The Fates: Greek Goddesses of Destiny

We’d like to think we are in control of our own fate. That we – despite the vastness of the world – are able to determine our own destiny. Being in control of our own destiny is the root of newer spiritual movements nowadays, but are we really in control?

The ancient Greeks didn’t quite think so. 

The Fates – originally called the three Moirai – were the goddesses responsible for the destiny of one’s life. The extent of their influence over the other Greek gods is debated, but the control they exercised over the lives of humans is incomparable. They predetermined one’s fate all while permitting the individual to make their own faux decisions throughout. 

Who were the 3 Fates?

The three Fates were, above all, sisters. 

Also named the Moirai, meaning “portion” or “a share,” Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos were the fatherless daughters of the primordial deity Nyx in Hesiod’s Theogony. Some other early texts attribute the Fates to Nyx and Erebus’ union. This would make them siblings to Thanatos (Death) and Hypnos (Sleep), along with a slew of other unpleasant siblings. 

Later works state that Zeus and the goddess of divine order, Themis, were the parents of the Fates instead. By these circumstances, they would instead be the siblings of the Seasons (Horae). The birth of the Seasons and the Fates from Zeus’ union with Themis acts to establish a baseline for natural law and order. Both Hesiod and Pseudo-Apollodorus echo this particular understanding of the Fates.

As one can tell, the origin of these weaving goddesses varies based on the source. Even Hesiod appears to get a bit caught up in the genealogy of all the gods. 

By the same extent, the appearance of the three goddesses varies just as greatly. Even though they are usually described to be a group of older women, others have their appropriate ages reflect their role in a human life. In spite of this physical variety, the Fates were almost always shown to be weaving and donning white robes.  

Did the Fates Share an Eye?

I love Disney. You love Disney. Unfortunately, Disney isn’t always an accurate source. 

In the 1997 film Hercules there are plenty of things to have gripes about. Hera being Heracles’ actual mother, Hades wanting to take over Olympus (with the Titans no less), and Phil scoffing at the idea that Herc was Zeus’ kid. One more to add to the list is the representation of the Fates, who Hades consulted in the animated feature.

The Fates, three haggard, frightening deities were shown to be sharing an eye. Except, here’s the catch: the Fates never shared an eye. 

That would be the Graeae – or the Grey Sisters – daughters of the primordial sea gods Phorcys and Ceto. Their names were Deino, Enyo, and Pemphredo. Besides these triplets sharing an eye, they also shared a tooth.

Yikes – mealtimes must’ve been a hassle. 

Usually, the Graeae were thought to be incredibly wise beings and, as is the thing in Greek mythology, the more blind one was the better worldly insight they had. They were the ones to reveal to Perseus where Medusa’s lair was after he had stolen their eye. 

What were the Fates Goddesses of?

The three Fates of ancient Greece were the goddesses of destiny and of human life. They also were the ones who managed a person’s lot in life. We can thank the Fates for all of the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

Their influence over the wellness of one’s life is reflected in Nonnus’ epic poem, Dionysiaca. There, Nonnus of Panopolis has some sublime quotes referencing “all the bitter things” that the Moirai spin into a life’s thread. He also goes on to drive the power of the Fates home:   

“All that are born of mortal womb are slaves by necessity to Moira.”

Unlike some gods and goddesses of Greek mythology, the name of the Fates explain their influence quite well. After all, their collective and individual names left no room for questions on who did what. The three played a vital role in maintaining the natural order of things by creating and measuring the thread of life. The Fates themselves represented the inescapable destiny of mankind.

When a child was newly born, it was up to the Fates to decide their life course within three days. They would accompany by the goddess of childbirth, Eileithyia, attending births throughout ancient Greece to make sure everyone got their proper allotment. 

By the same token, the Fates relied on the Furies (the Erinyes) to punish those who have committed evil deeds in life. Due to their conflation with the Furies, the goddesses of destiny were occasionally described as “ruthless avenging Fates” by the likes of Hesiod and other writers of the time. 

What do Each of the Fates do?

The Fates had managed to streamline human life. Although no Ford assembly line, each of these goddesses had some say over the lives of mortals to make it as easy-breezy of a process as possible. 

Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos determined the quality, length, and end of a mortal life. Their influence began when Clotho began to weave the thread of life on her spindel, with the other two Moirai falling in line. 

Furthermore, as triple goddesses, they represented three uniquely different things. While together they were inescapable destiny, each of the Fates individually represented stages of one’s life.

The triple goddess, “mother, maiden, crone” motif comes into play in a number of pagan religions. It is reflected with the Norns of Norse mythology, and the Greek Fates certainly fall into the category as well.

Clotho

Described as the spinner, Clotho was responsible for spinning the thread of mortality. The thread that Clotho spun symbolized one’s life span. The youngest of the Fates, this goddess got to determine when someone was born as well as the circumstances of their birth. Clotho is furthermore the only one of the Fates that is known to grant life to the unliving.

In an early myth concerning the cursed origins of the House of Atreus, Clotho violated natural order at the behest of the other Greek gods by bringing an individual back to life. The young man, Pelops, was cooked and served to the Greek gods by his cruel father, Tantalus. Cannibalism was a big no-no, and the gods really hated being tricked in such a way. While Tantalus was punished for his hubris, Pelops would go on to find the Mycenaean Pelopid Dynasty. 

Artistic interpretations usually show Clotho to be a young woman, as she was the “maiden” and the beginning of life. A bas relief of her exists on a lamppost outside of the United States Supreme Court. She is portrayed as a young woman working at a weaver’s spindel.

Lachesis

As the allotter, Lachesis was responsible for determining the length of the thread of life. The allotted length to the thread of life would go on to influence the life span of the individual. It was also up to Lachesis to determine one’s destiny. 

More often than not, Lachesis would discuss with the souls of the dead who were to be reborn which life they would prefer. While their lots were determined by the goddess, they had a say on whether they’d be a human or an animal. 

Lachesis is the “mother” of the trio and thus oftentimes depicted as an older woman. She was not so time-worn as Atropos, but not as youthful as Clotho. In art, she would be oftentimes shown wielding a measuring rod that would be held up to a length of thread. 

Atropos

Between the three sisters, Atropos was the coldest. Known as the “Inflexible One,” Atropos was responsible for determining the manner of which someone died. She would also be the one to cut the individual’s thread to end their life. 

After the cut was made, a mortal’s soul was then lead to the Underworld by a psychopomp. From their judgment onwards, the soul would be sent to Elysium, the Asphodel Meadows, or to the Fields of Punishment. 

Since Atropos is the end of one’s life, she is frequently depicted as an old woman, bitter from the journey.  She is the “crone” of the three sisters and described to be blind – either literally or in her judgement – by John Milton in his 1637 poem, “Lycidas.” 

…the blind Fury with th’abhorred shears…slits the thin-spun life…

Like her sisters, Atropos likely was an extension of an earlier Mycenaean Greek daemon (a personified spirit). Called Aisa, a name that means “portion,” she also would be identified by the singular Moira. In artwork, Atropos holds imposing shears at the ready. 

The Fates in Greek Mythology

Throughout Greek myth, the Fates subtly play their hands. Every action made by adored heroes and heroines have been plotted out before by these three weaving goddesses. 

While it could be argued that the Fates are indirectly a part of most every myth, a handful stand out. 

Apollo’s Drinking Buddies

Leave it to Apollo to get the Fates drunk so he could get something he wants. Honestly – we’d expect such from Dionysus (just ask Hephaestus) but Apollo? Zeus’ golden son? That’s a new low. 

In the tale, Apollo had managed to get the Fates drunk enough to promise that at the time of his friend Admetus’ death, if anyone was willing to take his place, he could live longer. Unfortunately, the lone person willing to die in his stead was his wife, Alcestis. 

Messy, messy, messy. 

When Alcestis enters a coma on the verge of death, the god Thanatos comes to take her soul to the Underworld. Only, the hero Heracles owed Admetus a favor, and wrestled with Thanatos until he was able to get Alcestis’ life back. 

The Fates must’ve made a note somewhere to never let that sort of thing happen again. At least, we would hope so. It isn’t really the best idea to have those deities responsible for the lives of mortals to be inebriated on the job.

The Myth of Meleager

Meleager was like any new born: chubby, precious, and having his fate determined by the three Moirai. 

When the goddesses prophesied that little Meleager would only live until the wood in the hearth was burnt, his mother jumped to action. The flame was doused and the log was hidden from sight. As a result of her quick-thinking, Meleager lived to be a young man and Argonaut. 

In a short time skip, Meleager is hosting the fabled Calydonian Boar Hunt. Amongst the heroes participating are Atalanta – a lone huntress that was suckled by Artemis in the form of a she-bear – and a handful of those from the Argonautic expedition. 

Let’s just say Meleager had the hots for Atalanta, and none of the other hunters liked the idea of hunting alongside a woman. 

After saving Atalanta from lusting centaurs, Meleager and the huntress killed the Calydonian boar together. Meleager, claiming that Atalanta drew first blood, rewarded her the hide. 

The decision peeved his uncles, Heracles’ half-brother, and some other men present. They argued that since she was a woman and didn’t end the boar alone, she didn’t deserve the hide. The confrontation ended when Meleager ended up killing several people, including his uncles, for their insults towards Atalanta. 

Upon discovering that her son killed her brothers, Meleager’s mother put the log back in the hearth and…lit it. Just as the Fates said, Meleager dropped dead. 

The Gigantomachy

The Gigantomachy was the second most tumultuous time on Mount Olympus after the Titanomachy. As we are told in Pseudo-Apollodorous’ Bibliotheca, it all happened when Gaia sent the Gigantes to dethrone Zeus as retribution for her Titan spawn. 

Honestly? Gaia just hated having things locked up in Tartarus. The saddest part was that it always happened to be her kids. 

When the Gigantes came knocking on Olympus’ gates, the gods miraculously rallied together. Even the great hero Heracles was summoned to fulfill a prophecy. Meanwhile, the Fates did away with two Gigantes by beating them with Bronze maces.  

The ABC’s

The final myth we’ll review is the one dealing with the invention of the ancient Greek alphabet. The mythographer Hyginus notes that the Fates were responsible for inventing several letters: alpha (α), beta (β), eta (η), tau (τ), iota (ι), and upsilon (υ). Hyginus goes on to list a handful more myths surrounding the creation of the alphabet, including one that lists Hermes as its inventor.  

Regardless of whoever created the Greek alphabet, it is impossible to deny the early Phoenician influence present. Historically, the Greeks likely adopted Phoenician scripts sometime in the late 9th century BCE after extensive contact with Phoenicia through trade. 

Did the Gods Fear the Fates?

We know the control the Fates had over the lives of mortals. Everything was decided at the time of birth. But, how much control did the three Fates excise over the immortals? Were their lives also fair game?

Such has been argued for millenia.  And, the answer is completely up in the air. 

Of course even the gods had to obey the Fates. This meant no meddling in the life span of mortals. You couldn’t save someone that was meant to perish, and you can’t kill someone that was meant to survive. These were already huge restrictions held over otherwise powerful beings that could – if they will it – grant others immortality.

The video game God of War establishes that their Fates controlled – to an extent – Titans and gods. However, their most power was over mankind. While this is not the most steadfast evidence of the Fates’ power, similar ideas are echoed in classical Greek and later Roman texts.

This would mean that the Fates were, to a degree, responsible for the promiscuity of Aphrodite, the wraths of Hera, and the affairs of Zeus. 

Therefore, implications exist that Zeus, King of the Immortals, had to obey the Fates. Others say that Zeus was the only god that were able to bargain with the Fates, and that was only sometimes.

Don’t worry, folks, this isn’t some divine puppet government, but the Fates did likely have an idea of the choices the gods would make before they made them. It just came with the territory. 

The Fates in Orphic Cosmogony

Ah, Orphism. 

Ever coming out of left-field, the Fates in Orphic cosmogony are the daughters of Ananke, the primordial goddess of necessity and inevitability. They were born from the union of Ananke and Chronos (not the Titan) in serpentine forms and marked the end of the reign of Chaos. 

If we were to follow Orphic tradition, the Fates only ever consulted Ananke when making their decisions. 

Zeus and the Moirai

There is still a debate of the extent of the control the Fates have over the rest of the Greek gods. However, while almighty Zeus had to comply with fate’s design, there is no where that states that he couldn’t influence it. When all was said and done, the guy was the king of all the gods. 

The concept of the Fates were still alive and well in both Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, with their will being obeyed by even the gods, who had to stand idly by as their demi-god children were slain in the Trojan War. It was what their destiny had in store for them. 

Every single god obeyed. The only one tempted to defy the Fates was Zeus.

In the Iliad, fate gets complicated. Zeus has tons more control over the life and death of mortals, and much of the time he has the final say. During the duel between Achilles and Memnon, Zeus had to weigh a scale to determine which of the two would die. The only thing that allowed Achilles to live was Zeus’ promise to his mother, Thetis, that he would do what he could to keep him alive. It was also one of the biggest reasons why the deity was not supposed to pick a side. 

The massive influence over destiny Zeus had in the Iliad was likely because of him being known as the Leader, or the Guide, of the Fates.

Now, this is not without mentioning the vagueness of the Fates in Homer’s works. While direct spinners are referenced (Aisa, Moira, etc.) other areas make note that all Greek gods had a say in a man’s destiny. 

Zeus Moiragetes

The epithet Zeus Moiragetes crops up from time to time when acknowledging Zeus as the father of the three Fates. In this sense, the supreme deity was the “Guide of the Fates.” 

As their apparent guide, all that the old women designed were done with Zeus’ input and agreement. Nothing was ever put into play that he did not wish to be in play. So, although it is acknowledged that only the Fates can bring one’s destiny to fruition, the king had extensive input. 

At Delphi, both Apollo and Zeus held the epithet Moiragetes

Are the Fates More Powerful than Zeus?

Continuing off of the intricate relationship Zeus has with the three Moirai, it is fair to question what their power dynamic was. It cannot be ignored that Zeus is a king. Politically, and religiously, Zeus had more power. He was the supreme deity of ancient Greece after all. 

When we especially view Zeus as Zeus Moiragetes, there is no doubt about which gods were stronger. As a Moiragetes, the god would be the editor of a person’s fate. He could dabble as much as his heart desired.

However, the Fates could have possibly had a means to influence his and other gods’ choices, decisions, and paths. All the heartaches, affairs, and losses would be a small part leading to the gods’ larger destiny. It was also the Fates that convinced Zeus to kill Apollo’s son, Asclepius, when he began raising the dead. 

In the instance that the Fates can’t influence the gods, they can still decide the lives of mankind. While Zeus can feasibly bend man to his will if he so wished, the Fates didn’t have to go to such drastic measures. Mankind was already inclined to their choices. 

How were the Fates Worshipped?

Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos were worshipped largely throughout ancient Greece. As the makers of fate, the ancient Greeks acknowledged the Fates as powerful deities. Additionally, they were venerated alongside Zeus or Apollo in worship for their roles as their guides.

It was thought that the Fates, through their relation to Themis and associations with the Erinyes, were an element of justice and order. For this reason, it isn’t much of a surprise that the Fates were fervently prayed to in times of suffering and strife – especially that of which is widespread. An individual hitting a low could be excused as a part of their fate, but a whole city suffering was viewed to be likely from the scorn of a god. This is reflected in Aeschylus’ tragedy, Oresteia, specifically in the chorus of “Eumenides.” 

“Ye too, o’ Fates, children of mother Night, whose children too are we, o’ goddesses of just award…who in time and in eternity do rule…honored beyond all Gods, hear ye and grant my cry…”

Furthermore, there was a known temple to the Fates at Cornith, where the Greek geographer Pausanias describes a statue of the sisters. He also mentions that the temple of the Fates is near a temple dedicated to Demeter and Persephone. Other temples of the Fates existed in Sparta and in Thebes.

Altars were further established in the Fates’ honor at temples dedicated to other deities. This includes sacrificial altars at temples in Arcadia, Olympia, and Delphi. At the altars, libations of honied water would be preformed jointly with the sacrifice of sheep. The sheep tended to be sacrificed in a pair.

The Impact of the Fates in Ancient Greek Religion

The Fates acted as an explanation as to why life was the way it was; why not everyone lived until a ripe old age, why some people couldn’t seem to escape their suffering, so on and so forth. They weren’t a scapegoat, but the Fates did make mortality and the highs and lows of life a bit easier to understand. 

As it was, the ancient Greeks accepted the fact that they were only allotted a finite amount of time on Earth. To strive for “more than your share” was frowned upon. Blasphemous, even, as you begin to suggest that you know better than the divines. 

Furthermore, the Greek concept of an unavoidable destiny is one of the pillars of a classic tragedy. Whether one liked it or not, the life they were leading in the moment was predetermined by higher powers. An example of this can be found in Homer’s Greek epic, the Iliad. Achilles left the war by his own free will. However, fate determined that he was to die young in battle, and he was brought back into the fray after the death of Patroclus to fulfill his destiny.

The biggest takeaway from the Fates’ involvement in Greek religion is that, despite there being forces beyond your control, you could still make conscious decisions in the now. Your free will was not entirely stripped away; you were still your own being. 

Did the Fates have Roman Equivalents?

The Romans equated the Fates of ancient Greece with their own Parcae. 

The three Parcae were thought to be originally birth goddesses who were responsible for the span of a life as well as their assigned strife. Much like their Greek counterparts, the Parcae did not force actions upon individuals. The line between fate and free will was delicately tread. Usually, the Parcae – Nona, Decima, and Morta – were only responsible for a start of a life, the amount of suffering they’d endure, and their death. 

Everything else was up to the individual’s choice.

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