The Goddess Nemesis, the Greek Goddess of Fate and Retribution: Mythology, History and Archaeology
2. The Names of Goddess Nemesis
3. The Lineage of Goddess Nemesis
4. Portrayals of Goddess Nemesis
5. Stories related to Goddess Nemesis
6. Goddess Nemesis in Roman Mythology
7. Hymns to Goddess Nemesis
8. Goddess Nemesis as a political figure
9. Temples dedicated to Goddess Nemesis
10. Altar dedications made to Goddess Nemesis
11. Festivals dedicated to Goddess Nemesis
Goddess Nemesis was the Greek goddess of divine indignation and retribution against evil deeds and underserved good fortune. She was the personification of the resentment aroused in both gods and mortals by those who committed crimes with impunity, or who enjoyed underserved luck.
Goddess Nemesis directed human affairs in such a way as to maintain equilibrium. Happiness and unhappiness were measured out by her, care being taken that happiness was not too frequent or too excessive. If this happened, Goddess Nemesis could bring about losses and suffering.
As the goddess who checked extravagant favours through 'Tyche' (fate or fortune), she was regarded as an avenging or punishing deity. Individuals favoured by fortune who failed to give proper dues to the gods, became too full of himself and boasted of his abundant riches, or refused to improve the lot of his fellow humans by sharing his luck would face the retribution of Goddess Nemesis, who would intervene to bring that person back to reality by humiliating him and causing his downfall.
Nemesis was the Greeks' conscience, for as the goddess of retribution, she personified moral reverence for the natural order of things and provided a deterrent to wrongful action.
Nemesis was a feared and revered goddess. She represented divine justice, vengeance and karma. She pursued the wicked, bringing to them what they deserved. Despite her hard aspects, she was a bringer of balance and of lessons needed to be learned. She helped uphold the balance of the universe; the sense of right and wrong. Through her lessons, those who have wronged may learn the errors of their ways. She was said by some to be a fierce figure, of pure revenge, but she did not enact vengeance out of anger, rather she did it out of disciplining so that men may learn the full range of lessons life teaches so they may become complete individuals. She was often considered to be the 'hit-woman' of the gods, and in essence this is exactly what she was.
2. The Names of Goddess Nemesis
Her name was derived from the Greek words 'nemesis' and 'nemo', meaning dispenser of dues, and can be variously translated from the Greek as 'she who distributes or deals out', 'due enactment' or 'divine vengeance'.
The word was derived from the root 'nem/nom', which means distribution or apportionment. The verb 'nemein' means to apportion, distribute or graze. The related words 'nomos' (with accents on first and second o's respectively) mean pasture or law. The verb 'nemeson' means to begrudge. While the original meaning of Nemesis was 'allotment' or 'apportionment', it came to mean the feeling provoked by the violation of the rules of fairness.
Nemesis was also known as Adrasteia, which in Greek means 'inescapable'. It is said that this name was taken either from the king, Adrastos. An alternative mythology has it that this name came from the ancient Adrastos who suffered divine wrath for his boasts against the Thebans He had established a shrine to Goddess Nemesis, who in certain parts of Greece then acquired the name Adrasteia.
She was also sometimes called Rhamnusia or Rhamnusis, in honour of her sanctuary at Rhamnos.
Later, the Romans often used the Greek name for her, but sometimes called her Invidia (Jealousy) or Rivalitas (Jealous Rivalry).
3. The Lineage of Goddess Nemesis
In Greek mythology Goddess Nemesis is most commonly described as the daughter of Nyx and Erebus. Her mother, Nyx, was goddess of the night. Nyx was spawned from the primordial chaos, along with Erebus, Her brother. Phanus, a sun god, is suggested to also be her father in some myths. With Erebus, Nyx is said to have mothered Aether (the upper air) and Hemera (day). It is also said that on her own she gave birth to Moros (doom), Hesperides, Thanatos (death), Themis (morals), Hypnos (sleep), Apate (deceit), the fates and Nemesis. Because of the nature of her mother, Nemesis also developed the name, 'daughter of night'.
Nyx resided in 'Tartarus', the hell of the underworld, which is buried both deep below it and also forms part of it. Nyx left 'Tartarus' and went out into the world each day and went back as Hemera (day) returned. Erebus represented the gloomy darkness of 'Tartarus'.
The Greek epic poem 'Theogony' by Hesiod (8th or 7th century B.C.) refers to Nemesis being the daughter of Nyx as follows:
And Night bore hateful Doom and black Fate and Death, and she bore Sleep and the tribe of Dreams. And again the goddess murky Night, though she lay with none, bare Blame and painful Woe, and the Hesperides who guard the rich, golden apples and the trees bearing fruit beyond glorious Ocean. Also she bore the Destinies and the ruthless avenging Fates, Clotho and Lachesis and Atropos, who give men at their birth both evil and good to have, and they pursue the transgressions of men and gods: and these goddesses never cease from their dread anger until they punish the sinner with a sore penalty. Also deadly Night bore Nemesis (indignation) to afflict mortal men, and after her, Deceit and Friendship and hateful Age and hard-hearted Strife.
This is re-enforced by other sources; Pausanias's 'Description of Greece' a Greek travelogue written in the 2nd century, by Pseudo-Hyginus, a Roman mythographer of the 2nd century and also by Cicero, the Roman rhetorician in 'De Natura Deorum' written in the 1st century, who refers to Invidentia [Nemesis] as being one of the children of Erebus (Darkness) and Nyx (Night).
There are other mythologies surrounding the parentage of Nemesis. Pausanias in his 'Description of Greece' cites that some people believed that Nemesis's father was Okeanos, the primeval river-ocean that encircled the world, and that in Smyrna they
…believe in two Nemeses instead of one, saying their mother is Nyx, while the Athenians say that the father of the goddess in Rhamnos is Okeanos.
A further description of Nemesis's parentage from a fragment of a Greek epic of the 7th or 6th century B.C. by Stasinus of Cyprus or Hegesias of Aegina states that Nemesis was the daughter of Zeus, stating the following,
Nemesis tried to escaped him [Zeus] and liked not to lie in love with her father Zeus the son of Kronos.
However, the most common depiction of Goddess Nemesis's parentage is as the daughter of Nyx, the goddess of the night.
In some early myths, Goddess Nemesis was attributed to having mothered Helen of Troy. From the fifth century, this attribution passed onto Leda and then returned again to Nemesis. In the myth's earliest forms it was Goddess Nemesis who pursued the sacred king Zeus at various seasonal times, each time changing forms into those of various animals, until she caught him as a mouse with a grain of wheat at the summer solstice and devoured him.
With the coming of the Hellenic patriarchal mythology, Nemesis became the one fleeing from a lustful Zeus, changing shapes in an effort to escape him. He finally captured her, she in the form of a goose, he as a swan and he raped her at Rhamnous in Attica. She laid an egg that was suckled by Leda, who raised the child Helen. This story was one that prevailed throughout the Attica region of Greece.
The Greek epic by Stasinus or Hegesias of the 7th or 6th century B.C. described the myth as follows,
Rich-haired Nemesis gave birth to her [Helene] when she had been joined in love with Zeus the king of the gods by harsh violence. For Nemesis tried to escape him and liked not to lie in love with her father Zeus, the son of Kronos; for shame and indignation vexed her heart: therefore she fled him over the land and fruitless dark sea. But Zeus ever pursued and longed in his heart to catch her. Now she took the form of a fish and sped over the waves of the loud-roaring sea, and now over Okeanos' stream and the further bounds of Earth, and now she sped over the furrowed land, always turning into such dread creatures as the dry land nurtures, that she might escape him.
The Greek mythographer, Pseudo-Appollodorus in his 'Biblotheca' of the 2nd century described the conception of Helen as follows,
But some say that Helen was a daughter of Nemesis and Zeus; for that she, flying from the arms of Zeus, changed herself into a goose, but Zeus in his turn took the likeness of a swan and so enjoyed her; and as the fruit of their loves she laid an egg, and a certain shepherd found it in the groves and brought and gave it to Leda; and she put it in a chest and kept it; and when Helen was hatched in due time, Leda brought her up as her own daughter.
Variant forms of this tale are repeated by Pausanias in his 'Description of Greece' of the 2nd century and also by Pseudo-Hyginus in 'Astronomica' also from the 2nd century.
An alternative myth about the offspring of Nemesis comes from Bacchylides, a Greek Lyric poet from the 5th century B.C., who relates that Telkhines, Aktaios, Megalesios, Ormenos and Lykos were the children of Nemesis and Tartaros.
4. Portrayals of Goddess Nemesis
In early representations of Goddess Nemesis she is portrayed without wings, but later she is usually shown as a winged goddess.
One of the most important descriptions of Goddess Nemesis was made in Pausanias's 'Description of Greece', a 2nd century travelogue in which he described a statue of Goddess Nemesis made out of a block of marble brought by the Persians when they landed at Marathon, which they intended to use for their victory monument,
Of this marble Pheidia made a statue of Nemesis, and on the head of the Goddess is a crown with deer and small images of Nike (Victory). In her left hand she holds an apple branch, in her right hand a cup on which are wrought Aithiopanas [Ethiopians]….Neither this nor any other ancient statue of Nemesis has wings but later artists, convinced that the goddess manifests herself most as a consequence of love, give wings to Nemesis as they do to Eros.
Her crown or diadem is often decorated with winged figures called 'victories' that symbolise the many times Goddess Nemesis has had her retribution and show her aspect as an avenging Goddess. The deer on her crown is thought to indicate that Goddess Nemesis belonged to the earthbound group of deities. The apple branch, also a symbol of the earth, supports this interpretation and represents health and long life or immortality.
No explanation is given of the depiction of the Ethiopians on this statue but it has been suggested that they are shown on the cup that Goddess Nemesis is holding because of the mythology that Nemesis was daughter of Okeanus, the river ocean and the Ethiopians were said to dwell near the river ocean. It is also argued that because Ethiopia was such a long distance from Greece this symbolised Goddess Nemesis's far reaching powers.
The pedestal of this statue was described as portraying the story of Goddess Nemesis being mother of Helene, as related above, and shows Helene being led to Nemesis by Leda.
There was a common symbolism that was depicted on most of the portrayals of Goddess Nemesis in statues and on vases. Most often she is shown as a winged Goddess though, as has been mentioned above, earlier representations show her without wings. Statues and images depict Nemesis as holding an apple-branch, rein, lash sword, or balance. Other symbols and attributes were like those of 'Tyche' (fate): a wheel and a ship's rudder.
Unlike the symbol for patriarchal justice, Goddess Nemesis was not pictured with her eyes covered, but instead with them wide open, often including a third eye and those in the back of her head. This symbolised that she was the one that saw all, that nothing could escape her.
Goddess Nemesis was one of the few goddesses seen to carry a sword, a steering wheel or whip, all of which were usually masculine in influence. The fact that Nemesis carried a sword is significant, as few gods or goddesses were seen to carry one as it was a highly respected symbol of power. It was a highly esteemed way to die, by the sword. The sword was double-edged, highlighting the darkness and light, harm and good within her symbolism.
Goddess Nemesis's pose on images of her reflect the symbolism of her powers and often show her right arm extended suggesting that an exchange is taking place. Goddess Nemesis offers righteousness in her right hand but keeps retribution by her side at her left hand.
She is sometimes pictured as riding in a chariot drawn by Griffins, these animals were very solar in nature, again reflecting the masculine and symbolising the integration of dark and light.
The colour most associated with Nemesis was indigo.
5. Stories related to Goddess Nemesis
The story of Narcissus
A famous example of the retribution of Nemesis is the story of Narcissus. This man was the beautiful son of the River Cephissus and the nymph Liriope. He was so handsome that all women who beheld him at once fell in love with him but he rejected them. The vain Narcissus, however, only had eyes for himself and rebuffed all admirers. One such admirer was the nymph Echo, who saw Narcissus and at once fell in love with him. But the beautiful youth couldn't be bothered with the smitten one, who was so distraught over his rejection that she withdrew into a lonely spot and faded until all that was left was the plaintive echo of her voice.
Nemesis saw this and heard the rejected girl's prayers for vengeance. Goddess Nemesis punished Narcissus by making him fall in love with his own reflection. The vain Narcissus was condemned to spend the rest of his days admiring his own reflection in the waters of a pool. He was unable to satisfy his own desires and wasted away. Eventually Narcissus died and was transformed into the flower that bears his name.
Story of Artemis and Aura
Nonnus's 'Dionysiaca' recounts another story about the Goddess Nemesis. This tale related to Aura, the virgin companion of the Goddess Artemis who mocked her, declaring her virgin form to be far superior to Artemis's. In her anger Artemis sought retribution from Goddess Nemesis.
Artemis took herself to Nemesis, and found her on the heights of Tauros in the clouds. A wheel turned itself round before the queen's feet, signifying that she rolls all the proud from on high to the ground with her avenging wheel of justice, she the all vanquishing deity who turns the path of life. Round her throne flew a bird of vengeance, a Griffin flying with wings, or balancing himself on four feet, to go before the flying goddess and show that she traverses the four separate quarters of the world. High-crested men she bridles with her bit which none can shake off and she punishes the haughty with the whip of misery, like a self-rolling wheel.
When the goddess saw Artemis's pallid face, she knew that she was offended and questioned her in friendly words: 'Your looks, Archeress proclaim your anger. Artemis, what impious son of Earth persecutes you? …..If some woman is persecuting you as one did your mother Leto, I will be the avenger of the offended Archeress.'
The maiden interrupted and said to the goddess who saves men from evil '….it is that sour virgin Aura, the daughter of Lelantos, who mocks me and offends me with rude sharp words. But how can I tell you all she said? I am ashamed to describe her insults to my body and her abuse of my breasts. I am insulted by Aura, the champion of chastity. I pray you, let me see Aura's body transformed into immoveable stone.'
The goddess replied 'Chaste daughter of Leto, I will not use my sickle to make the maid stone for I am myself born of the same ancient race of the Titanes, but I will grant you this, Archeress. Aura, the maid of the hunt has reproached your virginity, and she shall be a virgin no longer. You shall see her in the bed of a mountain stream weeping fountains of tears for her maiden girdle.'
In this way Nemesis consoled her and Artemis entered her cart with its team of four prickets and left the mountain. With equal speed Nemesis pursued her enemy, Aura. She harnessed racing Griffins under her bridle, flying swiftly through the air in her chariot, until she brought the four footed birds to the peak of Sipylos. Then she approached haughty Aura. She flicked the proud neck of the hapless girl with her snaky whip, and struck her with the round wheel of justice. She let the whip with its vipers curl round the maiden's girdle and prepared another love for her before returning to snow-beaten Tauros. And Eros drove Dionysos mad for the girl with the delicious wound of his arrow, and in this way her virginity was taken.
6. Goddess Nemesis in Roman mythology
Goddess Nemesis, under the guise of her Roman name, Invidia, was worshipped at Rome by victorious generals, and in imperial times was the patroness of gladiators and of the venatores, who fought in the arena with wild beasts, and was one of the tutelary deities of the drilling-ground (Nemesis campestris). Invidia was sometimes, but rarely, seen on imperial coining, mainly under Claudius and Hadria. In the 3rd century there is evidence of the belief in an all powerful Nemesis-Fortuna. She was worshipped by a society called Hadrian's freedman.
Nemesis in the guise of the Roman goddess of envy, Invidia, was sometimes shown in a very different way from Greek mythology. A story in Ovid's Metamorphoses, a Roman epic of the 1st century B.C. to 1st century A.D portrays her as a jealous hag living in a filthy shack eating snake flesh.
Athene was angry with the daughters of Kerops for betraying her trust by spying upon the Infant Eirhthionis, the story continues,
Athene sought the filthy slimy shack where Invidia dwelt deep in a dreary dale, a gruesome sunless hovel, filled with frost, its stagnant air unstirred by any breeze, for ever lacking warmth of cheerful fire, for ever wrapped in gloom. Reaching the place Athene paused at the threshold, as she could not pass beneath the roof, and struck on the door with her spear's point. The door flew wide and there she saw foul Invidia eating viper's flesh, food fit for spite, and turned her eyes away. Slowly the creature rose, leaving the snakes half-eaten, and approached with dragging steps, and when she saw the goddess' fair face and gleaming mails, she scowled and groaned in grief. Her cheeks are sallow, her whole body shrunk, her eyes askew and squinting; black decay befouls her teeth, her bosom is green with bile and venom coats her tongue. She never smiles save when she relishes the sight of woe; sleep never soothes her, night by night awake with worry, as she sees against her will successes won and sickens at the sight.
Athene, filled with loathing, forced a few curt words: 'I desire that you inject your pestilence in Aglauros, one of Cecrops' daughters.' That said, she soared, launched from her down thrust spear, and sped to heaven. With a sidelong glance the creature saw her fly and muttered briefly; then she took her staff, entwined with thorns, and, wrapped in a black cloud, went forth and in her progress trampled down the flowery meads, withered the grass, and slashed the tree-tops, and with filthy breath defiled peoples and towns and homes, until at last, into the room of Cecrops' child she went and did as she was bid. On the girl's breast she laid her withering hand and filled her heart with thorny briars and breathed a baleful blight of poison, black as pitch inside her lungs.