Moirae, Parcae (Roman)
Hesiod's Theogony, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Homer's Iliad
Daughters of Zeus and Themis
The Fates were three female goddesses who shaped people's lives. In particular, they determined how long a man or woman would live. Although a number of cultures held the notion of three goddesses who influenced human destiny, the Fates were most closely identified with Greek mythology . The parentage of the Fates is something of a mystery. Hesiod described them as daughters of Nyx (pronounced NIKS), the goddess of night, but he also said that they were the children of Zeus (pronounced ZOOS), the chief of the gods, and Themis (pronounced THEEM-is), the goddess of justice.
The Greek image of the Fates developed over time. The poet Homer, credited with composing the Iliad and the Odyssey , spoke of Fate as a single force, perhaps simply the will of the gods. Another poet, Hesiod, portrayed the Fates as three old women. They were called the Keres (pronounced KARE-ays), which means “those who cut off” or the Moirai (pronounced MOY-rye), “those who allot.” They may have originated as goddesses who were present at the birth of each child to determine the course of the child's future life.
Hesiod called the Fates Clotho (pronounced KLO-thoh, “the spinner”), Lachesis (pronounced LAK-uh-sis; “the allotter”), and Atropos (pronounced AY-truh-pos; “the unavoidable”). In time, the name Clotho, with its reference to spinning thread, became the basis for images of the three Fates as controlling the thread of each person's life. Clotho spun the thread, Lachesis measured it out, and Atropos cut it with a pair of shears to end the life span. Literary and artistic works often portray the Fates performing these tasks.
The Romans called the Fates Parcae (pronounced PAR-see), “those who bring forth the child.” Their names were Nona (pronounced NOH-nuh), Decuma (pronounced DEK-yoo-muh), and Morta (pronounced MOR-tuh). Nona and Decuma were originally goddesses of childbirth, but the Romans adopted the Greek concept of the three weavers of Fate and added a third goddess to complete the triad. In addition, they sometimes referred to fate or destiny as a single goddess known as Fortuna (for-TOO-nuh).
A triad of goddesses linked with human destiny appears in various forms in mythology. In addition to the Moirai, the Greeks recognized a triad of goddesses called the Horae (pronounced HOR-ee), who were associated with the goddess Aphrodite. Their names were Eunomia (pronounced yoo-NOH-mee-uh; “order”), Dike (pronounced DYE-kee; “destiny”), and Eirene (pronounced eye-REEN-ee; “peace”). The Norse called their three Fates the Norns: Urth, “the past”; Verthandi (pronounced WURT-hand-ee), “the present”; and Skuld (pronounced SKOOLD), “the future.” Sometimes the Norns were referred to as the Weird Sisters, from the Norse word wyrd, meaning “fate.” The Celts had a triad of war goddesses, collectively known as the Morrigan (mor-REE-gan), who determined the fate of soldiers in battle. The image of a triple goddess may be linked to very ancient worship of a moon goddess in three forms: a maiden (the new moon), a mature woman (the full moon), and a crone (the old moon).
The Fates had power over Zeus and the gods, and many ancient authors, including the Roman poet Virgil, stressed that even the king of the gods had to accept the decisions of the Fates. Occasionally, however, fate could be changed through clever action. According to one myth, Apollo (uh-POL-oh) tricked the Fates into letting his friend Admetus (ad-MEE-tuhs) live beyond his assigned lifetime. Apollo got the Fates drunk, and they agreed to accept the death of a substitute in place of Admetus.
The Fates in Context
The ancient Greeks believed that human lives were ruled by destiny— the idea that a person's path in life has already been decided by the gods, and regardless of whatever action the person might take, the path will not change. Destiny can be seen as a way of explaining why things happen the way they do, despite a person's best efforts to bring about a different outcome. The counterpoint to the concept of destiny is the idea of free will, which holds that people have the power to choose their own paths in life. Whether a person's life is predetermined or under his own control has been the subject of debate for thousands of years.
Key Themes and Symbols
The threads of the loom controlled by the Fates represent the lives of all mortals, and suggest the fragile nature of a person's life. The threads also symbolize how the lives of humans are interwoven.
The Fates in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
In the realm of art and literature, the Fates are somewhat overshadowed by the similar Norse goddesses known as the Weird Sisters. These Norse goddesses appear most notably in William Shakespeare's play Macbeth and Richard Wagner's opera Twilight of the Gods. In recent years, the Fates have appeared in numerous video games and Japanese comics. A modernized version of the Fates appeared in the 1994 Stephen King novel Insomnia, and the Fates also appeared in the 1997 Disney animated film Hercules. More recently, the Fates appeared in Rick Riordan's 2005 novel The Lightning Thief.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
The ancient Greeks believed in the power of the Fates to control human destiny. Many people still believe that things happen because of “fate.” Others argue that if every person left their futures up to fate, no one would ever strive to accomplish anything unless they were assured to be successful. Do you think the path of humans is largely beyond their individual control, based instead on the environment and conditions in which they live? Or do you think any person is capable of achieving any goal, regardless of their circumstances? Is it possible to subscribe to both these beliefs, to a certain degree?