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In Greek mythology, Nemesis (Greek, Νέμεσις), also called Rhamnousia/Rhamnusia ("the goddess of Rhamnous") at her sanctuary at Rhamnous, north of Marathon, was the spirit of divine retribution against those who succumb to hubris (arrogance before the gods). The Greeks personified vengeful fate as a remorseless goddess: the goddess of revenge. The name Nemesis is related to the Greek word νέμειν [némein], meaning "to give what is due".
Divine retribution is a major theme in the Hellenic world view, providing the unifying theme of the tragedies of Sophocles and many other literary works. Hesiod states: "Also deadly Nyx bore Nemesis an affliction to mortals subject to death." (Theogony, 223, though perhaps an interpolated line). Nemesis appears in a still more concrete form in a fragment of the epic Cypria.
She is implacable justice: that of Zeus in the Olympian scheme of things, although it is clear she existed prior to him, as her images look similar to several other goddesses, such as Cybele, Rhea, Demeter and Artemis.
As the "Goddess of Rhamnous", Nemesis was honored and placated in an archaic sanctuary in the isolated district of Rhamnous, in northeastern Attica. There she was a daughter of Oceanus, the primeval river-ocean that encircles the world. Pausanias noted her iconic statue there. It included a crown of stags and little Nikes and was made by Pheidias after the Battle of Marathon (490 BC), crafted from a block of Parian marble brought by the overconfident Persians, who had intended to make a memorial stele after their expected victory.
Nemesis has been described as the daughter of Oceanus or Zeus, but according to Hesiod she was a child of Erebus and Nyx. She has also been described as the daughter of Nyx alone. Her cult may have originated at Smyrna.
In some metaphysical mythology, Nemesis produced the egg from which hatched two sets of twins: Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra, and the Dioscuri, 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.
Although a respected goddess, Nemesis had brought much sorrow to mortals like Echo and Narcissus. Narcissus was a very beautiful and arrogant hunter from the territory of Thespiae and Boeotia who disdained the ones who loved him. Nemesis lured him to a pool where he saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it, not realizing it was only an image. He was unable to leave the beauty of his reflection and he eventually died. Nemesis believed that no one should ever have too much good, and she had always cursed those who were blessed with countless gifts.
The word Nemesis originally meant the distributor of fortune, neither good nor bad, simply in due proportion to each according to what was deserved; then, nemesis came to suggest the resentment caused by any disturbance of this right proportion, the sense of justice which could not allow it to pass unpunished. O. Gruppe (1906) and others connect the name with "to feel just resentment". From the 4th century onwards, Nemesis, as the just balancer of Fortune's chance, could be associated with Tyche.
In the Greek tragedies Nemesis appears chiefly as the avenger of crime and the punisher of hubris, and as such is akin to Atë and the Erinyes. She was sometimes called "Adrasteia", probably meaning "one from whom there is no escape"; her epithet Erinys ("implacable") is specially applied to Demeter and the Phrygian mother goddess, Cybele.
A festival called Nemeseia (by some identified with the Genesia) was held at Athens. Its object was to avert the nemesis of the dead, who were supposed to have the power of punishing the living, if their cult had been in any way neglected (Sophocles, Electra, 792; E. Rohde, Psyche, 1907, i. 236, note I).
At Smyrna there were two manifestations of Nemesis, more akin to Aphrodite than to Artemis. The reason for this duality is hard to explain; it is suggested that they represent two aspects of the goddess, the kindly and the implacable, or the goddesses of the old city and the new city refounded by Alexander. The martyrology Acts of Pionius, set in the "Decian persecution" of AD 250–51, mentions a lapsed Smyrnan Christian who was attending to the sacrifices at the altar of the temple of these Nemeses.
Sometimes called Pax-Nemesis was also worshipped at Rome by victorious generals, and in imperial times was the patroness of gladiators and of the venatores, who fought in the arena with wild beasts, and was one of the tutelary deities of the drilling-ground (Nemesis campestris). Sometimes, but rarely, seen on imperial coinage, mainly under Claudius and Hadrian. In the 3rd century AD there is evidence of the belief in an all-powerful Nemesis-Fortuna. She was worshipped by a society called Hadrian's freedman. The poet Mesomedes wrote a hymn to Nemesis in the early 2nd century CE, where he addressed her
and mentioned her "adamantine bridles" that restrain "the frivolous insolences of mortals."
In early times the representations of Nemesis resembled Aphrodite, who herself sometimes bears the epithet Nemesis. Later, as the maiden goddess of proportion and the avenger of crime, she has as attributes a measuring rod (tally stick), a bridle, scales, a sword and a scourge, and rides in a chariot drawn by griffins.
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