The Goddesses of Destiny
There is some confusion as to the heritage of the Fates but there is no confusion as to their identities and their divine mission on the earth. Their names are: Klotho (Clotho), Lachesis and Atropos. Klotho spins the thread of life, Lachesis determines the length of the thread and Atropos cuts the thread when the proper time has come for death. Atropos is the smallest of the three but she is the eldest and superior to her sisters. Atropos is called "She who cannot be turned."
The three sisters are commonly called the Fates but Fates and Destinies seem to be interchangeable with most translators.
In the poem Theogony by Hesiod, the distinction is clearly made between Black Fate (Kera), the Destinies (Moerae) and the Fates (Keras). We are told that the Fates are the children of Nyx (Night) … their names . However, we are also told that the Destinies are the daughters of Themis (goddess of Necessity) and Zeus … their names are: Klotho, Lachesis and Atropos. Which explanation are we to believe? We are left with a mystery which may never be solved until some heretofore unknown ancient documents are unearthed.
The distinction between Fate and Destiny might seem to be inconsequential but, although they are closely related, there are important differences and thus the differences apply to the goddesses of Fate (Keras) and the goddesses of Destiny (Moerae). Fate is a concept which implies something which will happen but is still subject to change. Destiny is fixed and unalterable … no one can change Destiny. The mission of the Fates seems more akin to the fulfillment of Destiny than any sort of alterable fate.
The intervention of the Fates in human affairs did not begin until after the creation of the first woman. Zeus commanded the Immortals to create a woman as punishment for the crimes of the Rebel God, Prometheus. On two occasions, Prometheus insulted Zeus: once by not offering the prime meat of a sacrificial animal and another time by stealing fire and giving it to the men on the earth. Zeus had Prometheus chained to a mountain for his crimes but he also tricked Prometheus's brother Epimetheus into accepting a divinely created woman. The woman's name was Pandora. Her name means, All Endowed, i.e. each of the Immortals contributed to Pandora's inception. Pandora was intended to be a curse on the men of the earth and she fulfilled her destiny superbly.
Before Pandora, men lived free of ills … men were not subject to hard toil and were free of sickness. After the creation of Pandora, the Fates inflicted all manner of evil and hardship on the men of the earth. From that time until now, the portion of good or bad which each man will experience in his life is determined by the Fates at his birth. Once your thread of life is spun and measured, there is no escaping your final Fate … when Atropos cuts your thread of life, there is no reconciliation.
The Fates are ruthless and without pity or remorse. When Hephaistos (Hephaestus) made a shield for Herakles (Heracles), he included images of the Fates which were ugly and terrifying. The three sisters gnashed their fangs as they stalked soldiers on the battlefield and waited to drink their blood. The Fates will never cease from their punishment of wrongdoers … they punish the Immortals as well as mortal men with severe penalties for their transgressions.
The Fates are often confused with the Roman goddesses, the Morae.
The Fates in The Iliad
(listed by book and line from four different translations)
- Iliad - book 20, line 127 - Hera tells Athene and Poseidon: "Afterwards he (Achilleus) shall suffer such things as Destiny wove with the strand of his birth that day when he was born to his mother."
- Iliad - book 24, line 209 - Queen Hekabe to King Priam: "Let us sit apart in our palace now, and weep for Hektor, and the way at the first strong Destiny spun with his life line when he was born, when I gave birth to him, that the dogs with their shifting feet should feed on him, far from his parents …"
Loeb Classical Library
- Iliad - book 20, line 127 - Hera tells Athena and Poseidon: "… but later he (Achilles) will suffer whatever Fate spun for him with her thread at his birth when his mother bore him."
- Iliad - book 24, line 209 - Queen Hecabe to King Priam: "In this way for him (Hector) did resistless Fate spin with her thread at his birth, when I myself bore him, that he should glut swift-footed dogs far from his parents …"
- Iliad - book 20, line 149 - Hera tells Athena and Poseidon: "Afterward he (Achilles) must suffer what the Fates spun out on the doomed fighter's life line drawn that day his mother gave him birth."
- Iliad - book 24, line 248 - Queen Hecuba to King Priam: "So this, this is the doom that strong Fate spun out, our son's (Hector's) life line drawn with his first breath—the moment I gave him birth—to glut the wild dogs, cut off from his parents …"
- Iliad - book 20, line 149 - Hera tells Athêna and Poseidon: "In time he'll (Akhilleus) suffer all that his destiny, on his life's thread, spun for him when his mother gave him birth."
- Iliad - book 24, line 251 - Queen Hekabe to King Priam: "Almighty fate spun this thing for our son (Hektor) the day I bore him: destined him to feed the wild dogs after death, being far from us when he went down before the stronger man."
Other Text References
- line 217 - Also she (Nyx - Night) bare the Destinies and ruthless avenging Fates, Klotho (Clotho) and Lachesis and Atropos, who give men at their birth both evil and good to have, 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.
- line 904 - Next he (Zeus) married bright Themis who bare the Horae (Hours), and Eunomia (Order), Dike (Justice), and blooming Eirene (Peace), who mind the works of mortal men, and the Moerae (Fates) to whom wise Zeus gave the greatest honor, Klotho (Clotho), and Lachesis, and Atropos who give mortal men evil and good to have.
Works and Days
- line 92 - For before this (the creation of the first woman, Pandora) the tribes of men lived on earth remote and free from ills and hard toil and heavy sickness that bring the Fates upon men; for in misery men grow old quickly.
The Great Eoiae
- fragment 2 - Alkmene (Alcmene) says that the Destinies (Moerae) made her son Herakles (Heracles) the most toilful and the most excellent
Shield of Herakles
- line 249 - Animated on the Shield of Herakles, the Fates (Keras) were following the men in battle; the Fates were gnashing their fangs and waiting to drink the blood of the fallen warriors
- line 258-259 - Animated on the Shield of Herakles, Klotho (Clotho), Lachesis and Atropos are fighting over a fallen warrior; Atropos is the smallest of the three but she is the eldest and superior to her sisters
Description of Greece by Pausanias
- Pausanias - book 1 (Attica) 19.2 - Concerning the district called The Gardens, and the temple of Aphrodite, there is no story that is told by them, nor yet about the Aphrodite which stands near the temple. Now the shape of it is square, like that of the Hermae, and the inscription declares that the Heavenly Aphrodite is the oldest of those called Fates. But the statue of Aphrodite in the Gardens is the work of Alkamenes (Alcamenes), and one of the most noteworthy things in Athens.
- Pausanias - book 1 (Attica) 40.4 - After this when you have entered the precinct of Zeus called the Olympieum you see a note worthy temple. But the image of Zeus was not finished, for the work was interrupted by the war of the Peloponnesians against the Athenians, in which the Athenians every year ravaged the land of the Megarians with a fleet and an army, damaging public revenues and bringing private families to dire distress. The face of the image of Zeus is of ivory and gold, the other parts are of clay and gypsum. The artist is said to have been Theokosmos (Theocosmus), a native, helped by Pheidias. Above the head of Zeus are the Hours and Fates, and all may see that he is the only god obeyed by Destiny, and that he apportions the seasons as is due. Behind the temple lie half-worked pieces of wood, which Theokosmos intended to overlay with ivory and gold in order a complete the image of Zeus.
- Pausanias - book 2 (Corinth) 4.7 - Above it (a Sanctuary of Anagkes (?) (Necessity) and Bia (Force) on the Acropolis of Corinth) are a temple of the Mother of the Gods and a throne; the image and the throne are made of stone. The temple of the Fates and that of Demeter and the Maid (Persephone) have images that are not exposed to view. Here, too, is the temple of Hera Bunaea set up by Bunus the son of Hermes. It is for this reason that the goddess is called Bunaea.
- Pausanias - book 2 (Corinth) 11.4 - At a distance along it, in my opinion, of twenty stades (approximately 2.27 miles or 3.65 kilometers), to the left on the other side of the Asopos (Asopus), is a grove of holm oaks and a temple of the goddesses named by the Athenians the August, and by the Sikyonians (Sicyonians) the Kindly Ones. On one day in each year they celebrate a festival to them and offer sheep big with young as a burnt offering, and they are accustomed to use a libation of honey and water, and flowers instead of garlands. They practice similar rites at the altar of the Fates; it is in an open space in the grove.
- Pausanias - book 3 (Lakonia) 11.10 - There is also dedicated a colossal statue of the Spartan People. The Lakedaemonians (Lacedaemonians) have also a sanctuary of the Fates, by which is the grave of Orestes, son of Agamemnon. For when the bones of Orestes were brought from Tegea in accordance with an oracle they were buried here. Beside the grave of Orestes is a statue of Polydoros (Polydorus), son of Alkamenes (Alcamenes), a king who rose to such honor that the magistrates seal with his likeness everything that requires sealing.
- Pausanias - book 3 (Lakonia) 11.11 - There is also Hermes of the Marketplace carrying Dionysos as a child, besides the old Courts of the Ephors, as they are called, in which are the tombs of Epimenides the Cretan and of Aphareus the son of Perieres. As to Epimenides, I think the Lakedaemonian (Lacedaemonian) story is more probable than the Argive. Here, where the Fates are, the Lakedaemonians also have a sanctuary of Histia (Hestia). There is also Zeus Hospitable and Athene (Athena) Hospitable.
- Pausanias - book 3 (Lakonia) 19.4 - On the altar are also Demeter, the Maid (Persephone), Pluto (Hades), next to them Fates and Hours, and with them Aphrodite, Athene (Athena) and Artemis. They are carrying to heaven Hyakinthus (Hyacinthus) and Polyboea, the sister, they say, of Hyakinthus, who died a maid. Now this statue of Hyakinthus represents him as bearded, but Nikias (Nicias) (fl. 320 BCE), son of Nikomedes (Nicomedes), has painted him in the very prime of youthful beauty, hinting at the love of Apollon for Hyakinthus of which legend tells.
- Pausanias - book 5 (Elis 1) 15.5 - As you go to the starting-point for the chariot-race (at Olympia) 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. Near there is also an oblong altar of Fates, after it one of Hermes, and the next two are of Zeus Most High. At the starting-point for the chariot-race, just about opposite the middle of it, there are in the open altars of Poseidon Horse-God and Hera Horse-Goddess, and near the pillar an altar of the Dioskuri (Dioscuri) (Kastor (Castor) and Polydeukes (Polydeuces)).
- Pausanias - book 7 (Achaea) 26.8 - I remember observing at Aegeira a building in which was an image of Tyche (Fortune) carrying the horn of Amaltheia. By her side is a winged Eros (Love), the moral of which is that even success in love depends for mankind on fortune rather than on beauty. Now I am in general agreement with Pindar's ode (fragment 41), and especially with his making Tyche one of the Fates, and more powerful than her sisters.
- Pausanias - book 8 (Arkadia) 37.1 - From Akakesium (Acacesium) it is four stades (approximately .45 miles or .72 kilometers) to the sanctuary of the Mistress. First in this place is a temple of Artemis Leader, with a bronze image, holding torches, which I conjecture to be about six feet high. From this place there is an entrance into the sacred enclosure of the Mistress. As you go to the temple there is a portico on the right, with reliefs of white marble on the wall. On the first relief are wrought Fates and Zeus surnamed Guide of Fate, and on the second Herakles (Heracles) wresting a tripod from Apollon. What I learned about the story of the two latter I will tell if I get as far as an account of Delphi in my history of Phokis (Phocis).
- Pausanias - book 8 (Arkadia) 42.3 - until Pan, they say, visited Arkadia (Arcadia). Roaming from mountain to mountain as he hunted, he came at last to Mount Elaius and spied Demeter, the state she was in and the clothes she wore. So Zeus learnt this from Pan, and sent the Fates to Demeter, who listened to the Fates and laid aside her wrath, moderating her grief as well. For these reasons, the Phigalians say, they concluded that this cavern was sacred to Demeter and set up in it a wooden image.
- Pausanias - book 9 (Boeotia) 25.4 - Along the road from the Neistan gate are three sanctuaries. There is a sanctuary of Themis, with an image of white marble; adjoining it is a sanctuary of the Fates, while the third is of Zeus of the Market. Zeus is made of stone; the Fates have no images. A little farther off in the open stands Herakles (Heracles), surnamed Nose-Docker; the reason for the name is, as the Thebans say, that Herakles cut off the noses, as an insult, of the heralds who came from Orchomenos (Orchomenus) to demand the tribute.
- Pausanias - book 10 (Phokis, Ozolian, Lokri) 24.4 - In the temple has been built an altar of Poseidon, because Poseidon too possessed in part the most ancient oracle. There are also images of two Fates; but in place of the third Fate there stand by their side Zeus, Guide of Fate, and Apollon, Guide of Fate. Here you may behold the hearth on which the priest of Apollon killed Neoptolemus (Neoptolemos), the son of Achilles. The story of the end of Neoptolemus I have told elsewhere (book 4.17.4).
- Pausanias - book 10 (Phokis, Ozolian, Lokri) 31.4 - The story about the brand, how it was given by the Fates to Althaea, how Meleagros (Meleager) was not to die before the brand was consumed by fire, and how Althaea burnt it up in a passion - this story was first made the subject of a drama by Phrynichus, the son of Polyphradmon, in his Pleuronian Women:
- For chill doom he escaped not, but a swift flame consumed him, as the brand was destroyed by his terrible mother, contriver of evil. (Phrynichus, Pleuronian Women, unknown location.)
- However, it appears that Phrynichus did not elaborate the story as a man would his own invention, but only touched on it as one already in the mouths of everybody in Greece.
- Pausanias - book 10 (Phokis, Ozolian, Lokri) 24.4 - In the temple has been built an altar of Poseidon, because Poseidon too possessed in part the most ancient oracle. There are also images of two Fates; but in place of the third Fate there stand by their side Zeus, Guide of Fate, and Apollon, Guide of Fate. Here you may behold the hearth on which the priest of Apollon killed Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles. The story of the end of Neoptolemus I have told elsewhere (book 4.17.4).