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The Moirai and the thread of fate

Matthew Shirfield

One of the most evoked statements that seems to linger onto humanity is that “life is hanging by a thread,” a phrase that resonates with the ancient Greek mythological tale of the Moirai.

The three female figures of fate were Klotho (the spinner of life), Lakhesis (the allotter of lots) and Atropos (she who cut the thread short). Together, the three mysterious figures form Fate.

At birth the Moirai would spin out the thread initiating life; a thread which would continuously be spun without pause until its termination manifested death. Thus, the goddesses of fate became Moirai Thanatoio, goddesses of death.

These mythological figures are of great inspiration to artists. Diego Velázquez created his Las Hilanderas (1657), a work wherein the myth of Arachne is merged with the Moirai. The contest of the best weaved tapestry unfolds in the background whilst the figures in the foreground continue to spin their thread, suspended in time. A darker merciless interpretation of the subject was captured by Goya’s Atropos (1819–1823). Here the three grotesque fates are depicted spinning the thread of the central figure in front. He lays seated with bound up hands unable to alter his determined thread of fate from approaching the faceless Atropos and her fatal scissors.

The Moirai are at times compared to the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Through their rhythmic cyphers of “double, double toil and trouble”, the three hags entice and enmesh the tragic protagonist in a meticulously spun web of foiled ambition and catastrophic consequences.

Whether, active or merely passive authors of fate, the Moirai continue to spin their thread.

“Fair is foul, and foul is fair;

Hover through the fog and filthy air.”

Diego Velázquez, ‘Las Hilanderas’, 1657.


Francisco Goya, ‘Atropos’, 1819–1823.

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