Themis: The Goddess of Natural Law
Themis was a goddess of law and order, but her area of concern had little to do with the laws passed by human rulers.
She was the embodiment of the Greek concept of natural law. Themis saw to it that things were done in the right way.
Themis, as both a goddess and as an abstract idea, was necessary for the continuation of a well-ordered society.
Greek culture was built on a set of rules and traditions that were thought to be decreed by the gods themselves. Violating these sacred natural laws did not just offend the gods, it threatened the entire fabric of society.
Themis was not a vengeful goddess, however. In fact, she often took pity on those who suffered.
She left the enforcement of natural laws to other gods, but Themis embodied the rules that kept Greek society running.
Themis was a Titaness, one of the twelve divine children of Gaia and Uranus.
Little is said by ancient writers of what role, if any, the goddesses played in the Titanomachy. While a few were specifically mentioned as siding with Zeus and the younger gods, most were assumed to have not taken part in the fighting themselves.
One story said that the Titanesses, along with Hera, Hestia, and Demeter, took shelter in the palace of Oceanus when the Titans and gods fought for supremacy.
Therefore, while the male Titans were punished for fighting against Zeus, the Titanesses appear to have been largely spared. Because they did not fight against the Olympians they were allowed to retain both their freedom and their divinity.
They found places in the new pantheon, often as more minor goddesses and personifications. Many of the married the younger gods and became the mothers of another generation of deities.
Themis was one of the Titanesses who assimilated into the new order, and one of the few to have played an active role in later myths. While she was not an Olympian, she held an important place among them.
The role of Themis in Greek mythology and culture is, according to one historian, untranslatable.
She personified themis, the Greek idea of natural law. This idea is difficult to put into a modern perspective, however.
We tend to think of natural law as referring to the way in which the universe works and the world operates. To the Greeks, however, the concept was much more rooted in human society.
She was not concerned with nature itself, but what was right and natural for the ordering of human society and the preservation of civilized culture.
Themis could mean custom or tradition. The proper way of doing things was seen by the Greeks as something that had been passed down by humans but had its origins with the gods.
The social order itself fell under the purview of Themis. The hierarchy of Greek civilization was ordained by the gods and essential to the proper functioning of civilized society.
In a broader sense, the idea of themis simply meant the will of the gods. It was not up to humans to question the rightness or logic behind the natural laws of the gods, because obedience to divine will was necessary for the culture to continue.
Any laws handed down by the gods were considered natural and, therefore, necessary. They were separate from, and more important than, nomos, the fallible laws decreed by human rulers.
Themis oversaw the functioning of society from the highest levels down to the most personal interactions. From the ordering of the family unit to the governance of a nation, themis took precedence over human laws and personal desires.
As the personification of this natural law, the goddess Themis embodied divine justice as well. While she was not depicted as a vengeful or violent deity, other gods and goddesses would take swift action against anyone who violated her laws.
Even on Mount Olympus, Themis oversaw the proper ordering of society. The other gods deferred to her to maintain order within their own society.
On Olympus she was referred to as “The Lady” and often consulted for her lawful and truthful counsel.
As the personification of natural law, Themis also had the ability to separate fact from fiction. To her, there was no gray area – a thing was either true or false, lawful or unlawful.
Themis only spoke the truth, although she often used gentle words and left much to the listener to figure out for themselves.
Her knowledge of truth made her the second oracle to ever live. The only one to have such knowledge before her was Gaia, but the mother goddess gave up some of this power to her daughter.
While Apollo was granted the right to see her truths as well, Themis was the first to be able to grant true prophecies. To the Greeks, prophecies were not visions of the future but knowledge of a divine truth that had yet to be revealed.
Themis built the oracular temple at Delphi and occupied it before Apollo was born.
She was present at the younger god’s birth and was thought to have been the one to give him the gift of true sight. On Olympus, they were the only two deities to know the full truth of fate, although Themis was still more often asked for advice in matters of law and justice.
When Apollo slew the Python that guarded the oracle at Delphi, it was a sign that he was the new rightful god of the temple. She ceded her place as the goddess of oracles to Apollo and the tradition of Delphi’s great seers began.
Themis was still worshipped there, however, and at every other oracle in the ancient Greek world. Along with Apollo, she was invoked to help priestesses and petitioners see the truth of things.
Even after Apollo became the primary god of oracles, Themis’s name was still used in relation to them.
Themis, the myths tell us, was the first to introduce divinations and sacrifices and ordinances which concern the gods, and to instruct men in the ways of obedience to laws and of peace. Consequently men who preserve what is holy with respect to the gods and the laws of men are called ‘law-guardians’ (thesmophulakes) and ‘law-givers’ (thesmothetai), and we say that Apollon at the moment when he is to return the oracular responses, is ‘issuing laws and ordinances’ (themisteuein), in view of the fact that Themis was the discoveress of oracular responses.
-Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 5. 67. 3 (trans. Oldfather)
In any matter involving the natural laws of the gods, Themis was the ultimate authority. Her words were always truthful and she always worked toward order, justice, and civility.
Before Zeus married his sister Hera, he took several of the Titanesses as his consorts. Themis was one of these, and by some accounts the most fitting among them.
Zeus was the only spouse ever mentioned in relation to Themis. As the king of the gods and the patron of law, he was the most logical partner for her.
Themis served not only as Zeus’s consort, but also as his advisor. Zeus was a fallible god, but Themis always knew the truth of matters.
She reported to Zeus when someone had broken natural law without his knowledge. Learning the truth from her, he could ensure justice was carried out.
Themis also counseled Zeus against rash action that might cause him to violate the natural laws himself. When thieves attempted to steal honey from the sacred cave where he had been born, Themis stopped Zeus from smiting them because killing someone, even a criminal, on hallowed ground would be against the proper way of things.
Themis bore many children with Zeus, all of whom represented the laws and order embodied by their parents. They were:
- The Horae – The three personifications of the seasons represented the correct ordering of time. Auxo, Carpo, and Thallo ensured that the seasons unfolded in the correct manner and humans knew the right times to plant crops, celebrate holy days, and bring in the harvest.
- The Moirai – Also known in English as the Fates, they were sometimes said to be daughters of Themis. Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos oversaw human lives from birth until the appointed time of death.
- Dike – The personification of justice, she took an active role in seeing justice carried out.
- Eirene – The goddess of peace was present when proper themis was followed.
- Eunomia – She represented the order of law. She influenced human law and proper governance.
While Themis rarely took action against those who violated the laws, Zeus and their daughters were more actively involved. They kept order not only from a distance, but also by personally bringing justice to those who violated themis.
While Themis was often referenced for the watch she kept over natural laws, she was most commonly shown in myths revealing important truths to those who needed to know them.
According to the writer Aeschylus, Themis had given Prometheus knowledge about the war between the Titans and the Olympians. She let the younger Titan know that the war would not be one by brute strength, as possessed by her brothers and nephews, but by intelligence and cunning.
When Prometheus was bound for sinning against Zeus, she also foretold his eventual freedom. The great archer descended from Io that she prophesized was Heracles, who slew the Caucasian Eagle and signaled the end of the Titan’s long punishment.
When Zeus was preparing to marry the Titaness Thetis, Themis advised against it. She knew that any son born to Thetis was destined to one day defeat his father, which would have spelled doom for the newly-crowed king of the gods.
When Zeus destroyed most of humanity in a great flood, Themis advised the survivors on how to repopulate the earth. She told Deucalion and his wife to throw their mother’s bones over their shoulders, which they correctly interpreted to mean stones from Gaia, which became a new race of men.
When Hebe, the goddess of youth, was about to swear to never use her gift of restoration to change the age of a human, Themis advised against it. She knew one day it would need to be used to protect the people of Thebes.
She even shared her gifts with her mother, Gaia. When the primordial mother was about to sent more giants to assault Olympus after the defeat of Typhon, Themis showed her a vision of the deaths of her remaining giant children if she continued on her destructive path.
While many of the Titaness appear in the myths of the Olympians, few were as widely revered as Themis. She was one of the few of the older generation of gods to have several temples of her own throughout the Greek world.
She was particularly important at the shrines of the oracles, of which Delphi was only one. At Donoda and Tanagra she was believed to oversee the truth of the oracles’ prophecies.
The oracle at Phthiotis in Thessalia was housed in a temple that bore her name. The Temple of Themis Ikhnaia was one of the centers of her worship.
Themis even had a shrine at Zeus’s holy city of Olympia. Additionally, she shared many sanctuaries with him including an important one in Thebes.
It is believed that Themis had shrines in many other gods’ temples, as well. In Epidauros, for example, a shrine within the temple complex of Asclepius was said to be that of both Aphrodite and Themis.
Themis, as both a goddess and a concept, was invoked in courts of law and whenever rulers made decisions to ensure that proceedings were seen to be in keeping with the divine natural law.
As the goddess of social order, she was also invoked whenever people gathered together. Whether for a feast or a great festival, Themis was called upon to see that the gathering followed protocol and was in keeping with tradition.
Unlike most of her fellow Titanesses, Themis played an active role in Greek religion and worship. She was one of the few of the older generation of gods to play a role in the daily life of the ancient Greek world.
The character of Themis is hard to understand from a modern perspective.
The laws she personified, themselves called themis, governed every aspect of Greek life. These natural laws concerned the proper ordering and functioning of Greek society.
Without themis, civilization could not exist. The laws that were passed down by the gods governed the proper way to organize, run, and live in a lawful society.
Themis existed before Zeus and the gods of Olympus. She was a Titaness and, as such, represented a domain that was broader and considered more ancient than any of the Olympians’.
Her children embodied the law and order that their mother oversaw. Together with their father, Zeus, they enforced and maintained the ideals their mother represented.
As the embodiment of natural law, Themis was also a goddess of prophecy. She could see the truth at all times and was revered at every oracle site in ancient Greece.
Unlike the male Titans she was not imprisoned or punished after the Olympians took power. Unlike the other Titanesses, she was revered by the people of Greece in a manner similar to the younger gods.
Themis and her natural laws represented fundamental truths of the Greek worldview. Even on Mount Olympus she was the authority on the proper way to live within a society.
Zeus himself deferred to Themis. When the king of the gods could not see the truth of a thing or was in danger of violating the natural laws, Themis gave him council.
Themis represented an abstract idea, but she was by definition present in every aspect of Greek society. Without Themis and her laws, that society could not have survived.