In Greek mythology, the Moirai (Μοῖραι) (mɪrˌiː), often known in English as the Fates (Latin: Fatae), were the white-robed incarnations of destiny; their Roman equivalent was the Parcae (euphemistically the “sparing ones”). Their number became fixed at three:
– Clotho (spinner),
– Lachesis (allotter) and
– Atropos (unturnable) [also called Moira, Morta or Aisa].
The Moirai controlled the mother thread of life of every mortal from birth to death. They were independent, at the helm of necessity, directed fate, and watched that the fate assigned to every being by eternal laws might take its course without obstruction. The gods and men had to submit to them, although Zeus’s relationship with them is a matter of debate.
Some sources say Zeus is the only one who can command them (the Zeus Moiragetes), yet others suggest he was also bound to the Moirai’s dictates. In the Homeric poems Moira or Aisa, is related with the limit and end of life, and Zeus appears as the guider of destiny. In the Theogony of Hesiod, the three Moirai are personified, and are acting over the gods. Later they are daughters of Zeus and Themis, who was the embodiment of divine order and law.
In Plato’s Republic the Three Fates are daughters of Ananke (necessity). Moira is related with Tekmor (proof, ordinance) and with Ananke (destiny, necessity), who were primeval goddesses in mythical cosmogonies. The concept of a universal principle of natural order has been compared to the Egyptian Ma’at.
The Ancient Greek word moira (μοῖρα) means a portion or lot of the whole, and is related to meros, “part, lot” and moros, “fate, doom”, Latin meritum, “desert, reward”, English merit, “to allot, assign”.
Moira may mean portion in life, lot, destiny, (μοῖραv ἔθηκαν ἀθάνατοι moîran éthēken athánatoi “the immortals fixed the destiny”), death (μοῖρα θανάτοιο moîra thanátoio “destiny of death”), portion of the distributed land. The word is also used for something which is meet and right (κατὰ μοῖραν, katà moîran, “according to fate, in order, rightly”).
It seems that originally the word moira did not indicate destiny but included ascertainment or proof, a non-abstract certainty. The word daemon, which was an agent related to unexpected events, came to be similar to the word moira. This agent or cause against human control might be also called tyche (chance, fate): “You mistress moira, and tyche, and my daemon”.
The word nomos, “law”, may have meant originally a portion or lot, as in the verb nemein, “to distribute”, and thus “natural lot” came to mean “natural law”. The word dike, “justice”, conveyed the notion that someone should stay within his own specified boundaries, respecting the ones of his neighbour. If someone broke his boundaries, thus getting more than his ordained part, then he would be punished by law. By extension, moira was one’s portion or part in destiny which consisted of good and bad moments as was predetermined by the Moirai (Fates), and it was impossible for anyone to get more than his ordained part. In modern Greek the word came to mean “destiny” (μοίρα or ειμαρμένη).
The three Moirai
The three Moirai were:
– Clotho (Greek Κλωθώ, “spinner”) spun the thread of life from her Distaff onto her Spindle. Her Roman equivalent was Nona, (the ‘Ninth’), who was originally a goddess called upon in the ninth month of pregnancy.
– Lachesis (Greek Λάχεσις, “allotter” or drawer of lots) measured the thread of life allotted to each person with her measuring rod. Her Roman equivalent was Decima (the ‘Tenth’).
– Atropos (Greek Ἄτροπος, “inexorable” or “inevitable”, literally “unturning”), sometimes called Aisa, was the cutter of the thread of life. She chose the manner of each person’s death; and when their time was come, she cut their life-thread with “her abhorred shears”. Her Roman equivalent was Morta (‘Dead One’).
In the Republic of Plato, the three Moirai sing in unison with the music of the Seirenes. Lachesis sings the things that were, Clotho the things that are, and Atropos the things that are to be. Pindar in his Hymn to the Fates, holds them in high honour. He calls them to send their sisters Hours, Eunomia (Lawfulness), Dike (Right), and Eirene (Peace), to stop the internal civil strife:
Listen Fates, who sit nearest of gods to the throne of Zeus, and weave with shuttles of adamant, inescapable devices for councels of every kind beyond counting, Aisa, Clotho and Lachesis, fine-armed daughters of Night, hearken to our prayers, all-terrible goddesses, of sky and earth. Send us rose-bossomed Lawfulness, and her sisters on glittering thrones,
Right and crowned Peace, and make this city forget the misfortunes which lie heavily on her heart.
In Mycenean religion Aisa or Moira was originally a living power related with the limit and end of life. At the moment of birth she spins the destiny, because birth ordains death. Later Aisa is not alone, but accompanied by the “Spinners”, who are the personifications of Fate. The act of spinning is associated with the gods, who at birth and at marriage do not spin the thread of life, but single facts like destruction, return or good fortune. Everything which has been spun must be winded on the spindle, and this was considered a cloth, like a net or loop which captured man.
Invisible bonds and knots could be controlled from a loom, and twining was a magic art used by the magicians to harm a person, and control his individual fate. Similar ideas appear in Norse mythology, and in Greek folklore. The appearance of the gods and the Moirai are related to in the fairy tale motif, which is common in many European folklore. The fairies appear beside the cradle of the newborn child and bring gifts. In Greek mythology the Moirai at birth are accompanied by Eileithyia. At the birth of Hercules they use together a magic art, to free the newborn from any “bonds” and “knots”.
In mythical cosmogonies, the three Moirai are daughters of the primeval goddess Nyx (Night), and sisters of Keres (black Fates), Thanatos (Death) and Nemesis. Later they are daughters of Zeus and the Titaness Themis (the “Institutor”), who was the embodiment of divine order and law, and sisters of Eunomia (lawfulness, order), Dike (Justice), and Eirene (Peace).
The Moirai were sometimes described as ugly old women. They were severe, inflexible and stern. Clotho carries a spindle or a roll (the book of fate), Lachesis a staff with which she points to the horoscope on a globe, and Atropos (Aisa) a scroll, a wax tablet, a sundial, a pair of scales, or scissors. At other times the three were shown with staffs or sceptres, the symbols of dominion. At the birth of each man they appeared spinning, measuring, and cutting the thread of life.
The Moirai were supposed to appear three nights after a child’s birth to determine the course of its life, as in the story of Meleager and the firebrand taken from the hearth and preserved by his mother to extend his life. Bruce Karl Braswell from readings in the lexicon of Hesychius, associates the appearance of the Moirai at the family hearth on the seventh day with the ancient Greek custom of waiting seven days after birth to decide whether to accept the infant into the Gens and to give it a name, cemented with a ritual at the hearth.
As goddesses of birth who even prophesied the fate of the newly born, Eileithyia, the ancient Minoan goddess of childbirth and divine midwifery, was their companion. The Moirai assigned to the terrible chthonic goddesses Erinyes who inflicted the punishment for evil deeds their proper functions, and with them directed fate according to necessity. As goddesses of death they appeared together with the daemons of death Keres and the infernal Erinyes.
Zeus and the Moirai
In the Homeric poems Moira, who is almost always one, is acting independently from the gods. Only Zeus, the chief sky-deity of the Myceneans is close to Moira, and in a passage he is the being of this power. Using a weighing scale (balance) Zeus weighs Hector’s “lot of death” (Ker) against the one of Achilleus. Hector’s lot weighs down, and he dies according to Fate. Zeus appears as the guider of destiny, who gives everyone the right portion.
On a Mycenean vase, Zeus holds a weighing scale (balance) in front of two warriors, indicating that he is measuring their destiny before the battle. The belief (fatalism) was that if they die in battle, they must die, and this was rightly offered (according to fate).
In Theogony, the three Moirai are daughters of the primeval goddess, Nyx (“Night”), representing a power acting over the gods. Later they are daughters of Zeus who gives them the greatest honour, and Themis, the ancient goddess of law and divine order.
Even the gods feared the Moirai or Fates, which according to Herodotus a god could not escape. The Pythian priestess at Delphi once admitted, that Zeus was also subject to their power, though no classic writing clarifies as to what exact extent the lives of immortals were affected by the whims of the Fates. It is to be expected that the relationship of Zeus and the Moirai was not immutable over the centuries. In either case in antiquity we can see a feeling towards a notion of an order to which even the gods have to conform. Aeschylus combines Fate and necessity in a scheme, and claims that even Zeus cannot alter which is ordained.
In Roman mythology the three Moirai are the Parcae or Fata, plural of “fatum” meaning prophetic declaration, oracle, or destiny. The English words fate (native wyrd) and fairy (magic, enchantment), are both derived from “fata”, “fatum”.
In Norse mythology the Norns are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men, twining the thread of life. The Norns spin the threads of fate at the foot of Yggdrasil, the tree of the world. They set up the laws and decided on the lives of the children of men. Their names were Urðr (that which became or happened) related with Wyrd, weird (fate), Verðandi (that which is happening) and Skuld (that which should become, debt, guilt).
In younger legendary sagas, the Norns appear to have been synonymous with witches (Völvas), and they arrive at the birth of the hero to shape his destiny. It seems that originally all of them were Disir, ghosts or deities associated with destruction and destiny. The notion that they were three, their distinction and association with the past, present and future may be due to a late influence from Greek and Roman mythology.
The Valkyries (choosers of the slain), were originally daemons of death. They were female figures who decided who will die in battle, and brought their chosen to the afterlife hall of the slain. They were also related with spinning, and one of them was named Skuld (debt, guilt). They may be related to Keres, the daemons of death in Greek mythology, who accompanied the dead to the entrance of Hades. In the scene of Kerostasie Keres are the “lots of death”, and in some cases Ker (destruction) has the same meaning, with Moira interpreted as “destiny of death” (moira thanatoio :μοίρα θανάτοιο).
The Germanic Matres and Matrones, female deities almost entirely in a group of three, have been proposed as connected to the Norns and the Valkyries.
In Anglo-Saxon culture Wyrd (Weird) is a concept corresponding to fate or personal destiny (literally: what befalls one). Its Norse cognate is Urðr, and both names are deriven from the PIE root wert, “to turn, wind”, related with “spindle, distaff”.
In Lithuanian mythology Laima is the personification of destiny, and her most important duty was to prophecy how the life of a newborn will take place. She may be related to the Hindu goddess Laksmi [Lachesis, the alotter, as link], who was the personification of wealth and prosperity, and associated with good fortune. In Latvian mythology, Laima and her sisters were a trinity of fate deities.
Kismet, the predetermined course of events in the Muslim traditions, seems to have a similar etymology and function as moira: Arabic qismat “lot” qasama, “to divide, allot” developed to mean Fate or destiny. As a loanword, qesmat ‘fate’ appears in Persian, whence in Urdu language, and eventually in English Kismet.
In the Avestan religion and Zoroastrianism, aša, is commonly summarized in accord with its contextual implications of “truth”, “right(eousness)”, “order”. Aša and its Vedic equivalent, Rta, are both derived from a PIE root meaning “properly joined, right, true”. The word is the proper name of the divinity Asha, the personification of “Truth” and “Righteousness”. Aša corresponds to an objective, material reality which embraces all of existence. This cosmic force is imbued also with morality, as verbal Truth, and Righteousness, action conforming with the moral order.
In the literature of the Mandeans, an angelic being has the responsibility of weighing the souls of the deceased to determine their worthiness, using a set of scales.
Africa and Asia
The notion of a universal principle of natural order has been compared to similar ideas in other cultures, such as Rta in Vedic religion, and Ma’at in Ancient Egyptian religion.
In the Vedic religion, Rta is an ontological principle of natural order which regulates and coordinates the operation of the universe. The term is now interpreted abstractly as “cosmic order”, or simply as “truth”, although it was never abstract at the time. It seems that this idea originally arose in the Indo-Aryan period, from a con-sideration (so denoted to indicate the original meaning of communing with the star beings) of the qualities of nature which either remain constant or which occur on a regular basis.
The individuals fulfill their true natures when they follow the path set for them by the ordinances of Rta, acting according to the Dharma, which is related to social and moral spheres. The god of the waters Varuna was probably originally conceived as the personalized aspect of the otherwise impersonal Ṛta. The gods are never portrayed as having command over Ṛta, but instead they remain subject to it like all created beings.
In Egyptian religion, ma’at was the ancient Egyptian concept of truth, balance, order, law, morality, and justice. The word is the proper name of the divinity Ma’at, who was the goddess of harmony, justice, and truth represented as a young woman. It was considered that she set the order of the universe from chaos at the moment of creation. Ma’at was the norm and basic values that formed the backdrop for the application of justice that had to be carried out in the spirit of truth and fairness.
Ma’at dealt with the weighing of souls that took place in the underworld. Her feather was the measure that determined whether the souls (considered to reside in the heart) of the departed would reach the paradise of afterlife successfully. In the Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’, Anubis, using a scale, weighs the sins of a man’s heart against the feather of truth, which represents ma’at. If man’s heart weighs down, then he is devoured by a monster.