One of the original twelve Titan gods and goddesses of Greek mythology, Themis was the goddess of divine law and order. She was seen as the personification of justice and fairness, of law and order, of wisdom and good counsel and she was portrayed with several symbols to signify her relationship with justice. She was also credited with oracular powers, vision, and foresight. Despite the similarities in their names, Themis should not be mistaken with her sister Tethys, the sea goddess.
The Meaning of the Name Themis
Themis means “custom” or “law.” It is derived from the Greek tithemi which literally means “to put.” Thus, the real meaning of Themis is “that which is put in place.” The word was used to refer to divine law and ordinances or rules of conduct before it became the name for the Greek goddess of justice.
Homer evokes the name in his epics, and Moses Finley, the classical scholar, writes of this in The World of Odysseus, “Themis is untranslatable. A gift of the gods and a mark of civilized existence, sometimes it means right custom, proper procedure, social order, and sometimes merely the will of the gods (as revealed by an omen, for example) with little of the idea of right.”
Thus, the name is very much synonymous with the divine laws and word of the gods. Unlike the word nomos, it does not actually apply to human laws and decrees.
Description and Iconography of Themis
Often depicted as blindfolded and holding a set of scales in her hand, Themis is a common sight even now in courts of justice around the world. Themis is described as a sober looking woman and Homer writes of “her beautiful cheeks.” It was said that even Hera referred to Themis as Lady Themis.
Symbols of Themis
Themis was associated with several objects which are associated with justice and law even in modern parlance because of her. These are the scales, which symbolize her ability to weigh compassion with justice and to shift through evidence and use her wisdom to make the right choice.
Sometimes, she is depicted wearing a blindfold, which symbolizes her ability to be impartial and her foresight. However, it must be noted that the blindfold is a more modern conception of Themis and arose more in the 16th century than during the ancient Greek civilization.
The cornucopia symbolizes a wealth of knowledge and good fortune. At times, Themis was depicted with a sword, especially when she was most associated with her mother Gaia, the earth goddess. But this was a rare depiction.
Goddess of Justice, Law and Order
Goddess of divine law, Themis was extremely influential in ancient Greece and had power even over the gods at Olympus themselves. Gifted with foresight and prophecy, she was considered very wise and a representative of the laws of both gods and mankind.
The law and order that Themis personified and upheld was more in the line of natural order and what is correct. This extended to behavior within family or community, which is considered social or cultural in modern times but was thought to be an extension of nature in those days.
Through her daughters, the Horae and the Moirai, Themis also upheld the natural and moral orders of the world, thus deciding how society and the destiny of every individual being would play out.
Origins of Themis
Themis was one of the six daughters of Gaia, the primordial earth goddess, and Uranus, the god of the sky. As such, she was one of the original Titans. She was the representation of the natural and moral order of the world in the Golden Age of the Titans’ rule.
Who were the Titans?
The Titans were the oldest gods known in Greek myth, predating the much better known newer gods and goddesses by many years. They lived out their golden years even before the coming of mankind. While many of Themis’s brothers fought in the war against Zeus and were thus defeated and imprisoned, according to all resources, Themis still remained influential in the later years during Zeus’s reign. Even among the younger Greek gods, Themis was regarded as a powerful figure and goddess of justice and the divine laws.
Some of the Greek myths state that Themis was married to Iapetus, one of her Titan brothers. However, this is not a commonly accepted theory as Iapetus was widely accepted to be married to the goddess Clymene instead. Perhaps the confusion arises from Hesiod and Aeschylus’s differing opinions about the parents of Prometheus. Hesiod names Iapetus his father and Aeschylus names Themis his mother. It is more likely that Prometheus was the son of Clymene.
Mythology Related to Themis
The myths about Themis are many and the accounts are often contradictory to each other, showing how her cult grew up organically, borrowing stories from other sources liberally. What does remain constant is the belief in her oracular powers and power of prophecy.
Themis and the Oracle at Delphi
Some accounts say that Themis herself helped found the Oracle at Delphi along with Apollo, while other accounts claim that she received The Oracle from her mother Gaia and then passed it onto Apollo. But what is also known is that Themis herself had prophecies.
As the figure presiding over the ancient oracle, she was the voice of the Earth that instructed mankind in the most basic laws and ordinances of justice. The rules of hospitality, the methods of governance, the ways of behavioral conduct and piety were all lessons that humans gained from Themis herself.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Themis warns the gods of a civil war that is to come in Thebes and all the troubles that that will cause. She also warns Zeus and Poseidon not to marry Thetis as her son will be mightier and a threat to his father.
Also according to the Metamorphoses, Themis rather than Zeus was the one who instructed Deucalion in the Greek flood myth to throw the bones of “his mother,” meaning Mother Earth, Gaia, over his shoulder to repopulate the Earth. Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha thus threw rocks over their shoulder and those became men and women. Ovid also wrote that Themis prophesied that a son of Zeus would steal the golden apples from the Hesperides, from the orchard of Atlas.
It is said that Aphrodite came to Themis, worried that her child Eros would stay a child forever. Themis told her to give Eros a brother as his loneliness was preventing his growth. Thus, Aphrodite gave birth to Anteros and Eros began to grow whenever the brothers were together.
The Birth of Apollo
Themis was present at the birth of Apollo on the Greek island of Delos, along with his twin sister Artemis. The children of Leto and Zeus, they needed to be hidden from the goddess Hera. Themis fed little Apollo with nectar and ambrosia of the gods and after eating this, the baby grew into a man at once. Ambrosia, as per Greek mythology, is the food of the gods that gives them immortality and is not to be fed to a mortal.
Themis and Zeus
Many myths consider Themis the second wife of Zeus, after Hera. She was believed to have sat by him on Olympus and being the goddess of justice and law, helped stabilize his rule over the gods and humans. She was one of his counselors and was sometimes represented as advising him on the rules of fate and destiny. Themis had six daughters with Zeus, the three Horae and the three Moirai.
Some of the older Greek texts, such as the lost Cypria, by Stasinus, says that Themis and Zeus together schemed for the start of the Trojan War. Later, when the gods began fighting with each other after Odysseus built the Trojan Horse, Themis is supposed to have stopped them by warning them about Zeus’s anger.
Themis and the Moirai are said to have prevented Zeus from killing some thieves who wished to steal honey from the holy Dictaean Cave. It was thought to be ill fated for anyone to die in the cave. So Zeus turned the thieves into birds instead and let them go.
The Worship of Themis
The cult of Themis was quite widespread in Greece. There were many temples built for the worship of the Greek goddess. While these temples do not exist any longer and there aren’t any detailed descriptions of them, mentions of several shrines to Themis do crop up in different resources and texts.
The Temples of Themis
There was a temple to Themis in the oracular shrine at Dodona, a temple near the Acropolis in Athens, a temple at Rhamnous just beside a temple to Nemesis, as well as a Temple of Themis Ikhnaia in Thessalia.
Pausanias, the Greek traveler and geographer, vividly described her temple at Thebes and the three sanctuaries near the Neistan Gate. The first was a sanctuary of Themis, with an idol of the goddess in white marble. The second was a sanctuary for the Moirai. The third was the sanctuary of Zeus Agoraios (of the Market).
The Greek myths say that Themis had an altar even on Olympia, on the Stomion or the mouth. Themis also at times shared temples with other gods or goddesses and is known to have shared one with Aphrodite in the sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidauros.
Themis’s Association with other Goddesses
In the play by Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, Prometheus says that Themis was called by many names, even Gaia, the name of her mother. As Gaia was the earth goddess and in charge of the oracle at Delphi before Themis took over, they are particularly associated in the role of oracular voice of the Earth.
Themis is also linked with Nemesis, the goddess of divine retributive justice. When one does not follow the laws and rules that gentle Themis represents, Nemesis comes upon you, promising wrathful retribution. The two goddesses are the two sides of a coin.
Themis and Demeter
Interestingly, Themis was also closely associated with the goddess of spring, Demeter Thesmophoros, meaning “the bringer of law and order.” It is perhaps no coincidence that Themis’s two sets of daughters, the Horae or the Seasons and the death-bringing Moirai or the Fates, represent two sides of Demeter’s own daughter Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld.
The Children of Themis
Themis and Zeus are known to have had six children, the three Horae and the three Moirai. However, in other cases, Themis is credited with being the mother of the Hesperides, the nymphs of evening light and sunsets, by Zeus.
In the play Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus writes that Themis is the mother of Prometheus, although this is not an account that is found in any other resources.
Strongly associated with their mother Themis and the natural, cyclical order of time, they were the goddesses of the seasons. They were also the personification of nature in all its different seasons and moods and were believed to promote the fertility of the earth and observe that the laws and rules of natural order and human behavior were being upheld.
Her name means “order” or governance according to proper laws. Eunomia was the goddess of legislation. She was also a spring goddess of green pastures. Although generally considered to be the daughter of Themis and Zeus, she or perhaps a goddess of the same name could have been the daughter of Hermes and Aphrodite as well. Eunomia appears as one of Aphrodite’s companions in some Greek vases.
Dike means “justice” and she was the goddess of moral justice and fair judgment. She ruled over human justice just as her mother ruled over divine justice. She is usually shown as a slim youthful woman carrying a pair of scales and wearing a laurel wreath around her head. Dike is often associated and linked with Astraea, the virgin goddess of purity and innocence.
Eirene means “peace” and she was the personification of wealth and abundance. She was usually depicted as a beautiful young woman with the cornucopia, the horn of plenty, just like her mother Themis, as well as a scepter and a torch. The people of Athens particularly revered Eirene and established a cult for Peace, building many altars in her name.
In ancient Greek Mythology, the Moirai or the Fates were the manifestations of destiny. While the three of them were a group, their roles and functions also differed. Their ultimate purpose was to ensure that every mortal or immortal being lived their life according to what destiny had assigned them as per the laws of the universe.
Even Zeus, their father and king, was not free of the decisions of the Fates and had to abide by them. Thus, the Fates were a powerful force within the world of Greek Mythology, if not always a well-liked one.
Clotho means “spinner” and her role was to spin the thread of life on her spindle. Thus, she could make very influential decisions such as when a person was to be born or whether a person was to be saved or put to death. Clotho could even resurrect people from the dead, as she did with Pelops when his father killed him.
In some texts, Clotho along with her two sisters are considered to be the daughters of Erebus and Nyx but in other texts they are accepted as the daughters of Themis and Zeus. In Roman mythology, Clotho was considered the daughter of Gaia and Uranus.
Her name means “alloter” or the one who draws the lots. The role of Lachesis was to measure out the threads spun on Clotho’s spindle and to determine the time or the life that was apportioned to each being. Her instrument was a rod to help her measure the threads and she was also responsible for choosing a person’s destiny and which way their lives would shape up. Mythology said that Lachesis and her sisters would appear shortly after the birth of a baby to decide the baby’s destiny.
Her name means “inevitable” and she was the one who was responsible for cutting the life thread of a being. She wielded a pair of shears and when she had decided that a person’s time was finished, she would cut their life thread with the shears. Atropos was the eldest of the three Fates. She chose the manner of a person’s death and was known for being completely inflexible.
Themis in Modernity
In modern times, Themis is sometimes called Lady Justice. Statues of Themis, blindfolded and with a pair of scales held up in her hand, can be found outside many courthouses all over the world. Indeed, she has become so associated with law, that there are study programs named after her.
The Themis Bar Review
The Themis Bar Review is an American study program, in conjunction with the ABA, the American Bar Association, that helps law students study for and pass their exams. The Themis Bar Review provides an online learning platform that has lectures and coursework streamlined to help the students perform as well as they possibly can.