The Greeks Believed in Fate

Fate explained why bad things happened to good people

Does Fate still play a role in our lives?

In ancient Greece, Fate wasn’t a single divine being. The three Moirai of Greek mythology were women with a subtle, but awesome, power. They decided a person’s destiny and determined whether that person was good or evil. They also chose how long a person’s life would be.

  • Clotho, the spinner, spun the thread of life;
  • Lachesis, the measurer, chose which lot in life one would have and measured off how long that life would last;
  • And, with her scissors, Atropos—she who could not be turned—cut the thread of life.
The Three Fates Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Date: 1558–59. Creator Giorgio Ghisi artist Italian (ca 1520–1582); after Giulio Romano, artist (image via The Metropolitan Museum of Art via Creative Commons; Accession number: 175016–125.)

Greek tragedies are all about Fate, either the Fate that is caused by a person’s fatal flaw, such as pride—“hubris”—or Fate that is caused by a quality that might ordinarily be thought of as beneficial, even praiseworthy.

Cassandra, the Clairvoyant

Cassandra was a prophetess whose Fate was to foretell future events correctly but never be heeded or believed. She was the daughter of Priam, Troy’s last king, and his wife Hecuba. Below, she’s standing on the steps of a Trojan temple and warning her compatriots about the tragedy that’s about to unfold. She could foretell Troy’s Fate and wanted her fellow citizens to be on their guard. She warns them not to allow the Trojan Horse through the gates of Troy. (Look in the upper right quadrant of the engraving to see the famous horse standing outside the gates of the city.)

an engraving showing the Greek prophetess Cassandra warning the Trojans about their Fate
Cassandra Foretells the Trojans Their Fate. Artist: Bernard Picart (French, 1673–1733). Culture: French. Date: 1731. (via Yale University Art Gallery, public domain; Object number: 1986.2.60.)

Euripides’ play, The Trojan Women, dramatizes what happens to the women who ultimately become captives of the victors. After the Greeks destroy the city, Cassandra embraces her imminent slavery and servitude to the Greek’s leader, Agamemnon. She has foreseen the future and knows that her Fate lies in humbling herself and, thus, fulfilling her destiny. Proximity to Agamemnon will allow her to avenge her loved ones’ deaths.

The Idea of “Fate” Has Gone Out of Favor

Nowadays, we’re largely insulated from tragedies that, to the Greeks, seemed “fated”—until a spouse is killed in an auto accident, until a parent dies, until a child dies young, or until a man in the prime of life contracts ALS. All these events fall outside the norm of Saturday morning soccer and parents’ date-nights out. Living our busy lives, it’s easy to push away thoughts of our own mortality—the calamitous meteor crashing through the roof of our house.

And, yet, bad things do happen to good people. We are those good people, and we’re startled when the intruders—the Fates—knock on our door.

When the Fates Come Knocking

A calamity is what happens to Colleen Gallagher, the protagonist in my novel, Montpelier Tomorrow. The Fates came knocking a second time. Except, this time they didn’t come to her door. They come to her daughter’s door, and Colleen just happens to be visiting. The thing is, bad things had happened to Colleen before.

As Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” In Colleen’s case, the shock of her young husband’s unforeseen death had sensitized her to disaster. As a young widow, living in the aftermath of trauma, she sought explanations, found none, and then replayed the bad thing in her head, trying to find an explanation for why she’d been left to raise three children on her own.

Can You See Disaster Coming?

Colleen is not quite like Cassandra. She knows that a person can’t, in fact, anticipate the “bad thing.” Lightning doesn’t strike twice, she believes. Or, possibly, because her own life had been drastically altered, she subconsciously thinks that Fate, or the Fates, will not strike her family again. Maybe, she even hopes that her misfortune has insulated her children.

“I can picture myself innocently walking through the house, curious about the life my daughter had begun to construct for herself. It was the last moment of tranquility before fate blindsided me, blindsided me again, I should say, because my husband’s death had also come at me out of the blue, on just such an ordinary day.”

Colleen Gallagher speaking from the pages of Montpelier Tomorrow

But the moment her son-in-law tells her he has ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, she feels a skin-prickling dread. She knows she must stand between the “bad thing” and her daughter. At a very minimum, she feels compelled to warn her daughter that the bad thing is coming, and that she had better beware.

Understandably, like the Trojans, Colleen’s daughter cannot bear to look beyond the gates of the city. A young wife and mother, she refuses to believe that Colleen’s dire warnings would come true. Inevitably, their world views clash. Soon, they are living in the pressure cooker of caregiving, sleep deprivation, and ALS. With the hope that she can affirm her daughter’s desire to make the most of the time she and her husband have left, Colleen throws herself into planning a special “last Christmas” in Vermont.

Over the course of the novel, Colleen’s own life veers off course. But, to have any hope of saving her beloved child, Colleen must throw herself under the bus.

Unfortunately, Colleen has a fatal flaw. She is proud, determined, and convinced that she has super-human strength. However, in a battle with the Fates, it’s not a given that a mere mortal will win.

A New Edition of Montpelier Tomorrow

I recently recovered the rights to my novel, Montpelier Tomorrow, and republished it with Grand Canyon Press. Probably this is an instance of a writer, namely me, returning to her own material. I actually like writing about people and situations where there’s not a predictable outcome. I hope this new edition is going to find its way on the bookshelves of new readers.

Below are some reviews from the previous edition. It’s really gratifying when readers understand a book on a deep level, and it’s especially gratifying because this book is definitely not a beach read.

Montpelier Tomorrow is one of those books where if you asked five people what it’s about, you might get five different answers. Yes, it’s about a family dealing with the father being diagnosed and living with ALS. But it’s also about the things we do for our children to support them, even in adulthood, and the relationship between husbands and wives.


Her honest portrayal of powerlessness, annoyance, compassion, and humor underscore how there are no saints when it comes to long-term caregiving—only ordinary individuals trying to summon their best.

—Karen Rigby for Foreword Clarion Review

MacDonald throws in an interesting cast (many of who have dysfunctional qualities of one form or other)—a mix of family, friends, neighbors, medical people, and strangers—that together turns her well-scripted plot into a more realistic extension of Seinfeld.

—Anita Lock for The US Review

MacDonald’s characters are endearingly human; the gregarious Maureen, the willful but forlorn Esmeralda and her dog Bear; and of course, Colleen herself who, like many mothers, takes on a superhero’s role, doing what needs to be done without complaint but with increasing levels of exhaustion.

Literary Fiction Book Review

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