the wheel including; Arianrhod (Celtic) starr goddess whose name means 'silver wheel, Fortuna (Roman) goddess associated with the Wheel of Fortune and, Kali (Hindu), whose emblem is, like St. Catherine's, the fiery wheel.

Saint Catherine was a fourth century martyr, one of the most important saints in the religious culture of the late Middle Ages,

There are  Medieval traditions such as the Golden Legend told that St Catherine of Alexandria, an essentially legendary figure from Late Antique Egypt, was sentenced to be executed on one of these devices for refusing to renounce her Christian belief, which thereafter became known as the Catherine wheel, also used as her iconographic attribute. The wheel miraculously broke when she touched it; she was then beheaded.[20] As an aspect it is usually shown broken in a small version beside her.

The most prominent Western shrine was the monastery in Rouen that claimed to house Catherine's fingers. Catherine shrines became important pilgrimage sites in Canterbury and Westminster, which claimed a phial of her oil, brought back from Mount Sinai by Edward the Confessor.

(1) The very first relics of Saint Catherine in Western Europe were thought to have been brought by a monk from Sinai who arrived in Normandy in the early eleventh century to collect what seem to have been annual contributions to the monastery made by the dukes of Normandy. It was a Norman church in Rouen that was to make the claim, nearer the middle of the eleventh century that the bones in their possession had come directly from Sinai with the illustrious Symeon of Trier.

So it was that the relic cult of Saint Catherine in the West got its start at Rouen. It was to spread widely, from Normandy to England as early as the eleventh century,

(2) According to the popular tradition, Catherine was born of a patrician family of Alexandria and from childhood had devoted herself to study. Through her reading she had learned much of Christianity and had been converted by a vision of Our Lady and the Holy Child. When Maxentius began his persecution, Catherine, then a beautiful young girl, went to him and rebuked him boldly for his cruelty. He could not answer her arguments against his pagan gods, and summoned fifty philosophers to confute her. They all confessed themselves won over by her reasoning, and were thereupon burned to death by the enraged Emperor. He then tried to seduce Catherine with an offer of a consort's crown, and when she indignantly refused him, he had her beaten and imprisoned. The Emperor went off to inspect his military forces, and when he got back he discovered that his wife Faustina and a high official, one Porphyrius, had been visiting Catherine and had been converted, along with the soldiers of the guard. They too were put to death, and Catherine was sentenced to be killed on a spiked wheel.

When she was fastened to the wheel, her bonds were miraculously loosed and the wheel itself broke, its spikes flying off and killing some of the onlookers. She was then beheaded. The modern Catherine-wheel, from which sparks fly off in all directions, took its name from the saint's wheel of martyrdom. The text of the <Acts> of this illustrious saint states that her body was carried by angels to Mount Sinai, where a church and monastery were afterwards built in her honor. This legend was, however, unknown to the earliest pilgrims to the mountain. In 527 the Emperor Justinian built a fortified monastery for hermits in that region, and two or three centuries later the story of St. Catherine and the angels began to be circulated.

1) Robert Fawtier, “Les reliques Rouennaises de sainte Catherine d’Alexandrie,”  Analecta Bollandiana 41 (1923),

2) From "Lives of Saints", Published by John J. Crawley& Co., Inc.

Anne Marie Bouchard

January 2015

Saint Catherine. Fresco from Church of Saint Anthony, Palaiochora, Kythera, Greece. Byzantine, 15th century. Byzantine Collection, Livadi, Kythera.
You can see her wheel beside her. The wheel remained a prominent part of her iconography.