This intriguing painting, created by the American artist Susan MacDowell Eakins (c. 1851-1938), was inspired by the Fates (or Moirai) of Greek mythology. Named Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, the Fates were an enigmatic trio of goddesses who oversaw births, deaths, and the string of destiny that links the two events together. Ancient Greek sources had little consensus on the origins of these goddesses, and similar complex impasses were reached in discussions about the mind-boggling power dynamics that occurred whenever the Fates encountered other gods and goddesses. As for the original parentage question, many names were proposed as the possible progenitor of the Fates. Some claimed they were spawned by primordial Chaos; others proposed they were daughters of Night; Necessity was also an offered name, and the goddess, Earth, was mentioned as a possible parent, as was the great god Zeus. In regard to hierarchy between the Fates and the gods, the situation is the same. Many poets and scholars claimed they were led in some way by the high-god, Zeus, but this theological opinion was countered by a rival faction of writers who declared that Zeus and all the gods were solidly bound to the decrees of the Fates. It mattered little to Zeus, for regardless of if he was the father or the leader of the Fates, he found them to be staunch supporters and active allies of his reign in Olympus. While no quotes from the texts of the ancients seem a perfect match for Susan MacDowell Eakins’ painting, this passage from Plato’s Republic comes close:
“Three other women were also sitting on thrones which were evenly spaced around the spindle. They were the Fates, the daughters of Necessity, robed in white, with garlands on their heads; they were Lachesis, Clotho, and Atropos, accompanying the Sirens’ song, with Lachesis singing of the past, Clotho of the present, and Atropos of the future. Clotho periodically laid her right hand on the outer circle of the spindle and helped to turn it; Atropos did the same with her left hand to the inner circles, and Lachesis alternately helped the outer circle and the inner circles on their way with one hand after the other” (Plato, The Republic, 617c).
Susan MacDowell Eakins paints a similar scene in her artwork. It shows the three Fates, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, sitting side-by-side and interacting with each other. Their fateful spinning wheel, for now, sits off to the side of the sisters as they enjoy a break from their destined work.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Republic by Plato, translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, 2008.
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Theogony and Works and Days by Hesiod, translated by M. L. West. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, 1999, 2008.