“The gods were moved; but none can break the ancient Sisters’ iron decrees.”
In mythology the role of the Fates was to ensure that every being, mortal and divine, lived out their destiny as it was assigned to them by the laws of the universe. For mortals, this destiny spanned their entire lives, and was represented as a thread spun from a spindle. Generally, they were considered to be above even the gods in their role as enforcers of fate.
The Court of the Moirai
The Moirai were independent from the ruling brothers’ kingdoms. At the helm of necessity, they directed fate through sharp foretelling of the Pattern, and watched that the fate assigned to every being by eternal laws might take its course without obstruction. Zeus, as well as the other gods and mortal man, had to submit to them. Lakhesis represented the things that were, Klotho the things that are, and Atropos the things that are to be. The Sisters attended to the thrones of both Zeus and Hades, and their ministers were all soothsayers and oracles. Though their identities were not unknown, the Sisters were nearly always veiled when they went about their work. Thus the sight of a veiled Fate was a fearsome one indeed.
Klotho, The Spinner
“It is through my threads that all life is born.”Klotho
Klotho spun the thread of life from her distaff onto her spindle. At the moment of birth, she created the thread of a person’s lifetime.
In the 6th Age Klotho was a Restorer, could see ta’veren, and foretold important births. It was her which sourced the prophetic return of gods to the Atharim legend: and named one “Apollyon.”
Lakhesis, Apportioner of Lots
“Surely it was in pity of thee [my love] alone that Lachesis prolonged my exhausted term of life.”Statius
Lakhesis measured the direction and length of an individual thread.
In the 6th Age her foretelling was mixed with a pinch of fortune-telling. Her fortunes, when sought by mankind, could guide the course of that person’s destiny, though she did not have the power to change or induce it. With a touch, she could divine images of a person’s past, present and future. She had a sense of connections between people, and could use this to find them.
Atropos, She Who Cannot Be Turned
“Atropos roughly tore the thread of flourishing life.”Statius
Atropos, who was the oldest of the three Fates, was also known as the Inevitable. She was closely related to death since it was Atropos who would choose the mechanism of death. It was her task to end the life of mortals by cutting their thread. She is most frequently represented with scales, a sundial, or a cutting instrument. She led the Moirai and had the final say in their decisions, such as in the case of Meleager.
“There were men fighting in warlike harnesses, some defending their own town and parents from destruction, and others eager to sack it; many lay dead, but the greater number still strove and fought . . . and behind them the dusky Keres, gnashing their white fangs, lowering, grim, bloody, and unapproachable, the beasts struggled for those who were falling, for they all were longing to drink dark blood. So soon as they caught a man overthrown or falling newly wounded, one of them would clasp their great claws about him, and his soul would go to chilly Tartaros. And when they had satisfied their desire for human blood, they would cast the body behind them, and rush back again into the tumult and the fray.
The Moirai, Klotho and Lakhesis were over them and, finally, Atropos less tall than they, a goddess of no great frame, yet superior to the others and the eldest of them. And the Keres beasts all made a fierce fight over one poor wretch, glaring evilly at one another with furious eyes and fighting equally with claws and hands, the fates made no move to stop them, but rather watched on.”
- They assigned to the Erinyes their proper functions, and with them they directed fate according to the laws of necessity.
- They were present at the birth of gods to declare their divine privileges and function, and blessed the births of the new gods Apollo, Artemis, and Athena.
- They ordained heavenly marriages and witnessed the binding of eternal oaths.
- They made declarations on the assignment of countries and nations to the gods, including the gifting of Rhodes to Helios and Kos to Poseidon.
- They presided over the cyclical descent of Persephone into the underworld, and her springtime return. Her passing heralded the revolution of the seasons and symbolised the birth and death of all life on earth.
On rare occasion, the Moirai might release a being from its predestined fate, as they did with the centaur Chiron after her was pierced with Heracles’ arrow. The hero convinced them to relieve him of his immortality to spare his pain.
“Chiron, you, immortal now and destined by your birthright to live on through all eternity, will long to die when you are tortured by the serpent’s blood, that agonizing poison in your wounds; and, saved from immortality, the gods shall put you in death’s power, and the three Goddesses shall unloose your threads of fate.”Ovid
The Fooling of the Fates
“Apollo also obtained from the Moirai a privilege for Admetos, whereby, when it was time for him to die, he would be released form death if someone should volunteer to die in his place.”
Many suitors appeared before King Pelias and tried to woo Alcestis when she came of age to marry. It was declared by her father that she would marry the first man to yoke a lion and a boarto a chariot. King Admetus was able to do this because he was helped by Apollo, who had been banished from Olympus for one year to serve as a shepherd to Admetus. With Apollo’s help, Admetus completed the challenge set by King Pelias, and was allowed to marry Alcestis. But in a sacrifice after the wedding, Admetus forgot to make the required offering to Artemis, therefore when he opened the marriage chamber he found his bed full of coiled snakes. Admetus interpreted it a portent of an early death.
Apollo again helped the newlywed king, this time by making the Moirai drunk, extracting from them a promise that if anyone would offer to die instead of Admetus, they would allow it. And when the day of his death came near, no one volunteered, not even his elderly parents. Alcestis came forward to die in place of her husband.
At the last instant, Heracles arrived at the home of Admetus. When Thanatos came to take Alcestis away, Heracles wrestled him and forced him to return Alcestis, allowing Admetus and Alcestis to be reunited.
The Calydonian Boar Hunt
Meleager led a hunting party to slay the Calydonian Boar, which was set loose upon Calydon by Artemis because she was displeased at the Calydonian king for neglecting to make a proper sacrifice to her. After slaying the boar, Meleager presented the skin to a female member of the party named Atalanta, with whom he was smitten. His uncles were also part of the adventurous group, and they were upset by Meleager’s gift to Atalanta. They believed a female should not have the skin of the boar. As a result of this disagreement, Meleager slew his uncles, who were his mother’s brothers. His mother was so enraged that she decided to take vengeance upon him. She remembered a visit that the Moirai had made a week after Meleager was born, and what she had overheard.
The two sisters Lakhesis and Klotho had been of the mind that the infant should have a glorious future, with lots of fame to follow him into the afterlife. However, Atropos had pointed to a burning log in the fire and claimed that the child would perish as soon as the entire log turned to ash.
Meleager’s mother had promptly extinguished the flames, preserved it and hid it safely. However now, in her rage over the loss of her brothers, she lit the log to punish Meleager. As the log was consumed in flame, Meleager burned to death.
The Birth of Heracles
Hera, the wife of Zeus, is also seen to have had some influence, or at least a friendly relationship with the Moirai, for in the story of the birth of Heracles, Hera gets the Moirai to delay the birth of the son of Zeus, so that Eurystheus could ultimately become the king of Tiryns.
Orpheus and Eurydice
Eurydice died on her wedding night, and her groom Orpheus was distraught. He ventured through the Underworld and pleaded with Hades and Persephone to return her soul to the land of the living. The Underworld gods were sympathetic, so they agreed. However, there was one condition: Orpheus must not look back at Eurydice until he had left the Underworld.
Orpheus agreed to the terms, but just before leaving the Underworld, he glanced back, scared that Eurydice had not made it through the dangers of the Underworld. The glance was final, and Eurydice’s soul had to stay in the afterlife, just as the Moirai had originally planned.