Greek mythology features many tales of heroic feats and legendary figures achieving the impossible. The stories are nothing short of inspiring, showing the will of mortals and the power of gods. Behind the scenes, Ancient Greeks believed that every event was the work of destiny. According to legend, every mortal and immortal being was the whims of three harbingers of fate.
These figures are appropriately known as the Fates. In the Ancient Greek religion, they were called the Moirai or Moirae. The name roughly translates to “lots, destinies, and apportioners.
Origins of the Fates
Where the Fates originated from and how they came to be is still up for debate. There are at least three different versions of their lineage.
The oldest account is from the Theogony of Hesiod. In this poem, the Fates are the fatherless daughters of Nyx. Nyx is a primordial goddess of the night. She bore several children who would personify many fundamental concepts of the world and life itself. Some popular children include the death spirits, Keres, the personification of death, Thanatos, and the goddess of retribution, Nemesis.
Later on, Plato describes the Fates as the daughters of Ananke. Like Nyx, Ananke was a primordial deity and one of the first beings in existence. However, she was the personification of necessity, compulsion, and inevitably. Considering the role of the Fates, the lineage to Ananke makes sense.
However, most accounts refer to the Fates as daughters of Zeus and Themis. Zeus is the King of the gods and the leader of Mount Olympia. Meanwhile, Themis is the goddess of justice, wisdom, and good counsel.
Who are the Fates?
When people talk about the Fates, they speak of them collectively. However, they are three individual goddesses of fate who personified the inescapability of destiny. They did not just control the fate of humans. Even all-powerful Greek gods had to submit to their will.
Because of their essential role in human and deity lives, many across Ancient Greece feared the Fates. Their purpose was to ensure that every being on the planet lived out the destiny assigned to them by the laws of the universe. They weren’t entirely inflexible, but the Fates did not obstruct destiny. They watched as eternal law took its course.
The Fates first appear three days after the birth of a child. There, they determine how the person or deity lives and dies. Each of the three Fates serves a specific part in determining destiny.
Clotho, or Klotho, was the first of the three sister goddesses. Many know her as “The Spinner.” Her job was to spin the thread of life. It represented a person’s time on the planet, and it was just as delicate as the line itself.
The thread of life came from Clotho’s distaff and went onto her spindle. According to some retellings of the Fates’ stories, she could also use her powers to decide if a being should meet or spare death.
Next is Lachesis, or Lakhesis. In the story, the middle sister is the “Apportioner of Lots” and the “Allotter.” Her purpose was to measure the thread of life spun from Clotho.
To do that, she would use the staff she carried. It acted as a measuring rod that would determine how long a mortal or deity had to live. She effectively figured out their life span.
Finally, there was the oldest sister Atropos. She was sometimes called Aisa. Atropos had many nicknames. In many accounts, she was referred to as “The Inevitable” or “The Unturnable.” Some tense variations also called her “She Who Cannot Be Turned.”
Atropos was the oldest of the Fates. Her sole purpose was to cut the thread of life. In doing so, she would decide how and when the being would die. She carried around cutting shears, representing her role in calling death.
Depictions of the Fates
The Fates were a feared personification of destiny, leading to some interesting works of art. In most instances, artists depicted them as haggard, unattractive old women. They all carried their respective tools to represent their part in determining one’s fate. In many recounts, the three sisters were stubborn, strict, and unchanging.
The story of the Fates inspired many works of art long after the days of Ancient Greece. The famed poet Dante Aligheri included the Fates in “The Divine Comedy.” They appeared in both “Inferno” and “Purgatorio.”
Later, Shakespeare used the legend of the Fates to inspire the Weird Sister characters in Macbeth. They even made a notable appearance in the iconic animated film based on the story of Hercules!
Stories Involving the Fates
Despite their importance, the Fates didn’t appear very often in other myths. Many tales mention them, but the goddesses rarely went beyond the bounds of their duties. There are, however, a couple of exceptions.
The first is the story of Meleager. Meleager went on to accomplish many things in his life. But before that, he was visited by the Fates like any other child. The difference was that the Fates informed his mother, Althaea, that Meleager would only live until a log burning in the hearth burnt to ashes.
Naturally, Althaea put out the fire and hid the log in a chest to keep her son safe. The act worked, but she later used the log against him. After Meleager murdered his brothers, his mother threw the wood into the fire once again. When it turned to ashes, Meleager died.
Another notable story involving the Fates was that of Apollo and Admetus. Admetus was the King of Pherae, who became the favorite of Apollo. When it was time for Admetus to die, the Olympian god tried to get the Fates drunk in an attempt to save him.
He ultimately persuaded the Fates to spare Admetus if he was able to find a substitute. Ademtus’ wife, Alcestis, ultimately sacrificed herself so that Admetus could continue to live. The story is a rare occurrence of the Fates being flexible and obstructing destiny.
The Fates Trivia
- The Fates were known as “The Moirai” to Ancient Greeks.
- The individual names of the Fates are Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos.
- The Fates are the daughters of Zeus and Themis.
- Because of their direct connection to death, the Fates are sometimes referred to as the goddesses of death, of “Moirai Thanatoio.”
- The Fates were independent as they directed a mortal’s fate. Even the gods and goddesses had to submit to them.
- The Roman name for the Fates was Parcae. The Roman equivalents for Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos were Nona, Decuma, and Morta, respectively.
- A similar group of deities appears in Norse mythology. The Norns are a trio that determines the destiny of gods and men, just like the Fates.
- The Fates appear in the works of Hesiod, Homer, and Plato.
- The Fates came the third night after a person’s birth to determine their course of life.
- Artists often depicted the Fates as older women with tools that represented their purpose.
- The Fates had temples in Ancient Corinth, Thebes, and Sparta.
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