Nemesis: Goddess of Rebalancing

I reblogged an article on Nemesis, the goddess of rebalancing, last week, but I’m still really intrigued by this goddess, so fearsome and yet widely worshipped. The Greeks built temples to honour her, and the Romans took her cult to the ends of the Roman Empire, from Dacia to Scotland.

Goddess with the scales

Her name comes from the Greek nemêsis and nemô, “dispenser of dues”. has the best explanation of her sphere of any of the sites I’ve looked at:

She was a personification of the resentment aroused in men by those who commited crimes with apparent impunity, or who had inordinate good fortune.
Nemesis directed human affairs in such a way as to maintain equilibrium.

One of Nemesis’ attributes was the scales, because of her concern with this equilibrium. The story of Polycrates shows how this worked. He feared that his continuing good fortune would attract the attention of Nemesis. So he began making her offerings, and his luck held.

Finally he tossed a valuable ring into the ocean during a voyage, as a gift to the goddess. That night, he had a feast, and his ring turned up inside a fish. He knew the goddess had rejected his offering; he became anxious, stopped eating, and died.

The scales also linked her to the goddess of Justice, and a curse tablet from Caerleon in Wales (RIB 323) invokes her against a thief:

Lady Nemesis, I give thee a cloak and a pair of boots; let him who wore them not redeem them except with his life and blood.

The Greeks did sometimes pair her with their goddess of justice, Dike, seeing her as a force that overtook evildoers. (Like the Erinyes, or Furies.)

Primal Goddess

She had several different parents, according to different authorities, but all of them come from the first times: Night, Erebos, or Okeanos. Hesiod’s Theogony gives her Night (Nyx) for a mother, as one of a whole brood of dark deities, including the Fates, Sleep and Death. Another version makes her the daughter of Erebus and Nyx, along with Night and Day. (All of these parentages make her several generations older than Zeus and the Olympians.)

One of her oldest temples, at Rhamnos, made the Ocean her father. There is a lovely story about how the Persians tried to invade, bringing a block of marble with them to make a trophy when they won. They lost, however, and the famous sculptor Pheidias made a statue of Nemesis from it.

Really, the statue was done by Pheidias’ student Agorakritos (Lloyd-Morgan: 121), and it seems unlikely that the Persians would lug a huge block of marble in their baggage train, however vainglorious they were. The story comes from Pausanias’ Description of Greece, who described the famous statue thus:

…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 Aithiopes (Ethiopians)…

He stresses that the statue, like all older statues of Nemesis, is not winged. (Later artists, he says, gaver her wings like Eros because she so often manifested as a consequence of love.) Helen of the Trojan War appears on the base of the statue, because Nemesis was her mother in some versions of her story. Parts of the statue can be found in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

Patrae in Achaea had a temple to Nemesis, but two more famous temples lay outside the peninsula, Adrasteia and Smyrna in Anatolia. (Smyrna is modern-day Izmir, in Turkey.)

The temple at Smyrna had two Nemeses, a pair of wooden statues. Although other sites also had their set of Nemesis, such as Olympia and Tomas in modern Romania, the Smyrna pair was the most famous.

Dedications to Nemesis

Although Nemesis might seem to be a dark and frightening goddess, she was also a highly honoured one. (These two things may be related.) Latin inscriptions from altars, temples and offerings include the titles Regina (Queen), Augusta (August, but also related to the Imperial Numen), Sancta (Holy) and Sacrae (Sacred).

Some of these dedications comes from priests and religious officials, including one from an archigallus, a high priest of Cybele. (Lloyd-Morgan:123) Some record the building of temples, or their repair.

And some came about because of a dream. Some dedications to the goddess use the phrase ex visu, meaing after a dream, or by the goddess’ orders (ex iussu), or after a warning in a dream (somnio admonitus). (Lloyd-Morgan: 124-5) These dedications are spread across the empire, from Pannonia through Aquilegia in Italy to Chester in England.

Goddess of the Amphitheatre

The Chester inscription was found in the wall of a shrine behind the arena, and shrines to Nemesis pop up all over the empire near amphitheatres. Out of 69 inscriptions that mention Nemesis, 16 come from the areas around amphitheatres. (This includes the curse tablet quoted above, which came from an amphitheatre.)

Lloyd-Morgan is particularly impressed by the memorial to the gladiator Glaucus, who won seven fights. Dedicated by his wife and amatores huis (his “fan club”), the last part reads:

I warn/advise you to pay attention to your stars. Have no trust in Nemesis, for I was deceived [by her]. Hail and farewell.

Nemesis and Other Goddesses

The Romans tended to pair Nemesis with Fortuna, since Nemesis balanced out Fortuna’s generosity. The Greeks, however, saw her slightly differently. At Rhamnous she was paired with Themis, the goddess of justice. As the goddess who held the scales and kept things balanced, not too good or too bad, they seemed a natural pairing.

The other goddess paired with Nemesis was Aphrodite. This may seem surprising, but they shared the apple branch as an attribute, and both had shrines at Patrae. I have looked for some explanation of why they should appear together, but I can only speculate that Nemesis was supposed to balance out passion as she did everything else.

Lloyd-Morgan, Glenys 1999: “Nemesis and Bellona: A Preliminary Study of Two Neglected Goddesses”, The Concept of the Goddess, eds. Sandra Billington and Miranda Green, Routledge: 120-8. (Questia)
Tataki, Argyro 2009: “Nemesis, Nemeseis, and the Gladitorial Games at Smyrna”, Mnemosyne, 4th Series, 62/4: 639-48. (JSTOR: paywall)

Links on Nemesis
Aphrodite—Goddess of Love and Beauty, First of the Fates, Nemesis

1 thought on “Nemesis: Goddess of Rebalancing

  1. Pingback: Our Longing for Nemesis | America Divine

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