The Vocabulary of Myth, Part XVI

Anaximander and Moira…

     Even the gods are bound by the primordial law of justice which Anaximander projects upon the material world.  Homer himself acknowledges that its authority is older and its power greater than that of Zeus.

For though the gods are ageless and deathless, they are not eternal–they are in fact younger than the world, as the poets affirm–, nor are they omnipotent.  What limits their power above all is the prior and organizing principle of the cosmos, which Homer calls Moira.

     Homer’s conception of Moira (Destiny) is better known in later Greek myth as personified by  the Three Fates (another of those pre-Christian trinities):  Clotho, the Spinner, who spins the thread of Life; Lachesis, the Disposer of Lots, who assigns to each man his personal fate; and Atropos, She Who Would Not Be Denied, who carries the dreaded shears and cuts the thread at death.  But Moira, as an impersonal force or numen, is much older.

We encounter this cosmological Moira in the fifteenth Iliad, when Zeus awakens to find his Trojans hard pressed by the Achaeans, because they have been incited by Poseidon.  Zeus at once dispatches the messenger goddess Iris (she of the rainbow) to present Poseidon with the ultimatum to desist from any further involvement in the War, and retire contentedly to his kingdom in the sea.

To this Poseidon angrily replies:

No, no; good though he be, he spoke insolently,
If he would restrain me by force against my will,
When I am his peer in honor.  For we three are brothers,
Sons of Cronos whom Rhea bore:
Zeus and I, and Hades, lord of the world below.
All was divided in three; each received his share [moira] of honor.
I had the gray sea as my dwelling when we cast lots;
Hades, the shadowy world; Zeus the broad heavens
Among the upper air and clouds.  The earth
Is shared by all of us, along with high Olympus.
Wherefore I will not live by Zeus’ will;
Strong though he be, let him rest content with his share [moira].

Each of the three brothers, then, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, enjoys his own equal share in the government of the universe, his own sphere of influence and department of nature (sky, sea, or earth) beyond which he must not go.  In Homer, this “ordinance” is fixed by the agreement of the gods, whereas, in Anaximander, the gods as individual personalities have nominally disappeared:  the opposites (in the form of the concrete and de-mythologized “elements” air, water, and earth (which the Olympian triad formerly personified) have now taken their place.


But in Anaximander’s cosmos no less than in Homer’s, the elements and contraries are bound within their provinces by a moral law.  And this is of enormous significance for the whole Hellenic temperament, as we have seen.  The fact that the existential boundaries (moirai) of the elemental contraries are also moral boundaries means that what is “beyond destiny” is at the same time “beyond right”, and any attempt by either man or god to go “beyond what is ordained” is immediately answered by the god Nemesis, or Retribution, the personified abstraction who swiftly restores the due and proper harmony and balance.

It is Moira, then, that is ultimately behind the rudimentary Greek notion that there is an enormous gulf between the human and the divine, and that unless mortals are content “to think mortal thoughts”, as we have seen, their illicit ambition will be visited by the gods with punishment.

But whatever its precise origins, Anaximander’s concept of natural justice as the maintenance of balance and harmony amongst the opposites–as a state of “order” and boundedness in which the elements remain within their proper provinces–, became, as we will see, a commonplace in later classical cosmogony and cosmology, and indeed, in the entire Western philosophical tradition.