If we were to reduce Greek mythology to its key ingredients, we’d have heroic quests, shapeshifting characters, vengeful Gods, bloody battles...and some super intense love stories.
These tropes appear again and again throughout the Greek mythical universe.
But there’s three shadowy figures running the entire show.
Possessing powers even greater than the Gods, the Fates determine the destiny of every shapeshifting, quest-weary, lovesick mortal.
It’s rare for the Fates to make a sustained appearance in any myth – but once you know how to look for them, they’re everywhere.
Today, you might associate them with the crones of Disney’s Hercules.
But these characters actually blend the Fates with the Graeae, a trio of sisters who served the gorgons and shared one eye and one tooth between them.
The real Fates keep their body parts to themselves, but they did preside over life and death.
A closer look at their role unlocks an underlying logic of Greek mythology – and raises important questions about power, free will, and the human condition that remain relevant today.
The Fates were the fatherless offspring of Nyx or Night, a primordial force in her own right who was greater than any God.
Nyx produced a variety of abstract concepts – I mean, children – including Death, Doom, Sleep, and Dreams.
And none were so powerful as the three sisters known as the Fates.
The Fates spent every day spinning.
Their thread was the line of life itself, a snip of their scissors signaled death.
In Greek they were known as the Moirai, from the Greek word for share or portion.
Appropriate for those who cast lots to determine every human’s fate..
The scholar Hyginus wrote that the markings on the Fates divination stones were the first appearance of the vowels in the Greek alphabet, reinforcing the idea that we owe a whole lot to the Fates.
Within the trio, each Fate had her own role.
When a baby was born Klotho, or “the spinner,” spun the thread of their life.
She was armed with a spindle and a small loom, which was also called the book of Fate.
Lachesis, or the apportioner, determined the length of the lifeline.
Her tools were a measuring staff and a globe upon which she charted people’s fates.
Atropos, whose name meant “the inflexible”, chose the cause of death.
And when the time came, she severed the thread of life.
With her ominous scissors and scale of judgement, she’s probably the most feared of the three.
Unsurprisingly, the Fates have long been associated with the march of time.
Aristotle imagined Klotho spinning out the present moment, Lachesis determining the future, and Atropos presiding over a past that cannot be changed.
They’ve also been portrayed in many different guises and stages of life.
Plato imagined them as young women sitting on celestial thrones, singing in harmony, but they have also been visualized as three older women.
Other depictions split the difference, showing Klotho in her youth, Lachesis in middle age, and Atropos in old age, this is classic Maiden-Mother-Crone iconography.
While their physical appearance wavers, the fates rarely exhibit uncertainty.
They were severe, stubborn, and wholly opposed to interference.
Setting aside the time the God Apollo got them so drunk that they agreed to delay the death of one of his favorite mortals (oops!
), the Fates could not be messed with.
They typically lurked behind the scenes and rarely interacted with humans.
One exception was when they came to the hearth of Althaea and decreed that her son Meleager would die once the last log in the hearth burned to ash.
Horrified, Althaea quenched the fire to prevent the log from burning.
Meleager grew into a skilled warrior – but he also had a nasty temper.
When Althaea learned that Meleager had murdered her brother, she reignited the log and let it burn.
In the Meleager myth, Althaea knows what the Fates have in store - but that’s a rarity.
More commonly, mortals and even Gods are at the mercy of the Fates.
Ultimately, events unfold according to their decree – and people are left to pick up the pieces.
But isn’t this all very…fatalistic?
If the fate of characters is always inescapable, why should we care?
Where’s the drama coming from, if the Fates have already determined the ending?
In fact, the tension comes from how characters interact with fate.
Like when the Oracle in the Matrix: Reloaded tells Neo he’s already made the choice; he’s just there to understand it.
The trifold Fates as characters and the concept of fate are often used interchangeably in Greek myth.
Whether mortals actually see the Fates or not, the interaction between individuals and their unknown destiny is woven into the fabric of Greek myth.
Tragic heroes tend to be obsessed with their own legacy, lovers doubt whether their union was meant to be, and everyone continually ruminates over what prophecy will come true and when.
All in all, the problem of free will versus fate comes up in pretty much every major myth.
And, to add an extra layer of complexity, the question of how much the Fates trump the Gods is still being debated.
Let’s unpack the relationship between mortals and fate.
Many Greek tragedies are built on the folly of humans trying to outrun their fates.
In the legend of Oedipus, King Laius of Thebes learns that he is destined to die at the hands of his infant son.
He orders Oedipus to be put to death, but the baby is smuggled to safety in a neighboring kingdom.
As a young man Oedipus has his own encounter with fate, where an oracle tells him that he is destined to kill his father and marry his mother.
Desperate to escape this fate, he flees – only to end up, fatefully, back in Thebes.
Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex ends with Oedipus cursing his own horrific fate, but also realizing that he cannot escape it.
The story of Oedipus reveals the ironic components of destiny: by trying to avoid the fate you fear, you end up making it happen--sort of like Final Destination.
In this example, The Fates don’t actually appear to Oedipus.
Instead, he learns of his fate via oracles, or mortals who were gifted with the ability to see future events.
If you think the communication in this myth could have been clearer, that’s because Oracles were supposed to remain purposefully vague.
The Fates did not like explicit tellings of the future - when the oracle Ocyrhoe told her father exactly how he would die, they were so angry that they turned her into a horse.
The Fates also torment mortals in more indirect ways.
Although they have the power to charm gods, slay monsters, and travel to the underworld, most Greek heroes have a complicated relationship with fate and free will.
Hercules is continually depressed at the prospect of his own early death, while Jason loses any sense of his own agency when his ostensibly heroic voyage leads to murder and dismemberment.
This is not to say that they don’t have free will – it’s more that they’re plagued by thoughts of their own legacy and demise.
Homer’s epic poem the Iliad shows the Greek strongman Achilles grappling with this uncertainty.
He knows that his fate can go one of two ways: leave the Trojan war and lead a long, but anonymous, life.
Or fight and perish in a blaze of glory.
This dilemma would suggest that he does have a degree of free will – but the Fates have already narrowed his options.
Achilles isn’t the only man of war questioning his destiny.
Throughout the Iliad, warriors constantly debate who is in control of the battle, the outcome – and their lives.
This proves even more confusing when the Gods get involved in the battle, picking sides and favorite fighters.
But while their whims are fickle and fallible, fate is an overarching force that sets the natural order of events.
In crucial hours of battle, Zeus is seen to consult a scale.
This suggests that a power greater than himself determines the outcome of the war.
We therefore might see Zeus not as the maker of fate but as its agent or enabler.
At other times, the Fates step in to decide serious matters.
When Hades, God of the underworld, abducted the daughter of Zeus and Demeter Persephone, he argued that she should remain with him because she had eaten the food of the dead.
Persephone maintained that since she had only eaten six seeds of a pomegranate, this was hardly enough to condemn her.
Eventually, the Fates decreed a compromise: Persephone would spend six months of the year in darkness.
One month per pomegranate seed is a steep price, but even in the face of divine chaos, the Fates remain decisive.
Unwavering in their decisions, the Fates stand for the inevitable march of time in which the only certainty is death.
Not the cheeriest message, I realize.
But they’re also a powerful reminder of the fundamentally mysterious nature of life, which can be as thrilling as it is terrifying.
The Greeks had these existential obsessions in common with other cultures, who devised similar personifications of fate.
In Norse mythology, the Norns are female deities who sometimes appear in multitudes, or are depicted as three tree-dwelling giants who scribble humans’ fates on wood.
Albanian avatars come in one or three, and have been depicted as female spinners who write babies’ fates on their foreheads.
In Korean Jeju mythology, a single goddess known as Kameunjangagi presides over fate.
Banished from her parents’ home for her crass humor and witchy powers, which she used to turn her sister into a mushroom, Kameunjangagi goes on to live an independent life helping other outsiders.
She ultimately stands for the concept of finding one’s purpose, in spite of life’s uncertainties.
Although they were understandably feared, the Greek Fates also offered solace and hope.
Seeing as they were more powerful than the Gods, it’s no surprise that the Fates were worshipped in their own right.
They were the subject of cults, monuments, and inscriptions throughout Ancient Greece, while the Sicyonians sacrificed black sheep to them.
As harsh judges and watchful caretakers, the Fates remain a paradox.
While they’re readily associated with the uncomfortable thought that death comes for us all, they’re also responsible for colorful lives and good fortune.
Perhaps this duality is why they remain so resonant today – and, like life itself, there’s a magic to their mystery.
Thanks for watching our new show Fate & Fabled!
There’s a lot more to come in future Fate and Fabled episodes.
Dr. Z and I will be covering a lot more mythologies and ancient legends from around the world, including Isis and Osiris, the story of revenge and justice.
And, why have cats have managed to slink their way into even the most ancient stories?
And let us know in the comments if you have a mythology you’d like to know more about!
See you next time!