Tyche: Goddess of Fortune

Recently, I finished a fascinating book about the Parthian Empire called The Parthians: The Forgotten Empire, which covered almost every aspect of the Empire and its eclectic culture including religion. The Parthians, originally a nomadic people, inherited a logistical mess from the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire, but somehow made it all work for 400 years until the Sasanian Empire of the Persians defeated them. The Parthians, and their practical, flexible approach allowed them to rule over a very diverse land of many cultures, languages and so on. But that’s a story for another day.

One example cited in the book was the adoption of a goddess from Greek mythology named Tyche. In ancient Greek, her name was Τύχη, which sounds like Tö-hay with a throaty “h” (i.e. like Arabic language). For most of us growing up in Western culture, it’s unlikely you’ve ever heard of Tyche, but her influence eventually eclipsed even the Olympian gods for a long period of human history.

Istanbul Archaeological Museum – Goddess Tyche holding in her arms Plutus (god of wealth) as a child. Hellenistic art, Roman period, 2nd century AD. Picture by : Giovanni Dall’Orto, courtesy of Wikipedia

In the Classical period, including the Archaic period (i.e. the Iliad), Tyche was a minor figure, who would present herself when someone received a boon from the gods. So, at this time, Tyche personified good fortune, especially granted from the gods.

But with the chaos following Alexander the Great’s conquests, and the tremendous upheaval as Alexander’s generals turned on one another during the famous Wars of the Diadochoi,1 people increasingly believed that their lives were at the will of fate and that the gods were either aloof, or didn’t really help. Tyche at this time came to represent the whims of fortune, both good and bad. Tyche could change her mind at any moment, and a person’s fortune could take a turn for the worse, or for the better. Tyche wasn’t really worshiped in the sense of state religion at the time, but was venerated and respected, with the hope that Tyche will rain good fortune down upon a person, a city or a state. Tyche was conflated with the Roman equivalent, Fortuna, as well.

Tyche’s shadow was everywhere in the Hellenistic Period and the Roman Empire (and subsequent European medieval culture), but surprisingly Tyche also shows up in the neighboring Parthian Empire. The Parthians were first and foremost Zoroastrians, and Zoroastrianism flourished during the Parthians, but they were also very tolerant of other local religions, including the Greek colonists who had previously lived in the Alexandrian Seleucid Empire. The Parthians depended on the Greeks in the early years, and adopted Greek language in their coinage, and Greek gods were featured. This flexibility toward the Greeks, the Babylonians and other peoples allowed them the flourish and grow the empire bit by bit, even when the Romans or nomadic tribes tried to defeat them.

However, by the second half of the Parthian Empire, the Parthian rulers were probably more confident in their own culture and began using their own language (which by now had a writing system based on Aramaic), and Greek gods faded from coinage,2 except one: Tyche.

Silver Tetradrachm of Vologases I Enthroned king Vologases I facing left, receiving diadem from Tyche, standing with sceptre. AD 55-56. Photo by akhenatenator, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Because the Parthians were primarily Zoroastrian, Tyche took on a more Zoroastrian tone in the form of Khvarenah, the divine power bestowed upon righteous kings. Further, as with the other Greek gods, the Parthians conflated them with Persian/Zoroastrian deities such as Anahita or Ashi.

Given Tyche’s outsized influence both in Classical, medieval European and Persian culture, it’s a small wonder that she far outlasted the original Olympian gods, and became deeply woven into many cultures across the world. Then again, across time, people have often felt the sting of fortune or misfortune, so it’s a small wonder that people would anthropomorphize this as a deity. Unlike the seven luck gods, Tyche didn’t just grant luck, she embodied it. Even now when we talk about “Lady Luck” the shadow of Tyche still looms over us.

1 The Hellenstic Age Podcast is a great overview of the Wars of the Diadochoi and the subsequent kingdoms that arose. The Wars of the Diadochoi make Game of Thrones look wimpy by comparison. It’s an underrated, but compelling period in Western and Near-Eastern world history.

2 According to the book, the Parthians still used Greek lette rs on their coinage sometimes, but it these were corrupted inscriptions, copies that no one really understood anymore.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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