1. Greek
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  3. Themis

Themis

The most beloved of the twelve original Titans, Themis embodied and controlled the ever-important concept of justice.

One of the first twelve Titans in Greek mythology, Themis was the daughter of Gaia and Uranus. Though Themis conspired with her fellow Titans to overthrow their father Uranus. she betrayed them during the Titanomachy by siding with the Olympians. She eventually married Zeus, becoming his second wife. Known as a goddess of justice, Themis was often depicted wearing a classical chiton and holding a balanced scale. Her many children included the Horae (“Hours”), the Moirai (“Fates”), and the goddesses Dike, Eirene, and Eunomia.

Easily one of the most revered Titans, Themis was worshipped at shrines and temples across the Greek world. She was adopted by the Romans as Iustitia, or Justice, and has survived in popular iconography as "Lady Justice," a robed, scale-toting defender of righteousness.

Etymology

The name “Themis” was derived from the ancient Greek verb tithemi, and meant “a custom, tradition, or more.” Based on the verb’s definition of “to put or place,” the name “Themis” might have also meant “that which is laid down or established,” a reference to customs established through a society’s culture.1 Regardless of its definition, the name aptly described Themis’s position as a champion of justice.

Attributes

As the embodiment of justice, right and custom, Themis was known as a bringer of balance and righter of wrongs. Those who worshipped her prayed for the cosmic forces of justice to bring fairness to their lives and endeavors.

Family

Themis was the daughter of Gaia, the earth mother, and Uranus, father of skies and heavens. This union of earth and sky resulted in the creation of not just Themis, but the rest of the Titans as well: Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Cronus, Thea, Rhea, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, and Tethys. Themis had other siblings, too—the malevolent Cyclopes and Hecatoncheires, who challenged everything she stood for.

Themis eventually fell for the Olympian leader Zeus, who conquered the Titans and imprisoned many of them in Tartarus. Themis bore many children with him, including the Horae—Thalo, Auxo, and Carpo—deities associated with the seasons, and the *Moirai—*Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Also known as the “Fates,” the Moirai handled threads that represented human lives, severing them when they reached their allotted ends. Themis also mothered Dike, Eirene, and Eunomia, goddesses who controlled justice, peace, and law, respectively.

Mythology

Despite Themis’s status as one of the most well known Titans, she was seldom mentioned in Greek literary sources. Much of what is known about her instead comes from archaeological remains.

Themis and the Literary Tradition

In Hesiod’s Theogony Themis was listed as one of the children of Gaia and Uranus. The epic poet also mentioned her relationship with Zeus, and recorded her many children by him: “Next he married bright Themis who bare the Horae (Hours), and Eunomia (Order), Dike (Justice), and blooming Eirene (Peace), who mind the works of mortal men, and the Moerae (Fates) to whom wise Zeus gave the greatest honour, Clotho, and Lachesis, and Atropos who give mortal men evil and good to have.”2

Themis also made an appearance in Prometheus Bound, a fifth-century BCE play attributed to Aeschylus. Presented here as Prometheus’s mother, Themis advised her trickster son that the Titanomachy would be won not through force, but craft. The play depicted both Themis and Prometheus as supporters of the Olympian faction.

Themis and the Greeks

During the height of Greek civilization, Themis was worshipped at no less than six temples across the Greek world. Such sites indicate that Themis had a rich and vibrant cult running throughout Greek society. Indeed, she was often seen as the people’s goddess—one who succored the improvished and defended the meek. Such praise was rare for a Titan; the ancient beings were largely viewed as distant, and irrelevant to Greek life.

Pop Culture

Themis has continued to thrive in popular culture via the symbol of Lady Justice. Robed in a classical chiton and bearing the scales of justice, Lady Justice weighed the deeds of humans and dispensed justice based upon the contemplation of facts and evidence. Her blindfold, often present in modern depictions, was not a characteristic that Themis possessed. As the embodiment of fairness, Lady Justice is a powerful symbol of western legal systems—including the American judiciary—and is often featured as the subject of statues and courthouse decor.

References

Bibliography

  1. Hesiod. Theogony. Translated by Hugh Evelyn-White. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Accessed February 19, 2020. https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm.

  2. “Themis.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed on February 28, 2020. https://www.etymonline.com/word/Themis.

  3. “Themis.” Wikipedia. Accessed on February 28, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Themis#Moirai:_the_Fates

Footnotes

  1. “Themis,” Online Etymology Dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/word/Themis

  2. Hesiod, Theogony, translated by Hugh Evelyn-White, 901-906. https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm

Citation

About the Author

Thomas Apel is a historian of science and religion who received his Ph.D. in History from Georgetown University.