Stories of mythological and/or magical beings are probably as old as language itself. Regardless of their monstrous or fantastical capabilities, people have debated the reality and provenance of many of these beings for a very long time. One person’s myth is another person’s reality—that was true in ancient times, and it is still true today.
The Anglo-Saxon story of Beowulf, which includes a dragon and the fearsome Grendel, a creature of darkness, and a destroyer of humanity, is more than 1000 years old. The main portion of the epic Mahabharata was written over 2000 years ago, and described beings such as the Gandharvas, the nature spirits that were the singing guardians of the Soma, an elixir of immortality consumed by the Gods.
Medieval European mythology featured sylphs, which were elemental, female nature spirits of the air. In the late Middle Ages, Robin Hood, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, became a popular mythical figure of English folklore. The unsettling but redeeming legend of Aka Nandun has been told by many generations of Kashmiris.
In more modern times, popular characters such as Harry Potter, Wonder Woman and Thanos have taken on mythological undertones due to their prominence in popular Western films and literature. One famous Marvel character, Thor, has been lifted directly from ancient Norse mythology. Even into the present day, we debate the reality of several well-known creatures—Bigfoot and various “lake monsters” or “sea serpents” immediately spring to mind. To some, these creatures are very real. To others, they are nothing more than laughable myths. The UFO enigma– including several distinct types of “aliens,” such as greys, reptilians and Nordics– falls into this same category of disputed myth vs reality.
Western mythological tradition is largely rooted in the complex mythologies of the Ancient Greeks. Many of these stories go back well more than 2000 years, and some are rooted in previous oral traditions stretching even farther back into the mists of time. Zeus, the King of the Gods, could control the weather and wielded fearsome weapons such as thunder and lightning. He was able to subdue the devastating monster Typhon by throwing a Mount Aetna at him, pinning Typhon beneath the mountain in the process. That is why Mt Aetna has erupted so many times in the intervening millennia. Typhon is still stuck beneath it, and occasionally the monster throws a hissy fit and emits streams of fire from his or her mouth. Or so the legend goes…
According to Homer’s Illiad, Aphrodite was the daughter of Zeus and Dione. Aphrodite had some very impressive powers of her own, as the goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and desire. She also helped to spark the Trojan War, according to the story, and is still a major deity to this day in several modern neopagan religions. The provenance of Aphrodite is apparently rooted in the more ancient tales of the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar (or Innana). In the same lineage, Aphrodite was also preceded by Astarte/ Astoreth.
Zeus and Hera bore a child who went in an entirely different direction than Aphrodite. Ares became the God of war, violence and bloodshed. He was the least popular God on Earth and on Olympus, but he still managed to have a torrid affair with the aforementioned Aphrodite, his half-sister, who bore him four children. Now that is an affair!
Of all the incredible Greek mythological figures, however, few were as powerful and intimidating as the three women who are the featured characters of this post—the Moirai, or the Three Fates. These white-robed entities were the incarnations of destiny, controlling the Threads of Fate. Like most of the mythical Greek characters, the history of The Fates is complex and ever-changing.
The classic power trio lineup consisted of three goddesses, if we may consider them to be goddesses in the classic sense. Even Zeus himself was subject to the decisions of the Fates. The first Moirai was Clotho, the second was Lachesis, and the third was Atropos.
Clotho, “the spinner”, was the maiden who spins the thread of human life. She had the power to determine who would be born, and when. She also could decide if and when Gods or humans would be saved, or put to death. Clotho brought Pelops back to life after his father had boiled and killed him. Now that is a very strong power.
Lachesis was the “drawer of lots”, the matron who measured out the thread of life, thereby deciding a person’s lifespan. She also chose the future destiny of the newborn.
Atropos was the “cutter of the thread of life”. She was the crone who chose the manner of each person’s death, and when the time came, she was ready to cut the thread. She was the most feared of the three figures, understandably.
What makes these “Fates” even more interesting is the universality of their story across so many different cultures and belief systems. The Moirai were re-purposed by the Romans as the Parcae, and by the Norse as the Norns, aka the Weird Sisters. The Horae were another group of Greek goddesses—typically a trio– with parallels to the Moirai. The Celts referred to three fate determining “War Goddesses” called the Morrigan. Similar characters or groups of fate-determining characters exist in other cultures, such as the Chinese deity Simiing, and other deities in Slavic, Baltic and Mari traditions, among many others.
The motif of these three female figures was utilized in the “Three Witches” scene in Macbeth (although the scene was likely included as a later addition to the play). Likewise, Joseph Conrad borrowed the motif in his novel “Heart of Darkness.”
More recently, the Fates were utilized by Walt Disney in “Hercules,” and by Rick Riordan in three different series of “Percy Jackson” books. Nora Roberts used the Fates in her book titled, “Three Fates.” Alan Ginsburg made a reference to the Fates in his groundbreaking poem “Howl.” “Hadestown” by Anais Mitchell also includes the Fates as characters, as does the Greek mythology-based video game series “God of War.”
I am also reminded of the “Three Sisters,” which refers to the three primary agricultural crops of various Native American groups. These three crops were planted together in a very clever manner. First, a mound was constructed and several seeds of corn (maize) were planted in the center. Once the corn reached a length of six inches or so, beans and squash were planted around the corn in alternating positions. With this set-up, the beans (which are nitrogen fixers) supply important nitrogen to the corn and the squash. The corn stalks act as poles for the beans to climb. The squash spreads across the ground, keeping weeds to a minimum, helping to deter insect pests, and helping to retain the moisture in the soil. Taken together, the three crops provided the Native American peoples with all nine essential amino acids, complex carbohydrates and essential fatty acids. This important trio of crops is even featured on the back of the 2009 U.S. Sacagawea dollar coin. It’s no wonder that these three companions were likened to a trio of wise women, much like the Moirai themselves.
It has been conjectured that the whole concept of the Three Fates is linked to the very ancient worship of a moon goddess, which was manifested in three different forms– the new moon (the maiden), the full moon (the matron), and, finally, the old moon (the crone).
Perhaps this cross-cultural fascination with a trio of powerful, fate-determining ladies is a reference to the obvious powers wielded by women in all cultures. Women create new life, carrying the baby and giving birth. A person’s destiny in life is often largely determined by the circumstances of the mother (this was particularly true in ancient times). And finally, the old crone is likely to be the one who was summoned for consultation when somebody was on their death bed, and she would be the one to pronounce that death or recovery is imminent. Maybe the stories are also an acknowledgment that if you put three like-minded ladies together, they can accomplish just about anything they set their minds to.
The story of the Fates also reflects humankind’s deep-seated history of believing, or wanting to believe, that Fate, in general, guides human events. Whether this belief represents a true reality, an unfortunate fatalistic assumption, or a respite from the unrelenting psychological pressures of indeterminism and free will, is up to debate. Then again, perhaps these stories are simply a metaphorical admission that one’s future is often partially determined by outside forces which are beyond one’s own control.
One of the articles of faith in Islam is al-qadar—the divine will and decree, or the belief in God’s predestination– whether for good or bad. The Hindu or Buddhist concept of sanskara is fate-driven in many respects. Christian theology tussles with the conflicting ideas of the inevitability of God’s will vs God’s bestowing of free will upon humankind.
Considering all this, I took a somewhat different approach with the three Fates in The Enlightening, re-imagining them as a literal trio of extraordinary women, and bringing them into the present day via an intriguing science fiction twist. Of all the sci-fi aspects of the book, this new treatment of the Fates is my very favorite, providing some food for thought from a historical perspective, as well as from a personal/present day perspective regarding how one reacts to opportunities that “fate” places in our lap. At the same time, these amazing women, who I refer to as “Time Savers” in the book, are a vehicle to illustrate relativistic time contraction in an entertaining and easy-to-understand way. So I employ a narrative which is thousands of years old to help describe a new model of the cosmos– a new way of understanding the universe, for a new millennium.
I like to think that, someday, the re-imagined Fates of The Enlightening (aka The Time Savers) will come to be considered as some of the more interesting characters in the sci-fi pantheon. And I have a great idea, regarding these characters, for the movie. OK, maybe I’m getting ahead of things just a little bit…