Personification

Nemesis

Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon

Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1808).

Louvre Museum, Paris, FrancePublic Domain

Introduction

Nemesis was a goddess and personified moral agent, the spirit of “retribution.” She represented the punishments suffered by those who committed injustice, those who violated the established laws, or those guilty of hybris against the gods. But Nemesis could also represent more destructive anger and vengeance. She was typically regarded as the daughter of Nyx, the primordial personification of night, yet there were other traditions about her parentage too.

In literature and art, Nemesis was represented with the symbolic trappings of justice, including the all-measuring rod and scales. Her mythology was limited, but she was worshiped throughout the ancient Greek world as a goddess associated with justice and fate, but her earliest cults were Ionic.

Etymology

The name “Nemesis” (Greek Νέμεσις, translit. Némesis) is often connected with the Greek verb νέμω (némō), meaning “distribute, attribute;” it may ultimately come from an Indo-European root *nem-, “attribute.”[1]

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek
    NemesisΝέμεσις (Némesis)
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [NEM-uh-sis]/ˈnɛm ə sɪs/

Alternative Names and Epithets

Nemesis was sometimes identified with other goddesses of fate and justice, and could thus be known by a handful of alternative names. One of her more important alternative names was Adrasteia, probably from the Greek word meaning “inescapable” (though some connected the name to the hero Adrastus). Nemesis was sometimes also known by the epithet Rhamnusia or Rhamnusis, from her important cult in the town of Rhamnus in Attica.

Attributes

Functions and Characteristics

Nemesis was the goddess who personified retribution and righteous anger. She was responsible for punishing wrongdoing. Above all, she was concerned with dispensing justice to those who had committed hybris or insolence towards the gods;[2] but she also punished other kinds of mortal wrongdoers, including those who behaved unjustly towards other mortals[3] or even towards the dead.[4]

Nemesis could be an ambivalent goddess, with positive and negative aspects. In his Works and Days, Hesiod connected Nemesis with Aidos, “shame” personified, as a positive force originally sent to mortals to keep their unruly impulses in check; at the time of the impious “Age of Iron,” the two goddesses withdrew from the earth, leaving mortals to their suffering.[5] According to Hesiod’s Theogony, on the other hand, Nemesis’ mother Nyx (“Night”) sent Nemesis to mortals to cause them suffering, as the negative force of destructive anger.[6]

Ancient sources emphasized the vigilance of Nemesis. Nemesis was described as merciless,[7] all-seeing and all-hearing,[8] and resentful of good fortune.[9] She had wings with which to better pursue wrongdoers.[10] Over time, as Nemesis became an all-encompassing symbol of justice and of the enforcement of justice,[11] she was placed somewhere above the stars and envisioned as clinging to the tracks of the wicked and bending their necks.[12] 

Nemesis also acquired symbols representing her role as judge, punisher, and avenger: an all-measuring rod or ell, reins and bridle, a dagger or sword, and sometimes scales.[13] Nemesis was also connected with animals, especially the mythical griffin, and this aspect (among others) suggests that she was viewed as a chthonic deity—that is, a deity connected with the powers of the earth and Underworld.[14]

As Nemesis became more and more popular, she became associated with a handful of other gods and goddesses, including Artemis, Themis, Tyche (“Chance”), and Nike (“Victory”). Plato described her as the messenger of Dike, “Justice” personified.[15] And she was often identified with the obscure goddess Adrasteia, another deity representing justice and fate.[16]

Iconography

Nemesis was present in ancient art from the fifth century BCE (if not earlier), and became especially popular by the second and third centuries CE. She was typically depicted as rather generic in appearance, as an attractive goddess, sometimes resembling a clothed Aphrodite. She was often winged. In her important cult statue at Rhamnus, which some claimed was originally conceived as a statue of Aphrodite, Nemesis was shown clad in a drake chiton and cloak, wearing a crown engraved with stags and figures of the personification Nike (“Victory”), and holding an apple branch and a bowl.[17]

Roman copy of the cult statue of Nemesis by Phidias or Agoracritus

First or second century CE Roman copy of the cult statue of Nemesis by Phidias or Agoracritus that once stood in the Temple of Nemesis in Rhamnus. Kinský Palace, Prague, Czech Republic.

Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA 4.0

Because her physical appearance could be generic, Nemesis is most easily distinguished by her symbols and attributes. The symbols of Nemesis represented her role as a goddess of justice and fate: a rod or ell, reins and a bridle, a wheel, scales, and a sword or dagger. Her animal was the griffin, a creature that was part-lion and part-eagle.[18]

Family

According to Hesiod, Nemesis was one of the fatherless children born to the primordial goddess Nyx, “Night” personified; her siblings thus included other dark cosmic forces such as Thanatos (“Death”), Hypnos (“Sleep”), Eris (“Strife”), and the Moirae (“Fates”), among others.[19] This was no doubt the most widespread and familiar tradition about the goddess’ parentage, but it was not the only one that existed. In her important cult in Rhamnus, Nemesis was worshiped as one of the daughters of the Titan Oceanus—that is, as one of the “Oceanids.”[20] In another tradition, she was the daughter of Zeus (or Zeus and Demeter).[21] And in Mesomedes’ Hymn to Nemesis she was the daughter of Dike, the personification of justice.[22]

Ancient tradition did not give Nemesis a husband. In one popular myth, however, Nemesis was pursued by the amorous Zeus, and from their union was born the beautiful Helen (who in other accounts was the daughter of Zeus and the mortal Leda);[23] in some variations of this myth, it seems that Nemesis was also the mother of Helen’s brothers Castor and Polydeuces, the so-called Dioscuri.[24]

According to Bacchylides, Nemesis also lay with the primordial god Tartarus, and by him became the mother of the Telchines, mysterious sorcerer deities of the island of Rhodes.[25]

Mythology

Like many other personified deities, Nemesis had a very limited role in mythology. One well-known story, however, told of how Zeus, the ruler of the Olympian gods, fell in love with Nemesis. Nemesis tried to escape Zeus’ advances by changing into various animals to escape. Finally, Nemesis changed herself into a goose (or a swan); Zeus did the same, caught up with Nemesis, and raped her.

Soon, Nemesis laid an egg, which was discovered or given to the Spartan queen Leda. From the egg was born Helen, who would become infamous for being the cause of the Trojan War, and perhaps also Helen’s brothers Castor and Polydeuces.[26]

Leda and the Swan by Cesare de Sesto

Leda and the Swan by Cesare de Sesto after Leonardo da Vinci (ca. 1505–1510). Wilton House, Salisbury, UK.

Wikimedia CommonsPublic Domain

In another story, Nemesis played a role in the myth of Aura. Aura was a virgin nymph and a companion of Artemis. One day, the foolish Aura poked fun at Artemis: she said that no woman or goddess with Artemis’ curvy body could be a virgin, adding that her own lean and boyish figure left no doubt as to her virginity. Artemis was furious. She went to Nemesis to demand retribution, and Nemesis, wishing to make the punishment fit the crime, went on to make Aura lose the virginity in which she took so much pride. Nemesis had Eros, the god of love, cause Dionysus to fall in love with Aura. When Aura resisted Dionysus’ advances, Dionysus got the nymph drunk and raped her when she fell asleep.[27]

Worship

Temples

The worship of Nemesis appears to have originated among the Ionian Greeks, but eventually became reasonably widespread throughout the ancient world. One of the most important sanctuaries of Nemesis was at Rhamnus in Attica. In some traditions, this was the site where Nemesis was raped by Zeus.[28] The sanctuary at Rhamnus was built in the early fifth century BCE after the Persians had sacked Athens. The cult statue of Nemesis that stood in this temple—of which some fragments and a handful of replicas still survive—was created by either Phidias or Agoracritus.[29]

There was another important cult of Nemesis at Smyrna, a Greek city on the coast of Anatolia (modern Turkey). At Smyrna, Nemesis was worshiped as a dual being.[30] The theological reasoning behind this duality is unclear. Perhaps the two Nemeses represented the two sides of the goddess: one a positive and kindly force, the other negative and merciless (compare the two sides of Nemesis’ sister Eris).

In the Peloponnese, it was said that the worship of Nemesis was first introduced by the Argive hero and king Adrastus, one of the leaders of the Seven against Thebes. Because of this—at least according to some authorities—Nemesis was sometimes called “Adrasteia,” after Adrastus.[31] While Nemesis was sometimes identified with and worshiped as Adrasteia, the two goddesses were sometimes considered to be distinct (though still connected). On the island of Cos, there is evidence for a joint cult of Nemesis and Adrasteia.[32]

Nemesis was also associated with other gods and goddesses. At Rhamnus, for example, Nemesis may have been worshiped alongside Themis[33], and at Cirrha near Delphi there was a statue of Nemesis in a temple of Apollo, Artemis, and Leto.[34]

The worship of Nemesis soon spread beyond the Greek world. In Rome, Nemesis was one of the tutelary deities of the drill ground and arena, and there was even a statue of Nemesis on the Capitoline Hill at the heart of Rome.[35] The Romans seem to have associated Nemesis above all in connection with the imperial power and its power to distribute justice and punishment.[36]

There were other temples of Nemesis scattered across the Greek and Roman world, at sites such as Patrae in the northwestern Peloponnese,[37] at Cyzicus in northern Anatolia (where Nemesis was worshiped as Adrasteia),[38] and perhaps also at Alexandria.[39]

Festivals

Festivals and celebrations of Nemesis were an important part of some of her cult sites. At the sanctuary of Nemesis in Smyrna, Nemesis was honored with athletic games.[40] At Athens, there was an annual festival called the Nemeseia (perhaps identical with the Genesia) held during the summer. Little is known about the Nemeseia, but the object seems to have been to avert the anger of the dead, who were believed to have the power to harm the living if they were not properly honored.[41]

Pop Culture

Today, the name of the goddess Nemesis is most commonly encountered as a colloquial term for an archenemy. As a Greek goddess, Nemesis occasionally appears in modern adaptations of Greek mythology. Nemesis is a fairly important supporting character in the TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and its “spinoff” Young Hercules, where she is the executioner of the gods and Hercules’ first love.

References

Notes

  1. Robert S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 2:1005–6 s.v. νέμεσις, -εως (némesis, -eōs).

  2. E.g., Euripides, Phoenician Women 182–84.

  3. Plato, Laws 4.717d.

  4. Sophocles, Electra 792; Statius, Silvae 2.6.73.

  5. Hesiod, Works and Days 197–200.

  6. Hesiod, Theogony 223–24.

  7. Pindar, Pythian Ode 10.44.

  8. Callimachus, Hymn 6.56

  9. Pindar, Olympian Ode 8.86; cf. Herodotus, Histories 1.34.

  10. Ammianus Marcellinus, History 14.11.16.

  11. E.g., Orphic Hymn 61; Ammianus Marcellinus, History 14.11.25; Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.22.2.

  12. Mesomedes, Hymn to Nemesis 14–15; cf. Ovid, Tristia 5.8.3–4; Greek Anthology 12.229 (Strato).

  13. E.g., Greek Anthology 16.223, 224; Mesomedes, Hymn to Nemesis 16; etc.

  14. Lewis Richard Farnell, The Cults of the Greek States (Oxford: Clarendon, 1896–1909), 2:487ff.

  15. Plato, Laws 4.717d.

  16. Ammianus Mercellinus, History 14.11.25.

  17. Cf. Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.33.3.

  18. On Nemesis in ancient art, see Rainer Vollkommer, “Nemesis,” in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (Zurich: Artemis, 1992), 6.1:733–73.

  19. Hesiod, Theogony 223–24; cf. Hyginus, Fabulae pref.1, where Nemesis is the daughter of Nyx and her consort Erebus.

  20. Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.33.3, 7.5.3; cf. Lycophron, Alexandra 88.

  21. Euripides, Rhesus 342; scholia on Euripides’ Rhesus 342.

  22. Mesomedes, Hymn to Nemesis 2, 23.

  23. Cypria frags. 10–11 West (see Philodemus, On Piety B7369 Obbink; Apollodorus, Library 3.10.7; Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 8.334b); cf. Cratinus, frags. 114–15 Kassel-Austin; Isocrates, Oration 10.59; Eratosthenes, Catasterisms 25; Asclepiades, FGrH (Fragmente der griechischen Historiker) 12 frag. 11; Hyginus, Astronomica 2.8.

  24. Eustathius on Homer’s Iliad 23.639.

  25. Bacchylides, frag. 52 Snell-Maehler.

  26. Cypria frags. 10–11 West (see Philodemus, On Piety B7369 Obbink; Apollodorus, Library 3.10.7; Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 8.334b); Cratinus, frags. 114–15 Kassel-Austin; Isocrates, Oration 10.59; Eratosthenes, Catasterisms 25; Asclepiades, FGrH (Fragmente der griechischen Historiker) 12 frag. 11; Hyginus, Astronomica 2.8.

  27. Nonnus, Dionysiaca 48.258–942.

  28. Eratosthenes, Catasterisms 25.

  29. Strabo, Geography 9.1.17, 22; Pliny the Elder, Natural History 36.4.17; Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.33.8

  30. Pausanias, Description of Greece 7.5.3.

  31. See Antimachus of Colophon, frag. 53 Wyss; Callisthenes, FGrH (Fragmente der griechischen Historiker) 124 frag. 28 (from Strabo, Geography 13.1.13). Cf. Harpocration, Lexicon of the Ten Orators s.v. Ἀδράστειαν (Adrásterian), who reports a few alternative traditions, including one in which Adrasteia is an alternative name for Artemis rather than Nemesis (Harpocration cites Demetrius of Scepsis for this tradition) and another in which the name Adrasteia comes from the Sicyonian king Adrastus (the son of Talaus) rather than the Argive king of the same name. See also Strabo, Geography 12.8.11; Stephanus of Byzantium, Ethnica s.v. Ἀδράστειαν (Adrásteian); scholia on Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica 1.1129, 1116.

  32. LSCG (Lois sacrées des cités grecques) 160–61.

  33. IG (Inscriptiones Graecae) II/III² 2869, 3109; cf. Hesychius, Lexicon s.v. Ἀγαθὴ Τύχη (Agathḕ Týchē), who writes of Nemesis being worshiped alongside Themis and Tyche.

  34. Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.37.8.

  35. Pliny the Elder, Natural History 28.5.22.

  36. See esp. Michael B. Hornum, Nemesis, the Roman State, and the Games (Leiden: Brill, 1993).

  37. Pausanias, Description of Greece 7.20.9.

  38. Strabo, Geography 13.1.13.

  39. Appian, Civil Wars 2.90.

  40. CIG (Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum) II 3148.

  41. Scholia on Demosthenes, Oration 41.11.

Primary Sources

Greek

In Greek literature, Nemesis first appears as a personified deity in Hesiod (eighth/seventh century BCE), who outlines her genealogy and attributes in his Theogony (223–24) and Works and Days (197–200). In the Cypria, a lost sixth-century BCE epic poem, Nemesis was raped by Zeus and became the mother of Helen of Troy—a myth known from a few other early sources, including a lost play, the Nemesis, by the comedian Cratinus (mid-fifth century BCE) as well as the Library (3.10.7), a mythological handbook attributed to Apollodorus or “Pseudo-Apollodorus” (first century CE or later).

Nemesis became increasingly important in later literature. Already during the Classical Period (ca. 490–323 BCE), the philosopher Plato (ca. 429–347 BCE) spoke of Nemesis in connection with Dike, “Justice” personified. Hymns to Nemesis can be found among the Orphic Hymns (third century BCE–second century CE) and among the works of Mesomedes (early second century CE). Nemesis also appears in the Dionysiaca, a long epic by Nonnus (fifth century CE), most memorably in connection with the story of Aura (48.258–942).

Roman

Nemesis features occasionally in Roman literature, usually under her Greek name “Nemesis,” though she is occasionally identified with the Roman Invidia, “Envy.” Ovid (43 BCE–17/18 CE), for example, mentions the goddess in Book 3 of the Metamorphoses, where it is Nemesis who destroys Narcissus for his cruelty towards Echo (402–36). The mythographer Hyginus or “Pseudo-Hyginus” summarizes the genealogy and some of the mythology of Nemesis in his Fabulae and Astronomica.

Other

More information on Nemesis—including information on Nemesis’ role in works that are now lost—can be found in texts, reference works, and commentaries (such as the scholia) from the Byzantine Period or Middle Ages. For further references, see the notes.

Secondary Sources

Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Hard, Robin. The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology, 8th ed. New York: Routledge, 2020.

Herter, Hand. “Nemesis.” In Georg Wissowa and August Friedrich Pauly, Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, Vol. 16.2, 2338–80. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1935.

Hornum, Michael B. Nemesis, the Roman State, and the Games. Leiden: Brill, 1993.

Rose, H. J. and B. C. Dietrich. “Nemesis.” In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 4th ed., edited by Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, 1006. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Roßbach, O. “Nemesis.” In W. H. Roscher, Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, Vol. 3.1, 117–66. Leipzig: Teubner, 1898–1902.

Smith, William. “Nemesis.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed June 27, 2022. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DN%3Aentry+group%3D3%3Aentry%3Dnemesis-bio-1.

Stafford, Emma. “Nemesis: From Myth to Reason?” In Worshipping Virtues: Personification and the Divine in Ancient Greece, 75–110. London: Duckworth, 2000.

Stenger, Jan. “Nemesis.” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e819670.

Theoi Project. “Nemesis.” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Daimon/Nemesis.html.

Vollkommer, Rainer. “Nemesis.” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Vol. 6.1, 733–73. Zurich: Artemis, 1992.

Citation

Kapach, Avi. “Nemesis.” Mythopedia, March 08, 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/nemesis.

Kapach, Avi. “Nemesis.” Mythopedia, 8 Mar. 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/nemesis. Accessed on 6 Jun. 2024.

Kapach, A. (2023, March 8). Nemesis. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/nemesis

Authors

  • Avi Kapach

    Avi Kapach is a writer, scholar, and educator who received his PhD in Classics from Brown University

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