In Greek mythology, the white-robed Moirae or Moerae (in Greek Μοίραι — the "apportioners", often called the Fates) were the personifications of destiny (Roman equivalent: Parcae, "sparing ones", or Fata; also equivalent to the Germanic Norns). They controlled the metaphorical thread of life of every mortal and immortal from birth to death (and beyond). Even the gods feared the Moirae. Zeus himself may be subject to their power, as the Pythian priestess at Delphi once admitted. The Greek word moira literally means a part or portion, and by extension one's portion in life or destiny.
H.J. Rose writes that Nyx ("Night") was also the mother of the Moirae 1 as she was of the Erinyes, in the Orphic tradition.
The three Moirae were:
Clotho ("spinner") spun the thread of life from her distaff onto her spindle. Her Roman equivalent was Nona, (the 'Ninth'), who was originally a goddess called upon in the ninth month of pregnancy.
Lachesis ("allotter" or drawer of lots) measured the thread of life with her rod. Her Roman equivalent was Decima (the 'Tenth').
Atropos ("inexorable" or "inevitable", sometimes called Aisa) was the cutter of the thread of life. She chose the manner of a person's death. When she cut the thread with "her abhorrèd shears", someone on Earth died. Her Roman equivalent was Morta ('Death').
The Moirae were supposed to appear three nights after a child's birth to determine the course of its life. The Greeks variously claimed that they were the daughters of Zeus and the Titaness Themis or of primordial beings like Nyx, Chaos or Ananke.
The Moirae, as depicted in an 16th century tapestry
In earlier times, the Moirae were represented as only a few - perhaps only one - individual goddess. Homer's Iliad speaks generally of the Moera, who spins the thread of life for men at their birth (xxiv.209) or, earlier in the same book (line 49), of several Moerae. In the Odyssey (vii.197) there is a reference to the Klôthes, or Spinners. At Delphi, only the Fates of Birth and Death were revered. In Athens, Aphrodite, who had an earlier, pre-Olympic existence, was called Aphrodite Urania the 'eldest of the Fates' according to Pausanias (x.24.4).
The Moirae existed on the deepest European mythological level. It is difficult to separate them from the Norns, the similar age-old fates, older than the gods, of a separate Indo-European tradition. Some Greek mythographers went so far as to claim that the Moirae were the daughters of Zeus— paired with either Ananke or, as Hesiod had it in one passage, Themis or Nyx: was providing a father even for the Moirae a symptom of how far Greek mythographers were willing to go, in order to modify the old myths to suit the patrilineal Olympic order? The claim was certainly not acceptable to Aeschylus, Herodotus, or Plato.
The Moirae were usually described as cold, remorseless and unfeeling, and depicted as old crones or hags. The independent spinster has inspired fear rather than matrimony. "This sinister connotation we inherit from the spinning goddess," write Ruck and Staples. See weaving (mythology).
Despite their forbidding reputation, Moirae could be worshipped as goddesses. Brides in Athens offered them locks of hair and women swore by them. They may have originated as birth-goddesses and only later acquired their reputation as the agents of destiny.
The Moirae can be compared with the three spinners of Destiny in northern Europe, the Norns or the Baltic goddess Laima and her two sisters, also spinning goddesses.
The three witches encountered by Macbeth on the heath, or even Granny Weatherwax from Terry Pratchett's Discworld are loosely based on the Moirae.
Compare the Graeae, another set of three old sisters in Greek mythology.
The Moirae in popular culture
The Fates (Parcae or Moirae) make regular appearances in market-driven culture, produced to appeal to a mass market. The presence of the Fates lends an atmosphere of depth and universality to some productions of market-driven contemporary culture. Alternatively, they may be introduced with a mock-heroic sense of parody.
In an episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the Fates are represented by three young women who control people's destinies.
In Disney's Hercules, when Hades wishes to know the future, he consults the Fates, who share a single eye between them, a feature of the Graeae of Greek mythology.
In the popular cult comic book series "The Sandman (DC Comics/Vertigo)", by Neil Gaiman, the Fates are also the Furies and Hyppolita Hall is their descendant, which allows her to assume these roles.
The Moirae are depicted in the beginning of the Korean manhwa series Ragnarök
In Stephen King's 1994 Insomnia, the Moirae are depicted in the form of three doctors who visit people at the end of their life to cut their thread. Atropos is depicted as a creature of Random while the other two are workers of Fate.
In Nagano Mamoru's Five Star Stories (a space opera manga), the master fatima meight Chrome Ballanche named his last three masterpiece fatimas after the Greek Fates, Atropos, Lachesis, and Clotho.
In Incarnations of Immortality, a series of novels, the fates are one of the Incarnations dipicted. In With A Tangled Skein the Fates are the main characters.