The Three Fates by Sodoma

The Three Fates: Destiny’s Deities of Ancient Greece and Rome

(Read the article on one page)

The ancient Greeks believed that many aspects of a person’s life were determined by the three mythical women known as Fates.  These were three sister goddesses that appeared in Greek and Roman mythology and were believed to have “spun out” a child’s destiny at birth.  They determined when life began, when it ended, and everything in between.  At the birth of each man they appeared spinning, measuring, and cutting the thread of life.  However not everything was inflexible or pre-determined.  A man destined to become a great warrior one day could still choose what he wanted to do on any given day.  The gods could simply intervene with decisions that could be helpful or harmful.  In a sense, they controlled the metaphorical life of every mortal born.

‘Alexander the Great and the Fates’ by Bernardino Mei

‘Alexander the Great and the Fates’ by Bernardino Mei ( Wikimedia Commons )

Known as Moirai or Moerae in Greek Mythology and Fata or Parcae by the Romans, the Fates were comprised of three women often described as elderly, stern, severe, cold and unmerciful.  Their names in Greek were Clotho, (“the spinner”), Lachesis (“the apportioner”) and Atropos (“the inevitable”).  The Roman names for them were Nona, Decuma and Morta.  While Greek portrayal of these deities was that of grave and busy maidens, Romans often showcased them as being mean or denying humans their hopes and desires.  

Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. ‘The Three Fates’ by Paul Thumann

Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. ‘The Three Fates’ by Paul Thumann ( Wikimedia Commons ).

The first Moirai goddesses, Clotho, meaning spinner, spun the thread of life.  She is depicted as a maiden and is often seen carrying a spindle or a roll (the book of Fate).  Lachesis, meaning unbending, measured the thread of life which determined how long one would live.  She appeared as a matron with a staff with which she points to the horoscope on a globe.  Atropos meaning “inexorable” or “inevitable” was the cutter of the thread of life and appeared as a crone.  She chose the manner of each person’s death and when their time was up, cut their life-thread with shears.  The smallest of the three, she is also characterized as the most terrible.  In various accounts, the three goddesses are shown with staffs, scepters or wearing crowns as symbols of dominion.  They all lived in Zeus’s palace on Mount Olympus.

At the birth of a boy, the Moirai spun out the thread of his future life, followed his steps, directing the consequences of his actions according to the counsel of the gods.  The Fates did not interfere in human affairs directly but availed themselves of intermediate causes, and determined the lot of mortals conditionally.  Man was allowed to exercise a certain influence upon them.  As man's fate was determined at his death, the goddesses of fate became the goddesses of death, ‘Moirai Thanatoio’.

‘The Fates’ by Claude Dalbanne

‘The Fates’ by Claude Dalbanne ( Wikimedia Commons )

It is likely that Moirai controlled the fates of both mortals and gods alike and they have even been described as being more powerful than the gods.  Homer wrote in the Iliad, “it was the will of fate that the Greeks destroy Troy, when Rumor and Panic caused the Greeks to want to flee. Aeneas was fated to go to Italy, despite the best efforts of Hera. Hera's actions in attempting to defy fate led to a premature death of Dido, the queen of Carthage. Since her thread was not cut to so short a length, she would not die even though a dagger had pierced her breast.”  While Zeus reigned as the supreme Greek deity, he was subject to the decisions of the Fates and the driver of destiny rather than the source of it.   However, Zeus, if he chose, had the power of saving those who were already at risk of being seized by their fate. 

Zeus weighing the fate of man by Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard, 1793

Zeus weighing the fate of man by Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard, 1793 ( Wikimedia Commons )

The personification of fate as the Moirai, is first clearly described in Hesiod's epic poem the Theogony (ca. 700 B.C.E.).  Hesiod presents the Moirai as the daughters of Zeus and the goddess Themis.  They are imagined as working the womanly task of spinning - drawing out a thread of yarn that represents each person's life.  Into the thread may be woven sorrow, wealth, travel and the like.  It is uncertain who the parents of the Morai were.  In some myths, they were the daughters of Zeus and the Titan goddess  Themis, the goddess of divine order.   Some say they were the daughters of Erebus (Darkness) and Nyx (or of Zeus and Themis).  In some instances, they were related to Ananke, the personification of necessity. 

Comments

Any info/links to sources with info on the Roman equivalent of the Fates? (I'm doing a project and I need the help) Thanks!

In the article on the Fates why weren't the Norn's of Scandinavian cosmology represented?

Good point! I'm guessing because this article is about the Greek and Roman counterparts. Maybe the Norse counterparts are elsewhere.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

The two lozenges found at the Bronze Age burial site Bush Barrow
Stonehenge, the prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England is famous throughout the world and it remains today a place of extreme reverence. The monument is constructed from huge megalithic stones, some standing, some stacked upon one another and all many millennia old. The stones circle is world renown and it is an iconic image.

Myths & Legends

Golden Age By Juan Carlos Barquet
The myth and folklore of ancient cultures speak of a vast cycle of time with alternating dark and golden ages; Plato called it the Great Year. Most of us were taught that this cycle was just a myth and the golden age, just a fairytale. Giorgio de Santillana, former professor of the history of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA, tells us this idea of a cycle went far beyond Greece and India. In their landmark work, Hamlet’s Mill

Human Origins

Ancient Places

Odysseus at the court of Alcinous
The mythological Alcinous and his kingdom have remained one of the most mysterious and elusive topics of ancient Greek literature. Not much is known of this foreign monarch, or at least not much has survived the test of time. Details of the ruler and his kingdom survive only in the journeys of both Odysseus and Jason, but do those details reflect a now perverted form of reality?

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article