Who were the Fates (the Moirai) in Greek and Roman Mythology?
The Fates, from the Roman, Fatae, were the three goddesses known to the Greeks as the Moerae (the Moirai). Their origins are uncertain, although some called them daughters of night. However, it is clear that at a certain period, they ceased to be concerned with death and became instead those powers that decided what must happen to individuals.
The Greeks knew them as Clotho (“the spinner”), Lachesis (“the allotter”) and Atropos (“the inevitable”). The late idea was that the Fates spun a length of yarn that represented the allotted span for each mortal.
Although Zeus was the chief Greek god, he was still subject to the decisions of the Fates and thus the executor of destiny rather than its source. Hence the great importance to both gods and humans of oracles which indicated the inevitable drift of events. In mythology, however, the Fates played a little direct part.
Please note that in this article, we will be referring to the Fates in countless areas as the Moirai and vice versa.
The Origins of the Fates (the Moirai)
Clotho “the spinner”, Lachesis “the allotter”, and Atropos “the inevitable”. Three names that might not mean a whole lot to most people, but these make up the three sisters of Fate—the Moirai or the Moerae if you want the Greek pronunciation.
The sisters were the children of Zeus and Themis, which does explain their gift of prophecy. They may not be the same thing as the Oracles, but they played an important part in helping their mother decide the future of humanity.
However, there is some discussion of Nyx perhaps being the mother of the sisters, but Themis seems to be the goddess that most poets agree on—and they controlled what was known as the thread of life.
When man was created, they began to spin this thread. It would then be measured and cut, which predicted someone’s life from birth to death. It followed all of the steps they took, all the actions they made in their life, and all the consequences that then followed. It was essentially prophesying every human life that was symbolized by pieces of thread.
Once you reach the end of a thread, that symbolizes the end of that individual’s life, and this was thought to be a very rigid system that could not be cheated nor changed unless you were Zeus, of course.
His relationship with his daughters meant that he could extend or shorten the life of his allies and enemies. The Moirai themselves would rarely intervene in human affairs, nor did they choose who died and how. Humans still had the freedom to influence the details of their death. The sisters of fate just knew when someone’s time had come to an end.
The Fates Accompanies
They were often accompanied by several deities and spirits and using the laws governed by their mother, Themis, and they would assign the appropriate entity to one’s death.
- If you were destined to die a gruesome death in battle, then they would send the Keres.
- If you committed crimes against humanity and the gods, they would ensure that the Erinyes were dispatched to inflict the correct punishment.
- The same can also be said for birth, as they were accompanied by Eileithyia, one of the goddesses of labour and childbirth.
What Do the Fates Look Like?
In terms of appearance, they can sometimes appear as young women, but most of the time, they were more your stereotypical Crones—ugly old hags who would be seen measuring and cutting the threads of life.
Sometimes, all three sisters were shown with sceptres and crowns, and other times, they had varying trinkets from scales and sundials to wax tablets and scrolls.
They were mentioned by numerous poets and did feature in several stories outside of their main duties. They took part in the war between the Giants and the gods, even killing two giants known Agrius and Thoas with the bronze clubs.
Now, this is something that I definitely found rather amusing—the image of three elderly women who could barely walk, beating Giants to death with maces that they could probably just about carry.
The Fates in Myths of Greek Mythology
The Fates helped Zeus Against Typhon
There is also some mention of the Fates in relation to Typhon. When Zeus was in pursuit of Typhon, the Fates deceived him by offering him the fruit that would make him stronger. The fruit, of course, had no effect and did nothing but by Zeus the time needed to find Typhon.
The Birth of Heracles
One of the few times that we see the Moirai intervene in the affair of mortals is at the command of Hera, who orders them to stop Heracles from being born. With aid from Eileithyia, Heracles’ mother, Alcmene, is stuck in an endless birthing process.
However, Alcmene’s Midwife, Galanthis, visits the Moirai, telling them that it is the will of Zeus that Heracles must be born. This distracted them long enough for Heracles to be born, but the Midwife would pay quite a steep price for deceiving the gods.
The sisters transformed her into a weasel for her deceit, but this wouldn’t be the end of the punishment. In order to mate, she would have to be mounted through the ears, and she would give birth through her throat—essentially vomiting out children. Quite a grotesque punishment, and one which shows the Fates should not be trifled with.
But I guess you also have to give it to them for creativity. It also wasn’t all bad for the Midwife turned weasel, as the goddess Hecate took pity on her and made her one of her sacred followers.
The Moirai are an interesting combination of prophecy in life and death. They have an extremely important role that other deities may not necessarily be trusted to perform, and for the most part, they do remain impartial.