Nemesis: Greek Goddess of Divine Retribution

Nemesis – also known as Rhamnousia or Rhamnusia – was a remorseless goddess. She was the one who enacted punishments against those mortals who acted arrogant before the divines. 

Pretty much, the gods put you in their little black book and you’ve been added to a hit list. That LBB now is in the hands of a powerful winged balancer that is hellbent on making sure you get punished for whatever you said or did. Got it?

Though, Nemesis’ role in Greek mythology is far more complex than simple retribution. She maintained balance and made malefactors to face the music.

Who is Nemesis?

For starters, Nemesis is a force to be reckoned with. This goddess was a close companion of the righteous Erinyes, with whom she would seek out wrongdoers and bring them to justice. By the same token, Nemesis was oftentimes associated with the goddesses Themis and Dike; both of whom have an influence over justice. 

Literary works from the fourth century onward began to blur Nemesis’ identity with a number of other goddesses, including the goddess of chance, Tyche. When linked to other deities, Nemesis commonly acted as an aspect of them; for example, although Tyche was the goddess of fortune, Nemesis was the one who balanced the scales.  

The name Nemesis meant to “give what was due.” It is thought to be derived from the Proto-Indo-European root nem– which means “to distribute.” By her name alone, the goddess Nemesis becomes the personified distributor of vengeance. 

What is Nemesis the Goddess of?

Nemesis is the goddess of divine vengeance. She specifically seeks vengeance against those who commit an act of shameful hubris before the gods, such as committing evil deeds or accepting undeserved good fortune. 

The divine retribution doled out by Nemesis was thought to be inescapable. She’s karma, if karma had two legs and carried around an impressive sword. 

Why is Nemesis a Winged Goddess?

Whenever Nemesis appears, there is one glaringly obvious thing about her: she has wings. 

Within Greek mythology, winged gods and goddesses usually played a significant role in acting as messengers. We see this trend with Hermes, Thanatos, and the Erotes. 

Nemesis, as the goddess of divine retribution, was the messenger of vengeance. She would descend upon those who have slighted the gods through greed, pride, and acquiring undeserved happiness. And need we say, this goddess doesn’t hold back.

In artwork, Nemesis is rarely shown without a grim frown that screams “I’m very disappointed.” She’ll give your mom a run for her money. Otherwise, ancient Greece’s winged balancer was shown holding a number of symbolic objects. These include weapons – such as a sword, a whip, or a dagger – and items like the scales or a measuring rod. 

It is safe to say that if you see a menacing winged goddess wielding a weapon coming towards you…you might’ve messed up bad.

Is Nemesis Evil?

Despite having a poignant name, Nemesis is not an evil goddess. Spooky, sure, but definitely not evil. 

If we’re being honest here, morality is extremely gray in Greek mythology. No one is perfect. The Greek gods can’t be categorized into sinners and saints. 

Unlike other religions, Greek mythology doesn’t abide strictly by dualism. Although there is evidence that the ancient Greeks believed there to be a soul separate from the physical body, the existence of a struggle of good beings vs. evil ones doesn’t exist. 

There are beings that can be viewed as generally malignant. They have ill-intentions for mankind or the divines – sometimes even both. However, the Homeric gods walk a fine line and aren’t relatively viewed to be “evil,” no matter the realms that they influenced.   

The Family of Nemesis

As a Greek goddess, Nemesis’ family was complicated, to say the least. Nemesis’ parents change from source-to-source. Likewise, worshippers of Nemesis held differing opinions of who her parents truly were based on their region and predominant beliefs. 

Possible parents for Nemesis include the primeval river Oceanus and his wife, Tethys, or Zeus and an unnamed woman. Meanwhile, the Roman writer Hyginus speculated that Nemesis was born from the union of Nyx and Erebus while Hesiod’s Theogony named Nemesis as the parthenogenetic daughter of Nyx. Regardless of such, both Hesiod and Hyginus’ analysis of Nemesis would make her the sister of Thanatos, Hypnos, the Keres, Eris, and the Oneiroi.

As far as kids go, the children of Nemesis are debated because – despite her supposed relations with other gods – she was viewed as a maiden goddess. However, different accounts claim her to be the mother of the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, or Helen of Troy after Zeus assaulted her in the form of a swan. This is confirmed in Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca. Otherwise, the Greek lyric poet Bacchylides posits Nemesis to be the mother of the Telchines – children traditionally assigned to Pontus and Gaia – after an affair with the great pit beneath the earth, Tartarus.

The Telchines (Telkhines) were often described as malignant, magical beings that inhabited Rhodes. According to legends, they poisoned fields and animals with a concoction of Styrgian water and sulfur. While some accounts refer to as many as nine of these creatures, only four famous Telkhines are said to be born from the union of Nemesis and Tartarus: Actaeus, Megalesius, Ormenus, and Lycus.

Nemesis in Greek Mythology

Now that we’ve established that Nemesis was a driven, cut-throat of a business woman, let’s explore how this winged goddess acted in myth. As it turns out, not the best

Who would have guessed that the goddess of divine retribution, revenge, and resentment was so brutal?

Within myths, Nemesis appears to act on behalf of the gods. She usually targeted those who committed an act of hubris, or those who displayed arrogance before the gods. Her revenge came from the Heavens, and was therefore the most severe. There are those gods that took revenge into their own hands (ahem…Hera) but more often than not, it came down to Nemesis. 

The Myth of Aura

Fair warning, this first myth is a doozy. For it, we’re going to refer to the Greek poet Nonnus’ Dionysiaca, a 5th century epic that recounts the life and ascension of Dionysus.

It all begins with a virgin huntress named Aura, who was a minor goddess of the breeze and a daughter of the Titan, Lelantus. She was a part of Artemis’ retinue until…a certain incident. 

Aura lived in Phrygia, and Nonnus was clear to describe her as a person completely committed to her craft. She knew nothing of Aphrodite or romance and liked it that way. 

At some point, Aura insulted the maiden goddess Artemis by declaring that her body was too curvaceous to be that of a virgin. She then went on to make the claim that her own body was more befitting of that of an untouched maiden. 

Oof. Okay, even if we take away the fact that Aura said that to the actual goddess of virgins – herself sworn to chastity – that is one messed up thing to say. 

Seething with anger from the slight, Artemis went to Nemesis for retribution. Together, the goddesses concocted a plan to make Aura lose her virginity. Absolutely 0-100 and totally unnecessary – but, alright. 

Long story short, Dionysus was driven mad with lust by one of Eros’ arrows, date-raped Aura, who then went on a massacre of shepherds. The violation caused Aura to become pregnant with twin boys. She ate one before drowning herself, and the surviving child became a minor god in Demeter’s Eleusinian Mysteries. 

A Lesson for Narcissus

We’re familiar with Narcissus. He’s the handsome hunter who fell in love with his own reflection after spurning the affections of the nymph, Echo. A tale as old as time.

Since he was so incredibly rude in his rejection of the cursed nymph, it is said that Nemesis lured Narcissus to a mirror-like pool. There, he stayed, watching himself with such admiration that he dared not take leave. Echo remained near, watching him as he watched himself. 

Creepy, but we’ll take it. 

Narcissus falling in love with his own reflection would be the end of him. The mortal hunter eventually felt himself dying, and still stayed by the pool. His last words, as Ovid notes in his Metamorphoses, were: “Oh marvelous boy, I loved you in vain, farewell!”

Echo eventually turned to stone, never leaving Narcissus’ side.

At the Battle of Marathon

According to legend, when Persia declared war against Greece, the overconfident Persians brought with them a block of marble. Their intentions were to carve a monument of their victory over Greek forces. 

Except, they didn’t win. 

By being so overconfident, the Persians acted with hubris and insulted the Greek gods and goddesses. This called upon Nemesis to get involved with the Battle of Marathon. Upon an Athenian victory, a state was carved in her likeness out of the Persian marble.

How was Nemesis Worshiped?

Believe it or not, Nemesis was a pretty popular goddess. Maybe there was something about a winged goddess wielding a weapon that made people more inclined to want to be on her good side? It sounds likely. 

Outside of having a number of temples scattered throughout the Greek world, an annual festival was also held in Nemesis’ honor. Called the Nemesia, it would be a time of celebrations, sacrifices, and athletic competitions. Ephebes, or young men in military training, would be the primary candidates for the sporting events. Meanwhile, blood sacrifices and libations would be performed.

As Nemesis was oftentimes referred to as the “Goddess of Rhamnous,” the Nemesia was hosted there. 

Cult of Nemesis

The cult center of Nemesis is thought to have began in Smyrna, located on the Aegean coast of Anatolia. The location of Smyrna was highly advantageous for Greek expansion. Despite this being the likely location of her cult originating, Nemesis skyrocketed in popularity elsewhere. Her cult center eventually relocated to a different coastal city, Rhamnous.

Nemesis had a famous temple in Rhamnous, Attica. The ancient Greek city is in the location of the modern-day coast-dwelling city of Agia Marina. Rhamnous sat a ways north of Marathon and played a significant role in the Battle of Marathon, and their harbors aided Athens during the fourth century Peloponnesian War

Since Nemesis was called the “Goddess of Rhamnous” frequently, she likely held the role of a patron city god. Her archaic sanctuary in Rhamnous was closely situated by a temple dedicated to Themis. The Greek geographer Pausnias describes an iconic statue of Nemesis on the sanctuary grounds. Meanwhile, on the island of Cos, Nemesis was worshiped alongside the goddess of inescapable fate, Adrasteia.

Evidence of Nemesis being tailored to be the Goddess of Rhamnous is found in local interpretations of her. Primarily, those in Rhamnous viewed the Greek goddess as a daughter of Oceanus and Tethys. Since Rhamnous was famous for their ports and maritime ventures, this interpretation of Nemesis held a greater significance to their regional, local, and social affairs.

Epithets

The epithets of a god or goddess were used to help characterize them. Epithets could simultaneously describe a role, relationship, and personality of a deity. 

In the case of Nemesis, there are two epithets that stand out the most. 

Nemesis Adrasteia

Due to Nemesis’ relentless nature, she was called Adrasteia as an epithet. 

Adrasteia means “inescapable.” Which, from the Greek perspective, Nemesis certainly was. By calling the winged goddess Nemesis Adrasteia, worshippers acknowledged the extent of her influence over the consequences of man’s actions.

On another note, Adrasteia was thought to be a separate goddess entirely who was often conflated with Ananke, a speculated mother of the Fates.

Nemesis Campestris

As Nemesis Campestris, the goddess Nemesis became the guardian of the drill ground. This epithet was adopted later in the Roman Empire, where Nemesis grew in popularity with the soldiers. 

The increased worship of Nemesis amongst Roman soldiers led to her becoming the patroness of the fields where military drills took place. She was also accepted to be the guardian of gladiators and the arena.

In the Orphic Hymns

The Orphic hymns were a set of 87 religious poems from Orphic traditions. They are meant to emulate the poetic style of the legendary bard, Orpheus, the son of Muse Calliope. 

In Orphism, Nemesis was viewed to be an enforcer of equity. Hymn 61 venerates Nemesis for her sincere employment of justice and rigorous punishment to those who acted with arrogance:

Thee, Nemesis I call, almighty queen, by whom the deeds of mortal life are seen…of boundless sight, alone rejoicing…changing the counsels of the human breast for ever various, rolling without rest. To every mortal is thy influence known, and men beneath thy righteous bondage groan…every thought within the mind concealed is to thy fight…revealed. The soul unwilling reason to obey by lawless passion ruled, thy eyes survey. All to see, hear, and rule, o power divine whose nature equity contains, is thine…make thy mystic’s life, thy constant care: give aid…in the needful hour, and strength abundant to the reasoning power; and far avert the dire, unfriendly race of counsels impious, arrogant, and base.

The hymn appears to imply Nemesis to have the ability to see into the minds of mortals and, at least partially, assist in one’s ability to rationalize. 

Did Nemesis have a Roman Equivalent?

Nemesis is a rare case in which her name and role was kept during Roman translations. 

Well, sort of. 

The position of the vengeful Greek goddess remained the same, with Nemesis acting on the whim of the gods to avenge wrongs. The Roman Empire kept that much intact. 

In addition to seeking out retribution, Nemesis began to be related with jealousy. So much so in fact that the most significant change to Nemesis’ character came with the Roman concept of invidia, or envy. 

Nemesis Invidia

In later Rome, Nemesis became the goddess of envy, known as Invidia. She was the personification of jealousy. 

Romans had a series of rituals that would be performed to ward off Invidia’s “evil eye,” with the most simplistic practice being despuere malum. To “spit” was thought to be an effective method to keep evil away; older women would regularly spit (or pretend to spit) at the chests of children to safeguard them from ill-will.

To be fair, if someone spat three times in anyone’s direction, I wouldn’t want anything to do with them either. 

Outside of having curse-bestowing eyes, Invidia was also believed to have a poisoned tongue. Due to this belief, she would frequently be associated with witches and other maledictions.

What did the Ancient Greeks Think about Hubris? Why is Nemesis so Important?

Hubris was not something you wanted to be accused of if you were in ancient Greece. It was thought to be behavior outside the norm. Most specifically, that behavior in which one would attempt to defy – or challenge – the gods. To display such arrogance meant that you became a target of Nemesis and, as we now know, she is inescapable. 

Moreover, Nemesis and the vengeance she passed around acted as a unifying theme in the most iconic Greek tragedies. An example of this is Odysseus’ persistent insults of the Cyclops Polyphemus after he had blinded him, in turn earning the ire of Poseidon. For his hubris, Odysseus’ journey home was severely delayed, costing him his men, his ship, and nearly his wife. 

The influence of Nemesis extends deeper into literary works like tragedies and makes its way onto the stage. Although less personified in theater, Nemesis still plays a crucial role. It is by Nemesis alone that one who committed an act of hubris would answer for their misdeeds and face the consequences of their actions. 

As for Nemesis’ role in Greek mythology, she was to act as a stalwart defender of justice. Her approach was heavy-handed and – as far as her influence on human affairs goes – she strove to maintain a balance. The gods are, well, gods, and deserved the respect that came with it. Mortals should have known better than to step on their toes and in case they didn’t, that’s where Nemesis came in. 

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