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The Three Fates: 3 Goddesses Of Greek Mythology Who Control All Mortal Life

Ancient History | April 2, 2021

The Three Fates: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, 1558–59. After Giulio Romano. Artist Giorgio Ghisi. (Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

If you remember the 1997 animated Disney film Hercules, you probably recall the Fates, three old women who determined how long a person lived by rolling out a string and then cutting it. Although many of the characters in Hercules were Disney inventions, others were based on Greek mythology, including the Fates. Cartoon depictions aside, the Three Fates offered a unique lens through which the people of Ancient Greece understood death, longevity, and destiny.

Who Were The Three Fates?

The Fates, also called the Moirai, were three figures in Greek mythology who represented half of Zeus's six children with Themis, the goddess of justice. (The other three were collectively known as the Horai, or the Hours.) Their names were Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, and like their Disney counterparts, they were in charge of human destiny via balls of thread that determined how long a human would live. Clotho's task was to spin the thread, determining who would be born and when; Lachesis measured the thread according to how long that new person would live; and Atropos, the oldest, was responsible for cutting it when the time time. She also selected the manner in which the person died.

Bas relief of Atropos cutting the thread of life. (Tom Oates/Wikimedia Commons)

The Origins Of The Three Fates

Figures similar to the Fates, particularly Atropos, can be found in cultures that predate Ancient Greece, specifically the Mycenaean people of Bronze Age Greece. In Mycenean stories, a spirit or demon named Moira who was associated with the unpredictable nature of death appeared when a person died, and its name became a common term for a person's fair share of something. For example, after a hunt or battle, each member of the team was given their moira of the meat or loot, based on their individual contributions. The Mycenaean people also believed that each person had a moira of life that was given to them at birth, and when your time was up, your time was up.

It's likely the Ancient Greeks encountered stories of Moira, since many aspects of the Mycenaean religion lingered into the classical era, and indeed, Homer's Iliad alludes to this belief when Apollo tries repeatedly to stop Patrocius from attacking the city of Troy, warning him that he would be "over his portion." His Odyssey marks the first time Moira gets friends, two unnamed helpers who spin the threads of life. From there, the Greeks adopted the concept of moira, which became the Moirai, or the Fates, depicted as three individual sisters.

The Three Fates of Hercules (1997). (The Walt Disney Company)

The Graeae

Disney often takes creative liberties with their films, and Hercules is no exception. It depicts the Fates as three old hags who share one eye between them, but while the Fates of Greek mythology don't display this odd feature, another mythical threesome does. The Graeae, or the "gray ones," were a trio of elderly sisters and witches named Enyo, Deino, and Pemphredo who not only shared a single eye but a single tooth as well. Thankfully, deep frying hadn't been invented yet, or they'd be seriously missing out. This is most relevant in the myth of Medusa, in which Perseus steals the Graeae's collective eye to coerce them into revealing information he needs to kill Medusa. Greek heroes could get away with being inconceivably rude.

Tags: Ancient Greece | disney | greek mythology

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.