“When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”
“When the hurly-burly’s done,
“When the battle’s lost and won”.
That will be ere the set of sun.”
“Where’s the place?”
“Upon the heath”
“There to meet with Macbeth.”
(Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act I)
(Image source: Wikipedia)
Fate is a concept that has run a course through fiction, mythology, history, and philosophy since the early days of humanity, so it should be little surprise that it makes a prominent appearance in The Cities Eternal. The exact nature of fate, however, and the trio of women who appear to command it is left largely ambiguous, and deliberately so. In today’s post, however, we will examine the mythic origins of the three sisters and what they represent.
A trio of witches determining fate is a common theme in western myth and storytelling. The Greek Moirai, the Roman Parcae, the Norse Norns, and Shakespeare’s Wyrd Sisters are all variations on the same theme: a trio meant to represent past, present and future. The Sisters in The Cities Eternal are a deliberate amalgamation of their traits. They carry the properties and names of all three, for they are all three. We saw in The Wolves of Rome that some gods can change their behavior or appearance under different epithets. And more recently in Where All Roads Lead we saw that across pantheons even gods with common origins such as Ares and Mars can be very different. The trio, however, are specifically not gods. They are something older, more ephemeral, and altogether more powerful.
The names of the fates and the bodies of the witches can be seen more as vessels than true forms. Like an actor playing a role, when one wishes to confer with the being known as Atropos, then the younger sister inhabits that form and that pattern. It is the form most people know, but it is nothing but a mask for the tenders of fate to wear. The Younger sister might also take the name of Skuld, Morta, or simply the Grim Reaper.
And the sisters are not fate. A deliberate choice was to make the trio of sisters the menders and caretakers of the “threads” of fate rather than a representation of fate itself. Fate is a non-living but constantly shifting idea, best represented by the threads of a tapestry. The Elder Sister spins new threads and tends the threads that have already been woven. The Middle Sister ensures that everything is woven properly in place, measuring the lengths that will be needed. The Youngest sister plans the shape the tapestry will take, and cuts the threads once they have been put in place. Together they weave a tapestry of fate that dictates the rise and fall of people, nations, and worlds.
So who are the mythological figures from which these figures drew inspiration?
The most well-known are the Fates, also known as the Moirai, of Greek Mythology. Rather than past, present, and future explicitly, they were identified more as the ones who weaved, measured, and cut the threads representing the lives of gods, heroes, and mortals. As with similar figures they numbered three: Clotho, whose name meant “spinner”, who would spin the threads of fate from a distaff onto a spindle; Lachesis, whose name meant “allotter”, who would measure the length of the thread, the length representing their allotted lifetime; and Atropos, whose name meant “unturnable” who held the “Abhorred shears” to cut the thread of life when it reached its end. In a reverse of their Norse counterparts, Atropos is the eldest while Clotho is the youngest, as they are more representative of the three stages of life as opposed to the passage of time.
As with many figures of Greek mythology, these three had prominent Roman counterparts, known as the Parcae. Their roles and symbols are largely similar, with Clotho becoming Nona (the Ninth, as it was on the ninth day of life a Roman child was named and from that day their thread was woven), Lachesis became Decima (the Tenth), and perhaps most disturbingly Atropos became Morta (the Dead One).
The power of these figures varied across time. One of Zeus’ Epithets was “Master of Fate” and he was occasionally seen as able to command the Moirai to follow his will. On other occasions, however, even the gods are beholden to the fates chosen for them by the Moirai, Fate was a powerful force in Greek mythology that even the gods feared. This can be seen near the end of The Wolves of Rome, where Zeus implies that the fates have ceased to listen to him with the Days of Revelation, as our trio have their own business to conduct.
The Norse equivalent of the trio are the Norns. Classically they appeared as a trio: Urd (from the same word meaning “wyrd/fate”), the Eldest. Verdandi (Meaning “present/happening”), the Middle Sister, and Skuld (“debt/future”) the youngest. Unlike the Moirai, the trio did not have predefined roles save perhaps what can be gleaned from the etymology of their names. They work together, rather than separately, to divine the fates of men and the path the world would take. They draw knowledge from the Well of Fate and tend to the World Tree Yggdrassil. Another unusual feature of the Norns is that there are implied to be many, or at least they take different forms. They are often conflated with Norse sorceresses (Volvas) and Valkyries, and in the words of the dragon Fafnir in the Poetic Edda:
“Of many births
the Norns must be,
Nor one in race they were;
Some to gods, others
to elves are kin,
And Dvalin’s daughters some.”
This implies that Norns either appeared as, or occurred as gods such as the Aesir, giants,elves, and dwarves. In Norse mythology this may have been literal, with many Norns existing across the worlds. In The Cities Eternal the number stays at three, but those three can take any shape or form they desire, and are not as easily bound by things like time and causality.
This image of the trio of witches who could determine the time of birth and death as well as the fates of nations, has been repeated in fantastic literature ever since the image first appeared in mythology, most prominently in the play Macbeth by original wordsmith William Shakespeare. There the “Weyward/Wyrd/Weird” Sisters acted as a warning and prophecy to the ambitious Thane Macbeth, a decidedly fantastic element in the tragedy.
Our trio in The Cities Eternal is at once possibly the most powerful and the most ephemeral. They are the tenders of fate, its guardians and its diviners, unreachable by all when they do not wish to be found. The Younger Sister, be she Atropos, Morta, or Skuld, is every bringer of death across cultures. She is the diviner of the future and the one who deals out death at the allotted time. Whether she can be bargained with is debatable, as her plans are entirely inscrutable. Does winning a game of chance against the Unturnable One mean you have truly added years to your allotted time, or was it always part of the plan, and you always had those years to begin with?
Only the Three Sisters can see the threads, and they aren’t telling.