When we think of fate we think of an inevitable, pre-determined course our lives are shaped to take. The Greco-Romans personified fate in the form of 3 elderly sisters sitting around a spinning wheel. Collectively known as the Fates (Greek: Moirai, Roman: Fatae), the first sister Clotho (Roman: Nona) was responsible for spinning out the thread of a person’s life. The second sister Lachesis (Roman: Decima) measured out the length of the thread, determining said individual’s life span. The third sister Atropos (Roman: Morta) then cut the thread, thus determining a person’s death.
The sisters went about their task mechanically and dispassionately, as if menial laborers on a conveyor belt of souls. Pictures of them conjure elderly grandmothers, quietly spinning out life; a pleasant, quaint threesome who might stop by for tea in the afternoon, and probably bring some home baked goodies as well, or so it might seem on the surface.
Despite the Fate’s importance, outside of Pindar’s brief Ode to the Fates, they don’t get to appear center stage until the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Here are four instances of the Fates making their presence known.
In the story of Ceres and Proserpina (Greek: Demeter and Persephone) Proserpina has been abducted by Pluto (Greek: Hades) and taken to the underworld as his bride. Upon learning this Ceres (Proserpina’s mother) goes to Jupiter (Proserpina’s father) and begs him to intervene and return their daughter. At first Jupiter argues that his brother Pluto is a worthy husband of Proserpine, but finally agrees to support Ceres in recovering their daughter.
The Fates, however, decree that Proserpina must remain as she has tasted the fruit of the underworld (7 pomegranate seeds) and prevent her from returning above. Jupiter is forced to negotiate, and divides the year so that she can spend time in both realms.
In many Greek and Roman traditions it was held that Zeus/Jupiter was the father of the Fates. Considering this, and the fact that Jupiter was the king of the gods, it is almost as if he ceded his power to the Fates by choosing to compromise, as opposed to simply challenging their edict. Does this mean that the gods themselves accepted the necessity of fate to bring order to the world? When we consider that other sources attribute The Fates maternal linage to the Goddess of Necessity, we can appreciate the premise that fate is born from necessity (this can be found in Plato’s Republic)
In the story of Ocyrhoe we are introduced to the daughter of the centaur Chiron, who was renowned for his supreme intelligence and wisdom. Chiron was often employed as a teacher to the offspring of the gods, and had taken Aesculapius, the son of Apollo, under his tutelage. Ocyrhoe herself had inherited her father’s aptitude, and had quickly absorbed all her father had to teach. However, her thirst for knowledge was still unsatisfied, so she began to teach herself the art of prophecy.
One day Ocyrhoe came upon her father and Aesculapius and, unable to stop herself, blurted out both of their futures. She revealed that Aesculapius would become a great healer, and learn to revive the dead. His skill would be his downfall, eventually angering Jupiter to strike him dead, but that he would later be restored as a god to appease Apollo. In contrast, she revealed that her father would die after being poisoned by a serpent, suffering in agony until The Fates agreed to end his life.
At this point Ocryhoe still had more to disclose, but The Fates became angered by her revelations and moved to silence her. They transformed Ocyrhoe into a horse, so that she could do nothing but neigh. Chiron was devastated by her transformation and called out a prayer, wishing that Apollo was there. However, in his lamentations, he acknowledged that even the mighty god Apollo would be powerless to help against the decree of the Fates.
Another tale involving the Fates revolves around a prince named Meleager. He summoned a congregation of heroes to partake in the Calydonian boar hunt, to rid the land of a large boar the goddess Diana had sent to wreak havoc. The female warrior Atalanta was the first to shoot the animal, and was presented with the spoils of the hunt by Meleager. Meleager’s two uncles, Plexippus and Toxeus were outraged by this honor going to a woman. They attempted to steal the prize from Atalanta; in the struggle that followed, they were both killed by Meleager.
Meleager’s mother, Althaea, learned of her brothers’ death at her own son’s hand. When Meleager was born, the Fates threw a log on one of palace’s fireplaces, stating he would live until the log burned out. Overhearing this, Althaea doused the fire and hid the log, allowing her son to live. Blaming her herself for the death of her brothers, Althaea burned the log, causing Meleager to finally meet his fate.
In this story the Fates seem like precursors to the wicked witches that visit newborns and curse them, as typified in later folktales such as Sleeping Beauty. In this tale, it does not seem as if The Fates are omniscient, but rather do their duty and leave, allowing mortals to intervene, as did Althaea. However, the consequences of challenging the Fates are clear: in this case, it cost Althea the lives of her brothers, and her son.
The Fates appear in the next tale obliquely, though the character Narcissus seems to understand fate all too well.
In the story of Narcissus and Echo, we learn of Narcissus, a handsome youth who, consumed with pride, spurned all of those who tried to win his favor. After rebuffing the nymph Echo, he is cursed to fall in love with someone who cannot return it. Upon spying his own reflection in a pool of water he falls in love with himself. Mesmerized, he lies there, unable to break his gaze, despite being aware that he is wasting away.
Narcissus acknowledges that: “The time allotted to me has been cut short”. In doing so he is acknowledging that his self-destructive actions are changing his pre-determined fate, cutting short the time fate has allotted him. He admits that he still has free will and the capability to get up and move away, but instead chooses to stay and meet his own demise.
This suggests that there is one loophole to the overwhelming power of The Fates: one can thwart one’s own destiny, but the only way to do that is to take one’s own life.
So should you run across the Fates, remember: they might look kindly, but they are not to be trifled with.