From the very first time that pen was set to paper, poets and writers wrote about the subject that probably preoccupies us the most: fate. The past is over; we know it can’t be altered, but the future is still changeable. What we do now, will affect what we become tomorrow. This has largely become the modern view, but many people, and particularly more religious thinkers, feel that our fate is not in our own hands but mostly out of them. In other words, try as you may, you cannot change what has been set down, and possibly even since the moment you were born. This view of fate sets aside the idea of free will, the belief that we can shape our own destiny, in favour of a more deterministic, resigned approach, characterised in some cultures by the words, ‘if it pleases God’, or ‘if God wills it.’
At the time of the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks, this belief was standard thinking. In very early Greek literature, the poet Hesiod writes about three women who spin the fabric of destiny for the mortals. The Spinner makes the thread of life; the Allotter puts it together and the Unalterable one cuts it where it has to end. That is your lot; deal with it as you can. The heroes of Greek poetry were convinced that they could not change their fate, even though they did their best at times, pleading for a bit of slack from the gods when things turned nasty. Not that it did them much good, since the gods had the last word, and that word was immutable. But what about the Ancient Egyptians, whose civilisation predates the Greeks by at least a couple of millennia?
The Ancient Egyptians allotted the role of fateful decision-making to not three but seven elderly ladies, who again decided the moment of death at the moment of birth. There was, however, one glimmer of hope on the horizon. If you knew your fate, there was a chance that you could change it. But you would still have to petition the gods to have any hope of success.
Eventually, the Greeks modified their approach. Philosophers such as Aristotle felt that people should take greater responsibility for their fate, and that absolute determinism (the conviction that the gods or a God controls our destiny from A to Z) took away individual freedom and was therefore undesirable and even potentially dangerous.
Astronomy was a growing discipline at the time, and universal law was just beginning to be examined by Greek scholars; they drew their inspiration from the Babylonians who had already conceived of astrology as a more ‘religious’ interpretation of astronomy. Epicurus, a Greek scholar living in the third century BC, went as far as saying that there were ‘swerves’ of fate, that some things happened because they had to, and so were unchangeable, others happened randomly, and some could be controlled by humankind. Fate was finally removed from the lap of the gods and placed neatly in our own. What were we going to do about it?
Without a doubt, resignation to one’s fate is a good deal simpler than taking responsibility for it. The idea that we are directly responsible for everything that happens to us can be liberating to some, uncomfortable to others. It can, at worst, make us paranoid; at best it can make us dynamic. Once Epicurus had put pen to paper, people did not waste much time in tipping the question of fate back the way of the gods, or the one God, specifically.
Christianity was more than ready to welcome us back from the brink of free will with open arms; as divine will took over again, the relief must have been great. But there were other cultures that took up the matter of fate and wove their own conclusions into the cloth. One of these was Anglo-Saxon, a culture of Germanic/Celtic origin, which had a radically different take on the subject of when and how and why.
The Norse gods were a driving force in Germanic culture, but they did not have the final word. The three wise women came back on the scene, and they carved the destinies of children into the tree of the present that grew from the well of the past — but what about the future?
The carvings on the tree were seen as a possible future, but not a fixed one. The tree took its water from the well, but it then branched out however it saw fit. The present has the power to change the future. Interestingly, not just the future of one person, but also the future of many, as one branch can feed into other branches, on which those branches then depend. Fate deepens, branches out. The choices that we make suddenly become that much more significant because their range is greater. What we do as individuals can have a greater or lesser impact on those we come into contact with, and sometimes even indirectly. In this model, humankind is bound together in a web of fate; one touch here or there, and things will change for someone.
We all feel this, intuitively, but the desire to see the future as having been already preconceived remains strong. Astrology continues to have a broad appeal, and many turn to clairvoyants to get a handle on the future, for better or for worse. In which case whatever we may learn from them could once again alter what we do. Would the carvings on the tree then be rewritten? And if so, have we really gained more control, or simply changed one set of possible outcomes for another?