Moira in Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology
（*Moi=ra) properly signifies "a share," and as a
personification " the deity who assigns to every man his
fate or his share," or the Fates. Homer usually speaks of
only one Moira, and only once mentions the Μοῖραι in the
plural. (Il. 24.29.) In his poems Moira is fate personified,
which, at the birth of man, spins out the thread of his
future life (Il. 24.209), follows his steps, and directs the
consequences of his actions accordinig to the counsel of the
gods. (11. 5.613, 20.5.) Homer thus, when he personifies
Fate, conceives her as spinning, an act by which also the
power of other gods over the life of man is expressed. (Il.
24.525, Od. 1.17,3.208, 4.208.) But the personification of
his Moira is not complete, for he mentions no particular
appearance of the goddess, no attributes, and no parentage;
and his Moira is therefore quite synonymous with Αἶσα. (II.
20.127, 24.209.) If in Od. 7.197, the Κατακλῶθες are the
Moirae, and not the Eileithyiae, as some suppose, Αἶσα and
Moira would indeed be two distinct beings, but still beings
performing entirely the same functions.
The Homeric Moira is not, as some have thought, an
inflexible fate, to which the gods themselves must bow; but,
on the contrary, Zeus, as the father of gods and men, weighs
out their fate to them (Il. 8.69, 22.209; comp. 19.108); and
if he chooses, he has the power of saving even those who are
already on the point of being seized by their fate (II.
16.434, 441, 443); nay, as Fate does not abruptly interfere
in human affairs, but avails herself of intermediate causes,
and determines the lot of mortals not absolutely, but only
conditionally, even man himself, in his freedom, is allowed
to exercise a certain influence upon her. (Od. 1.34, Il.
9.411, 16.685.) As man's fate terminates at his death, the
goddess of fate at the close of life becomes the goddess of
death, μοῖρα Δανάτοιο (Od. 24.29, 2.100, 3.238), and is
mentioned along with death itself, and with Apollo, the
bringer of death. (Il. 3.101, 5.83, 16.434, 853, 20.477,
Hesiod (Hes. Th. 217, &c., 904; comp. Apollod. i 3.1) has
the personification of the Moirae complete; for he calls
them, together with the Keres, daughters of Night; and
distinguishes three, viz. Clotho, or the spinning fate;
Lachesis, or the one who assigns to man his fate; and
Atropos, or the fate that cannot be avoided. According to
this genealogy, the Moirae must be considered as in a state
of dependence upon their father, and as agreeing with his
counsels. Hence he is called Μοιραγέτης, i. e. the guide or
leader of the Moirae (Paus. 5.15.4), and hence also they
were represented along with their father in temples and
works of art, as at Megara (Paus. 1.40.3), in the temple of
Despoena in Arcadia (8.37.1), and at Delphi (10.24.4; comp.
8.42.2). They are further described as engraving on
indestructible tables the decrees of their father Zeus.
(Claudian, 15.202; comp. Ov. Met. 15.808, &c.) Later writers
differ in their genealogy of the Moirae from that of Hesiod;
thus they are called children of Erebus and Night (Cic. De
Aat. Deor. 3.17), of Cronos and Night (Tzetz. ad Lyc. 406),
of Ge and Oceanus (Athenag. 15; Lycoph. 144), or lastly of
Ananke or Necessity. (Plat. De Re Publ. p. 617d.)
It cannot be surprising to find that the character and
nature of the Moirae were conceived differently at different
times and by different authors. Sometimes they appear as
divinities of fate in the strict sense of the term, and
sometimes only as allegorical divinities of the duration of
human life. In the former character they are independent, at
the helm of necessity, direct fate, and watch that the fate
assigned to every being by eternal laws may take its course
without obstruction (Aeschyl. Prom. 511, 515); and Zeus, as
well as the other gods and men, must submit to them. (Hdt.
1.91; Lactant. Institute. 1.11, 13; Stob. Eclog. i. pp. 152,
170.) They assign to the Erinnyes, who inflict the
punishment for evil deeds, their proper functions; and with
them they direct fate according to the laws of necessity,
whence they are sometimes called the sisters of the
Erinnyes. (Aeschyl. Eum. 335, 962, Prom. 516, 696, 895;
Tzetz. ad Lyc. 406.) Later poets also conceive the Moirae in
the same character. (Verg. A. 5.798, 12.147; Tib. 1.8. 2;
Ov. Tr. 5.3. 17, Met. 15.781; Horat. Carm. Saec. 25, &c.)
These grave and mighty goddesses were represented by the
earliest artists with staffs or sceptres, the symbol of
dominion; and Plato (De Re Pub. p. 617) even mentions their
crowns. (Mus. Pio-Clem. tom. vi. tab. B.)
The Moirae, as the divinities of the duration of human life,
which is determined by the two points of birth and of death,
are conceived either as goddesses of birth or as goddesses
of death, and hence their number was two, as at Delphi.
(Paus. 10.24.4; Plut. de Tranq. An. 15, de Ei ap. Delph. 2.)
From this circumstance we may perhaps infer that originally
the Greeks conceived of only one Moira, and that
subsequently a consideration of her nature and attributes
led to the belief in two, and ultimately in three Moirae;
though a distribution of the functions among the three was
not strictly observed, for in Ovid, for example (ad Liv.
239), and Tibullus (1.8. 1.), all three are described as
spinning, although this should be the function of Clotho
alone, who is, in fact, often mentioned alone as the
representative of all. (Pind. 01. 1.40; Ov. ad Liv. 164,
Fast. 6.757, Ex Pont. 4.15. 36.) As goddesses of birth, who
spill the thread of beginning life, and even prophesy the
fate of the newly born, they are mentioned along with
Eileithyia, who is called their companion and πάρεδρος.
(Paus. 8.21.2; Plat. Sympos. p. 206d.; Pind. O. 6.70, Nem.
7.1; Ant. Lib. 29; comp. Eurip. Iphig. Taur. 207.) In a
similar capacity they are also joined with Prometheus, the
former, or creator of the human race in general. (Hygin.
Poet. Astr. 2.15.) The symbol with which they, or rather
Clotho alone, are represented to indicate this function, is
a spindle, and the idea implied in it was carried out so
far, that sometimes we read of their breaking or cutting off
the thread when life is to end. (Ov. Am. 2.6. 46; Plat. de
Re Publ. p. 616.) Being goddesses of fate, they must
necessarily know the future, which at times they reveal, and
thus become prophetic divinities. (Ov. Met. 8.454, Trist.
5.3. 25; Tib. 1.8. 1, 4.5. 3; Catull. 64. 307.) As goddesses
of death, they appear together with the Keres (Hes. Scut.
Herc. 258) and the infernal Erinnyes, with whom they are
even confounded, and in the neighbourhood of Sicyon the
annual sacrifices offered to them were the same as those
offered to the Erinnyes. (Paus. 2.11.4; comp. Schol. ad
Aesch. Agam. 70; Aelian, Ael. NA 10.33; Serv. ad Aen. 1.86.)
It belongs to the same character that, along with the
Charites, they lead Persephone out of the lower world into
the regions of light, and are mentioned along with Pluto and
Charon. (Orph. Hymn. 428; Ov. Fast. 6.157; comp. Aristoph.
Frogs 453.) The various epithets which poets apply to the
Moirae generally refer to the severity, inflexibility, and
sternness of fate.
They had sanctuaries in many parts of Greece, such as
Corinth (Paus. 2.4.7), Sparta (3.11.8), Olympia (5.15.4),
Thebes (220.127.116.11), and elsewhere. The poets sometimes
describe them as aged and hideous women, and even as lame,
to indicate the slow march of fate (Catull. 64, 306; Ov.
Met. 15.781; Tzetz. ad Lyc. 584) ; but in works of art they
are represented as grave maidens, with different attributes,
viz., Clotho with a spindle or a roll (the book of fate);
Lachesis pointing with a staff to the horoscope on the globe
; and Atropos with a pair of scales, or a sun-dial, or a
cutting instrument. It is worthy of remark that the Muse
Urania was sometimes represented with the same attributes as
Lachesis, and that Aphrodite Urania at Athens, according to
an inscription on a Hermes-pillar, was called the oldest of
the Moirae. (Paus. 1.19.2; comp. Welcker, Zeitschrift für
alt. Kunst, p. 197, &c.; Blüner, Ueber die Idee des
Schicksals, p. 115, &c.; flirt. Mytholog. Bilderh. p. 200.)
Moira also occurs as the proper name of a daughter of
Cinyras, who is more commonly called Smyrna. (Schol. ad
Theocrit. 1.109.) - A Dictionary of Greek and Roman
biography and mythology, William Smith, Ed.