Some scholars have argued that the Fates were simply borrowed into other cultures from Greco-Roman mythology. It is possible that the motif of three fate goddesses in particular is Greco-Roman in origin. However, the presence of spinning, weaving fate goddesses and ‘birth fairies’ in older cultures, such as the Hittite Gulses or the Egyptian Seven Hathors, as well as the similarities with figures from far-off cultures indicates the concept did not begin with the Greeks or Romans. More likely, these deities have a common Indo-European root. Many believe they are very ancient deities, pre-dating the Indo-European migrations.
The Latin word fata (itself coming from fari, “to speak”, implying prophecy) is the root for words such as fate and fairy. It was applied to goddesses associated with destiny (as in fatae, fatales deae or sorores fatalis) and also female supernatural beings immanent within wellsprings or other natural places, by medieval clerics. In particular, these medieval writers recognized the belief and worship of ‘birth fairies’ or fates by women who set a table with offerings for them after the birth of a child.
Birth fairies can be understood to be the descendants of earlier fate goddesses, firstly because of the shared etymological roots of their names (fairy from fata) and also due to their similar, if diminished, functions. Perhaps the best example of these ‘birth fairies’ known to us today are characters in the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, where fairies are invited to attend a newborn princess’ birth and bestow blessings upon her - all save one, who curses the princess instead since she was not extended an invitation. The dreaded spinning wheel (spinning and weaving also being symbols of fate) is an important feature of the story as well.
The earliest documented example of supernatural women appearing at a birth to pronounce a child’s fate or destiny may be the Seven Hathors, who appear to be aspects (or servants) of the Egyptian goddess Hathor. Other birth fairies and fateful demi-goddesses have persisted in the myths and folklore of European cultures for millennia, for example the Breton Good Mothers, the German Bethen, the Hungarian Boldogasszony, the Albanian Fatit, the Baltic Laimos, the Roma Gypsy Ursitory, the Sudice or Rozhanitsy of Slavic mythology, etc.
The Ursitory in particular are interesting because they are the only birth fairies, that I know of, who can be male or female. All other birth fairies appear to be exclusively women. Their name means “white women” or white ladies, and they are believed to appear in groups of three. Many birth fairies are led by a fairy queen, and the Ursitory are no different - their queen is named Matuya. The Romani believed the Ursitory, like many other birth fairies, arrived on the third night after a birth in order to foretell a child’s future. Two of them are believed to be benevolent, and the third less kind.
Some ‘birth fairies’ preside over other aspects of the human life cycle as well, attending not only births but also weddings and funerals. The Hungarian Boldogasszony, which translates to “happy woman”, not only foretells or governs a newborn child’s fate but also bestows blessings, such as fertility, throughout life. There is a leader or great Boldogasszony (sometimes called Nagy Boldogasszony) and daughters called Kis Boldogasszony, or “little happy women”. Although today associated with Saint Anne, the Virgin Mary or both, the Boldogasszony was once a powerful pagan goddess.
The line is considerably blurred between fairies, demi-goddesses or divine female collectives, and the more ancient primordial goddesses of fate. Birth, death, and fate were closely interlinked in the minds of ancient pre-Christian peoples and thus many deities were associated with these concepts - to discuss all of them is far beyond the scope of this article, but we can mention a few goddess figures associated specifically with fate.
The Greeks had Ananke, considered a primordial goddess of destiny. More specifically, she governed “necessity” or unalterable fate. She has been depicted as a serpent or part-serpent, who entwines and mates with the serpentine Orphic Khronos, or “Time”. The Orphics believed they were the animating forces of the universe, and that Ananke controlled the fate of all - not even the gods were beyond her power. Interestingly, Plato’s Republic mentions a vision experienced by a soldier returned from the dead in which he witnessed Ananke turning a spindle of diamonds.
Plato’s Republic also states that Ananke is the mother of the classical Fates, the Greek Moirae. Their name derives from an ancient Greek word meaning “to apportion”. They were often depicted as spinning, measuring and cutting thread, symbolizing their control over all aspects of human life. Even the gods were subject to their rulings, although for some Greeks Zeus was believed to be the only god who had dominion over them. Most commonly, they were shown as three goddesses: Clotho the spinner, Lachesis the measurer, and Atropos who cuts the thread of life, her name meaning literally “unturning”, signifying the inevitable. Some suggest that the Fates, who may have originally been depicted as a single goddess, Moira or Aisa, trace their roots to Mycenean religion. Caves, and chthonic divinities associated with birth, death and fate, such as the goddess Eileithyia, featured prominently in the mythology and religion of the Myceneans, and continue to be associated with the Fates in modern Greek folklore.
The Romans had Fortuna, an oracular goddess governing fate and fortune, as her name suggests, whose primary symbol was the wheel of fortune. The Roman Parcae were represented very similarly to the Moirae, as a triad of spinners and weavers, named Nona, Decima and Morta (spinner, measurer, and thread cutter/personification of death respectively).
The Baltic goddess Laima controlled fate, birth and death. Shapeshifting Baltic birth fairies, called Laimos, also depicted as spinners and weavers, were led by her (they may be aspects of the goddess Laima or her servants). She may also be linked to the Laumės, another collective of shapeshifting fairy-goddesses. Her rituals were commonly held in bathhouses, which also served as birthing houses, and due to her association with fiber arts she was given fabric offerings of woven or embroidered cloths. Laima was also associated with sacred stones and wells, like many other fate-life-death goddesses.
Although little is known about them beyond what can be gleaned from archaeological findings, the cult of The Mothers was also linked to healing springs, stones and other natural places. The Mothers, known as Matres or Matronae, were ancient goddesses worshiped over a large part of Europe. Their cult is believed to be Celtic and Germanic in origin, although they are only known to us from Roman style inscriptions and votive offerings. The later norns, valkyries, disir and Celtic goddesses and fairy women bear many resemblances to the Matres and Matronae, whether or not they are directly descended from them. From their names, inscription and iconography we know they were goddesses of birth, life, death, fertility, and protection. Typically depicted in threes, though not always, they were identified by the Romans with the Fates or Parcae. In addition to items representing their powers over birth, fertility, abundance and the underworld, they were also shown with spindle, distaff, scroll, steering rudder and globe, all common symbols of fate. They are also depicted in some cases alongside trees, entwined by serpents with birds seated at the top (symbols of regeneration, but scholars are unsure whether these are Roman/Mediterranean or Germanic in origin).
In Norse mythology, the primordial giant maidens known as the Norns are inextricably linked with the Tree of Life and Well of Origin, not unlike the older Mothers. At the base of the World Tree lies the serpent-dragon Nidhogg, gnawing at its roots, and at the top of Yggdrasil sits a great eagle.
In the poem Völuspá the Norns are described as carving (possibly runes) on sticks. In other poems and sagas, they are said to “shape” fate (skop and skapa meaning ‘fate’ as well as shape), as in a thulur which states “Norns are called those women who shape what must be”, or a runic inscription in Norway which says, “The norns did both good and bad. They shaped a lot of sorrow for me.”
The names of the norns tell us a lot about them, and how the Norse may have understood the concept of destiny. When they are represented as three beings, their names are given as Urd, Verdandi and Skuld. Urd, like the Anglo-Saxon Wyrd, has deep roots, believed to go back to Proto-Indo-European *Wert, meaning “to turn, spin, revolve”. While Urd means something like “that which has turned”, and implying “became”, the name Verdandi is the present meaning “turning” or “becoming”. Skuld, related to our English word “shall”, means “shall be”, or more accurately, “must be”. This spinning, turning movement through time implies spinning thread on a spindle and shaping the living world into existence. Like the Greek Fates, they lay down judgment or law, known to the Norse as örlög (the primal layer or law), and even the gods are subject to their power.
The Völuspá describes the Norns emerging from a lake, or the Well of Fate, while Snorri depicts them as living in a beautiful hall “under the ash tree by the well”. Since the World Tree is damaged by the many creatures living on it, the Norns are said to wash it down with healing water from the well and a substance called aurr, usually translated as white mud or clay. However, some scholars have suggested that it also refers to a sweet white susbtance excreted by ash trees known as “manna”. The Völuspá also describes dew, which Snorri calls honey-dew, dripping from the Tree. Ash tree manna and honey were thought to be related susbtances in the ancient world. The Greeks called manna melia, honey meli and ash tree nymphs were called Meliae. Manna, due to its high sugar content, could be fermented and made into an intoxicating drink much like honey. The Völuspá uses the term mjötvið to describe the Tree, often translated as “measuring tree” or “fate tree”, but perhaps it also suggests miöðvið, “mead tree”. Scandinavian folk traditions also included giving offerings of honey, mead, ale and food to vårdträd or “guardian trees” (which may have been local representations of the World Tree).
Honey is common as an offering to the fates in various European cultural traditions as well. In his book Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion, John Cuthbert Lawson describes women in Greece bringing offerings of honey, honey cakes, milk and white almonds to sacred caves believed to be inhabited by the Fates. There, they would propitiate them with their offerings and prayers. He also says of the Greek Fates in modern times that a table would be set with offerings for them following the birth of a child.
As mentioned above, it was traditional in many European cultures to set out a festive offering table to fates and birth fairies after the birth of a child, to honour them and encourage them to bestow a kindly fate on newborn babies. Various traditions call from anywhere from a single, three, seven or thirteen place settings. A plate, cup, and knife should be included for every fate or birth fairy in attendance.
Other occasions for honouring the fates vary, including certain times of the year when various spirits, demi-goddesses and fairies wandered and brought blessings or curses to each home, such as the twelve nights of Yule. Honey is always an appropriate offering and, presumably, encourages the fate-fairies to ‘sweeten’ the destiny of a child or blessings of a household. Other traditional gifts include milk, wine, mead, flowers, fruit, nuts, bread, and porridge. In Scandinavia, the nornagraut or “norns’ porridge” is porridge or oatmeal given to the mother to eat following a birth, while part of it is saved to give as an offering to the three norns.
In our household, we set out a table for the primordial goddesses of fate, birth and death as well as the female collective spirits known to the Norse as disir and to the Gauls and Germans as Matres and Matronae, on Mother’s Night (December 24). The medieval historian Bede described Mōdraniht included ceremonies held in honour of divine female beings identified as “Mothers” by the Anglo-Saxons, which scholars also believe are linked to the very early Celtic and Germanic cults of matrons/mothers as well as to Scandinavian Norns and disir.
Much more can be said of birth fairies and fate goddesses, not least of which is the important connection between spinning, weaving and destiny. This will be discussed at length in another article.
References and Further Reading:
Ananke. (n.d.). From Theoi Project. Retrieved September 21, 2016 from http://www.theoi.com/Protogenos/Ananke.html.
Beck, Noemie. Goddesses in Celtic Religion. Cult and Mythology: A Comparative Study of Ancient Ireland, Britain and Gaul. Doctoral Thesis: University College of Dublin, published December 4, 2009.
Dashu, M. (2016). Witches and pagans: women in European folk religion 700-1100. Richmond, CA: Veleda Press.
Davidson, H.R. (1988). Myths and symbols in pagan Europe: early Scandinavian and Celtic religions. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
Dumont, D.J. (1992). The Ash Tree in Indo-European Folklore. Mankind Quarterly, 32(4), 323-336.
Illes, J. (2010). The encyclopedia of spirits: the ultimate guide to the magic of fairies, genies, demons, ghosts, gods & goddesses. New York: Harper Collins.
Laima. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved September 21, 2016 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laima.
Larrington, C. (1996). The Poetic Edda. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lawson, J.C. (1910). Modern Greek folklore and ancient Greek religion: a study in survivals. Cambridge: Cambridge University.
Lecouteux, C. (1995). Le Repas des Fées. Bizarre 1, 12-18.
Moirae. (n.d.). From Theoi Project. Retrieved September 21, 2016 from http://www.theoi.com/Daimon/Moirai.html.