Μοῖραι – the "apportioners
", often called the The Fates
), in Greek mythology
, were the white-robed personifications of destiny
, euphemistically the "sparing ones", or Fata
; also equivalent to the Germanic Norns
). The Greek word moira
(μοῖρα) literally means a part or portion, and by extension one's portion in life or destiny. They controlled the metaphorical thread of life of every mortal from birth to death (and beyond
). Even the gods feared the Moirae. Zeus
also was subject to their power, as the Pythian priestess at Delphi
once admitted; though no classic writing clarifies as to what exact extent the lives of immortals were impacted by the whims of the Fates themselves. A supposed epithet Zeus Moiragetes
, meaning "Zeus Leader of the Morae" was inferred by Pausanias
from an inscription he saw in the second century CE at Olympia
: "As you go to the starting-point for the chariot-race there is an altar with an inscription to the Bringer of Fate.
This is plainly a surname of Zeus, who knows the affairs of men, all that the Fates give them, and all that is not destined for them. Zeus does not appear to have been mentioned, and Pausanias' inferred assertion is unsupported in cult practice
, though he noted a sanctuary of the Moirae there at Olympia (v.15.4), and also at Corinth
(ii.4.7) and Sparta
(iii.11.8), and adjoining the sanctuary of Themis
outside a city gate of Thebes
H. J. Rose writes that Nyx ("Night") was also the mother of the Moirae as she was of the Erinyes, in the Orphic tradition.
The three Moirae were:
- Clotho (pronounced in English , Greek Κλωθώ klɔːˈtʰɔː – "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 (/ˈlækəsɪs/, Greek Λάχεσις [ˈlɑkʰesis] – "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 (/ˈætrəpɒs/, Greek Ἄτροπος [ˈɑtropos] – "inexorable" or "inevitable", literally "unturning", sometimes called Aisa) was the cutter of the thread of life. She chose the manner and timing of each person's death. When she cut the thread with "her abhorrèd shears", someone on Earth died. Her Roman equivalent was Morta ('Death').
The Moirae were supposed to appear three nights after a child's birth to determine the course of its life. The Greeks variously claimed that they were the daughters of Zeus
and the Titaness Themis
(the "Institutor") or of primordial beings like Nyx, the Night
or Ananke, Necessity
In earlier times they were represented as only a few – perhaps only one – individual goddess. Homer's Iliad speaks generally of the Moera, who spins the thread of life for men at their birth (xxiv.209), Moera Krataia "powerful Moira" (xvi.334) or of several Moerae (xxiv.49). In the Odyssey (vii.197) there is a reference to the Klôthes, or Spinners. At Delphi, only the Fates of Birth and Death were revered. In Athens, Aphrodite, who had an earlier, pre-Olympic existence, was called Aphrodite Urania the 'eldest of the Fates' according to Pausanias (x.24.4).
A bilingual Eteocretan text has the Greek translation Ομοσαι δαπερ Ενορκίοισι (Omosai d-haper Enorkioisi, "But may he swear [these] very things to the Oath-Keepers"). In Eteocretan this is rendered —S|TUPRMĒRIĒIA, in which MĒRIĒIA may refer to the divinities the Hellenes knew as the Moirae.
Versions of the Moirae also existed on the deepest European mythological level. It is difficult to separate them from the other Indo-European spinning fate goddesses known as the Norns in Norse mythology and the Baltic goddess Laima and her two sisters. Some Greek mythographers went so far as to claim that the Moirae were the daughters of Zeus— paired with either Ananke ("Necessity") or, as Hesiod had it in one passage, Themis ("Fundament") or Nyx ("Night"). Whether or not providing a father even for the Moirae was a symptom of how far Greek mythographers were willing to go, in order to modify the old myths to suit the patrilineal Olympic order, the claim was certainly not acceptable to Aeschylus, Herodotus, or Plato.
The Moirae were usually described as cold, remorseless and unfeeling, and depicted as old crones or hags. The independent spinster has inspired fear rather than matrimony. "This sinister connotation we inherit from the spinning goddess," write Ruck and Staples. See weaving (mythology). Some mythologies depict them instead as the traditional maiden, mother, and crone.
Despite their forbidding reputation, Moirae could be worshipped as goddesses. Brides in Athens offered them locks of hair and women swore by them. They may have originated as birth-goddesses and only later acquired their reputation as the agents of destiny.
They likewise have forbidding appearances (beards), and appear to determine the fates of all individuals.
Compare the Graeae, another set of three old sisters in Greek mythology.
- Thomas Blisniewski, '1992. 'Kinder der dunkelen Nacht: Die Ikonographie der Parzen vom späten Mittelalter bis zum späten 18. Jahrhundert.'' (Cologne) Iconography of the Fates from the late Middle Ages to the end of the 18th century.
- Robert Graves, Greek Myths
- Jane Ellen Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion 1903. Chapter VI, "The Maiden-Trinities"
- Karl Kerenyi, 1951. The Gods of the Greeks (Thames and Hudson)
- Harry Thurston Peck, Harper's Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, 1898.
- Herbert Jennings Rose, Handbook of Greek Mythology, 1928.
- Carl Ruck and Danny Staples, The World of Classical Myth, 1994.
- William Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, 1870, article on Moira,