Tuesday, 20 October 2015


“And though circuitous and obscure, The feet of Nemesis how sure!” - William Watson

The ancient Greeks believed that Nemesis, the daughter of Nyx (goddess of Night), represents that power which adjusts the balance of human affairs, by awarding to each individual the fate which his actions deserve. She rewards, humble, unacknowledged merit, punishes crime, deprives the worthless of undeserved good fortune, humiliates the proud and overbearing, and visits all evil on the wrong-doer; thus maintaining that proper balance of things, which the Greeks recognised as a necessary condition of all civilised life.

Although Nemesis, according to her original character attributes, was the distributor of rewards as well as punishments, the world was so full of sin, that she found but little occupation in her first capacity of rewarding good, that she became finally regarded as the avenging goddess exclusively.

A striking instance of the manner in which this divinity punishes the proud and arrogant is demonstrated in the case of Niobe. Niobe, daughter of Tantalus, and wife of Amphion, king of Thebes, was the proud mother of seven sons and seven daughters, and exulting in the number of her children, she, upon one occasion, ridiculed the worship of Leto, because she had but one son and daughter (the gods Apollo and Artemis), and desired the Thebans, for the future, to give to her the honours and sacrifices which they had hitherto offered to the mother of Apollo and Artemis.

The sacrilegious words had scarcely passed her lips before Apollo called upon his sister Artemis to assist him in avenging the insult offered to their mother, and soon their invisible arrows sped through the air. Apollo slew all the sons, and Artemis had already slain all the daughters save one, the youngest and best beloved, whom Niobe clasped in her arms, when the agonised mother implored the enraged deities to leave her, at least, one out of all her beautiful children; but, even as she prayed, the deadly arrow reached the heart of this child also. Meanwhile the unhappy father, unable to bear the loss of his children, had destroyed himself, and his dead body lay beside the lifeless corpse of his favourite son.

Widowed and childless, the heart-broken mother sat among her dead, and the gods, in pity for her unutterable woe, turned her into a stone, which they transferred to Siphylus, her native Phrygian mountain, where it still continues to shed tears. Apollo and Artemis were merely the instruments for avenging the insult offered to their mother; but it was Nemesis who prompted the deed, and presided over its execution.

Homer makes no mention of Nemesis; it is therefore evident that this goddess was a conception of later times, when higher views of morality had prevailed among the Greek nation. Nemesis is represented as a beautiful woman of thoughtful and benign aspect and regal bearing; a diadem crowns her majestic brow, and she bears in her hand a rudder, balance, and cubit; fitting emblems of the manner in which she guides, weighs, and measures all human events. She is also sometimes seen with a wheel, to symbolise the rapidity with which she executes justice. As the avenger of evil she appears winged, bearing in her hand either a scourge or a sword, and seated in a chariot drawn by griffins.

Nemesis is frequently called Adrastia, and also Rhamnusia, from Rhamnus in Attica, the chief seat of her worship, which contained a celebrated statue of the goddess. Nemesis was worshipped by the Romans, (who invoked her on the Capitol), as a divinity who possessed the power of averting the pernicious consequences of envy.

Nemesis in English is used to denote the inescapable agent of someone’s or something’s downfall: “Injury, consistently his nemesis, struck him down during the match.” The word nemesis is derived from the ancient Greek verb ‘nemein’, which means ‘give what is due’. Hence nemesis, means ‘retribution’.

1 comment:

  1. Have used the word 'nemesis' often times before without really knowing its origins. Thanks for sharing Nicholas!