Nemesis: the Restorer of Cosmic Order

Bertel Thorvaldsen, “Nemesis”

Bertel Thorvaldsen, “Nemesis”

 I. ”Nemesis, winged tilter of scales and lives,

Justice-spawned Goddess with steel-blue eyes!
Thou bridlest vain men who roil in vain
Against Thy harsh adamantine rein.
Great hater of hubris and megalomania,
Obliterator of black resentment,
By Thy trackless, churning, wracking wheel
Man’s glinting fortunes turn on earth.
Thou comest in oblivion’s cloak to bend
The grandeur-deluded rebel neck,
With forearm measuring out lifetimes
With brow frowning into the heart of man
And the yoke raised sovereign in Thy hand.
Hail in the highest, O justice-queen

Nemesis, winged tilter of scales and lives,
Immortal Judge! I sing Thy song,
Almighty Triumph on proud-spread wings,
Lieutenant of fairness, Requiter of wrongs.
Despise the lordly with all Thine art
And lay them low in the Nether-dark.”

“Hymn to Nemesis” by Mesomedes of Crete, translated by A.Z. Foreman (via http://poemsintranslation.blogspot.ch/2011/05/mesomedes-hymn-to-nemesis-from-greek.html)

II.“Thee, Nemesis I call, almighty queen, by whom the deeds of mortal life are seen:Eternal, much rever’d, 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 ev’ry thought within the mind conceal’d is to thy fight perspicuously reveal’d.
The soul unwilling reason to obey by lawless passion rul’d, thy eyes survey.
All to see, hear, and rule, O pow’r divine whose nature Equity contains, is thine.
Come, blessed, holy Goddess, hear my pray’r, and make thy mystic’s life, thy constant care:
Give aid benignant in the needful hour, and strength abundant to the reas’ning pow’r;
And far avert the dire, unfriendly race of counsels impious, arrogant, and base.”

An Orphic hymn to Nemesis

III. http://hellopoetry.com/poem/69342/nemesis/

The very name Nemesis (Greek for “to give what is due”) arrests attention and commands respect. It connotes vengeance but originally Nemesis, also known as Adrasteia – the Inescapable One, was just “an abstract force of justice rather than that of retaliation,” as Demetra George puts it in Mysteries of the Dark Moon. At first, no value was attached to the fortune distributed by Nemesis: it was described as neither good nor bad, but just in due proportion according to what was deserved. With time, Nemesis came to be associated with the sense of resentment at an injustice done and a call for rightful vengeance.

The beauty of Nemesis, like of no other goddess, was compared to that of Aphrodite herself. She rode a chariot drawn by griffins, and had a wheel, a measuring rod, scales, a bridle, a scourge and a sword for her attributes. Her crown was adorned with stag horns; there was an apple bough in her hand. The wheel of life turned by griffins seems like her most striking attribute aligning her with the eastern concept of karma. Part eagle, part lion, the griffin “like certain kinds of dragon, is always to be found as the guardian of the roads to salvation, standing beside the Tree of Life or some such symbol. From the psychological point of view it symbolizes the relationship between psychic energy and cosmic force,” says Cirlot in his Dictionary of Symbols. Personally, I have always thought of royal griffins as symbols of concentrated benevolent consciousness and spiritual protection. The eagle being the king of birds and the lion the king of animals bestow on the noble griffin the gift of double royalty.

Griffin with the wheel of Nemesis

The apple is obviously associated with Venus:

 “For if an apple is halved cross-wise each half shows a five-pointed star in the centre, emblem of immortality, which represents the Goddess in her five stations from birth to death and back to birth again. It also represents the planet of Venus—Venus to whom the apple was sacred—adored as Hesper the evening star on one half of the apple, and as Lucifer Son of the Morning on the other.”

Robert Graves, The White Goddess

Winged and adorned in white, Nemesis acted swiftly when an injustice was committed. As Demetra George writes:

“She was held in awe and fear as a mysterious power who shaped the behavior of individuals in their time of prosperity, punishing crime and evil deeds, taking luck away from the unworthy, tracking every wrong to its doer, and keeping society in equipoise. Nemesis also personified the resentment aroused in people when others who committed crimes were not punished, or toward those who had inordinate or undeserved good fortune.”

Albrecht Dürer,

Albrecht Dürer, “Nemesis”

She was especially adamant to punish the sin of hubris, which in modern understanding means excessive pride and self-confidence but for ancient Greeks meant insolence before the gods as well as all kinds of actions that shamed or humiliated the victim. In today’s terms we would speak of physical assault, rape, harassment, battery, but that was all collected under the umbrella term hubris for ancient Greeks. In the well-known myth of Echo and Narcissus, Nemesis punished Narcissus for the sin of excessive self-involvement. Shamelessness accompanied by arrogance, a sense of entitlement and exploitation of others, are listed among the traits of the narcissistic personality disorder. Nemesis strikes these with a single move of her sword.

Caravaggio, “Narcissus”

However, the scales held by Nemesis denote that not only can humans be excessively arrogant but they can also be excessively humble. Hubris has its shadow – a feeling of inadequacy and inferiority, the shadow of excessive humility is the deeply-seated illusion of grandeur. In an excellent book The Complex: Path of Transformation from Archetype to Ego, a Jungian analyst Erel Shalit, relates Nemesis to both the inferiority and the superiority complex:

 “We find an image of the core of the inferiority complex in Nemesis, goddess of measurement and retribution for good fortune, who reminds the ego of its minuteness and its boundaries. The person who suffers from an inferiority complex … feels defeated before setting out. In fact, the inferiority complex may withhold from the ego even the necessary minimum of adequate (primary) narcissistic energy, thus preventing the person from even departing on his or her journey.”

This goddess does not approve of wishy-washiness and hesitation. Her element is decisive action in the light of conscious discrimination.
In a lost epic entitled Cypria we find a fascinating myth with Nemesis as one of its chief protagonists, which shows her special significance in the Greek pantheon. In The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Calasso devotes a lot of place to pondering this myth. The forever amorous Zeus seemed to have been at one time obsessed with Nemesis, going to great lengths to get her:

“Something tremendous must have been at stake in that erotic conquest. Never, for a woman, had Zeus traveled so far, crossing country after country, sea after sea, ‘beneath the earth, beneath the black, unfished waters,’ and on and on to ‘the ends of the earth, to the watery snake, Oceanus.’ Stubborn and desperate, Nemesis transformed herself into all kinds of animals, while Zeus never let up following her. And when all the feather flapping was finally done, when atlas and zoology were exhausted, what was left? A wild goose and a swan. The swan settled on the goose and forced her to yield. Zeus ‘passionately united himself with her, out of powerful necessity.’ … Nemesis was still sleeping when the swan raped her. Then from Nemesis’ womb a white egg appeared. Hermes took it, carried it to Sparta, and placed it in Leda’s womb. When the big egg hatched, from inside the shell emerged a tiny, perfect female figure: Helen.

Gustave Moreau, “Leda”

But what was the relationship between mother and daughter? We know a great deal about Helen, whereas only a few details have come down to us about the divine figure of Nemesis, and even these are often enigmatic. This goddess of the offense that boomerangs back on its perpetrator must have been very beautiful if people could mistake her for Aphrodite. Herself the great enemy of hubris, she gave birth to a daughter whose very body was an offense and in doing so provoked the most magnificent unfolding of hubris in all of Greek history: the Trojan War.”

Bertel Thorvaldsen, “Nemesis recites the deeds of men to Jupiter”

Called Queen of Motives and Arbitress of all Things, Nemesis’ cult originated in Smyrna, where she was worshiped as two identical goddesses both called Nemesis. Duplication seems to be a curious leitmotif in her myth: Narcissus looking at his reflection, Helen having two mothers and being born together with her twin brothers – Castor and Pollux and Clytemnestra, a twin sister. Castor was mortal, Pollux was an immortal son of Zeus. Nemesis embodies the duality of human versus natural/celestial law of the gods; she serves as a soul guide to the right action in the light of good conscience and good judgment. For me, she personifies faith in the balance of the universe. I take comfort in this archetype believing that inherent to our universe is a natural, archetypal defense against evil and injustice. I think this short poem by D.H. Lawrence captures the essence of Nemesis’ justice:

 “The profoundest of all sensualities
is the sense of truth
and the next deepest sensual experience
is the sense of justice.”

Alfred Rethel, “Nemesis.” “He painted Nemesis pursuing a murderer across a flat stretch of landscape. A slaughtered body lies on the ground, while in front is the assassin speeding away into the darkness, and above an angel of vengeance. The picture, so the story goes, was won in a lottery at Frankfurt by a personage of high rank, who had been guilty of an undiscovered crime, and the contemplation of his prize drove him mad.” (from Wikipedia)

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32 Responses to Nemesis: the Restorer of Cosmic Order

  1. roughghosts says:

    Fascinating, as always.

  2. Maria F. says:

    What great paintings, and to think of it as “It connotes vengeance but originally Nemesis, also known as Adrasteia – the Inescapable One, was just “an abstract force of justice rather than that of retaliation,” as Demetra George puts it in Mysteries of the Dark Moon, makes me think that it has its own timing and will? “Divine retribution” gives it another twist, as in meaning it’s involved with “Fate” somehow?

    “Leda was admired by Zeus, who seduced her in the guise of a swan. As a swan, Zeus fell into her arms for protection from a pursuing eagle. Their consummation, on the same night as Leda lay with her husband Tyndareus, resulted in two eggs from which hatched Helen (later known as the beautiful “Helen of Troy”), Clytemnestra, and Castor and Pollux. While many myths indicate Zeus and Leda to be the parents of Helen of Troy, the author of the compilation of myth called ‘Bibliotheke’ notes the possibility of Nemesis being the mother of Helen. Nemesis, to avoid Zeus, turns into a goose, but he turns into a swan and mates with her. Nemesis in her bird form lays an egg that is discovered in the marshes by a shepherd, who passes the egg to Leda. It is in this way that Leda comes to be the mother of Helen of Troy, as she kept the egg in a chest until it hatched.” Wiki

    Thanks for helping me understand Leda’s myth as well.

    • Thank you for adding the details about Leda. I think this is such a rich myth that it would deserve a treatment on its own.
      I agree that Nemesis is the goddess of Fate (in some versions she is said to be the daughter of Night, like the Moirai).

      In deep gratitude,
      Monika

      • Maria F. says:

        Monika,

        I heard you mention the term “archetypal justice”. Do you think this is what Jung was ultimately getting at when he spoke of “superiority and inferiority complexes”? I have two more questions (if you don’t mind), the symbol of the hourglass is very intriguing, as it implies justice may come in a “timely” manner. But does it really? Can the concept of “justice” be seen more like karma, where the “time” factor is really not there, because it can be so unpredictable? The “time” factor through the hourglass is really interesting, as it seems to put “justice” in the hands of humans, (because only they know the right timing); yet “divine justice or retribution then is more like karma, because it unfolds in an untimely manner?” My last question is about the griffins, do all of them have an eagle’s head, or do some actually have a lion’s head also? If it’s a griffin, it has to have an eagle’s head for sure? Thanks!

      • Hello Maria,
        So many difficult questions… I do not mind you asking all this but I am not sure I would know any definitive answers. I thought about archetypal justice as being maybe the same as karma. When it comes to the time factor, I think astrology can be very helpful in determining that both fr individuals and more collectively. In that sense divine justice can be even predicted by us humans. I would really love to explore griffins further – never saw a griffin with a lion’s head, but my knowledge is lacking here. Also, apart from Nemesis also Apollo was often accompanied by griffins, so they are not unique to Nemesis.
        I love the winged lion of Venice and I think it may absolutely be related to a griffin. Astrologically, both the lion and the griffin are associated with the sign Leo and the Sun.
        Thank you for the questions. I wish I were more helpful.
        Monika

      • Maria F. says:

        The reason I asked about the griffins is that around15-18 C, the lion with wings began to be depicted in Italy and became the symbol for Venice. I read many scholars think the griffins eventually evolved to be these lions, but then other scholars believe it’s not so. Yet, I also saw some ancient Persian griffins with lion heads, so maybe the griffin with the eagle’s head is a specific attribute for Greek Nemesis in particular.

      • Maria F. says:

        Yes, I know, the old ‘punishment’ notion is actually more about ‘lessons’, and how they are learned; yet with karmic law it’s supposed to happen ‘naturally’, because justice simply cannot be done in a timely manner. What does seem to be ‘timely’ enough is ‘vengeance’, another confusing term. ‘Vengeance’ is almost always done in a ‘timely’ fashion, because the lessons to be learned are not controlled by a cosmic force, but by an angry ego (the self). This is why we have the death penalty. According to Buddhist philosophy, the ‘self’ is an illusion, so acting with the ‘self’ is what creates the notion of ‘vengeance’, and ties it to ‘justice’.

      • Yes, I absolutely agree. Thank you. It is just that when I was talking about the time I was really referring to planetary cycles, which are eternal and archetypal, and have absolutely nothing to do with our ego. The planets do not take revenge, though – we do.

      • Aquileana says:

        It seems someone is fully interested in Greek Mythology! (…)

      • Maria F. says:

        Oh but please continue with Leda Monika, because I like how you go directly to the symbols, what does the swan symbolize to you, psychologically? I just love swans! I’m sure there are so many psychological symbols with this bird, and archetypal, you can help explain with your psychology background. I really like the conversation we had. Oh, and the unicorn! I don’t know if you’ve done that one. I already did a little bit (a poem), but there is so much symbolism involved with the unicorn. Thanks.

      • https://symbolreader.net/2014/09/09/the-homage-to-the-unicorn/
        I really hope to write about the swan one day. I feel I am so closely connected with these birds. I make time to visit them whenever I can.

      • Maria F. says:

        I saw it! Thanks for the link! I came to understand that myth much later in my life. When younger, I wouldn’t not even bother to learn about unicorns, now that I’m older, I realize how much meaning they actually have. What about Pegasus, or the Phoenix, have you done those? I suppose that by now you can tell I’m an animal lover. Thank you!

      • Thank you. We must be so similar. I have done both the phoenix and Pegasus, though the latter was not covered in great detail. Links coming right up.

      • Maria F. says:

        Ok, I saw the phoenix post, with beautiful images. Your blog is wonderful, I’m glad I found it!

      • Maria F. says:

        Thank you very much Monika!

    • Maria F. says:

      Yes, I also think ‘Archetypal Justice’ is related to karma, but I don’t know that it can be predicted by humans, however. What do you mean by this? This is why the hourglass is so interesting, it’s a human invention. Time continues, regardless of how much we attempt to measure it; so does justice, because it’s a human term that involves judgement. What may make it ‘divine’ is how it happens naturally, when humans have lost control of it. For me, justice is one of the most misinterpreted concepts in the history of humans because it carries the notion of ‘punishment’ with it.

      • I agree punishment is an outdated notion. What I was referring to was evolutionary astrology, which offers some ways and has tools to predict when there is a possibility of the scales of karma to be balanced. This is not about punishment but about consequences, natural law and archetypal justice.

  3. Wendy says:

    Absolutely wonderful read. Nemesis right on my NN, in Gemini. I have never found any positive information about her, so I’m thrilled to learn all you have written here. FYI – her description fits me to a T.

    Thank you.

    • Dear Wendy,
      I am so happy to hear that. I think she is actually an extremely positive force, though may not be easy to handle, not unlike Pluto perhaps. I have her with my Uranus in a close conjunction. In the last year, which has been very significant for me, she has made a lot of important aspects.
      Thank you so much.
      Monika

  4. Hey Monika. Great post. I definitely learned a lot about Nemesis. Considering her role as dispenser of justice, I find it strange that the word “nemesis” has taken on such negative connotations and is basically used to describe an enemy or someone with whom you are opposed.

    Cheers! – Jeff

    • Hi Jeff, I am not actually surprised by those patriarchal distortions any more 😉 I am on a self-proclaimed mission to dispel their lies (ok, that sounds very dramatic). I think that in literary studies, which seem to be your domain, the meaning of nemesis is the one that you described.
      Thanks a lot.
      Monika

  5. Wendy says:

    I’m sure I’ll read this over and over.

  6. jeanraffa says:

    Reading this was a big synchronicity for me. I had just come home from talking with a friend about a national figure who has blatantly cheated and lied and apparently feels no guilt or pain whatsoever: only arrogance and anger. I assured my friend that this man would most certainly suffer the consequences of his behavior, but my friend wasn’t sure! This supports my case and will be shared.

    • Thank you very much for this validation. It means a lot to me. I have actually experienced some Nemesis synchronicities myself, which are of a very personal nature. I will never lose my faith in archetypal justice.

  7. lampmagician says:

    Reblogged this on lampmagician and commented:
    Nemesis, winged tilter of scales and lives,
    Immortal Judge! I sing Thy song,
    Almighty Triumph on proud-spread wings,
    Lieutenant of fairness, Requiter of wrongs.
    Despise the lordly with all Thine art
    And lay them low in the Nether-dark.”

  8. Pingback: Nemesis: the Restorer of Cosmic Order | lampmagician

  9. Aquileana says:

    Excellent post dear Monika!~
    And I love that you mentioned the apple among symbols probably related to Nemesis cause as you know the origins of the Trojan War might be linked to Paris ‘ judgement and the apple of discord.
    Also how great that you included Leda on your post… I will be posting about Leda and Zeus (the Sawn) on my next post…. So I’d love you to take a peek this week!
    Also this is my post on Nemesis, even when I think you already covered all the details!.
    https://aquileana.wordpress.com/2014/12/04/greek-mythology-nemesis-the-goddess-of-revenge/
    Thans for sharing and wishing you a great sunday and week ahead. Aquileana 😀

    • Dear Aquileana (is that your real name, I wonder…), thank you for such a warm acknowledgement. I just saw that video on Dürer’s engraving that you posted – it is very interesting.
      All the best wishes,
      Monika

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