Late for work? Caught in the rain? Stub your toe? ‘The gods of fate are against me’! we cry. Or we would, if we lived in ancient times.
Does every living creature have a fate that rules them, or are we in control of our own destiny? Many cultures in the past believed in fate, and even anthropomorphized them as gods. In Europe, particularly, the fates were a common motif of polytheism. Being familiar with the Greco-Roman version of fate, I was curious to learn what other mythologies had to say about this concept.
Many of us will be most familiar with the three fates of Greek mythology. They are known as the Moirae, three goddesses: Klotho, the spinner, spinning the thread of life; Lakesis, the apportioner of lots, who measures the thread; and Atropos, she who cannot be turned, who cuts the thread, determining the time of death. They are usually depicted as old women, sometimes wearing crowns or carrying staffs. They would occasionally be linked with other gods/goddesses of birth and death, such as Eleithyia, goddess of birth, and the Keres, spirits of violent death. The Greeks did not see fate as entirely inflexible and felt that mankind had some control over his destiny. They also believed the gods could occasionally subvert fate.
Roman mythology, tending to copy the mythology of Greece, had similar sister goddesses who were equivalent to the Moirae, known as the Parcae. Their names are Nona, Decima, and Morta. They have the same roles as their Greek counterparts, with the analogy to spinning and thread.
Elsewhere in Europe, there were many Slavic pre-Christian religions, where the fates could be up to nine separate goddesses. They might have similar roles to the Greek and Roman goddesses, but sometimes they could be referred to as presiders over birth, judgement and death. One set of three sisters is Rozhanitsy, Narecnitsy, and Sudzhenitsy. Sometimes there was one goddess, simply called Sreca, meaning luck.
In Norse mythology there are three female deities again, but their descriptions are quite different. They are Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld, meaning past, present and future. They live by a well beneath the World Tree. They might be depicted as casting lots, weaving, or carving runes into wood in order to determine people’s destiny. There doesn’t seem to be any indication that they were worshipped – in Norse mythology their decisions were blind and binding. There was no point praying to them because it would do no good – even the gods were subject to their power. There were other versions of the Fates in Norse mythology, but this one seems to be the best known.
Lithuanian mythology gives us Dalia, the goddess of fate and weaving. Dalia gives and takes away. There is also Laima, the goddess of fate and pregnant woman. Other stories refer to the Deives Valdytojos – seven governing goddesses who were given tasks of spinning, weaving and cutting the thread and cloth of people’s lives, in a similar way to the three fates of Greek and Roman mythology.
In the religion of Ancient Egypt, Shai is the god of fate (male this time). He determined the length of life, and he could save or damn a person when their heart was being weighed after death (as he knows everything about you). He was depicted either as a human male or with the head of a snake. Apparently, Shai did have worshipper, however no temple to Shai has ever been found.
Chinese mythology has Yue Xia Lao, the God of fate or destiny. This god would attach a ‘red thread of destiny’ between people who were destined to meet, which could not be broken. Another Chinese deity is Siming, the judge of life and arbiter of fate. Siming balances yin and yang.
I found a few African gods of fate, though not a lot of information about them. Fa, god of fate for Yoruba and Fon people (Nigeria and Benin), can see the past, present and future through windows with his sixteen eyes. Enekpe is the goddess of fate for Igala people of Nigeria. The only information about her is that she sacrificed herself on the battlefield to save her people.
These days most of us don’t really believe in fate. We might talk about genetic inheritance, nature versus nurture and so on. But the idea that we are destined for a particular role in life or death at a pre-ordained time is not something we would normally believe. My feeling is that ancient peoples, who were often at the mercy of their environment, may have felt that a belief in fate was a way to make sense of their world. Why does one person prosper and another fail, when there seems nothing much to choose between them? One was fated to succeed, and one was fated to fail. Why does a good person die young? It was his fate. These days we might refer to chance, or luck, and it’s curious that when I was reading up about these deities it seems that fate, luck and chance were considered to be the same thing to them. It would follow on from this idea that there must be gods or goddesses who make these decisions, who map out what a person’s life will be.
I hope you found this brief look at gods and goddesses of fate from around the world interesting. If you know of any that I’ve missed, I’d be curious to hear about them.