Death and destiny: the Moirai a/k/a the Fates


In Greek mythology, the Moirai – better known as the Fates – are the three goddesses who carry out a person’s destiny.  When someone is born, Clotho spins the thread of his or her life, while Lachesis measures the thread and Atropos it cuts with her shears when it is time for that person to die.

The Moirai acted more or less independently of the other Greek gods to ensure that everyone’s eternal fate proceeded without obstruction.  Even the gods had to submit to them — though some sources say that Zeus could interfere with someone’s fate when he really wanted to.

Ancient sources describe the Moirai as stern, old women who are ugly and, sometimes, lame, to boot.  Clotho is usually depicted with a spindle, while Lachesis holds a staff and Atropos a pair of shears.

The Romans called the Moirai the “Parcae.”  The individual Parcae were Nona (ninth) – originally a goddess called upon in the ninth month of pregnancy, Decima (tenth) and Morta (death).  In Anglo-Saxon culture, fate is represented by the concept of Wyrd – which gave us English weird and inspired the three witches in William Shakespeare’s MacBeth . The Norse equivalents of the Moirai were the Norn, while the Völvas (witches) and Valkyries (choosers of the slain) may also be partly related.

Many English words have their origins in the names of the Moirai.  Atropos, in particular, has given us a number of death-related words.  These include “atrophy” (wasting away) and “atropine,” the poisonous alkaloid found in plants such as belladonna (a/k/a deadly nightshade).

Surprisingly, the word “cloth” does not derive from Clotho.  “Cloth” is of Germanic origin and derives from Old English clāth, meaning “cloth” or “garment.”  Nor do the words “lax” or “laches” (meaning an unreasonable delay in pursuing a legal remedy) come from Lachesis.  They derive from the Indo-European root *sleg, meaning “to be slack or languid.”  The root also appears in Greek logos, meaning “word,” which gives us English monologue, catalog, logistics, etc.

For such powerful goddesses, the Fates seem underrepresented in popular culture.  In the book Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini (on which the 1935 Errol Flynn movie Captain Blood was based), the title character renames three captured Spanish ships the Clotho, the Lachesis and the Atropos.

More memorably – at least for fans of fantasy fiction — is the depiction of the Fates as a single goddess with three aspects in Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality.  In that series of books – including the third installment, With a Tangled Skein, Anthony imagines Clotho as that mainstay of fantasy, a beautiful, young female.  Lachesis is middle-aged, and Atropos is your basic, friendly grandmother type.  Assuming that is, that your grandmother stands ready to kill you with a pair of shears.


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