The ancient Greeks thought that the divinities knew everything including what would happen in the future. The Fates laid out a plan for each person at birth that was fixed and unchangeable. The Fates carried out the divine plan of Zeus by drawing lots and tying the resulting allotments into threads of life for each mortal born. These threads are woven together, actually knotted at different points and in different ways. Then the fabric of life is cut off at death and the end of life for that mortal.
A lottery is supposed to be a way a group of people have an equal chance to gain something valuable. The Fates use a lottery to distribute the goods and bads of the world to every mortal born. In a bag are placed tokens of these goods and bads. Before a person is born a number of these tokens are drawn out. In a normal lottery this would be a random event. But in the case of the Fates their knowledge of the future and the past allow them to draw tokens that suit the divine plan of Zeus. A mortal can repeat the same process and this is sometimes done to enable the mortal to prophesy the future. But when a mortal does this the result is just a random selection. The only exception to this is when the mortal has obtained the favor of some deity. Then the deity has the power to cause the tokens to be drawn in a way that reveals true prophesy. Many priests and others have claimed to be able to secure the favor of a deity and obtain a true prophesy. Persons in ancient Greek literature who have been described as having this power inlude: Calchas son of Thestor, Cassandra, Chryses, Iamus, Idmon, Lampon, Melampus, Mopsus, Tiresias, and Melampus. The literature about ancient Greece refer to these as seers. They are essentially prophets. They are not shaman only because the Greek religion is not considered shamanism.
The Fates, Lachesis, Clotho, and Atropos, are the daughters of the Goddess of Necessity, Themis and Zeus. Themis is the goddess of divine law. Clotho is a spinner, Lacheis a weaver, and Atropos the one who cuts the cloth. I do not have a picture of the three fates but here is a spinner: Click here
And here is a weaver: Click here
This could be Atropos getting ready to cut: Click here
There are three fates because the ancient Mycenaeans tripled goddesses. In some cases the goddess is represented as three identical images side by side. Though it is more common that the three represent three aspects of one. Artemis, for example, can be represented by Artemis, Hera, and Hecate, which would correspond to youth, maturity, and old age as aspects of one person. The Fates, or Moirae in Greek, have a similar relation. Lacheis, the disposer of Lots, assigned each man to his destiny. Clotho, the spinner, spun the thread of life. Atropos, she who could not be turned, who carried “the abhorred shears” cut the thread at death. It is suggested that the tripling is the result of a ceremony in three parts. The nature of the Fates is consistent with this.
One of the unusual aspects of Greek religion is that the deities could know what the fates had determined, but they were powerless to change it. But the thread of life seems to be woven with several alternate paths and it seems that the deities could switch the path of a mortal to a different path without conflicting the Fates. The process of preparing the thread of life involves three steps:
- The drawing of lots. This seems to be like what is done with runes. The runes are an alphabet with each letter carved on a wooden button. Each letter is associated with a possible event type. The buttons are placed in a bag and drawn out one by one. The order and nature of the ones drawn are used to determine the future. Runes can be directly translated to Greek letters which can be treated similarly. Though it seems as though the thread of life could consist of buttons strung together, the Fates may have made their tokens out of embroidery. This is suggested by the emphasis on weaving in the names of the fates. The name ‘Lachises’ is believed to be related to the Hindi word ‘lākh’, ‘to obtain’ and ‘lankhanein’ which translates as to ‘obtain by lot’ in Hindi. One can hypothesize a Indo-European root but it seems not to be available.
- The lots are spun, woven, or knotted together. The name ‘Clotho’ suggests this. It seems like ‘Clotho’ was originally ‘klou-dhe’ and was derived from Indo-European ‘klou’, ‘to bend’ and ‘dhe-1’, ‘To set or put’. Spinning involves a bending of fibers in a way that keeps them that way and so this derivation is consistent with the understood meaning of the name.
- Finally the thread is finished by being cut. This repesents the time of death for the mortal. The name ‘Atropos’ suggests this as it can be derived from the Indo-European ‘ne-‘, ‘not’ and ‘trep-2’, ‘To turn’.
The Fates are sometimes credited with the development of the alphabet because of the way the lots are constructed by using symbols for types of events. But it could not be the Greek alphabet that we know today as that was borrowed from the Phoenicians. It is not likely that it was linear B since that was borrowed from the Minoans. Maybe it was a hieroglyphic alphabet that they invented. But they were probably eager to adopt the other ones as the Linear B was easier than the hieroglyphics, and the Phoenician is easier than the Linear B. Literacy was high during classical Greek times partly because people wanted access to the alphabet for religious reasons such as prayers, curses, and prophesy as discussed here. We often speak of Fates writing the book of life.
The Iliad has a number of references to fate. The relation between Achilles and his mother Thetis is strained by the fact that she is a goddess and can see his fate but she can do nothing about it. He is aware of his fate through his mother but seems to choose glory and action over anything that his mother wants. F. M. Cornford, in his book From Religion to Science explains that the concept of moira(fate) and dike(right) turned into the notion of scientific law.
The etymology of the word ‘fairy’ reveals that the Fates seem to have been transformed to Fairies. It seems as though a fairy sighting was early on a premonition of some sort, perhaps of a death. As a result we might expect Fairies to be weavers as well.
The Fates (Μοῖραι) or Spinners (Κλῶθες)
- Lachesis – Λάχεσις – The disposer of lots from Hindi ‘lākh’, ‘to obtain’ and ‘lankhanein’ which translates as ‘obtain by lot’
- Clotho – Κλωθώ – The spinster from Indo-European ‘klou’, ‘to bend’ and ‘dhe-1’, ‘To set or put’
- Atropos – Άτροπος – ‘The inflexible one’ from Indo-European ‘ne-‘, ‘not’ and ‘trep-2’, ‘To turn’
Moirae – Μοῖραι – means ‘allotment’ and may be derived from the Indo-European ‘(s)mer’, ‘To get a share of something’.
To ask a question about this topic note the topic (Fates) and Click here
Questions and Answers
Question: more information re shared eyeball
Answer: The Graie, sisters of the Gorgons, had the shared eyeball.
Question: who did the fates deal with
Answer: The fate of all humans was dealt out by the Fates, but the fate could not be altered by the Gods. Not everything was fated though, so the gods could modify fate without conflicting it. Humans had to deal with what fate alloted, though within their experience there was always room for choice. Gods were aware of all fate, but men could know only what the gods choose to reveal, and then only a small muddled portion.
Question: Where do the Fates live?
Answer: in Zeus’s palace on Mount Olympus.
Question: Are there ancient Greek dramas in which the Fates are given featured roles?
Answer: Normally the Moirae did not communicate with mortals and this would preclude their involvement in a role in a drama. One possible exception is the drama Pleuroniai by Phrynichos. Even though they are crucial to the dramas Oedipus and Prometheus they have no role.
Question: what do they think about destiny?
Answer: The Fates do not think about destiny, they control it. The ancient Greeks believed that many aspects, even the most important events, in a person’s life were determined by the Fates. The Fates wove out a person’s fate at the beginning of their lives. This was a person’s destiny. But not everything was woven into a person’s destiny. A person might be destined to be a great wrestler, but they could choose what to eat for breakfast. The breakfast might leave the person weak so on that day he loses the wrestling match and still go on to be a great wrestler. Not even the gods could affect a person’s destiny, but they could help with small decisions that could be helpful. The god’s also know a person’s destiny, but they cannot reveal it to a human unless it is in a coded form. Usually a priest was needed to interpret the code.
Question: what important 5 powers do the fates have?
Answer: Why five? The realm of the fates was the inescapable destiny of man. One power is to determine that destiny. Another power is to prophesy, but this is a power of every other deity as well. As goddesses they also have the power to move through space and change their shape, though they are usually pictured as old women.
Question: Why do you think they were depected as women and not men?
Answer: They are derived from a culture where the most important deities were women.
Question: Why three fates. Why not one or any other number?
Answer: The ancient Greeks tended to triple goddesses. This is believed to be a result of a ceremony with three steps. It has also been suggested that this resulted from the Mycenaean culture which might have had three classes of people.
Question: What are their symbols?
Answer: A spindle, a ruler, and a shears or scissors.
Question: Which letters of the alphabet did the Moirai invent?
Answer: All of them.
Question: What are additional names for the three Fates?
Question: earliest known writings on fates?
Answer: Both Homer and Hesiod mention the Fates.
Question: What is the relationship between Odyseeyus and the Fates and Athena?
Answer: Neither Odysseus, nor Athena can modify the Fates’ decrees.
Question: are the fates considered gods
Answer: The fates are goddesses.
Question: Did the three Fates share only one eyeball
Answer: No. It was the Graeae that shared one eyeball (and one tooth). This is part of the myth of Perseus and Medusa.
Question: what is the relation betwwen fate and justice?
Answer: Fate and justice both deal with laws but of different kinds. Fate deals with laws of nature which are defined by the gods and unchangeable by mortals. Mortals can know the law and use them to their advantage. Mortals are completely determined by natural causes and controlled by them. Justice is a system of laws that deals with the choices that mortals can make. The idea of justice is to punish when choices are bad. Fate determines what is. Justice dedermines what should have been.
Question: I need some good pictures of each Fate. Can you help me?
Answer: A little. Here: showing the Moirai and the chariot of Hermes and Maia
Question: Did they have any connection with Hades?
Answer: Lachesis is mentioned in the tenth book of the Republic of Plato as the daughter of Necessity. She instructs the souls who are about to choose their next life, assign them lots, and presents them all of the kinds, human and animal, from which they may choose their next life. Obviously this happens in Hades.
Question: Who is the shaman of the fates?
Answer: ‘Shaman’ is not a concept that applies very well to ancient Greeks but it must be said that the function of a Shaman was accomodated. The ancient Greeks had priests and priestesses who performed these functions. It is not clear that there were any priests or priestesses assigned to the Fates themselves however. Augury, which involves the interpretation of the flights, chattering or singing of birds, was a common method of foretelling the future, but other methods were used. An oracle, which was actually a babbling priestess, could also be used. Priests would make an interpretation that would reveal fate. But any of the gods and goddesses had knowledge of fate and a priest or priestess would not have to be associated with a particular deity. The oracle at Delphi was associated with Apollo, for example.
In the Iliadbook one, line 10 Homer uses the word ‘ἀρητήρ’ to describe Chryses as being a priest. In this context he acts as a shaman.
Question: so what do they do towards humans, are they able to walk with them i need some help
Answer: The Fates are aloof from humans. They lay out the fabric of existence establishing fixed points that anchor humans in physical reality. The Greeks were aware of the predictability of reality and were anxious to establish causes so they could control reality to their own benefit. They realized that some causes were beyond their control and even beyond the whims of the devine. But they thought other causes were controlled by the Gods. Finally, they knew that man had choices that could be made even though they were limited. The Fates laid out what was beyond anyone’s control. But the Greeks had a sense that if you knew what was fated, you might be able to take advantage of what was fated. They turned to the divinities to provide this information even though they had to receive it in encrypted form.
Question: are the norns in northern mythology like the fate in greek mythology? and is it true that every religon or beleif that life is lived by three? (ex.. the trinity; past, present, future;moirai;norn, and so on)
Answer: The Norns and Fates are similar. There are many other numbers that are important besides three. 4 directions, 12 hours, 9 muses, etc. There is a theory that in ancient Greece there was a ceremony with three parts that each needed a divinity. This ceremony was so useful that it divided a number of the divinities into three. Three fates, three graces, three charities, etc. The Muses were divided into three twice so there are nine. Some of the threes were later separated like Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera in the Judgement of Paris. Some were seen as one or three depending upon the circumstances such as Artemis consisting of Artemis, Selene, and Hecate( girl, woman, and crone). Some lost their third as with Demeter and Persephone. Most of the Triplets are women but Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades form such a triplet.
The number three is also often associated with the phases of the moon. The ceremony requiring three priestesses is initiation: unintiated, transition, initiated. This corresponds to life, death, and afterlife and maiden, marriage, and mother.
Question: who do the fates hang out with?
Answer: Nyx, Anake, the Horae, the Erinyes, Tyche, and Aphrodite Urania
Question: who do they fall in love with?
Question: who do they hate?
Answer: Hate is too strong but they are most unlike Hermes.
Question: who are they most likely adversary?
Answer: Mortals who cannot accept their fate.
Question: do they have any children?
Answer: None known
Question: who are their parents?
Answer: Themis and Zeus, or Erebus and Nyx, Cronus and Nyx, Oceanus and Gaea, or Zeus and Anake.
Question: how do they behave?
Answer: The are formidable older women who are depicted lame to suggest the slow march of fate.
Question: What were the major turning points in th Fates life?
Answer: The Moirae (Fates) did not live in the ordinary sense, as they were immortal. So strictly they did not have turning points. As with the other ancient Greek deities they were born to a certain realm, the destiny of man, and they maintain this realm forever. But the concept of the Moirae has changed over time. Originally there was one, then two, and then finally three were recognized. Their parents are not clearly identified but it seems most reasonable to say they are daughters of Zeus. This is because the destiny of a man is part of the divine plan of Zeus and the Moirae can then be seen as carrying out the divine plan of Zeus. So the major event in their divine life could be their birth to their realm of maintaining the destiny of man. Some unusual events include when Apollo induced the Moirae to grant Admentus delivery from death, if at the hour of his death his father, mother, or wife would die for him. Also an attempt was made by the Moire and Eileithyia to delay the birth of Heracles. Every oracle and soothsayer can be considered a priest or priestess of the Moirae because they attempt to interpret destiny in order to change it.