The Fates – or Moirai – are a group of three weaving goddesses who assign individual destinies to mortals at birth. Their names are Clotho (the Spinner), Lachesis (the Alloter) and Atropos (the Inflexible). In the older myths, they were the daughters of Nyx, but later, they are more often portrayed as the offspring of Zeus and Themis. In Orphic cosmogony, their mother is said to have been Ananke or Necessity. Either way, they had enormous power and even Zeus was unable to recall their decisions.
The Fates were originally called Moirai in Ancient Greece. The word moira means “share” or “portion” of something, whether meal, land, or victory spoils (compare this with the English word “merit” from the Latin meritum, “a reward”). By extension, Moirai means “The Apportioners,” i.e., the ones who give to each his own (portion of life). The Moirai’s Roman counterpart were the Parcae, probably because the Romans confused the origin of their name, thinking it stems from pars which is the Latin translation of moira; it’s actually derived from parere, “to bring forth,” which explains why the Parcae were initially birth spirits, and also why the Romans weren’t so far off when they merged them with the Moirai.
The Fates have at least three different genealogies, two of which go way back to Hesiod. In his “Theogony,” the poet first informs us that the Fates are the fatherless daughters of Nyx, the Night, only to later describe them as daughters of Zeus and Themis, and, thus sisters of the Horae, Eunomia, Dike, and Eirene. Both genealogies make sense: in the first case, the Moirai are linked through Nyx with Death, and in the second they are clearly associated with the unchanging order of things. At a later date, in the Orphic cosmogony, the Fates got a new mother: Ananke, or Necessity.
Consistently portrayed as three women spinners, each of the three Fates had a different task, revealed by her very name: Clotho spun the thread of life, Lachesis measured its allotted length, and Atropos cut it off with her shears. Sometimes, each of the Fates was assigned to a specific period of time: Atropos – the past, Clotho –the present, and Lachesis – the future.
The representation of the Fates evolved through time, and it seems that it often depended on the medium through which they were portrayed. Thus, in the visual arts, they were usually depicted as handsome women, but in literature, they are often imagined as both old and ugly. Any case, they are almost always pictured as weaving or binding thread. Sometimes, one – or all – of them can be seen reading or writing the book of fate.
It’s difficult to say whether Zeus had anything to say in the matters of the Fates, but, to the Ancient Greeks, it seems that even he wasn’t able to overrule their decrees.
Thus, even though at one point during the Trojan War he is aware that his beloved son Sarpedon will die at the hands of Patroclus, Zeus can do nothing to save him. Just as well, before the duel between Hector and Achilles, the All-Powerful God merely weighs their destinies on his golden scales and learns the outcome, as opposed to having any control over it.
However, the Fates and Zeus seem to have an understanding between each other at all times, their friendship going way back to the Gigantomachy. During it, the Fates killed the Giants Agrius and Thoas, clubbing them to death with bronze cudgels. They helped Zeus even more when they tricked Typhoeus into eating some power-weakening fruits, which they successfully persuaded him to do by convincing him to believe in the opposite.
The Fates do not appear that frequently in myths. True, they are usually portrayed attending the births of both mortals and gods, but, all in all, they rarely need to intervene in anyway whatsoever. There are, however, two interesting exceptions.
The only time the Fates said anything to a mortal was at the birth of Meleager when they informed his mother Althaea that her son would live until a log, then burning in the hearth, was burnt entirely to ashes. Naturally, Althaea put the log away in a chest and kept it safe for many years. However, when Meleager murdered her brothers (i.e., his uncles) after a quarrel over a boar skin, she threw the log into the fire, thus killing her son. Afterward, out of remorse and despair, she killed herself as well.
Only once were the Fates deceived by someone, and that someone was none other than Apollo. Upon learning that Admetus, his favorite, was destined to die, Apollo got the Fates drunk and persuaded them to spare Admetus’ life if he was able to find a substitute. He didn’t. But Admetus’ wife, Alcestis, ever the epitome of faithfulness and love, voluntarily stepped forth and ultimately saved her husband’s life.
Compare the Fates’ genealogies in Hesiod’s “Theogony” by reading the relevant excerpts here and here. As for the story of the Fates and Admetus, you can find it in Aeschylus’ “Eumenides” – here and here.
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