Nemesis, the goddess of divine retribution

As theAlfred_Rethel_002

Nemesis (1837).  Alfred Rethel.

Nemesis was the Graeco-Roman goddess of justice, revenge, right measure, destiny and divine retribution, and the deification of indignation. In origin Nemesis meant the distributor of fortune, either good or bad, in due proportion. In modern use she is used to describe one’s worst enemy. Her name is cognate with the Greek word meaning ‘give what is due’. As the personification of divine vengeance and retribution she was a remorseless goddess and vengeful executrix of justice. Nemesis measured out happiness and unhappiness, gave earthly luck, acted against those who succumbed to hubris, and punished sacrilege. In addition she was a goddess who, with the Furies, shared the dreaded responsibility of transporting guilty souls to Tartarus.

Nemesis 3

Nemesis (1853).  G. Tatterescu.

The origin of the cult of Nemesis may have been at Smyrna with cults there and in Attica. Nemesis was worshipped in an archaic sanctuary at Rhamnus in north east Attica during the 5th century BC. Therefore she is also known as the goddess of Rhamnus or Rhamnusia. The sanctuary at Rhamnus was north of Marathon, and her cult became a morality cult with a temple at Iconium in Asia Minor. The Festival of Nemesia at Athens was intended to avert the nemesis of the dead.


Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime (1808).  P. Prud’hon.

Nemesis, as the daughter of Erebus and Nyx was also ascribed as being the offspring of Oceanus or Zeus. She became the nymph goddess of the apple-bough. As the nymph goddess her name was Adastreia, meaning ‘inescapable’ or ‘from whom there is no escape’. The epithet of the Erinyes being ‘implacable’. Nemesis is often portrayed carrying the bough of an apple tree, or in one of her annual disguises as an ash tree. It was the later Greeks who identified Adastreia with the pastoral goddess Nemesis of the rain-making ash-tree. She is also sometimes depicted with a wheel, holding scales, whip and bridle, and symbolised in a chariot drawn by winged griffins.

Nemesis, as the original nymph goddess, whose usual name was Leda, was pursued by Zeus. During the pursuit both Nemesis and Zeus frequently changed form. Eventually Zeus, in the guise of a swan ravaged and impregnated Nemesis in her goose form. As a result of the rape Nemesis hatched an egg, found by Leda, into two sets of twins. One set was Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra, the other the Dioscuri called Castor and Polydeuces.


Leda and the Swan (1601).  Peter Paul Rubens.

In the pre-Hellenic story the goddess pursues the sacred king against whom uses she uses her seasonal transformations to counter his, whereupon she devours him at summer solstice. With the victory of the system of patriarchy the later Hellenic version reverses their roles. Hence the goddess takes flight, metamorphoses a number of times, and is eventually caught and raped by the chasing king. Leda, who finds the egg, is another form of Leto, Lat, or Latona who is pursued by Python. In another version it is Leda who gave birth after the egg had been placed between her thighs by Artemis. Nemesis who was a moon-goddess as a nymph was also the goddess of a Peloponnesian swan cult. Swans were sacred to Leto and Latona. Later Leda was deified as Nemesis.

The ancient Romans equated Nemesis with the goddess Invidia who in ancient Rome was called Pax-Nemesis.

Nemesis 2

Nemesis.  Roman marble from 2nd century AD Egypt.

As the patroness of gladiators she was also Nemesis campestris or the goddess of the training ground. Nemesis in ancient Rome was the winged balancer of life, a dark faced goddess and daughter of Justice. In the 3rd century AD she was the all-powerful Nemesis-Fortuna.

Leave a comment

Filed under Mythology

Discussion & Comment Welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s