Among the most important of the children of Nyx, the goddess of the night, are three daughters, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, known collectively as the Moirai in Greek, or the Fatae (Fates) or Parcae (the sparing ones) to the Romans. You may also find them referred to by their Latin names of Nona, Decima and Morta.
The Fates epitomised human attitudes to life and death for millenia, until quite recently. Clotho spins the thread of life, which she passes to Lachesis, who measures out how much is allocated to each individual so that Atropos can cut the length of thread for them, which allots the time and manner of their death. To the ancients, therefore, Thanatos was only the messenger sent to take you away when you died. It was the thread of life which the Fates had allocated to you which determined when that was.
At times when age and manner of death varied so greatly, with high infant mortality rates, few babies ever expected to reach adulthood, yet others living into their eighties, this inevitably can be attractive. It has a modern parallel in the infantry soldier’s bullet with your name on it, maybe even the seemingly random toll inflicted by Covid-19.
In paintings, the Fates almost always appear as the three sisters, and hardly ever (possibly even never) singly or as any other number, unlike the Muses, who have greater flexibility. They are individually recognisable as:
- Clotho, the spinner, who holds a distaff and spindle, and spins the thread of life;
- Lachesis, the allotter, who measures the thread allotted to each person using her measuring rod;
- Atropos, the unturnable, who cuts the thread for each person using shears, choosing the time and manner of their death.
Where the artist has elected to give them individual appearances, it is Atropos who is normally shown as an older woman, with the gravity of her task.
In Il Sodoma’s classical painting of The Three Fates from about 1525, he shows from the left Lachesis, Atropos wielding her shears, and Clotho with her distaff and spindle.
Peter Paul Rubens incorporated them into the first in the series of twenty-four paintings which were commissioned in 1621 to decorate the Luxembourg Palace, Paris, for Marie de’ Medici, the wife of King Henry IV of France. He shows the three Fates without a pair of shears, implying the Queen’s (relative) immortality. Above them are Juno and Jupiter; Juno appears throughout the series as the Queen’s avatar, and Jupiter as the King. Given Jupiter’s promiscuity, this may have indicated deep insight into the royal relationship.
In his Time and the Three Fates (c 1665), Pieter Thijs shows the Fates before Father Time, his scythe making the association with death. From the left, are Clotho and Lachesis, who are working together, and Atropos, with her shears, who looks disarmingly straight at the viewer, knowing your fate.
JMW Turner included the Fates as minor figures in at least a couple of his paintings. In Vision of Medea from 1828, the first in a series of more modern attempts to tell Medea’s story, they accompany this sorceress. In the middle of the canvas, Medea is stood in the midst of an incantation to force Jason’s return to her. In the foreground are the materials which she is using to cast her spell: flowers, snakes, and other supplies of a sorceress. Seated by her are the Fates. In the upper right, Medea is shown again in a flash-forward to her fleeing Corinth in a chariot drawn by dragons, the bodies of her children thrown down after their deaths.
Edward Burne-Jones’ painting of The Feast of Peleus from 1872-81 uses a composition based on classical representations of the Last Supper. Every head has turned towards Eris (Discord) as she brings her golden apple, apart from that of the centaur behind her right wing. Even the three Fates, in the left foreground, have for once paused momentarily in their work.
Paul Thumann’s Salon-style depiction of The Three Fates (c 1880) proved extremely popular throughout Europe, and was often shown on mass-produced porcelain. It’s unusual for drawing such marked distinctions between the women: Atropos, on the left, is shown as a morose older woman, armed with her shears; Clotho stands to weave, and is young, very pretty, and bare down to the waist; Lachesis is modestly-dressed and holding sprigs of vegetation, at the right.
John Melhuish Strudwick’s A Golden Thread (1885) was originally accompanied by the lines:
Right true it is that these
And all things else that under Heaven dwell
Are changed of Time.
Strudwick has structured his painting into three areas. At the bottom are the Fates: Clotho and Lachesis are at the front, working together to spin and measure out the thread, which is here a mixture of gold (for life) and grey. Atropos sits behind, poised to use her shears when ready. I am not sure of the origin of the two different coloured threads, which may be original to this artist.
Henry Siddons Mowbray’s Destiny from 1896 elaborates on classical myth; it bears careful examination, as the three women sat together at one end of the tapestry may not all be Fates. The three who appear readily identifiable are Clotho, who is standing at the far right with a whole web of threads, Lachesis who is at the back of the group of three, bringing a thead down from Clotho, and Atropos, who is at the left, armed with her shears. The group appears to be working on a tapestry which might represent individuals, or mankind more generally.
Elihu Vedder’s only known depiction of the Fates is even more atypical and inventive. Derived from one of the illustrations which he made for the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, it shows the three sisters bringing in the fabric of the heavens, which holds the stars. To enable them to do this work, they have placed the tools of their trade – distaff, spindle, and shears – in the fabric of the foreground. This must also be one of few paintings of the Fates in which they are not handling the thread of fate.
The great Polish master Jacek Malczewski modernises the Fates in his fascinating allegorical portrait of Saint Francis of Assisi (1908). All three appear similar, with similar clothing, hair, and features. Clotho is at the left, with a pink apron, Atropos holds a modern pair of scissors rather than the traditional shears, and has a light purple apron, and Lachesis is on the other side of St Francis, with a pale blue apron. The right of the painting contains a group of semi-human mythical creatures, rather than the traditional birds and small animals typically associated with this saint.
The Fates are unusual in having many parallels in other European myths and legends, even extending to Shakespeare’s three witches in his play Macbeth, modern Celtic-based religion, and Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters (1988), although their roles and characteristics become far removed from the originals.
Their closest parallel are the Norns (or nornir) of Norse mythology, named Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld in Snorri Sturluson’s interpretation of the Völuspá. Inevitably there are various accounts which differ greatly in detail, but one fairly common role is to draw water from the Well of Urðr (Fate) which they pour over Yggdrasil (the immense holy ash tree) so that its branches will not decay. They rule the destiny of the gods and of humans.
JL Lund’s painting is atypical in that it shows one Norn with wings. They are here symbolically equipped with a book, containing the record of fate, a balance to weigh people’s lives with, and a wooden measuring stick. Their names are given in Runes below: Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld.
Delug’s evocative depiction shows them at the foot of Yggdrasil handling the thread of fate, suggesting a more classical interpretation.