Nemesis: The Goddess of Resentment and Retribution
While the word “nemesis” is familiar to most people, few realize that it comes from the name of a Greek goddess.
Nemesis was not one of the major deities of Olympus. She was one of what the Greeks called daimones – the personifications of specific traits, powers, or ideals.
Her exact function was harder to pin down than those of many of her peers, though.
Nemesis was a goddess of retribution, resentment, and divine justice.
More importantly, she was a deity that existed to maintain the balance of power, status, and fortune that the Greeks believed kept their world from descending into chaos.
She is the central figure of very few myths, but factors into many of them. She rarely speaks and rarely even acts, but she is a constant in the stories of the gods.
Even when she isn’t named, a Greek reader would be able to sense her presence.
Nemesis, the goddess of indignation and vengeance, was without a doubt one of the most mysterious and complicated goddesses in Greece!
When modern people hear the word “nemesis,” it has a very negative association. It’s a word for your greatest enemy, the worst person in your life.
The Greek Nemesis was only very slightly more positive. She was a goddess of resentment and retribution.
However, she was not a spirit of jealousy or spite. Other goddesses, like Eris, claimed those domains.
Nemesis did not seek retribution for just anything, and she did not express indignation at the petty affairs that occupied the minds of most people.
Nemesis specifically targeted righteous causes, those that related to the very functioning of Greek society.
Her vengeance was aimed at those who committed crimes with impunity. When men resented the ill-gotten gains of another, they could look to Nemesis to right the wrong.
She also concerned herself, at times, with matters of love. When someone took advantage of another’s feelings and abused their love, she looked to avenge the wronged party.
The crimes she sought justice for were not material or personal. They involved the abuse of power, crimes of deception, and the disruption of the natural order.
Nemesis did not work for good or evil. She was, more than anything, a goddess of balance.
The ancient Greeks, like many cultures, believed that excess was dangerous for both the individual and the society. The goal was to have balance in all things to preserve harmony.
The people of Greek society were expected to know their place in an order that was considered natural and righteous. Arrogance, greed, and conniving would attract Nemesis because they threatened the stability of the entire order.
Nemesis worked to preserve the delicate balance that maintained the workings of the world.
Even happiness and sadness had to be maintained in a balance.
The Greeks believed that the soul had to be purified and tested with some amount of suffering and pain to truly appreciate happiness. An overabundance of happiness was just as hazardous to a person’s well-being as too much sorrow because it could make the soul weak and prone to damage.
When happiness was experienced in excessive amounts, Nemesis was responsible for making sure some level of suffering was brought on to balance it out. She did not cause an abundance of pain unless it was to balance an abundance of joy.
She was usually said to be a daughter of Nix, the primordial goddess of night. Retribution rarely came in broad daylight, but in dark and private moments.
Often, retribution came with a flick of the spirit’s whip. One of her identifying symbols, it was said that she used it to mark those that would be punished later.
Other times, she merely watched and took note of the things she saw and heard. Even if she didn’t act immediately, the attention of Nemesis meant that misfortune would eventually come.
Zeus was the supreme god of law and responsible for righteous vengeance and maintaining order. He and Nemesis shared many duties.
It’s probably that belief in Nemesis predated that of Zeus. Her name meant “one who deals out,” making no reference to good or bad fortune.
The idea of an avenging goddess who distributed good luck to the just and bad fortune to the wicked probably came before the classical views of balance and social order. Nemesis was adapted to suit new beliefs under the gods of Olympus and, in the process, became a more noticeably negative figure.
Nemesis actually had a nemesis of her own.
She most frequently worked against Tyche, the goddess of good fortune.
Tyche was more widely loved than her counterpart because she cared much less about balance and fair distribution. Tyche could be overly generous with her favors, spreading good luck to the point that it disrupted the careful balance Nemesis tried to maintain.
When Tyche was too free with her gifts, it was up to Nemesis to restore the balance. Bad luck was, to the Greeks, Nemesis making sure that order was maintained.
Even good people could be given too much good fortune. Too much of any good thing, whether it was luck, love, or money, could spoil a human and turn them toward hubris and greed.
Despite their tendency to work against each other, Nemesis and Tyche were often depicted as a team. Together they could decide who was deserving of Tyche’s good fortune and who should be left to Nemesis.
Just as Nemesis sought balance, she and Tyche could balance each other out.
Tyche was not the only goddess Nemesis worked closely with.
She was often accompanied by Aidos, the personification of shame. Together they would ensure that those who violated the natural order and ideal balance would not only be punished, but would feel personal culpability for their actions.
Nemesis sometimes shared her duties with the Erinyes. While they were more malevolent than she was, they shared her belief in punishing those who broke sacred laws.
When laws were broken, she also worked with Dike, the goddess of justice, to track down those responsible. Dike took special care with moral transgressions, which meant that she and Nemesis often sought out the same offenders.
This assortment of justice goddesses collectively meant that no one could hope to escape their due punishments. Whether the Erinyes assaulted them or Aidos made them despair, they would pay for their crimes.
Nemesis herself was also known as Adrasteia, an epithet meaning “the inescapable.” No guilty party could hope to escape her notice.
Rhamnos, a town in southern Attica, was the center of the cult of Nemesis.
Pausanius, writing his Description of Greece in the 2nd century AD, told the history of a beautiful marble statue of Nemesis that he saw in her temple.
According to local legend, the marble had been brought by the Persian army during their attempted invasion of Greece. They planned to make a trophy, arrogantly planning for a victory they had not yet won.
Their historic loss at Marathon was, in part, the work of Nemesis. The hubris they had shown in assuming they would win the battle had drawn her attention and she had punished them for it with defeat.
In honor of their goddess’s role in the defeat of the invading Persians, the people of Rhamnos had one of the best artists of their age carve a statue out of the marble that symbolized the Persian arrogance.
A town in Anatolia also revered Nemesis. It was named Adrasteia, one of her epithets.
Those who revered Nemesis called on her as a goddess of law and justice who ensured that every man, both good and wicked, got what he deserved.
Thee, Nemesis, I call, almighty queen, by whom the deeds of mortal life are seen: eternal, much revered, of boundless sight, alone rejoicing in the just and right: 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; for every thought within the mind concealed is to thy sight perspicuously revealed. The soul unwilling reason to obey, by lawless passion ruled, thine eyes survey. All to see, hear, and rule, O power divine, whose nature equity contains, is thine. Come, blessed, holy Goddess, hear my prayer, and make thy mystics’ life thy constant care: give aid benignant in the needful hour, and strength abundant to the reasoning power; and far avert the dire, unfriendly race of counsels impious, arrogant, and base.
-Orphic Hymn 61 to Nemesis (trans. Taylor)
Nemesis was thought the haunt the daily life of the Greek people, but she was most often referenced in mythology for her role in punishing those who offended the gods.
The Olympians, on the whole, were known for their short tempers and the ease with which they took offense. It was easy to offend the gods, and even those who did so accidentally could be sure of a punishment.
The issue wasn’t just that the gods were upset. It was that offending the gods was a violation of the natural order of things.
When a god’s pride was offended by the remarks or actions of a human, it was an affront to the cosmic hierarchy that placed the gods at the top. When a human showed hubris by comparing their skills or attributes to those of the gods, it was a threat to the entire natural balance.
Nemesis did not just take action to save the gods’ wounded pride. She took action to ensure that humans and gods stayed in their rightful places and that an action that could be construed as a crime against the dignity of the Olympians was punished.
Often, Nemesis was mentioned more as a witness to the punishment of wrong-doers than as the source of justice.
For example, when a king cut down a tree that was sacred to Demeter, Nemesis was said to be there to record his confession. Demeter herself punished him by cursing him with an insatiable hunger.
Other noteworthy times she helped the gods exact revenge included:
- When the giant Typhon boasted about how he would overthrow the Olympians, Nemesis took note of his boastful words for later.
- When Aura mocked Artemis by claiming she was not a virgin, the goddess called on Nemesis to help her get revenge. Nemesis chased Aura down and marked her with her whip so Eros would know who to target.
- When Narcissus rejected the love of Echo, it was Nemesis who drew him to a nearby pond. He fell in love with his own reflection and turned into a flower, a just punishment for his arrogant vanity.
- Niobe was a queen who claimed to be a better mother than Leto because she had seven sons and seven daughters while Leta had only given birth to Apollo and Aphrodite. Nemesis noted her boast and stood by while the divine twins killed Niobe’s children in revenge.
- When the nymph Nycaea killed Hymnos, the innocent young shepherd who loved her, Nemesis berated Aphrodite and Eros for creating the circumstances that led to the tragic death. In the end, she and Eros punished Nycaea by causing her to lose her virginity to Dionysus.
The myths are filled with stories of the gods enacting punishments for the wickedness, insults, or arrogance of humans.
Nemesis is only mentioned in a few of these, but as one of the personifying daimones it was understood that she worked invisibly in any situation where her name could be invoked.
One Greek proverb said, “At least Nemesis walks at your feet.” The unjust would be chased down at great speed, while those who had committed no wrong would have Nemesis calmly walk beside them.
One of the more unusual stories of Nemesis is that of her role in the birth of Leda’s children.
Leda was a beautiful mortal woman who was famously seduced by Zeus in the guise of a swan. As a result of the affair she laid four eggs.
When the eggs hatched, Leda had two sons and two daughters. Castor and Pollux were famous twins involved in the founding of Rome, while Helen and Clytemnestra both figured prominently in the legendary Trojan War.
Because Leda was married to the king of Sparta, her children had both a mortal father and a divine one. Writers typically said that Zeus and King Tyndareus divided the children, two being fully mortal and two being partially divine.
Another version of the story, however, claimed that Leda was not the mother of Helen of Troy after all.
The meta-physicists believed that Nemesis was the mother of the famous “face that launched a thousand ships.”
In their version of the story, Zeus fell in love with Nemesis, not Leda. As she was a virgin goddess she fled from him, turning herself into a goose so she could fly away.
Zeus was unbothered and transformed himself as well, into a swan. He flew after Nemesis, eventually catching up to her.
While still in the form of a bird, Nemesis laid a single egg. She left it in the grasses of a marsh when she returned to her true form.
The egg was found by a shepherd who, knowing it was extraordinary, gifted it to Leda. She kept the egg in a chest until it hatched.
The child born from that egg was Helen. Leda adopted her and raised her alongside her husband’s children, including those named in other versions of the story.
This version of Helen’s birth may be referenced in one of the most famous images of Nemesis in the art of Greece. A vase painting from the 5th century BC shows her with her arm around Tyche, pointing at Helen as the goddesses vie for Paris’s attention.
The birth of Helen in some senses completely restored a balance that had been missing from the Greek world since the Age of Heroes had begun.
The last of the semi-divine children of the gods would nearly all die in the Trojan War, which was sparked by Helen’s elopement with Prince Paris.
The mortal sons of the gods had always received more than their fair share of good fortune, luck, and divine intervention. Their sorrows had been magnified to extremes to make up for the overwhelming favor they were given.
The end of the Age of Heroes helped to restore the balance that Nemesis existed to uphold.
The Romans identified Nemesis as Invidia. Their personification of retribution was much more generally vengeful than her Greek counterpart.
In addition to punishing those guilty of hubris, Invidia was more generally a being associated with spite and envy.
Invidia also took extra measures to punish those who abused their authority.
The Roman deity was closely identified with witches and magic. They inherited her poisoned tongue, so it was said that the tongues of witches always protruded from their mouths.
Invidia’s name meant “to look upon,” a reference for the gaze she directed both in envy and in her role as an avenger of wrongs. Thus, she was associated with the evil eye and many charms and spells were used in an attempt to ward off her gaze.
The word “invidia” also expressed an emotion. The feeling of invidia was a type of intense envy that philosophers claimed was morally indefensible.
In common usage, though, the invocation of the Roman deity’s name had a meaning much closer to that of Nemesis. Invidia wasn’t used to describe any type of envy, it usually referred specifically to the reaction to undeserved wealth, misused authority, or shameless injustice.
The Roman personification of resentment had less in common with her Greek counterpart than many of the other Latin deities had to theirs.
This probably had a lot to do with the differences between Greek and Roman society and values. The Roman religion and society placed less emphasis on divine retribution than the Greeks had, so Nemesis lost much of her purpose when taken out of the context of Hellenic society.
The Roman version was also never truly revered as a goddess. She had no cult or temples and no hymns written in her honor.
Invidia was purely a personification, with no mythology or personality beyond her literal meaning.
While the two characters were similar, Invidia lost the emphasis on balance and justice that had defined worship of Nemesis. Rather than serving a higher ideal, Invidia was purely a personification of a negative emotion.
The negative view on Invidia lasted longer than the Roman religion. Christianity made her the personification of one of the Seven Deadly Sins.
With her place in Greek tradition completely erased, Nemesis was forgotten as a goddess of divine righteousness and the preservation of balance. She had been completely transformed into Invidia, the allegorical personification of the evils of envy.
Outside of Greek philosophy, it can be difficult to understand the role of Nemesis.
Two thousand years after the Romans warded off Invidia with charms against the evil eye, we still view envy and resentment as purely negative emotions.
The Greeks, however, had a much more complicated view of nemesis. The concept and the goddess existed not purely for punishment but to maintain the order that the Greek world relied on.
Nemesis did not avenge those who resented their neighbor’s good fortune. She brought balance to those who had received more fortune than they were rightfully allowed.
She punished those who offended the gods not to stroke the Olympians’ egos or please them, but because a human insulting a deity was an offense to the natural order of the world.
Thousands of years removed from the worldview of the ancient Greeks, it can be hard to understand how retribution could be worshipped at all, let alone as the patron goddess of multiple cities.
The Greek Nemesis, though, represented the divine justice and order that was the foundation of the Greek world.