Nemesis: Then and Now

Retribution and revenge were major parts of how Greek morality worked, and so the most famous stories of Nemesis show her punishing transgressors in ways that have little to no benefit to the one they wronged.

Dike, goddess of justice, and Nemesis

Finding information about Nemesis can be challenging. A lot of the sources for her say a lot more about the agendas of the writers or compilers than about her, mostly about how important rape is to the cosmic order. Which. Ehhhnnnnnn didn’t sit right. So I went digging, to see if the stories of Nicaea and Aura were typical or anomalous. Here’s what I found.

CW: canon-typical amounts of gratuitous rape

Unhelpful sources:

Iliad, Dionysiaca. By this point everything about her reads as a pretty transparent attempt to reduce the power of her priestesses, or at least reduce the threat they pose to patriarchal norms. So you go from having a morality goddess with an influential all-female priesthood to a revenge machine who shows up more than half the time to explain why some women just need to get raped. Not useful sources.

Helpful sources:

Theoi’s page on Nemesis.

WK Backe-Hansen’s doctoral thesis.

Much of what I’ll mention here is pulled from Backe-Hansen’s work, and if you check out the thesis you will see why. All content from the thesis is pulled from Chapter 4 (labeled Source05 on the linked page), about her cult center at Rhamnous. It’s really good and if you have the time/energy you should absolutely check it out. It goes beyond “what’s the deal with Nemesis” and into things like what nemesis was as an emotion and the place it occupied in Greek morality. Super excellent shit here, is what I am saying.

Ways the cult at Rhamnous was fairly typical for its time

1. Lots of votive offerings, lots and lots. Votive wheels, statues, even I think a pair of shoes? So much stuff.

2. Annual festivals. The Nemeseia included a lot of the usual competitions that Greek festivals are known for.

3. Elevated social status for clergy. Rhamnous’s priestesses had their own reserved seats at the theater.

4. Priestesses didn’t do pastoral work the way a lot of modern monotheist clergy are expected to. They performed jobs for Nemesis. People’s spiritual wellbeing was their own job.

Ways the cult at Rhamnous was unusual, at least compared to better-known ones

1. A lot of priesthoods were positions one could buy their way into. Rhamnous did not do this. The job may have been hereditary, like most jobs of the time.

2. Priestesses were not required to be celibate. At least one was married and had children who later dedicated statues to her.

Things the Dionysiaca won’t tell you about Nemesis

She and Themis were extremely close, despite their work being at odds much of the time. Themis was the goddess of the proper order of things, of how the universe should work and things should be done and how people should conduct themselves. She focused a lot on helping people out, and so preferred to say yes to whatever someone needed that she could provide. Nemesis provided boundaries, and punishment when that was appropriate.

Have you ever known someone who is really generous in every area of their life, and has that one friend to remind them they’re allowed to say no and will go have The Talk with anybody taking advantage of this softie, threatening them when necessary? That’s Themis and Nemesis. Nemesis had so much of her identity and purpose centered on providing this service to Themis that at least one statue of Nemesis may have been dedicated not to Nemesis herself, but Themis. If true, that’d actually be sort of a touching validation of Nemesis’s work and how much Themis needed and benefited from Nemesis being around.

Imagery of Nemesis had a lot in common with both Aphrodite and Themis, but she was better armed than Aphrodite and unlike Themis did not wear a blindfold. Nemesis dealt justice with her eyes open. It’s a good highlight of the difference between the two.

The worship of Nemesis far outlived formal attention to Themis, which I suspect would have made Nemesis rather sad. Nemesis is one of the personifications of human virtue that will be the last to leave us if we ever do fall all the way down the morality drain as a species. Her investment in us and in our agreement with Themis is that important.

Nemesis has a lot of chthonic attributes, which may be related to an early identity as the goddess of fairly allocating farmland among those who need it and will use it appropriately. She maintained ethical standards for who could access the means of production, and was known to loathe violent or overbearing men. It seems fair to say that modern agricultural monopolies would not have made her happy.

Being associated with agriculture was frequently just an inherently chthonic thing to do, seeing as the dead were buried and then crops came up, suggesting all sorts of spiritually relevant things happening underground where the living can’t go. In addition to fair distribution of land, she was known to act on behalf of unquiet dead. If someone had died violently, not been given proper burial honors, or just had a lingering grudge against someone still living, they couldn’t really do anything about any of that, but Nemesis could.

The Nemeseia were probably at least in part festivals to appease the dead so that they wouldn’t feel so motivated to send Nemesis at living mortals who had wronged them in some way. A fun bonus was that the festival had competitions which provided men an opportunity to meaningfully participate in the worship of Nemesis. Ordinarily sacred duties for Nemesis were all handled by women, but this was a way men could help.

On Hubris

Hubris wasn’t just a failure of humility–although it often happened that way–or a lack of piety. Hubris was a loss of context for the actual size and impact of oneself in the universe. Treating others like they are less important or even disposable was a great way to get on Nemesis’s bad side. Treating oneself as more important than the gods was a terrible enough move that Nemesis was the least of such a person’s concerns.

There are a few examples of Nemesis stepping into a story to play a relatively minor role. She turned Narcissus into a flower because nothing was as important to him as how good-looking he apparently was. He was so self-absorbed that he neglected everyone else in his life once he found out how gorgeous he was, eventually neglecting even himself for the sake of his own beauty.

There’s also a first century Russian bowl that shows Psyche torturing Eros. Eros is looking around plaintively at Nemesis, who is standing by and spitting to repel bad luck, as if to say, “I don’t know what you think I’m going to do for you. You’re the one who hid things from your wife whom you barely even married and then abandoned her to get jerked around by your mom.” Where does this fit into the classic story of Eros and Psyche? Perhaps Nemesis played a part in his return to Psyche and Psyche’s eventual uplift into full divinity.

Hubris and Justice and Retribution

Nemesis’s job was to make sure people were getting what they deserved. If someone was luxuriating in a life without problems, it was Nemesis who threw some hardship their way. If someone was being treated poorly and denied opportunities they deserved, that was her business also. Praising yourself without giving credit to those who got you there, casting aspersions on others because of things that have nothing to do with their actual values or behavior, these were no good.

Retribution and revenge were major parts of how Greek morality worked, and so the most famous stories of Nemesis show her punishing transgressors in ways that have little to no benefit to the one they wronged. How exactly does one person benefit by another person’s rape? Unless some people “deserve” to suffer, unless a bad person suffering does some good for the broader world, this makes no sense. Not all problems are as simple a zero sum equation as “you don’t need all this land, give some up so this other farmer doesn’t starve.” Avenging wrong done to one person by arranging for the wrongdoer to be raped is the equivalent of burning the surplus farmland instead of redistributing it, just to hurt the one hoarding it. This is not entirely an archaic sense of how justice works, though. You need only look to the criminal justice system in the United States to see ample evidence of the desire to punish a wrongdoer regardless of the cost or impact. Restitution is absolutely no part of it at all. It’s purely punitive. In some cases, the urge to punish wrongdoers more will come at the expense of the wellbeing of those wronged, and if that’s not a disqualifying factor then truly the suffering of “bad” people must be all that matters.

It’d be easy to write off Nemesis as the representative of that approach. To dismiss her as the embodiment of carceral logic, and of valuing suffering for its own sake. I’d like to try a different angle, and I hope you’ll come with me.

Modern Hubris

I gave a lot of thought to what I’d consider hubris today. Comparing oneself to the gods in petty ways–“oh my titties are so much better than Artemis’s, hers are so big and slutty”–is not really a major problem behavior for modern humans. However, we are absolutely not over our tendency to act like we are the center of a universe that can’t touch us because we are just so important and great. Here are some things that I would personally consider hubris:

1. Ignoring Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance.

The veil of ignorance is an ethical framework that says every decision should be made as though one cannot know which of the people impacted they’ll be. If a decision of mine means a large number of people will be harmed so that a few can benefit, it’ll be easier for me to know whether it’s right if I pretend for a moment I don’t know which of those impacted I’ll be. In this case, I’m way more likely to suffer from this change than I am to be one of the few who benefit. One form of modern hubris is assuming that one will be exempt from the consequences or the costs of their decisions, because they’re just too special.

2. Assuming immunity from cause and effect.

If someone takes actions that will make the world worse, the world they also live in, it’d be hubris to assume that this will never impact them. That the cost will be borne by less important people. And yet it happens all the time. Have you ever seen the joke about someone voting for the Leopards Eating Your Face candidate, and then being shocked and horrified that leopards ate their own face? That’s the hubris I’m talking about. Why wouldn’t face-eating leopards eat their voters too? Why are they so special? Why would they be immune to an environment they helped build?

These are not situations that can be solved by just teaching each individual asshole a lesson, by taking individuals down a peg. Punishing the wrongdoer to humble them solves little if anything. For an alternative option, I’d like to point you to the financial habits of the cult at Rhamnous. Initially they were probably financed at least in part by Athenian patrons. When they became really successful and prosperous, they sponsored other smaller local cults in turn. I think this is a window to how Nemesian reallocation could work. Athens gave them the money, but does Athens need more money? Or do these tiny local temples? The money goes where it’s needed. The Rhamnousian priestesses didn’t pay back generosity; they paid it forward.

In our modern world, I think it’s a fairly easy observation to make that not everybody gets what they deserve. Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen for those who exploit others to benefit themselves. What’s the answer? Do we pay the suffering back in kind, or do we invest those efforts where they’ll be building something better?

Restorative justice is a framework for repairing the harm done by crime, regardless of whether it hurts or benefits the wrongdoer. If someone’s house is burned down by an arsonist, the victim needs shelter more than the arsonist needs a showy public trial and penance. Assuming limited time and work hours that can be applied to any problem, restorative justice prioritizes support for the one who has been wronged. It also prioritizes potential future victims by working with the wrongdoer to figure out what went wrong and how they can have a different impact going forward. What if Jean Valjean had been given a loaf of goddamn bread and access to more instead of sent to jail for 19 years? What if Aladdin hadn’t been chased with swords, but allowed access to a safe place to sleep and adequate food? What if nonviolent drug or property offenses were addressed with social support instead of prison slavery? That helps everyone, and the only cost–if you want to call it a cost–is that it produces less suffering.

The attitudes and behavior I consider hubris are problems it’s easy to solve this way, especially compared to the progress made by punishing individual offenders and calling it a day. Consider that people didn’t pray to Nemesis to let them off the hook for terrible behavior; they prayed to Nemesis to help them be the kind of person who doesn’t piss her off. They prayed to be better, to do better. So why not look to Nemesis for this in modern contexts? We could look to Nemesis to prevent social crimes of hubris, rather than just punishing them as brutally as we think we can get away with for the sake of deterrence–an effect soundly debunked by all available evidence anyway.

After all. If you solve all your problems by inflicting suffering, and assume that nobody will every try to do it to you, what can you call that but hubris?

Author: generallyCobalt

she/her/hers. Actually autistic. Not even remotely Three Laws Safe.

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