Beltane 2002, Vol 1-3
MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Zine for Goddess Women Near & Far
The Fates and Destiny
"What rules our lives? Is it chance, or choice, or something else? Is it the stars, or that strange force people call Lady Lucky, or Fortuna? Since the beginning of time, people have tried to figure out what determines their destiny. In Hungary, we have a saying, 'Ember tervez, Isten vegez' -- 'humans plan, god finishes.'
But the Fates are beyond even goddesses and gods. They are raw forces of nature. They are rhythms of the ebb and flow of energy, matter, and meaning - the three basic components of the universe. They were here first; they will stay to the last. Everyone's story is in the Fates' web. They are one; they are three; they are nine, three times three. Their mystery cannot be totally understood, or can it? All the other goddesses and gods became their emanations through time. It was the fate of Zeus to destroy his own father. The Norse gods cannot avoid Ragnarok. When the gods must obey the Fates, you know who is in charge.
This archetype of destiny is embedded deep in the Indo-European psyche. From India across the European continent all the way to the North Sea and the British Isles, cultures big and small have stories, symbols, and ceremonies for the forces who make destiny. Some of these overlap, some diverge, but they agree on the fundamental concept. There are three sisters who rule our lives.
The three Weird sisters are working women. They are spinners, weavers, cutters of the thread; they are writers of the Book of Life. They are blessers, birthers, deathers, dressed in white and red and black. They are fortune-tellers. They are casters of the lots. They are gamblers and luck-givers. They are living springs of water. They are mornings, noons, and nights. What they rule must be.
Since the dawn of consciousness, people have found it psychologically useful to give names and faces to the Fates. The Greeks called them the Parcae; the Romans, Fata; in Northern Europe they were the Norns, who governed men's 'wyrd,' or fate, and for Anglo-Saxons, the 'Weird' were those who could foretell the future.
I am especially fond of the word wyrd, because we use it today when something happens that we don't understand, cannot control, or fear. The word comes from a form of the old Germanic verb 'to become.' When we feel something is weird, we activate our fate receptors, the soul that knows the Fates already. Only the soul can understand something weird - the action itself, the presence of the Fates, and their effect on our lives. Often we resist their promptings only to appreciate them later on.
I had to grow up and discover the Fates for myself. The discovery, however, did not come from a book, rather it was a living process. I had to become aware. You don't really understand what the Fates can do to you unless you have had a visceral experience of them.
During the Hungarian revolution in October of 1956, I was on my way to a demonstration. When you are 16, being part of a collective uprising is very exciting. I lived on the Buda side of the Duna River, and to reach the site of the demonstration, I had to cross the bridge over to the Pest side. I was running toward the bridge when suddenly something weird happened. My feet slowed as if they were weighted down with lead. Frustrated, I redoubled my efforts, but try as I might, I could only shuffle along, furious that I was going to be late.
When I finally crossed the bridge, I heard shots. That wasn't too unusual. It was a revolution, and people had been shooting off guns in celebration for days. But when I turned the corner to the plaza, everything was silent. Too silent. Instead of a crowd of cheering, shouting people, the plaza was covered with bodies. All those who had made it to the plaza on time had been shot down. The blood was still dripping onto the stones. I stood stop-still, realizing that I had indeed arrived too late - too late for the massacre.
In Hungarian the Fates are Sors Istennok, the destiny goddesses. But their Latin name, the Parcae, means 'those who spare,' and indeed my life was spared by them that day. We all have stories about incidents during which that weird feeling, usually accompanied by fear or frustration, has come over us, and it turned out to save us in some way.
The English name for the Fates comes from the Latin word fata. In the singular, the word was fatum, meaning 'a divine utterance,' the will of a god. When a child was a week old, the fata scribundus were invoked to 'write' a good destiny for the newborn babe. The fata, with the birth goddess Eileithyia, both established and predicted the child's destiny. The word fate, fatum, comes from the same root as the words fairy and fay. So we learn the Fates are of fairy origin.
In Greek they were called the Moirae, those who allot us our fate; there was Clotho (the Spinner), who spins the thread of life, Lachesis (Disposer of Lots), who measures it out, and Atropos (the Inevitable), who cuts it off. Clotho is usually portrayed with a spindle, Lachesis with a scroll or a globe, and Atropos with scissors, a pair of scales, or a bowl for drawing lots.
When they are in good spirits, these same Fates become the three Graces. You may have seen them represented in Botticelli's Primavera or the Three Graces statue at the Getty Museum in Malibu. They are three lush women entwined in dance with one another. Their names are Aglaia (Radiant), Euphrosyne (Joy), and Thalia (Flowering). They are the companions of Aphrodite. When the Fates are angered, they are called the Furies; they are pursue like ill winds blowing and can punish with insanity. Then their names are Alecto, Tisiphone, and Magaera. They cannot be avoided. It is said that the Fates are the parthenogenetic daughters of Necessity. They have no father. They sit under the Tree of Life, next to the sacred spin, where they spin and prophesy, make pronouncements, and enforce natural law.
In Northern Europe we also find three maidens in a deep cavern. These are the Norns from the Germanic traditions, best known today from their appearance in Wagner's opera Gotterdammerung. They are named in Old Norse: Urdh, Verdandi, and Skuld. Their names come from the words for being itself, and so I will use these names for the Fates in this book.
Urdh (the same word as wyrd and weird) is all that went before. She is the past. She owns the Well of Life and the Tree of Life, which is fed by the well. Everything that has ever been belongs to the past. From this fertile background life emerges anew.
Verdandi, whose name
means 'that which is becoming,' rules what is going on right now. She
is flux. She is the flower of our energies. She is the mother time, the
ripe time, the sexual time. She is harvest time. Her symbol is the full
Skuld (whose name is related to 'shall') is the one who governs that which must be. She is the necessary outcome of the past and that which is becoming. Skuld is the inflexible one, but in some later legends she likes to ride with humans and mingle with men. She is the one who may request a kiss from a handsome man and change into a beautiful young woman if he has enough gumption to kiss her old face. Strangely, the most personable of the Fates turns out to be the death goddess. Her symbol is the crescent knife, the ghostly scythe of the Grim Reaper. The Grim Reaper is a girl.
This original model of the three sisters is the source for all the other triple goddesses, such as Hecate, who stands at the triple crossroads, her faces looking in three directions - the past, present, and future - and Triple Brigid, who appears as a healer, a goldsmith, and a lady of inspiration. It is the pattern for the trinities of maiden, mother, and crone and all the other goddesses who have three aspects. Each of the many components of our human existence required the Goddess to show a separate face and attributes. Eventually the original trinity became ten thousand aspects, each with her own name, each still harking back to the beginning, the middle, or the end of the life cycle, which the three Fates ruled.
When we summon the Fates we call them out from their deep hiding place in the unconscious. We draw them slowly into the conscious mind, illuminated by goodwill and understanding. This eternal magic can transform the powers that rule us from the misunderstood three Hags into the wonderful three Graces. Or at least we hope so. There are no guaranties with this force. But there are certain practices, a kind of etiquette of interaction with the Fates, that have worked for people before. We call it the technology of the sacred.