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The MOERAE: Atropus, Lachesis, and Clotho. Fresques 135-140 après J.-C., Ostia Antica, réserves du Musée. 5822: La parque Atropos, déroulant un volumen. 5821: La parque Lachésis tenant la balance. 5820: La parque Clothô avec la quenouille et le fuseau.

OCEANIDS: Who then is the steersman of Necessity?
Prometheus 1: The three-shaped
MOERAE and mindful ERINYES (Furies).
OCEANIDS: Can it be that
Zeus has less power than they do?
Prometheus 1: Yes, in that even he cannot escape what is foretold. (Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 515).

"The threads which the Fates spin are so unchageable, that, even if they decreed to someone a kingdom which at the moment belonged to another, and even if that other slew the man of destiny, to save himself from ever being deprived by him of his throne, nevertheless the dead man would come to life again in order to fulfil the decree of the Fates ... He who is destined to become a carpenter, will become one even if his hands have been cut off: and he who has been destined to carry off the prize for running in the Olympic games, will not fail to win even if he broke his leg: and a man to whom the Fates have decreed that he shall be an eminent archer, will not miss the mark, even though he lost his eyesight." (Flavius Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 8.7).

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 immoderate hopes.

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 about Odysseus:

"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 itself: death.

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 home:

"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, saying

". . . my heart has sorrow for Hector . . ."

The god even seemed to contemplate saving him:

"Consider, 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).

Choosing fate

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 Women 20).

... 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 daughter Persephone, 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:

"For chill doom
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.


Parentage (five versions)


Nyx.- (By herself)

Chaos.- (Alone)


Erebus & Nyx


Ananke.- (By herself)


Erebus is the darkness of the Underworld.

Related sections

Apd.1.3.1; Hes.The.217, 901; Hom.Il.16.460; Hyg.Pre.; Hyg.Fab.277; Nonn.6.94, 7.106, 8.351, 11.255; Pla.Rep.617c; QS.3.756; Stat.Theb.3.556.