The MOERAE are the three sisters who decide on
human fate: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropus.
They sing in unison with the music of the SIRENS, or so it is said. Lachesis sings of the things that were, Clotho of those that are, and Atropus about the things that will be. They are most honored among the gods because they distribute justly, and have a share in every home. They give men at their birth their share of evil and good, and they punish the transgressions of both men and of gods. Atropus is said to be the eldest, the best and the shortest of the sisters; Clotho is the spinner, and Lachesis the apportioner of lots. It has also been claimed that Tyche (Fortune) was
one of the MOERAE, and the most powerful of the
sisters because beauty, virtue, and good Fame are in her keeping,
and also because she finds pleasure in dashing
Weavers of Fate
Although the MOERAE are three, fate is one; and although each man has his own fate, it is nevertheless this one Fate that affects each and everyone of them in different ways. Fate means mainly death and all circumstances leading to death, given that it does not seem to be any strict predetermination of happenings, except the unavoidable departure from this world, which is the ultimate and inescapable destiny of all living beings. This is why the MOERAE have been called mighty, compelling, or overwhelming; and what they have spun concerning the limits of life is conclusive and final in most cases. And although it appears that a man may die before his time, it does not seem likely that he could go on living beyond the time alloted to him by these three sisters, or violate in any way what is meant to be his own personal fate. Fate is spun by the MOERAE at birth, so that the
flourishing life will be limited by Necessity. This is why
Alcinous, the king of the Phaeacians, said
"Nor shall he
meanwhile suffer any evil or harm, until he sets
foot upon his own land; but thereafter he shall
suffer whatever Fate and the dread Spinners spun
with their thread for him at his birth, when his
mother bore him." (Alcinous on Odysseus. Homer, Odyssey 7.195).
The many ways in which life may be lived or
enjoyed are not encompassed by the MOERAE. That
depends on the gods, or as others would say, on the
disposition of the soul. On the other hand, the
MOERAE set a limit to what a mortal may or not
achieve in his life, and set a limit to life
No defence against Death
Normally the gods do not protect mortals from
death when their time has come. That is why Athena, in the guise of Mentor 4, said to Telemachus:
". . . it is
our common lot to die, and the gods themselves
cannot rescue even one they love, when death that
streches all men out lays its dread han upon him." (Homer, Odyssey 3.235).
The gods then are not willing to change the
decisions of the MOERAE; not because the spinners
have a greater power, but because the gods do not
seem inclined to upset the order represented by the
three sisters. Otherwise, during the Trojan War, had Zeus saved his own son Sarpedon 1, whom he grieved much. Yet the god refrained from rescuing him, and limited himself to send a shower of bloody raindrops down to the earth
". . . as a
tribute to his beloved son, whom Patroclus was about to kill . . . ." (Homer, Iliad 16.460).
For as Hera had reminded
him when he was considering to send his son back
"If you send
Sarpedon home alive, what is to prevent some other
god from trying to rescue his own son from the
fight?" (Hera to Zeus. Homer, Iliad 16.445).
Similarly, when Hector 1 was about to perish (for his day had come), Zeus felt great pain,
". . . my
heart has sorrow for Hector . . ."
The god even seemed to contemplate saving him:
gods, and help me to decide whether we shall save
his life or let a good man fall this very day to Achilles . . . " (Zeus to the gods. Homer, Iliad 22.170ff.).
To this answered Athena:
"What are you
saying? . . . proposing to reprieve a man whose
doom has long been settled . . . " (Athena to Zeus).
And Zeus replied:
"In no wise do
I speak with full purpose of heart." (Zeus to Athena. Homer, Iliad 22.184).
For nothing is done against the ordinances of
the MOERAE: life must meet its end at some point,
and beyond it another realm takes over.
The MOERAE represent the three sections that are attributed to Time (present, past, and future): Clotho ('The Spinner'), the youngest, puts the wool round the spindle, and sings of the things that are; the middle-aged Lachesis ('The Allotter') spins it and sings of the things that were; Atropus ('The Never-turn-back'), the eldest, sings of the things that will be, and cuts the thread when Death arrives. mur228p: Friedrich Paul Thumann 1834-1908: The Three Fates. Alexander S. Murray, Manual of Mythology (1898).
The ways in which events occur is known by the
gods. But mortals have difficulties in
understanding the interlaced design of the sisters'
fabric; and whereas some events seem unavoidable,
others may be conditioned. For the oracle of Delphi told Laius 1
". . . if you
beget a son, that child will kill you . . . ." (Euripides, Phoenician
... and had he abstained from having a child
(his son Oedipus), he
would have saved his own life. But as he
negligently chose the wrong path, he met the
predicted fate. Similarly, Uranus and Gaia warned Zeus, saying that if his first wife Metis 1 would bear a son, this son would become the lord of heaven. But Zeus, being wiser than Laius 1 and having learned the criss-cross of the MOERAE, swallowed Metis 1, thereby choosing a better fate for himself. And also when the MOERAE declared that Thetis'
son would be greater and more famous than his
father, Zeus, remembering
what he had done to his own father Cronos, and fearing that
he would be robbed of his power by his own son,
gave up his desire to wed Thetis, who later became Achilles' mother. But
he could have done otherwise.
Some exchanges with the gods
But others, having heard Achilles declare:
"As for my own
death, let it come when Zeus and the other deathless gods
decide." (Homer, Iliad 22.365).
and Penelope say:
". . . for the
immortals have appointed a proper time for each
thing upon the earth . . ." (Homer, Odyssey 19.590).
. . . have believed that Zeus is above destiny, and have accordingly called him "The Bringer of Fate" and "The Guide of Fate," for knowing the affairs of men, and all that the MOERAE give them, as well as all that is not in their fate. Yet others have described occasions in which the
gods came to terms with the MOERAE, as when Apollo obtained from them that they should accept in ransom for the life of Admetus 1 the life of whosoever would consent to die in his stead; and later Alcestis proved to be
the only one willing to die in her husband's place.
Or when Demeter lost her
and because of her grief and wrath all the fruits
of the earth were perishing. Here Zeus sent the MOERAE to Demeter, who listened to
them, moderating her grief and anger.
The Fate of Meleager
The MOERAE are also remembered for having
declared, when Meleager was seven days old, that he should die when the
brand burning on the hearth was burnt out. On
hearing their prophecy, his mother snatched up the
brand, and deposited it in a chest and carefully
preserved it. But later, from grief at the
slaughter of her brothers, she kindled the brand
and Meleager died. That
is why some sang:
He escaped not, but a swift flame consumed him,
As the brand was destroyed by his terrible mother,
contriver of evil." (Quoted by Pausanias, Description
of Greece 10.31.4).
It is also said that they sang Meleager's fate thus:
Clotho said that he would be noble, and Lachesis
that he would be brave, but Atropus looked at the
brand burning on the hearth and said: "He will live
only as long as this brand remains unconsumed."
Other deeds of the MOERAE
The MOERAE are reported to have fought with
clubs in the war between the GIANTS and the OLYMPIANS, killing a
couple of GIANTS. Likewise, when Typhon attacked Heaven, they deluded him by giving him to taste of the ephemeral fruits in the persuasion that he would be strengthened thereby. The MOERAE are also said to have invented seven of the letters of the alphabet: alpha, beta, eta, tau, iota, and upsilon (one of the seven letters is missing, Hyg.Fab.277). If that were so, then it could be read in the
records of all that happens, which they keep on
tablets of brass and iron. For these, it is said,
are neither shaken by warfare in heaven, nor
lightning, nor any destructive power, being eternal
and secure, as they themselves are.