The Fates in Greek Mythology: Hanging by a Thread

The Fates — Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos — were divinities in Greek mythology who presided over human life. Together, the Fates represented the inescapable destiny of humanity.

May 31, 2022By Bethany Williams, BA Classics and English, MA Literature
the three fates greek mythology painting

 

In Greek mythology, the Fates were divine beings who personified the birth, life, and death of humankind. According to the ancient Greeks, the actions of humans were predestined.

 

Humans still had free will, but the Fates knew the ultimate choices and actions of each person. In the afterlife, a human would be judged not on what deeds they had done, but on how they had reacted to and coped with life’s challenges. The three Fates of Greek mythology were Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, and each had a different role in weaving the fate of mankind.

 

The First of the Fates: Clotho

giani three the fates
The Three Fates, by Felice Giani, 1810-1820, via the Art Institute of Chicago 

 

The Fates in ancient Greek were called the Moirai. This translates as “allotted portion” or “share.” The idea was that the Fates would deal out humankind’s allotted portions of life. The three Fates each had a different role in the process of handing out fate or “portions.”

 

First of all, there was Clotho, the “Spinner.” When a human was in the womb, Clotho had the duty of weaving the threads of their life. Greek myth often uses textile metaphors to convey intangible destiny. The metaphor often appears in descriptions as well as in art, as the weaving of threads on a loom, or in some cases spinning fibers into yarn.

 

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Each thread represented one soul’s life. This thread would follow the path of a human’s life, including their future choices and actions, and the consequences that could be created. Clotho would begin spinning the thread while the human was in the womb, and so she is often referred to during pregnancies or during the birth of human beings.

 

“He must look to meet whatever events his own fate and the stern Klothes (Clotho) twisted into his thread of destiny when he entered the world and his mother bore him.
(Homer, Odyssey 7.193)

 

The choices of mankind were not absolute. Instead, there was freedom in choice, and the fate of a human depended on conditional choices. The Fates would take all decisions and outcomes into account when they wove the thread.

 

The Second Fate: Lachesis 

vedder the fates gathering stars
The Fates Gathering in the Stars, by Elihu Vedder, 1887, via Art Institute of Chicago

 

Lachesis was the second of the Moirai, or Fates, and her role was to measure the thread of a human’s life. Her name translates as “the Allotter” which fits her role as the one who allots a portion of mortal life to each soul. Lachesis would determine how long a human would live, and hence how many trials they would face in their life. Within the thread lay the fate of each soul.

 

“This is the word of Lachesis, the maiden daughter of Ananke (Necessity), souls that live for a day, now is the beginning of another cycle of mortal generation where birth is the beacon of death.”
(Plato, Republic 617c)

 

The Third Fate: Atropos

thumann the fates
The Three Fates, by Paul Thumann, 19th century, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The third sister was Atropos, whose name translates as “the un-turnable or she who cannot be turned.” Her name refers to her unshakeable position as the most stubborn of the Fates. Atropos was the one to cut the thread of fate, and at the point of the cut, the mortal life would end. Thus, Atropos resembles the death of a human. After the cut, a soul would then be sent to the Underworld for judgment,  after which, it would be sent to Elysium, the Fields of Punishment, or the Fields of Asphodel.

 

“Comes the blind Fury with th’abhorred shears, / And slits the thin spun life.”
(John Milton, Lycida, 1. 75)

 

Atropos’ role was vital, she chose how each person would die. She decided on the circumstances of their death — whether that was nobly or ignobly,  was up to her. The Fates were often depicted as old women and sometimes as young goddesses, so it majorly depends on artistic preference. Many representations show Atropos as an old woman — as she chose when people would die — and Clotho as a young woman — as she was often present when women gave birth.

 

Their appearance may not have been absolute, but one consistency in their depiction is with the loom or yarn. The thread is always a staple feature to identify the Fates. They are often creating tapestries depicting the life of a human.

 

The Moirai Lineage

mowbray the fates destiny
Le Destin, by Henry Siddons Mowbray, 1896, via the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 

In Plato’s Republic, the Moirai are suggested to be the daughter of Ananke. Ananke was the primordial deity of inevitability or necessity. She passed on an element of this role to her children, the Fates, as they came to symbolize both the necessity of birth, life, and death, but also the inevitability of fate, and the events destined to occur in a human’s life.

 

Alternatively, the Fates are suggested to be the daughters of Nyx, the goddess of night. In Hesiod’s Theogony, he writes: “Also Night [Nyx] bare the destinies, and ruthless avenging Fates, who give men at their birth both evil and good to have, and they pursue the transgressions of men and gods… until they punish the sinner with a sore penalty.” (Lines 221–225)

 

This is a slightly darker interpretation, as the Fates as the daughters of Night suggest a gloomy and pessimistic outlook on the cycle of the soul in Greek myth. However, as the daughters of Ananke, the Fates are not negative or positive, they are objective, in the sense that “these things will just happen.”

 

A third suggestion is that the Fates are the daughters of Themis, the goddess of justice and divine order. Hence, the Fates are continuations of the divine order of life — without them, the cycle of souls would be in chaos. This points to an idea that the Greeks had about the importance of natural order, or balance. Life and death were in opposition to the destructive nature of chaos.

 

Fate, Portion, and Share

agache parques the fates
The Fates, by Alfred Pierre Joseph Agache, 19th century, via Dickenson College

 

The Fates, or Moirai, and their literal translation as the “allotters,” is closely associated with the ancient Greek word: meros, meaning “part” or “lot” and moros “fate” or “doom.” These terms are commonly used alongside the Fates, as they were seen to give “lots” and assign “doom” or “fate,” often with somber connotations of death. However, these terms in ancient Greek are also used in common, daily activities, such as giving a meros or “portion” of food to each participating diner.

 

Ancient Greek thought was often concerned with the shares allotted to humankind, and how each person would receive their portion; whether this be in such commonalities as food, land, or treasure, or abstracts such as glory or death. To take someone’s share or lot, you would be taking their rightful portion as assigned by fate.

 

The Fates: Achilles’s Choice

rubens briseis returned achilles
Briseis returned to Achilles by Nestor, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1630-35, via Museo del Prado

 

In the case of Achilles, a Greek hero who fought in the Trojan War, he was assigned his “portion” or “moira” (share of the whole) of treasure after the Greeks had sacked a city. His portion to receive was a woman named Briseis. Women were seen as possessions and prizes, just like cattle and furniture, in Homeric society. However, Agamemnon, the King of the Greeks, demanded Briseis be handed over to himself out of greed. After Briseis was taken, Achilles was supremely offended. To take Briseis was to take Achilles’ assigned “portion” by Fate. This was a great insult to both his honor and his identity as a human with an apportioned lot. As a result, Achilles refused to fight for the King, and so the consequence was that the Greeks failed tremendously against the Trojans, even though the Trojans were the ones fated to fail.

 

Achilles was also fated to have two pathways in his life: if he should fight at Troy, he would never return home, but he would have fame and glory to last an eternity. On the other hand, if Achilles were to return home, and not fight at Troy, then he would live a long life with his family, but be forgotten in time.

 

The Fates: Meleager and Althaea

bone althaea burns log the fates
Althaea, by Henry Price Bone, 1821-1822, via Art Institute of Chicago

 

In the myth of Meleager, the Fates have a significant role. Meleager was a young prince of ancient Greece, from Arcadia. When he was born, the Fates stood by the baby’s side, who was resting in his cot by a fire, and they discussed his future. (In some traditions the Fates would appear three days after an infant’s birth to spin the thread of fate).

 

The Fates appeared to be at odds. The two sisters Lachesis and Clotho were of the mind that the infant should have a glorious future, with lots of fame to follow him into the afterlife. However, Atropos 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, named Althaea, was listening by the door and she overheard the Fates’ discussion. She rushed in and took the log, extinguishing the flame quickly. She hid the log from that moment on in a safe place.

 

Meleager grew up to be a promising prince, battling lots of monsters and helping his kingdom prosper. One of his most famous battles was alongside Atalanta, the huntress. Meleager and Atalanta managed to kill the Calydonian Boar together, which had been terrorizing the city for many years.

 

Eventually, Meleager came into a dispute with his uncles. They fought to the death, and both uncles were killed. In anger and grief at the death of her brothers, Meleager’s mother, Althaea, vengefully threw the enchanted log into a fire. Meleager then perished, but he had fulfilled the prophecies of all three Moirai.

 

The Fates and Alcestis

desplaces hercules bringing alcestis
Hercules bringing Alcestis back to her husband Admetus, by Louis Desplaces, 1715, via the Met Museum

 

The Fates were not often challenged. But, since humans could exert free will over their lives, there were many different paths a human life could take. Since the Fates wove destinies based on contingencies and conditions, each pathway would result in different consequences.

 

This is most clear in the myth of Queen Alcestis. Alcestis was married to King Admetus but unfortunately, he was poisoned one day by snakes. Thus, he was fated to die according to the Moirai’s plan for him. However, the sun god Apollo, who favored Admetus, managed to trick the Fates into admitting another pathway that Admetus’ life could follow. The Fates promised that if Admetus could find someone to willingly die in his stead, then he could live.

 

Admetus quickly found out who his true friends were, and many refused to die for him, including his own parents. Alcestis, unasked by Admetus, offered herself in his place. Luckily, Hercules, the strong-armed Greek hero was passing through Admetus’ kingdom, and in thanks for Admetus’ kind hospitality, fought Death when he came to take Alcestis’ soul to the Underworld. Death (Thanatos) was defeated by Hercules, and so Admetus and Alcestis were both able to live on. The myth expresses the mutability of fate, but also the difficulty in changing it. Not every soul has a Hercules to fight Death away.

 

The Fates: Flexible?

cosway the fates cupid
Cupid and the Fates, by Maria Cosway, 1780-1838, via the British Museum

 

In the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, these two lovers were not so lucky in cheating death or their allotted fate. Poor 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 Fates had originally planned.

 

“It shames me [says the god Hades]! How Tartarus opened a way to [Orpheus]; with my own eyes I saw the Eumenides [Erinyes, Furies] shed base tears at those persuasive strains, and the Sisters [Fates] repeat their allotted task [bringing Eurydice back to the underworld].” (Statius, Thebaid 8. 58)

 

doyle the fates drawing
The Fates, by John Doyle, 1857, via the British Museum

 

The Fates could also restore life as well as take it away. In the myth of Pelops, Pelops was murdered by his own father. His father then attempted to feed the pieces of his son to the gods, disguised as a cooked meal. In outrage, the gods demanded that the father be thrown into the Underworld, to be tortured for eternity. The Fates restored life to young Pelops, and he lived on to be the progenitor of a very long and famous line: the house of Atreus.

 

“May you escape all the bitter things which the wreathed spindle of apportioned Moira has spun for your fate — if the threads of the Moirai ever obey!”
(Nonnus, Dionysiaca 2.675)



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By Bethany WilliamsBA Classics and English, MA LiteratureBethany is a Masters student, currently studying the adaptation of Greek myth in modern literature. She is a graduate of Classics and English (BA), during which she studied Ancient Greek language, classical reception within its own time and throughout history, as well as Greek and Roman history. Apart from her studies, she has an appreciation for art, philosophy, and travel. She may be based in England, but her heart is in Greece.