Often referred to as The Fates, the Moirai are a group of goddesses in Greek mythology who watch over every life. They collect the threads of each life, make sure that it follows fate’s plans, and cut the threads to end a life. The Moirai are destiny incarnate, and they are some of the only forces who hold power over both gods and mortals. The three Moirai — Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos — have distinct roles, yet all three serve as the guardians of fate and destiny.
Clotho’s name means “spinner”. As the three Fates collect the threads of each life, Clotho is the one who spins the threads that determine the life’s path. She chooses who is going to be born and determines some of the major events in their lives. Gods and mortals alike are subject to Clotho’s decisions, even on Mount Olympus. In classical art, Clotho carries her spindle and is sometimes seen sitting down while her two sisters stand.
Lachesis’s name means “disposer of lots”. After her sister spins the threads, Lachesis is the Fate who measures out each life. She determines how long the thread will be and chooses their destiny after their birth. In classical art, Lachesis carries a measuring rod and stands between her sisters.
Atropos’s name means “the unturnable”. After each thread has been spun and measured, Atropos was the Fate who was responsible for cutting the threads. She was often called “the Inflexible One” because of her grim role in deciding when each life would end. In classical art, Atropos carries a pair of shears, which she uses to snip the threads and end a destiny.
In pre-Greek mythology, the Moirai were represented by a single goddess, Aisa or Moira. This goddess was responsible for spinning, measuring, and cutting the threads of life. As Greek mythology began to expand, however, the three Moirai took her place. However, they retained her name as a sign of pre-Greek influence on Ancient Greek culture.
In older myths, the Fates were the daughters of Nyx, the Greek goddess of night. Later, they became known as the daughters of Zeus and Themis, the female Titan who served as the personification of order and law. Later still, the Moirai were the daughters of Ananke, the personification of inevitability and necessity.
Even though the Moirai play such an important role in determining the fates of heroes, they don’t appear in a great number of myths. They are often in attendance when a god or hero is born, but they very rarely intervene to protect or hurt an individual. Their job is to observe, to measure, and to snip the threads at the end of each life.
The power of the Moirai varies throughout Greek mythology. As personifications of fate and destiny, they hold some level of power over even the Olympian gods. However, Zeus is referred to as “the leader of the Fates” in some ancient writings. Despite this title, when Zeus learns that his beloved son is going to die in the Trojan War, he is powerless to stop his son’s fate. Even the king of the gods must bow to the decision of the Moirai, and his son dies.
Some scholars have suggested that Zeus’s role as “leader of the Fates” was never meant to imply that he could change their minds. Instead, his role as the most powerful deity meant that he knew what the Moirai had ordained, but could not stop them or influence their decisions.
When the Moirai do appear in myths, it usually is because they are being asked to intervene in the fate of a specific mortal. In the myth of Tantalus, a king kills and cooks his own son to serve to the gods. Once the gods realize what Tantalus has done, they turn to Clotho for her help in saving the son’s life. Because Clotho spins the threads of life and determines when each life starts, she is able to bring the son back to life. Tantalus is found guilty and sentenced to eternal punishment.
In the story of Alcestis and Admetus, a queen comes to the Moirai when her husband is deathly ill. She gets the three goddesses drunk and persuades them to let her husband live and take another substitute in his place. The Fates agree, but no one is willing to take the king’s place until his wife offers herself and dies as he recovers.
Finally, in the story of the Calydonian Boar Hunt, the Moirai make their usual appearance at the birth of a hero. They tell his mother that her child will live until a log in the fireplace turns to ash. The mother snatches the log out of the fireplace and is able to ensure her son’s safety as long as she protects the log.
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