Goddess of the Week: Nemesis (retribution)

Alfred Rethel (1816–1859), Nemesis (Justice with Scales and Sword Persecutes the Escaping Murderer) (1837), oil on canvas, 95 x 48 cm, Hermitage Museum Государственный Эрмитаж, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Another of the daughters of the primordial goddess Nyx (Night) is one of the few whose Greek name has entered the English language: Nemesis, also known as the Goddess of Rhamnous, or Rhamnousia. As the modern English word attests, she is the goddess of retribution and vengeance, one of a complex of deities concerned with justice in its broadest sense. In her case, this is not necessarily fair or just, but unforgiving. If you’re arrogant before the gods, succumbing to Hubris (another deity), then Nemesis is what will come to you.

Divine justice is one of the consistent underlying themes in much of classical mythology: in myth after myth, humans fail to give the gods their due, and suffer Nemesis as a result. For the Greeks and Romans, divine vengeance was swift, sure, and almost invariably fatal.

Visual representations of her are quite rare, even in classical art, but they characteristically show her with angelic wings and some instrument for summary justice, such as a whip or sword, sometimes with a horse’s bridle and bit. To those may be added one of the more generic symbols of justice such as weighing scales or a measuring rod, although for Nemesis’ more summary justice those are usually unnecessary.

Some accounts of Nemesis conflate her into the story of Zeus’s rape of Leda and the birth of Helen from an egg. In those, Nemesis is pursued by Zeus and assumes a series of different animal forms, ending up as a goose when Zeus, also a goose at the time, mated with her. She may therefore be shown with a goose as a link to this alternative account.

Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528), Nemesis (c 1502), engraving on paper, 33.6 x 23.2 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

The first ‘modern’ image of Nemesis that I can find is this engraving by Albrecht Dürer from 1502. She has all the essentials: wings, a sword which is partly covered with a bridle and bit, although I’m not sure what the object in her right hand is intended to be. Seen in profile, it’s tempting to suggest that she may be pregnant. Beneath her feet is an intricate miniature semi-rural landscape.

Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758–1823), Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime (1808), oil on canvas, 244 x 294 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

At the Salon in 1808, Pierre-Paul Prud’hon exhibited his Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime. A brigand is seen leaving the scene of his crime, his victim stripped naked, robbed, and left for dead. Above are two winged figures: that on the left is regular Justice, bearing a brand; to the right is Nemesis, her sword in her right hand, a bridle and whip in the left.

Alfred Rethel (1816–1859), Nemesis (Justice with Scales and Sword Persecutes the Escaping Murderer) (1837), oil on canvas, 95 x 48 cm, Hermitage Museum Государственный Эрмитаж, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

The German history painter Alfred Rethel followed that with Nemesis in 1837, which he explained shows Justice persecuting the escaping murderer. On the ground, a similar violent robbery has just taken place. Above the fleeing brigand is a vengeful but angelic Nemesis, a sword in her right hand, and an hourglass in her left. The latter has associations with Father Time, thus the Grim Reaper who will surely follow this visit from Nemesis.

Gheorghe Tattarescu (1820–1894), Nemesis, Goddess of Revenge (1853), oil on canvas, 152 x 102 cm, Muzeul Municipiului Bucureşti, Bucharest, Romania. Wikimedia Commons.

My final painting dates from 1853, and was made by the pioneer Romanian artist Gheorghe Tattarescu: Nemesis, Goddess of Revenge. The same elements are rearranged in a composition which places the goddess to the fore, appearing in a divine cloud. In addition to the hourglass held in her left hand, she grasps a bundle of flames in her right, rather than the conventional sword.

From Hubris came Nemesis, followed by Thanatos.