Jan/Feb 2007 Nonfiction

Fate and Fortune

by Tala Bar

Artwork by Ira Joel Haber

A. Fate and Destiny

In a site by the name of Three Weird Sisters, or Wyrd Myths (see this and other links at the end of the article), a point is made of the significance of the number three in many myths around the world. In particular, this number, which was used by Robert Graves in his book The White Goddess to describe what he called The Triple Goddess, refers to what are called in this article Goddesses of Fate.

The best-known Triple Goddess of Fate in European mythology is the Greek Moira, or in the plural, the Moirae. These goddesses dealt collectively with individual threads of life. Their separate names, corresponding to their functions, are Clotho, the Spinner, who selected the Thread of Life and actually spun it; Lachesis, the Drawer of Lots, who measured the thread and evaluated its length and validity; and Atropos, whose name means "no turning aside," representing the inevitable end to life, who cut the thread and caused the death of the person who owned it. The word "moira" appears in the Greek dictionary to mean "portion," clearly referring to one's "portion of life," or destiny.

The idea that one's Fate or Destiny is the portion of life allotted to one person appears in other names and mythologies. The name of the Triple Roman Fate goddesses called "Parcae," who were considered parallel to the Greek Moirae and sometimes called Tria Fatae, derives from the root "parc-," as in "parcus," meaning "frugal" or "stingy," also explained in the Latin dictionary to mean "portion." It is also connected with the English word "parsimony," referring perhaps to the stingy lot of life one gets as destiny.

The Parcae's separate names, however, present them as having a different function than that of the Moirae. These are Nona = "Nine," referring to the beginning of human life after nine months of pregnancy, considered premature according to Roman calculation; Decima = "Ten," referring to birth after ten lunar months of pregnancy, which is normal; and Morta = "Death," referring to a stillbirth. These names, then, demonstrate the Parcae not as determining human life as a whole, but as goddesses of birth, who determine only the fate of the newborn.

A similar triple Fate goddess of Birth was the Slav spirits of deceased female ancestors, appearing as three women at the cradle of a newborn child to decide its fate, called Rodyanitse. In invisible letters they write on the child's forehead its life span, its "portion of life," which also refers to the way it will live and die.

Three goddesses of Birth were also the Latvian Laimas, called separately Laima, Dekla, and Karta. Laima, whose name means "Luck," is the deity of fate, the personification of both good and bad luck. She assists at childbirth, honored by both maidens and wives, and she controls the most important events of a person's life, such as birth, marriage and death. Dekla, whose name means "to make; to create," seems to be the goddess of beginning, or specifically, of birth. Some say that the three figures have been made to look as a triad on the model of the Greek Moirae. However, others point out that the three Latvian goddesses come from different parts of the country, and they are actually parallel goddesses of the same nature, rather than completing each other's traits and functions to express one Fate goddess.

A most prominent deity among Goddesses of Fate is the Arabic pre-Islamic Al-Menat, whose name also means "portion." She is also a Triple goddess, combined of Al-Uzza ("The Mighty Goddess"), Al-Lat ("The Goddess"), and Al-Menat ("The Portion"). The three were widely worshipped from Nabatean Petra in the North to the legendary Kingdoms of Arabia Felix in the South, including Saba, the Biblical Sheba, and as far East as Palmyra and Iran. They were very popular in Mecca at the time of Mohammed.

Al-Uzza was the most venerated of Arab deities, the Goddess of the Morning Star and parallel to Venus, Goddess of the morning and evening star. She had a temple at Petra and was considered the Protectress of that city. She was sometimes called "young girl or virgin" and, similar to the Canaanite goddess Anath, was also in charge of Love and War.

Al-Lat was The Mother, identified by Herodotus with Aphrodite and called "Mother of the Gods" and "The Greatest of All." She was the Earth Goddess of Fertility who brings prosperity, also equated with the fierce Arabian Sun goddess. Her symbol is the crescent moon (sometimes shown with the sun disk between its horns) and she wears a gold necklace sacred to the Sun. As a Fertility-Goddess, she bears a sheaf of wheat.

Al-Manat was the Crone-goddess of Fate or Time, and her name, besides meaning "portion," also meant "fate, destruction, doom, death." She is a very ancient deity and her cult may have preceded both Al-Uzza's and Al-Lat's. It was widespread, though she was particularly worshipped as a black stone at Quidaid, near Mecca. She is connected with the great pilgrimage, as her sanctuary was the starting point for several tribes. She is known from Nabatean inscriptions, and tombs were placed under her protection, asking her to curse violators. As a figure of Death, she is mentioned in poetry as an old woman holding out the cup of death. The waning moon is shown over her head as the symbol of the Crone-Goddess of Death.

The Arab Triple Fate goddess, then, expresses her whole nature, which is that of the great Triple Goddess of Life and Death in all her aspects as a young girl, a woman and mother, and the crone who brings death to all.

Names of Northern goddesses show that their function, though perhaps less clear, also encompass similar ideas. The best known of these are The Norns, considered the closest to the Greek Moirae. They were usually known as three, although sometimes said to be a group, or a sisterhood, of an indefinite number. They control the destinies of both gods and men, as well as the unchanging laws of the cosmos. The separate names of the three sisters are: Urd, "fate," Verdandi, "necessity" and Skuld, "being," also "coming into being," which makes her a Birth goddess; "fate" would be the Death goddess, and "necessity," a parallel to the Greek Lachesis, who measures one's thread of life. The Norns are connected with the World Tree Yggdrasil, at the trunk base of which they live, trying to stop the process of its decay.

There is, though, another group of Norse goddesses called Disen, who are often seen as protectors and mother figures, perhaps originating in ancestor worship. One of them must be the Love and Fertility goddess Freya, who is often called the "Dis of the Vanir." Their name is taken from old-Scandinavian mythology as Goddesses of Fate and Fertility. The female members of the Aesir and the Vanir, as well as the Valkyries, are often called Disen.

The Valkyries, though basically considered War goddesses, look more like Fate deities of Death, as they determine the death of heroes in battle. Their being messengers of Odin seems like a late myth explaining the seemingly unusual involvement of females in battle. There is some indication of their being identified with the Norns; one of them, for instance, is called Skuld, and here her name is interpreted as either "being" or "future." This strengthens the idea that she was in charge of Birth, rather than Death. Other names by which some of them are known are Eir ("Mercy"), Gondul ("Magic Wand"), Thrud ("Might"). The Valkyries' leader was Freyja, or Freya, Goddess of Love and Fertility, thus denying their sole involvement with battle and death.

In the figures of the Valkiries, one can see the ancient connection between the Goddess of Fate, who is in charge of Life and Death, and the Hero, who lives and dies according to the seasons of the year, for which the Goddess is responsible. One such Celtic Fate goddess was Morgan la Fey, variously spelled la-Fay or la-fee, sometimes explained as "fairy" and other times as "fate." The latter may be more correct, as is seen in her Latin appellation Fata Morgana. According to the Chamber's English dictionary, there is indeed an etymological connection between "fairy" and "fate." Morgan was connected with King Arthur, being both his sister and lover (in the manner of the Canaanite Anath and Baal); she was said to have been the queen of Avalon, the underworld fairyland, and to have carried King Arthur there herself. She was also the mother of Mordred, who had taken Arthur's place. Morgan is sometimes identified with the Celtic Great Triple Goddess the Morrigan, who include Badh and Macha in her triad. The Morrigan has been shown also as a Fertility goddess, and her connection with the hero Cu-Chulainn shows her as the one who is in charge of the Hero's Life and Death.

Another Fate goddess who is connected with heroes was the Etruscan Lasa, who is sometimes portrayed between Aivas and Hamphiare, who parallel the Greek heroes Ajax and Amphiaraos. According to the site by her name, Lasa can also appear in the plural, Lasae, a name given to a loose group of goddesses or sisterhood. She was closely associated with Turan, the Etruscan Goddess of Love, which emphasizes the connection between Fate in the sense of Death, and Love as the two sides of life, many times expressed by such two heroes (see Robert Graves' The Greek Myths). However, based on the way she is presented, it is possible that Lasa was both goddess of Fate and of Love. She appears in pictures in the nude, wearing only her wings, jewelry and boots, and has a strong association with a mirror, in the manner of the Love goddess Aphrodite. The mirror is said to represent either the Solar or the Lunar disk, or both.


B. Fortune and Luck

It is not always easy to distinguish between the ideas of Fate and of Fortune, or the meaning of the deities representing them. However, there is one distinction which is very apparent in modern life: the word "fortune," besides its meaning of "luck" in general (as expressed by the word "Fortunate" meaning "lucky"), many times means simply "money," blatantly ignoring such lack of luck as disease or accident, usually called "misfortunes."

The best known goddess of Luck and Fortune is, of course, the Roman goddess Fortuna, after whose name the word is formed; but it is not clear how much her name means purely "fortune" in the modern sense, and how much of it means "fate" in its wider interpretation. Fortuna was a very popular Goddess, worshipped under many epithets depending on the type of luck one wished to invoke or the circumstances in which it happened. She had many temples in Rome and in other places belonging to the Latini tribes, and was in charge of both personal and public luck. Depicted holding in one hand a cornucopia—a horn of plenty—and in the other a ship's rudder, she controlled both the direction and the products of one's life; but the rudder sometimes changed into a "wheel of fortune"—which is seen also as the disk of the Sun, making her a Seasonal goddess. Some connect her name with the root "fer-," meaning "to bring," or "get," and there is a definite idea that she was once a Fertility goddess who brought prosperity to her faithful. Alternatively, Fortuna's name may derive from that of the Etruscan Goddess Veltha or Voltumna, whose name encompasses ideas of the turning of the alternating seasons. Voltumna may have been related to the Roman Goddess Volumna, who watched over and protected children. Both of these themes are connected with Fortuna, who was often depicted with a wheel, and who was said to predict the fates of children at their birth. Here, the idea of the Goddess of Fate and Fortune goes back to its origin as expressed in the figures of the Parcae and the Laimas. As a Goddess of Fate, Fortuna naturally had the power to foretell the future, identifying her also with the Valkyria Skuld.

With Greek influence, Fortuna was equated to Tykhe, their Goddess of Luck and Fortune. Under the title Dame Fortune, Fortuna never lost her power as an allegorical figure. She makes an appearance on the card 10 of the Tarot Major Arcana, the Wheel of Fortune, and she is honored still today for she features in gamblers' prayers to "Lady Luck." She is associated with the Goddess Felicitas, the personification of happiness, and Spes, the Goddess of Hope.

The idea that the combination of good and bad luck makes Fate, as has been seen concerning the Laimas, appears also in the double figure of the Slav Dolya and Nedolya. In her positive aspect she is the Goddess of Happiness and Luck who, in high spirits, appears as a sweet young maiden, and good luck ensues. When feeling poorly, though, she becomes her opposite, a spindly old hag of sadness and dissatisfaction, who spreads ill fortune. She also has responsibility for delivering overall fates to newborn infants. Both goddesses live behind the family stove and spread fortune according to the Goddess' mood.

This overseeing and handing out "portions" to a newborn is reminiscent of the well-known fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, where the Fairies were invited to allot their portion, good or bad, to the newborn. As in the case of Morgan la-Fee, there is a clear identification of the concepts of Fairy and Fate involved in deciding the destiny of the little princess: both represent the one, or triple, Goddess of Fate and Fortune, Mistress of the Wheel of life, who holds in her hand the destiny of the world and of individuals.



Three Weird Sisters

Greek Moirae

Roman Parcae

Arabic Menat

Nordic Norns

Nordic Disen

Slav Dolya and Nedolya

Roman Fortuna

Etruscan Lasa

Norse Valkyries

Slav Rodyanitse

Morgan le Fey

Latvian Laima


Previous Piece Next Piece