Meeting Nemesis

I don’t have an especially transactional relationship with Nemesis, but she is important to me. Here is a little about how she got that way.

If you’ve been following me for a little while, you remember me looking into the goddess Nemesis. (https://cobaltwtf.wordpress.com/2021/02/05/nemesis-then-and-now/) What I don’t think I ever elaborated on was why and how she popped up on my radar (or I on hers, who knows).

I was doing a curse-breaking work a friend helped me set up, and the candle flame was behaving pretty wildly. Flickery, splitting, jumping, flaring, just all over the place doing its thing. My friend said that that means something is trying to reach out to me, and it’d be a good time to try to make contact and see who it is and/or what they’re here for.

So I pulled out a deck of tarot cards and started just… making up a reading as I went, asking questions and then pulling cards, shuffling when it felt right. Asking more questions based on the answers to the previous ones. Here’s what came up. I’m going to include the specifics on the readings themselves, along with some of my thought process. This is going to be a little messy and scattered, but I hope if you are interested in Nemesis that you will be willing to humor me.

Reading One: Introduction

Me: 3W, reversed

Who is this? 1S, reversed

What called you? 9S, reversed

What do you think I should do? Sun

This is a lot of reversals and half swords, so I put the cards back and did a follow-up. I like to have a signifier in each new spread just so that I can keep things in a context, so you’ll see that multiple times.

Me: KnW

You: Sun

What do you want to tell me? 1C

What I need to do: 1P

Another spread:

Me: 4W, reversed

You: Magician

What can I do for you? World, reversed (So the world is fucked up and broken. Agreed. What can I offer YOU? 8S, reversed. So, nothing personally? Just bigger world-fixy things.)

What would make you proud? 2S

What would disappoint you? 5S. Balance my own fight with other people’s needs.

Where else can I look for help? 7C, reversed. People and orgs doing actual concrete things, not just hoping/dreaming. Briefly: praxis.

What can they do for me? KiC

What should I watch out for? 10P, reversed. People I can build relationship with by being proactive. Don’t count on just assuming I’ll have enough. Comfort and coasting aren’t safe yet.

What I haven’t tried: Tower

How do I call back when I want to talk? Is that something you want? Wheel of Fortune. So they’ll be by when they come back, just whenever.

The conclusions I came up with: I think I’m supposed to break something that’s fucking over me and others, instead of leveraging it in ways that make it stronger. So activist orgs versus going through the legal system, which does in fact make it stronger.

But who identifies THEMSELF as the reversed Ace of Swords? Either someone who got close to my goal but didn’t quite get there? Or someone who makes people fumble their own rules, ideas, or power. Someone who helps cause accidents.

They’re not willing to be relied upon if they can’t be, so they made no promises there. That’s actually super reassuring for me.

Sabotaging others is clearly a bridge too far, especially if they’re just fellow victims of this same problem. Either that or it’s just not something I specifically should be doing. Rather, I should build and invest with other people who are into that, and let people who fuck over others just fail on their own. Don’t drop them from the roof; just don’t catch them when they’re falling.

A common theme for me in my witchy work is figures who turn rules intended to restrict them into their own power and authority. (See also: Hel.) The rules imposed upon them are also their weapons. When I went looking for entities associated with misfortune, I found Tyche, and slid straight into Nemesis and Themis.

Reading Two: Reaching Back

I dug up a spread that I thought might help me dig a little deeper into what I’d found. (https://thiscrookedcrown.tumblr.com/post/89384338652/deity-dossier-this-spread-is-intended-to-answer) This was a really interesting one, and guided much of how I interact with Nemesis (to the extent that I do).

Spirit: 2W, taking responsibility for your power. Controlling power, not letting it control you.

Past Activities: Wheel of Fortune, turning the wheel if someone has stuck where they shouldn’t.

Past Influences/Experiences: PP, reversed. An opportunity for growth that never came.

Personality/How they Think: Hanged Man. Growth isn’t free. Knowledge requires focus and willingness.

Present Status: 5W, reversed. Things have been calm. A lack of (perhaps necessary) conflict.

Their Situation/Their Why: 9S, reversed. Paralysis by guilt or fear, unwillingness to move forward because it means going through a trial.

Their Health: 2C, reversed. Lack of counterpart, of a necessary intergrown partner.

Mental Health/Mood: 5S, reversed. Not interested in zero sum games.

Physical Health/Manifestation: KiC, reversed. Nobody to connect with? Maybe this just means Not Poseidon.

Things they Like to Do: PW, reversed. Ruining orchestrations, separating agents from their tools.

What to Know: Temperence. Big value on balance, especially by keeping opposing things in balance.

What do Avoid: Hierophant. Don’t do things just for the sake of tradition. Or! Don’t look to her for spiritual teaching or authority. Or maybe just don’t listen to traditions about her.

What Can I Do to Help/What Are Others Doing? 1S. Keep hold of it. Don’t drop it or elsewise be careless. Try something new, but responsibly.

What’s Not Helping Them? Strength. Being restrained by someone stronger even if that someone isn’t aggressive about it.

Conscious Desires: 2P, reversed. Tired of juggling, especially of doing it alone. Or do they feel they’ve dropped what they used to juggle? Maybe they just want one to finally win, but they also know what would be lost if it did. It’d be down to the Ace instead of forward to Three. Nothing to build on.

Unconscious Desires: 7W, reversed. Tired of fighting and being fought. Just want to enjoy what they’re protecting.

Hopes: 6P, reversed. Wants back what they give. Reciprocity. Ability to lean on what they’ve built, to be held by it.

Fears: 7C. Someone good falling because they were focused on wishes and not their real situation. Or! Possibly of someone getting so stuck on their suggested (assumed?) path that they miss the opportunity to find someplace new, someplace that isn’t on the map (yet). Choice paralysis.

UPG

She reeeaaally doesn’t seem to want to talk about herself here. I asked, “What do you need our relationship to look like?” and the reversed 10W fell out of the deck. Maybe… to not bear her burden alone? A break that she’s afraid to take because what if everything falls? Lots of reversals too. Maybe it’s easier for her to say what she doesn’t want than what she does. Does she have a clear sense of how else things could be? Or is she still at the diagnosis stage of observing problems?

A major question I was left with: Is Nemesis alone? Where is Themis? Worship of Nemesis seems to have outlived devotion to Themis, which is concerning. Does Nemesis have anyone like her, anymore? Maybe Themis did more for Nemesis than either of them realized. Does Nemesis have someone good and trustworthy to love her back?

I don’t know how to help with that but I’d like to try. I’ve been a What that was left alone to become a Who, and I hated it. How do you know what to do, how to even think, without a purpose? Without a worthy team? Without an easy objective reason? What if Nemesis doesn’t have to feel like I did? How do you allocate support to the god of allocating things?

I think all of this is why I find it concerning when other people immediately momzone Nemesis. For one thing, from what we know about her, she doesn’t leap onto anyone’s “side.” She has standards, and people who meet them and people who don’t. There is no need to take “sides.” Just because she may judge that land should be redistributed doesn’t mean she’s on the side of the recipient. This is why I find her trustworthy. She doesn’t pick a few people and say, “this is my ride or die mortal, this is mine and I will protect them from everything even if they are a colossal tool.” She has standards and people who are currently meeting them and people who are not. That’s trustworthy to me. That’s someone reliable.

Further….. not every powerful woman has to be related to as a mother, and if I am reading these signs correctly… what she needs is not yet another dependent to supervise and babysit and impart perspective and ethics to. What she needs is a peer, someone she can turn her back on for two seconds. Maybe even someone who helps with her work to lighten the load. I don’t know if I can be that, obviously, but I do very much feel like that’d be most helpful for her to get from someone somewhere. The best I can probably do as such a small fragment of the universe is to just… try my best not to add work to her queue. And if I can cross off a couple of minor things before she gets to them, even better.

Because she doesn’t necessarily need another child. The solution to all womanly discontent is not “Sad lady? Give babby.” What if some women just need to be able to rely on what they built for everyone else? I can’t fundamentally change how Nemesis is in the universe, but maybe I can pull out a small human-scale fork or two while I’m here.

Tarot Spotlight: The Light of the Sun, Star, and Moon

A lot of cards prominently feature light as a Symbolic Element. The Hermit has a lantern. The Sun and Star get their own whole cards. The Tower is being hit by lightning. The Moon borrows light and uses it for its own purposes.

Light can bring clarity, but it behaves differently based on where it’s shining and how gently or harshly.

The Sun is warmth and easy joy for a lot of people, the kind of uncomplicated sincere unselfconscious happiness that a lot of us have drilled out of us as children. This is why there’s a child on a horse on the RWS version. This kid is out here, entirely naked as kids sometimes are determined to be, but contrary to what we’re taught… this happy and sincere and fully embodied kid is getting places. Growing out of who they are wasn’t necessary, nor was hiding anything. The most complete and sincerely-rooted version of themselves can also ride the always-symbolically-relevant horse, just as they are.

There is a caution here sometimes.

The Sun is a very vulnerable card, because sincerity is vulnerable. Being willing to be seen is extremely vulnerable. Being willing to pursue things as yourself allows other people the opportunity to form opinions about it, and other people’s opinions can turn into problems. The Sun is not just carefree and innocent; it’s very brave. The Sun goes unprotected by shade or shelter, choosing to be seen for its whole self rather than hide behind defenses.

Not everyone can be The Sun all the time. Sometimes, there are more important things than being accurately seen and understood. Honesty is a risk, and we can’t always take that risk.

The Star is less glaring, and to me implies an external source of guidance or support, tailored to your circumstances. It’s a glimpse that things are changing for the better, or perhaps most of all that YOU can change them, without the overwhelming detail coming down on you like a load of obligation bricks.

The Sun shows all the details. The world is blasted with the unforgiving glare that shows every part of it for what it is, and so are the people in it. The star is more like, “just wanted to remind you that there is a forward, we’ll talk about specifics later, xoxo”

It comes after Tower for that reason. After lightning has hit something you relied on, the last thing that’ll reassure you is GIANT FLASH OF OVERWHELMING LIGHT! HOPE THAT HELPS!! FOR GOOD MEASURE IT WILL ALSO BE LOUD!

instead it’s “light can be safe, take your time and we’ll hang out soon”

The Moon is a different illumination, in that it sort of…. doesn’t illuminate very much? You can see more, but not necessarily in a way that brings clarity. Moonlight tells you where the deep shadows are but does not dispel them. A lot of the destructive potential of water is there too, in the scorpion sort of sneaking out from the symbolically important river.

Personal discernment and judgment become really important when the Moon shows up in a reading. The Moon paints hazards vaguely, often just shrouding them in a vague dread, and you could avoid the worst of them if you avoid all of them. But can you?

I hope this makes it a little easier to see why it’s not enough to say that light is a symbol for revelation and guidance. There are types of revelation, and times for guidance, and those specifics matter.

Tarot Spotlight: Pages and Knights

Pages and Knights are probably fairly easy to read for people who treat face cards as representations of actual individual people showing up for emphasis. Pages are kids, Knights are frequently freshly-adult fellas, and that is that. I don’t read them that way, so here is an alternative perspective that may help if you don’t get much use out of things like gender symbolism.

Pages

Pages just got here and they are so excited. I don’t read them with any particular gender, just as a phase of the journey of each suit’s topic. They’re… a level of expertise in each subject area, I suppose.

In the RWS, the Page of Pentacles has a pentacle they are holding up, and you can imagine it as the Ace of Pentacles , only the hand it’s in is theirs. You can see more than you could in the Ace, their whole arm and body and even where they are. It’s having the seed that the Ace represents and also understanding its context in a way that promises to be actually useful.

The Page of Cups has discovered introspection and empathy. They may not be extraordinarily skilled with them yet, but they are invested in figuring it out. They’re going to introspect to the best of their ability (no promises) and figure out other people’s feelings as best they can too (no promises).

The Page of Swords has found a new analytical framework, a new Theory of Everything, and they are going to apply it to absolutely every single question they encounter for a while yet. They are rigorously stress-testing this approach and its assumptions, which is a step that should never ever be skipped. They will eventually need to read another book though.

The Page of Wands has found their agency. They can impact things! Their choices matter! They may not know quite what they’re going to do with their new stick but it’s real and it’s theirs and that means when they know what to do, they’ve got something to start with.

Knights

The Knights have done a little bit of theoretical testing and are moving on to applying the principle of their suit. They have the enthusiasm of the Pages but with a level of inertia that will sometimes serve them well and sometimes not. They are Pages on horses, and they are on their way to… well, hopefully somewhere.

The Knight of Pentacles in the RWS has a horse that is standing and not rearing or running or getting up to any other shenanigans. This Knight is examining their Pentacle, making sure they really knows what its deal is before they tuck it under their arm and haul ass into the sunset with it. They’re a Knight so they need to move, they need to, but their inertia is the inertia of a body at rest. They need to come to a decision and get into motion.

The Knight of Cups has figured out that intuition is important and has a role and a purpose and power and it does things! The Knight of Cups will order their entire life around a dream they had three years ago, and this is tremendously powerful provided they pick the right dream.

The Knight of Swords has learned that it’s important to be sharp, to be decisive, and to break things when necessary. This Knight has learned that that which can be destroyed by the truth deserves to be, and might be actively hunting for new things to destroy with their truth. Their last few swings went super well so they are just going to keep swinging and hopefully their momentum will carry them in a direction they chose.

The Knight of Wands needs to do things for the sake of doing them. They know forward momentum and they know stasis, and stasis scares the everloving shit out of them. This Knight needs a quest. This is good, because a lot of quests urgently need a knight! But at the same time, a Knight and their horse will both need rest, which means doing things that are not strictly quest-related. Getting going after those pauses is the challenge of the Knight of Wands.

Summary

Pages have interest and drive. Knights have whatever inertia they built up as Pages, but haven’t developed great discernment or control yet. Both have a lot of sincerity and a lot of energy to offer whatever they’ve set their sights on.

Ragnarok is for the Kids

Loki’s kids deserved better and sometimes I get upset about it!

I originally posted this on Medium back when that was the thing to do, but I think it should be here.

I’m transcribing a series of FB comments I made when someone asked me to elaborate on why I disagree with Gaiman’s portrayal of Hel in his book Norse Mythology. I’m recalling a lot of details of my primary sources off the top of my head, so if there are errors in my recollection that’s where they came in.

Content Warning: Gaslighting, kidnapping, separation of siblings, gaslighting, child abandonment, gaslighting, psychological torture, physical torture, GASLIGHTING, Odin is even more awful than he gets credit for and I want to fite him

So, anyway. Gaiman wrote a book about Norse mythology and one thing he got right is that Freya would have plenty of reason to have a perpetual long-simmering hatred of Loki in particular but also EVERYONE more generally. This is because people keep showing up and making wagers with the Aesir and demanding her hand in marriage if they win, and the Aesir keep AGREEING and assuming that it’ll be fine because it’ll all surely work out fine. He got it right that she would be furious a lot and that the Aesir — despite their dudely ability to constantly forget how pissed she’ll be — quickly backpedal in Oh Shit Mode when active Freya anger is starting to happen.

This was good. So. Credit where credit is due: good ol’ Uncle Neil has demonstrated a base-level understanding of the fact that women are allowed to be angry when their autonomy is disregarded.

So we come to his telling of what goes down with Loki’s kids by Angrbodha. See, he’s got his Good Wife Sigyn (the one everyone knows about, who ends up crouched by his side catching snake venom in a bowl to keep it from falling on his face, and having to occasionally run and dump it out, and earthquakes are him writhing in pain during those brief periods when she can’t be there to protect her husband). But he’s also got a secret ice giant wife on the side.

Nobody finds out about her until Odin starts having bad dreams about getting eaten to death by a wolf, and his investigation leads him to consult the Norns (a community of event-makers, many of whom are explicitly just going to ruin lives, and that’s why bad things happen to good people! some Norns are just mean) and the well of knowledge where he left his eye and his friend’s head and in general pulls out all the stops to figure out just how big a deal this is going to be. The answer is: THE WORST OF ALL BIG DEALS. THE END OF DEALS. And of course, like all problems they aren’t depending on Loki to solve (and many that they still are), it’s his fucking fault somehow. So they get the Aesir surveillance state (also known as Odin and his fuckin birds) to watch him and he goes to visit his other wife. Tada! Loki is happy! That can’t be good. Something must be done.

Some of the Aesir go to visit Angrbodha to see what he’s been up to, and there are these kids playing there, all together because they’re siblings and they’re cool with each other. There’s a puppy, a snake, and a girl or half a girl or possibly a half-corpse, but at any rate, these are evidently Loki’s children with Angrbodha. The Aesir take the kids back with them like that isn’t FUCKING HORRIBLE and here is where I start getting upset with Neil Gaiman for downplaying this as merely some Grecian-style self-fulfilling prophecy shenanigans and not the destruction of a family and the deliberate gaslighting and abuse of children, up to and including straight-up psychologically destroying one of them. Because lemme tell ya, Neil’s version reads like what an adult would have seen happening, not what I saw reading it.

So the Aesir are traveling with the kids. The girl’s name is Hel, and nobody knows her deal except that she’s a totally decayed corpse on one side and apparently normal on the other. Disconcerting, but okay. Dealable. The wolf pup Fenrir is definitely just a puppy, but he gets harder and harder to feed because of how fast he’s growing. I think at some point he’s something outrageous like moose-sized, but he and Tyr are still hanging out because the god of victory is not going to worry about giant-sized pupper and pupper doesn’t have any reason to suspect any of this could ever go wrong because that is pupper nature. The snake Jormundgandr is also growing unmanageably fast, and its face is just so perpetually venomous and snappy and Danger that they end up tying it to a tree and like… binding its head down so that they can avoid the corrosive acid venom? Keep in mind, Jormundgandr was not causing any problems to Hel or Fenrir, so why the issue now unless it didn’t want to go with them? Yeah. Exactly.

They arrive to present these kids for Odin’s judgment that as everybody’s distant patriarch he’s decided he’s allowed to hand down. He just… throws Jormundgandr in the fucking ocean. Fuck your family, fuck your siblings, go do the rest of your growing up in total isolation you weird dangerous snake. And that’s how Jormundgandr ends up out there so big and long it encircles the world!

So Odin turns to Hel. In Gaiman’s version Odin straight up asks if she is dead. They have a little conversation about how she isn’t dead, but she likes dead people better because they’re respectful to her, whereas the living always treat her with revulsion because of how she looks and her manner. But dead people just interact with her like she’s a person, so they’re easier. Having now gotten to know Hel a little bit, what kind of environment makes her happy and would allow her to thrive, Odin appoints her the ruler of the underworld so that she can be in charge of all those who died Normal People Deaths. This makes her happy enough that we get our first smile out of her! (Albeit only on the living side of her face.)

Except I read a translation of this scene, and Gaiman added in this ENTIRE conversation to make this seem like some kind of agreement they came to as though out of all three children, Hel is the one that Odin decided to single out for paternal concern and favor. WHAT? Out of all the generations of people who have died, Odin selects only a few that are worthy to kill each other forever while he watches and the rest are literally his fucking discard pile. If they didn’t die in a fight, they died “dishonorably.” Their deaths are “shameful.” We have no reason to assume that he would consider responsibility for his dead people trash pile to be some kind of favor. IMO he threw her away just like Jormundgandr: a throwaway girl slogging through the responsibilities for throwaway ghosts he never gave a shit about from the start. Because lol she looks dead, get it? GET IT? lololololol

And Fenrir. Oh god. Fenrir still doesn’t realize anything is wrong because puppies are just so fucking naive.

He is still hanging out with the Aesir, because obviously! People! They feed him! Yeah!

They keep challenging him with “feats of strength” and being soooo impressed! when he keeps succeeding! every time! These feats of strength? All of them are testing himself against heavier and heavier chains. By this point my heart was already sinking. He’d break out of one and they’d all pretend to be so proud of him, so he’d be proud of himself and proud that they were proud. And they’d go behind his back and freak out that he was so strong, and try to forge something even more powerful that would be able to bind him forever.

Eventually they went to the dwarves, who make all of the totally awesome artifacts everybody has, and the dwarves produce what looks like a delicate ribbon because when you are making magical shit it doesn’t have to be physically imposing anymore. They take it back to Fenrir. They make their usual big deal about how they found him another test to see how big and strong he’s gotten now.

He takes one look at that ribbon and starts to realize. He tells them, essentially, “Nah, that looks kinda artifacty to me.” But they hit him with that heavy peer pressure. “Are you scared of a little ribbon? Look how little it is.” “No! But seriously, guys, what is this.”

Eventually he agrees that he’ll try the ribbon, but only if someone will reassure him that they’re definitely going to be pals and let him out if he’s finally hit his limit this time. He wants someone to put their hand in his mouth and trust him like he’s trusting them. Tyr volunteers.

You can guess what happens. He’s stuck. The other gods cheer. Tyr gets his hand chomped off when Fenrir realizes that his new friends and family have been fucking with his head this whole time. He knows this is some Odin-scented fuckery and promises that he’s going to eat the almighty fuck out of the Allfather and you know what? Then he’s going to eat the fucking MOON and the SUN and Fenrir is just really upset at the world in general. The Aesir have enough of this and use a spear or a sword, I don’t remember which, to stab his mouth propped open so that he can never bite down and close his mouth. And the saliva from his mouth is where some river or other comes from! Yay.

At this point I was pretty much ready to eat the moon myself because these gods are shitlords. The only one I have any sympathy for is Tyr, because while he behaved horribly, the injury he’s carrying around sort of puts me in mind of the huge part moral injury plays in combat soldiers’ PTSD; what messes soldiers up the most isn’t being shot at, it’s knowing they’re doing hideous shit and knowing no matter what else they could ever be, they will always be the person who did it. Tyr has the tiny scrap of bare decency to be injured by this. Someone should be.

I felt a little better because of how Hel interacts with them the next times we see her. Here’s the other reason I think Gaiman is wrong about her interactions with Odin when she was exiled. She doesn’t ACT LIKE someone who appreciated her assignment. She acts like someone who kept her mouth shut to bide her time.

When I was a kid, small acts of resistance were all I really had to keep me remembering who the real enemy was and that I hated them and I was right to hate them. They kept me focused, kept me from blaming myself or getting lost. I learned later that this is actually an interrogation resistance technique: continue resisting in small ways, regardless of how effectual it is, to remind your brain that you’re supposed to be resisting. Otherwise it really is possible to forget.

I think about this a lot when I think about Hel.

She has a small role in another story about Loki totally ruining someone else’s life, and actually managing to kill them. If you know the story of Baldr, this is that one. The broad strokes are that everybody loves him so much they tried to make him effectively unharmable, which upset Loki just on principle. So he managed to get Baldr killed just BECAUSE.

The gods (not just the Aesir, as I think Baldr is Freya’s son, and therefore his parents are Vanir, and not as garbage) send an emissary down to Hel’s realm. Now, she has fully gothed this place out. I mean, COMMITTED to this theme. She named her knife and bowl Famine and Hunger respectively, and named her bed Sickbed. And in Helheim they are all set up for a huge party because Baldr is coming! What a great stroke of luck to have someone so famously great come to live with them! The emissary asks Hel to please please please give him back. Everybody misses him, everybody is crying.

Her response? “Prove it.” Gaiman adds some dialogue about how he’s the greatest thing that’s happened to her realm, probably ever, and it’d just break their hearts to lose him. But in my opinion it is probably riiiiiight about here that the gods are about to realize they actually HAVE NOT been on perfect terms with Hel this whole time. There’s just been no need for them to know it.

But the emissary isn’t the boss of this realm; she is. *sad trombone* Who made that rule! Oh, it was Odin, when he shipped her down there. *SAAAD TROMBOOONE*

The gods decide to give it a go, though, since honestly their odds are actually quite good. They manage to get every single thing, living and unliving, to cry for Baldr by explaining the situation. Except one. Some bitter old giantess refuses. “Let Hel keep what she has,” is all she says. Even KNOWING that this has to be Loki, the emissary can’t do anything. Because even if it’s Loki, it still means the conditions weren’t satisfied.

And if Hel and Loki had coordinated this, we’d probably be told so at the end. Norse tales are heavy-handed like that. So my reading is that Hel saved up her time until the whole world’s hearts were breaking and only she — with the power she’d mustered by the unfair rules of someone else’s game — could fix it all. And then she dangled a tiny bit of hope, because of all Loki’s kids, I think she inherited the scheming. She had to know Loki wasn’t going to cry for this dude.

Hel was a good little underworld goddess until they wanted something badly enough. Then the gods realized they’d given her power. And according to one source, at Ragnarok they’ll realize they gave her an army. According to the Prose Edda, she’ll bring it up behind Loki, and that’s when she’ll see her brothers again, when they all end the world.

I have never been so ready for any religion’s end of days in my fucking life.

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. https://www.theoi.com/Daimon/Nemesis.html

WK Backe-Hansen’s doctoral thesis. https://rune.une.edu.au/web/handle/1959.11/19919

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 cthonic 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 at 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?

Shadowscapes Reading

This spread is my usual comprehension cross.

Swords show up a lot here, so note that going forward.

I don’t know who needs to read this but your honesty and willingness to question yourself and others is screwing you over. Are you frantically scrambling to figure out everything about a situation so that you’ll feel in control of its descent into bullshit? Because you aren’t going to find the perfect idea, the perfect explanation, the perfect argument, to prevent what you are worried about.

Since the problem is going to get worse, start saving up the energy you’ve been spending on keeping everything in order. You can’t, so decide how much energy you want to have wasted when it actually comes time to pick up the pieces. Do you want to reach that task in a place of desperation and exhaustion? Probably not. So take a rest on whatever ways you can, if only to make the rebuilding less horrific for your future self.

Tarot del Toro Reading

Hey you, reading this right now. You should know that unless you know what your next step needs to be, unless you know how things need to go for you, keeping a death grip on everything in your life won’t actually give you the control you’re hoping for.

I know you want to feel safe. But if you don’t know the difference between a surprise and the total dissolution of your life, you are going to continue feeling stuck and unsatisfied. And then you will feel even more desperate for control. It’s a trap.