Relentless, Implacable, Unstoppable

Today is the festival of Nemeseia, observed in honour of the goddess Nemesis, also called Rhamnousia. It is, at least, one of the dates suggested for this ancient Athenian tradition, though when in the year it actually occurred back then is foggy.

Not to be confused with Diana Nemorensis, who’s a different prospect entirely, Nemesis is a Greek deity borrowed into Roman culture without being renamed or given an alternative representation, as was the case with numerous other gods of the Romano-Greek pantheon. Some associate her — even syncretising her in some cases — with the Roman goddess Invidia, though others specify that Invidia is the goddess dealing with envy, rather than vengeance per se.

You’ve doubtless heard of Nemesis, though. She’s well known as the bringer of retribution and righteous vengeance: if a wrong has been done, it’s winged Nemesis and her intimidating associates — a group of Underworld deities called the Dirae in Roman religion; to the Greeks known as the Erinyes; and in modern English, the Furies — who will bring the wrongdoer to task and extract a price for the offence.

Nemesis
Nemesis as painted by Gheorghe Tattarescu in 1853 (Wikimedia Commons)

Nemesis’ name, in fact, has become widely used as a generic noun for someone, or something, we might otherwise call our ‘arch-enemy’, but used properly it needs to mean something much more specific. A nemesis is an opponent who is relentless, implacable, unstoppable and inescapable. It’s not just someone with a vendetta against you, or a problem you can’t seem to solve. If you’ve ever seen the classic 1984 science-fiction thriller The Terminator, you’ll remember the words of Kyle Reese as he describes the titular killing machine to a frightened Sarah Connor:

“It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear, and it absolutely will not stop — ever — until you are dead.”

If that describes your adversary, then you have something approaching a nemesis. And I’m very sorry about that.

In fact, Kyle’s words still don’t really do justice to Nemesis herself. She is not, in fact, unreasonable. She is just very, very determined to make sure that if the balance is upset, it is properly restored. She’s the universe correcting itself, and so she’s primarily concerned with equilibrium: offences — and specifically the arrogance and hubris in which offences are rooted, be they theft, murders, lies and oathbreaking, or whatever — upset the balance, and Nemesis puts it right. What she does not do — unless by coincidence — is provide satisfaction for aggrieved humans. That’s the job of a separate deity, known as Dike (pronounced ‘DEE-ka’) to the Greeks and Iustitia to the Romans, who represents the human conception of justice — though sometimes Dike does ride with Nemesis where the interests of both divine and human justice align:

Nemesis and Dike

Nemesis (right) and Dike (left) chase down a murderer. Painting by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, 1808 (via Wikimedia Commons)

In terms of the actual festival, little is actually known of the practices of the occasion. Roman religion was orthopraxic, meaning that the form, rather than the faith or belief, was considered the important part. A Roman of the day could believe whatever they liked about the gods, as long as the proper practices were observed and the rituals followed. So it’s likely that any observance for Nemesis would have followed broadly similar principles to those of other deities: prayers, offerings and probably animal sacrifice — but what else might have been done or said we may never know.

Of course, two thousand or so years have passed since those days in any case; and while there are modern Roman Pagans whose focus is on reconstructing as fully as possible the practices of ancient Roman society, I’m heretical. I believe that as time moves on human values and our understanding of the world change; and, insofar as many of the gods are reflections of those human values and that understanding, so too do the gods and their expectations change. Nemesis and the Furies are ancient deities; the latter thought even to pre-date the Olympians themselves (as is the case for several of the Di Inferi, the Cthonic or Underworld gods); but they are living gods. They are eternal, perhaps, but not changeless. And they are aware enough of the evolution of human society, I think, not to apply the same expectations and standards to cultures two thousand years removed. I cannot offer an accurate recreation of the Nemeseia, so I don’t try.

And if Nemesis, of all gods, is cool with that, I think I should be on reasonably safe ground with the rest of them.

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