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Nemesis (also known as Rhamnousia) is the Greek goddess of retribution and revenge on those that demonstrate pride and arrogance, especially against the gods. She is the daughter of Nyx, but her father is the subject of much debate. The most likely candidates are Oceanus, Zeus, or Erebus.
Nemesis is often rendered as having wings and wielding a scourge, a.k.a. a whip, or a dagger. She is seen as a symbol of divine justice and an avenger of crime. While only a relatively minor god, Nemesis became an important figure, with gods and mortals alike calling on her for vengeance and retribution.
Who is Nemesis?
The word “nemesis” means a distributer of fortune or a giver of what is due. She metes out what is deserved. Nemesis appears in many stories as an avenger of crimes committed and the punisher of hubris. Sometimes, she was called “Adrasteia” which can be translated roughly as meaning one from whom there is no escape.
Nemesis wasn’t a highly powerful goddess, but she played an important role. She was sympathetic towards those who needed help and counsel, often helping mortals and gods. She was powerful enough to punish an entire civilization, while at the same time, was compassionate enough to pay attention to the problems of individuals who sought her help. She would intervene to correct political wrongs and championed the wronged. This made her a symbol of justice and righteousness.
The Children of Nemesis
There are conflicting accounts about the number of Nemesis’ children and who they were, but the general contention is that she had four. The epic “The Cypria” mentions how Nemesis tried to escape from Zeus’ unwanted attentions. Note that in some accounts, Zeus was her father.
Zeus found himself attracted to Nemesis and pursued her, despite the fact that she didn’t want his attention. Undeterred, he pursued her, as was his wont. Nemesis turned herself into a goose, hoping to hide from Zeus in this way. Unfortunately, he turned himself into a swan and mated with her regardless.
Nemesis, in bird form, laid an egg that was soon discovered in a nest of grass by a shepherd. The shepherd is said to have taken the egg and then given it to Leda, and Aetolian princess, who kept the egg in a chest until it hatched. From the egg emerged Helen of Troy, who is known as the daughter of Leda, despite not actually being her biological mother in this myth.
In addition to Helen, some sources say that Nemesis also had Clytemnestra, Castor, and Pollus.
It’s interesting to note that while Nemesis is the symbol retribution, in the case of her own rape by Zeus, she was unable to mete out any punishment or to avenge herself.
The Wrath of Nemesis
There are some popular myths involving Nemesis and how she doled out punishment to those who had acted in arrogance or hubris.
- Narcissus was so beautiful that many fell in love with him, but he spurned their attentions and broke many hearts. The nymph Echo fell in love with Narcissus and tried to hug him, but he pushed her away and scorned her. Echo, driven to despair by his rejection, wandered in the woods and withered away until only her sound remained. When Nemesis heard of this, she was angered at Narcissus selfish and prideful behavior. She wanted him to feel the pain of unrequited love and made him fall in love with his own reflection in a pool. In the end, Narcissus turned into a flower by the side of a pool, still looking at his reflection. In another account, he committed suicide.
- When Aura boasted that she was more maiden-like than Artemis and cast doubt on her state of virginity. Artemis was angered and sought the help of Nemesis on her quest for revenge. Nemesis advised Artemis that the best way to punish Aura was by taking away her virginity. Artemis convinces Dionysus to rape Aura, which affects her so much that she becomes mad, eventually killing and eating one of her offspring before finally committing suicide.
Symbols of Nemesis
Nemesis is often seen depicted with the following symbols, all of which are associated with justice, punishment and vengeance. Her depictions sometimes bring to mind Lady Justice, who also holds a sword and scales.
- Measuring rod
Nemesis in Roman Mythology
The Roman goddess Invidia is often seen as the equivalent to the combination of Nemesis and Phthonus, the Greek personification of envy and jealousy and the other half of the Nemesis. In many literary references though, Invidia is used more strictly as the equivalent to Nemesis.
Invidia is described as being “sickly pale, her whole body lean and wasted, and she squinted horribly; her teeth were discolored and decayed, her poisonous breast of a greenish hue, and her tongue dripped venom”.
From this description alone, it’s obvious that Nemesis and Invidia differ greatly in how people perceived them. Nemesis was seen more as a force for much needed and necessary godly retribution whereas Invidia embodied more the physical manifestation of envy and jealousy as they rot the body.
Nemesis in Modern Times
Today, Nemesis is a prominent character in the Resident Evil video game franchise. In this, the character is portrayed as a large, undead giant also known as The Pursuer or Chaser. The inspiration for this character was taken from the Greek goddess Nemesis as she was considered to be an unstoppable force for retribution.
The word nemesis has entered the English language to represent the concept of something someone cannot seem to conquer, such as a task, an opponent or rival. It’s used much less frequently in its original definition as it applies to the goddess, which is as the name for an agent or act of retribution or simply just punishment.
Nemesis is the daughter of Nyx. However, there’s disagreement over who her father is, with some sources saying Zeus, while others say Erebus or Oceanus.
Nemesis has many siblings and half-siblings. Of these, two popular siblings include Eris, goddess of strife and discord and Apate, goddess of deceit and deception.
Zeus and Tartarus
There is inconsistency regarding Nemesis’ children. Some sources state that she had Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra, Castor, and Pollus. One myth says that Nemesis is the mother of the Telchines, a race of creatures with flippers instead of hands and the heads of dogs.
As an act of divine retribution, Nemesis lured the mortal Narcissus to a pool of still water as a punishment for his vanity. When Narcissus caught sight of his own reflection, he fell in love with it and refused to move—eventually dying.
In Athens, a festival called Nemeseia, named for the goddess Nemesis, was held in order to avoid the retribution of the dead, who were believed to have the power to punish the living if they felt neglected or slighted.
Nemesis rides a chariot pulled by fierce griffins.
Although her name may mislead people to believe she is only the goddess of revenge, Nemesis existed as a complex character committed to justice. For those who did wrong unto others, Nemesis was there to make sure they were justly punished for their crimes. She was an enforcer of godly justice and a balancer of the scales.