Greek MythologyMythology

The Fates

Who are the Fates? This is complicated. Greek mythology being what it is, the exact role and understanding of the goddesses we usually call the fates is impossible to pin down. But by drawing on literature, we can sort of create a sketch. Or confuse ourselves a bit more. Either way, we learn something.

Table of Contents

Who are they?

This is also complicated. In Homer, there is only 1 – Fate and her unnamed spinners. [Iliad 20.127] Hesiod has 3, and they’re the daughters of Nyx. [Lines 906-907] The most common count is three, and they are then collectively known as the Fates or the Moirai. Much later, they are sometimes considered the daughters of Zeus. When there’s only one, it’s Moira (fate).

What are their roles and powers?

As a whole, they collectively weave the tapestry of fate. Individually, each one has a different role. Clotho spins the thread, Lachesis measures, and Atropos cuts. These threads bind everyone, mortal and god alike. But are they subservient to Zeus? Yes and no. Kinda. It depends. Confused yet? Me too. So, remember what they are and what they do. Even gods are bound. A few sources support this:

and they pursue the transgressions of men and of gods: and these goddesses never cease from their dread anger until they punish the sinner with a sore penalty.

Hesiod. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Theogony.

Chorus
[515] Who then is the helmsman of Necessity?

Prometheus
The three-shaped Fates and mindful Furies.

Chorus
Can it be that Zeus has less power than they do?

Prometheus
Yes, in that even he cannot escape what is foretold.

Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, 515-517, in Aeschylus. Aeschylus, with an English translation by Herbert Weir Smyth

But at the same time, Zeus is…Zeus. Normal rules don’t really apply. His strength was on another level. One of his epithets is ‘Leader of the Fates’. We think. And he’s definitely played the role of deciding destiny before. Pausanias describes him like this:

Above the head of Zeus are the Seasons and Fates, and all may see that he is the only god obeyed by Destiny, and that he apportions the seasons as is due

Pausanias 1.40.4 – Description of Greece with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A.,

Granted, Pausanias was writing a completely different style of book, hundreds of years after the mythological books were written. And I’ve gone on and on about how Greek mythology isn’t some static thing. So…

So, what’s the answer? I would say it depends on exactly which time you’re looking at. We want the mythology to be static, but it isn’t. Change is just part of its nature. Just like the parentage and exact number of Fates.

TL;DR

The personification(s) of the concept of fate, who wove the tapestry of existence. 

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