The ancient Greeks believed that much of life was preordained. Oracles, guided by the gods, could see the threads of fate and prophesize the future.
Fate was supposedly set at birth, or shortly after it, by three goddesses. Working with other deities, the Moirai set the length of a person’s life by spinning, measuring, and cutting its thread.
The three weaving goddesses was a well-known image in Greco-Roman culture. While the goddesses themselves were sometimes seen in different ways, their endless weaving was a constant.
The Greeks and Romans, however, were not alone in this view of fate. The goddesses of fate were one of the most enduring motifs in European religion.
In Greek mythology, the span of a person’s life was controlled by three goddesses. The Moirai, or Fates as they are known in English, wove the threads of fate on a great loom.
The three Fates were sisters. They were given different parents in various traditions including Zeus and Themis, Chronos, Ouranos, and Nyx.
Clotho, “The Spinner,” 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.
Lachesis, “The Drawer of Lots,” measured each thread. Finally Atropos, “The Unturning,” cut each thread at the appointed length, setting the person’s death.
The most important role of the three Fates was to ensure that each person lived the correct portion of life that was assigned to them. The time of birth, the length of life, and the time of death were their domains.
Eventually, however, the three Fates came to be seen as having more influence over the events of a person’s life as well. Because they could see the entire length of the thread, it was believed by many that they were also oracular goddesses who could foretell what would happen along its length.
This idea came to be personified in a singular goddess of fate, Moira. She was often accompanied by the three spinners, but her role was distinct from theirs.
The way in which the three Fates were described and pictured changed often throughout history. Some people saw them as old crones, others as beautiful maidens, and some as women representing the three ages of life.
The Greeks often thought of fate as unchangeable, but this was not always the case.
The Moirai answered to Zeus, who had the power to change the length of a thread and where it was cut. Even in the moments before Atropos snipped the thread, Zeus could intervene to make it longer.
Along with Zeus, the Moirai could also command the Erinyes, or Furies.
These vengeance spirits were sent to torment those who committed particularly grave crimes. The Moirai could command them to go after murderers, who had violated fate by prematurely severing another person’s thread.
As agents of Zeus, the main purpose of the three Fates was to ensure that all lives were measured according to natural law. Avoiding one’s fated lifespan or changing that of another person was a violation of the natural order and a direct offense against the gods.
They also worked closely with Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth. She was thought to have a hand in setting a child’s fate when he or she came into the world.
Some scholars believe that the moment of birth was originally the most important part of the Fates’ mythology. Marriage rites in Athens, for example, included the bride sacrificing a lock of hair to the three Fates in the hopes that they would spin long threads for her future children.
Death was even more closely linked to the three Fates than life. They were sometimes conflated with the Keres, female death spirits who were particularly drawn to bloody deaths in battle.
The earliest versions of the Moirai seem to have been specifically linked to the fate of men in battle. The Greek idea of fate, however, expanded to include all lives.
The three Fates are featured in Greek mythology, but they were hardly unique.
The idea that fate was controlled by a group of goddesses, specifically weavers, was common in many Indo-European traditions. Some scholars consider it to be one of the defining characteristics of European belief.
The English name for the Moirai comes from their Roman counterparts, the three Parcae, who were sometimes called the Fata. Because Roman mythology was directly influenced by the Greeks, however, the fact that they had almost identical goddesses is to be expected.
The Norse, however, were not strongly linked to the Greeks. By the time Viking Age culture was at its height, the far-off empires of Greece and Rome had long since declined.
The Norse people had their own three goddesses of fate, however. The Norns were very similar to the Greek Moirai.
In Norse sagas, the Norns sometimes arrived at the birth of a hero to directly shape his destiny. They, too, were seen as inevitable goddesses who were unswayed by most mortals and gods.
The Norns were not as directly described as weavers as the three Fates were in Greek mythology, but the association seems to have existed. They were volvas, or witches, who among humans often used a distaff as their symbol.
Both this vague symbolism and the later influence of Greco-Roman culture to the south led to the Norns being pictured as weavers just as the Fates had been. They are often described as the Norse Fates instead of by their native name.
In the Baltic, the Deives Valdytojos, or Governing Goddesses, were also weavers. There were seven of them who made clothing from the threads of people’s lives.
Some of the Deives Valdytojos had the same roles as the three Fates did in Greek and Roman mythology. There were goddesses among them who specifically spun, measured, and cut the threads of fate.
In Slavic mythology, a group of three goddesses determined each child’s fate when it was born. While they were not described as weavers in surviving literature, non-natives immediately likened them to the three Fates.
Many other cultures had trios of goddesses who were linked to fate, birth, or death in some way. The Celtic Matrones, the Irish Morrigan, and the Hutena of the Hurrian culture were all examples of this motif.
The fact that so many cultures throughout Europe and the Near East had goddesses of this type would seem to indicate that it was a very ancient and well-established archetype. The idea of goddesses weaving the threads of fate may be one of the oldest in Western culture.
The Moirai, or Fates, were three goddesses of destiny in ancient Greek religion. Their duty was to preserve the natural order of life and death.
To do this, the three sisters controlled the threads of a person’s life. Clotho spun it out at birth, Lachesis measured it, and Atropos cut it at the time of death.
While fate was often thought of as set, the three goddesses of Fate served Zeus. As the god of law, he had the power to change the length of any thread he chose.
The three Fates were influential in Greek thought, but they were not uniquely Greek goddesses. Many cultures had similar personifications of fate.
The Norns, for example, were nearly identical to the Moirai. The Norse goddesses of Fate were often pictured in the same way as their Greek counterparts.
From the Near East to Ireland, many cultures had trios of goddesses who determined fate, many of which worked with thread. The widespread motif was likely one of the oldest archetypes of Indo-European religion.