Nemesis was a Greek goddess of revenge and retribution. In particular, she was invoked against those whose hubris and arrogance got the better of them, and served as a force of divine reckoning. Originally, she was a deity who simply doled out what people had coming to them, whether good or bad.
According to Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks, by Robert Garland, her festival, called the Nemeseia, was held each year and was seen as a way to console the spirits of those who had met a violent end. The festival took place annually around August 21 – 23, and was, says Sophocles, a way to keep the angry spirits from taking out their frustrations on those still living.
In Nemesis, the Roman State and the Games, author Michael B. Hornum describes the temple to Nemesis and the sanctuary at Rhamnous – in some aspects, Nemesis is called Rhamnousia after the location of her sanctuary. Statues to Nemesis have been discovered dating back to the fifth century b.c.e. in Rhamnous, and inscriptions from the fourth century b.c.e. indicate that the cult of Nemesis was led by priestesses. It’s possible that Nemesis may have, at some point, had some connection to the Olympic games, because there are records of competitions between men taking place during the Nemeseia. Of course, the Greeks liked to honor many of their deities with games and athletic events.
During the Imperial period of Rome, Nemesis was adopted as a patroness of victorious generals, and of gladiators entering the arena. At one point, there was a cult of Nemesis-Fortuna, which honored Nemesis as the deliberate balance to the random chance of Fortuna’s selections. She also appears in both Greek and later Roman mythology as an avenging force protecting those who have been violently wronged by their lovers.
Nemesis is often represented by a pair of scales, or the sword of divine vengeance.
Greek writers of the time, including Hesiod, describe Nemesis as a goddess who could not be avoided, no matter how hard one might try. Polycrates was the tyrannical king of a Greek state, who began to worry about the fact that good fortune followed him wherever he went. He feared that eventually, Nemesis would pay him a visit. In hopes of keeping her appeased, he made offerings all over the place – and his good fortune kept increasing. Finally, Polycrates went out in his favorite ship, and tossed his most valuable and rare ring into the ocean as an offering to Nemesis. He then went home, and ordered his cook to prepare a giant feast. The cook ordered hundreds of fish to be caught for the dinner, and when he opened the largest fish of all, there inside its belly was the ring of Polycrates. Terrified that his offering might have been rejected, despite his best efforts, Polycrates became so anxious that he couldn’t eat, and then fell ill and died.
Today, many Hellenic Pagans still hold celebrations in honor of Nemesis, acknowledging both her power over the living and as a goddess of the dead. In the Orphic Hymns, Hymn 61 is a prayer to honor Nemesis:Thee, Nemesis, I call, almighty queen,
by whom the deeds of mortal life are seen:
eternal, much revered, of boundless sight,
alone rejoicing in the just and right:
changing the counsels of the human breast
for ever various, rolling without rest.
To every mortal is thy influence known,
and men beneath thy righteous bondage groan;
for every thought within the mind concealed
is to thy sight perspicuously revealed.
The soul unwilling reason to obey,
by lawless passion ruled, thine eyes survey.
All to see, hear, and rule, O power divine,
whose nature equity contains, is thine.
Come, blessed, holy Goddess, hear my prayer,
and make thy mystics' life thy constant care:
give aid benignant in the needful hour,
and strength abundant to the reasoning power;
and far avert the dire, unfriendly race
of counsels impious, arrogant, and base.