Nemeseia

John Drury

[Note: a version of this essay will appear in the forthcoming Megaloi Theoi: A Devotional Anthology in Honor of The Dioskouroi and Their Family, to be published late Spring 2011.]

5 Boedromion on the Attic calendar is the date set aside for Nemeseia. I’ve celebrated this twice as of this writing, in 2009 and 2010. Below are thoughts on the goddess, the holiday, and descriptions of how I celebrated Nemeseia.

The name ‘Nemesis’ conjures dread in the modern mind. It bespeaks of an implacable enemy, someone who is out to get you, and it’s possible you cannot defeat this enemy. Those who speak the word today nearly spit it from the tip of the tongue when they do so. A sense of dark foreboding surrounds the word.

I take a different view. First, the name “Nemesis” comes from the root word neme,which means “to allot” or “dispense dues.” At its basic core, the word is neither good nor bad, and this reflects that allotments are not always positive or negative. My views are also shaped by two sources that, at first glance, appear completely unrelated: the tarot, and the Dioskouroi. However, a closer look reveals the interactions between these and other
factors, in ways that reveal the character of Nemesis in a different light.

The first time I encountered this goddess was in the tarot deck, but it was in an unlikely place. In our one of our witchcraft classes on divination in my tradition, we were studying the major arcana. (I use the Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg, for those interested.) When we came to the Wheel of Fortune, I was struck by the power of this card. It is one of the most powerful in the deck, and speaks not only of balance, but also of cycles and changes as part of the cycles. Interestingly, earlier in the day there had been a discussion of Nemesis. One of her main symbols is the wheel. She is often depicted with a wheel at her feet. I thus immediately associated this card as the Nemesis Card.

(As an aside, I decided to pull the card from my tarot deck before writing the preceding paragraph. I took the deck out, and thought “I’m going to cut the deck once and see if the Wheel of Fortune card comes up.” I did and, sure enough, that was the card on the first pull. Random chance . . . yea right. The gods are not subtle.)

A bit of discussion yielded another piece of information: Nemesis as the mother of the Dioskouroi and Helen. In the more common tradition, the mother of the Dioskouroi, as well as Helen and Clytemnestra, is Leda. She is impregnated by Zeus, in the form of a swan. However, in the Cypria, Nemesis is pursued and impregnated by Zeus, and bears the Dioskouroi and Helen.

Fragments 7 and 8 speak of this (translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White (1914):

*Fragment #7 —
Clement of Alexandria, Protrept ii. 30. 5:
“Castor was mortal, and the fate of death was destined for him; but
Polydeuces, scion of Ares, was immortal.” *

*Fragment #8 —
Athenaeus, viii. 334 B:
“And after them she bare a third child, Helen, a marvel to men. Rich-tressed Nemesis once gave her birth when she had been joined in love with Zeus the king of the gods by harsh violence. For Nemesis tried to escape him and liked not to lie in love with her father Zeus the Son of Cronos; for shame and indignation vexed her heart: therefore she fled him over the land and fruitless dark water. But Zeus ever pursued and longed in his heart to catch her. Now she took the form of a fish and sped over the waves of the loud-roaring sea, and now over Ocean’s stream and the furthest bounds of Earth, and now she sped over the furrowed land, always turning into such dread creatures as the dry land nurtures, that she might escape him.” *

This makes sense to me in a number of ways. First, the Dioskouroi as twins bespeak a yin-yang quality, being twins and both mortal and immortal. Those people born under Gemini, which are Dioskouroi, know of the twin personae that often make up their lives. It is part of the balance, and those who lean towards too much of one thing or another will be pushed back into balance at some point. Nemesis seems to me at times to be similar to karma. And while the Dioskouroi are saviors, Nemesis is she who dispenses
retribution. Again, there is balance. Helen, if she represents the Daughter of the Sun (as many Indo-European comparative theorists currently think), is born of Night. As it turns out, Nyx is the mother of Nemesis, so the wheel of life and death, day and night, birth and rebirth, becomes represented by these three children of Nemesis. This is also, at its core, the meaning of the Wheel of Fortune in the tarot deck. Even though the card invokes
Fortune, or Tyche, the balance to Fortune is Nemesis. I do not look at one as good and the other bad necessarily. They are two integral parts, co-joined, just as the Dioskouroi are, and speak of balance in an endless cycle of change. Finally, the goddess most often considered with Nemesis is Tyche. She is the Goddess of Fortune, and usually those to whom most would ask for Good Fortune to be bestowed upon them. But She is the opposite side of the same coin. Nemesis and Tyche both hold wheels, so they represent
twin aspects of allotment.

It is not surprising that Nemesis also represents the forgotten dead. Those remembered still have those who speak for them. But the dead do not deserve to be forgotten completely, especially our ancestors. Nemesis speaks for them. It is a reminder, in my mind, not to forget the past, or dishonor your ancestors, through your actions.

Such an admonishment comes, in fact, from Hesiod. When speaking of Nemesis,
he says (Works and Days, 175ff) the following:

*”Would that I were not among the men of the fifth age, but either had died before or been born afterwards. For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour (kamatos) and sorrow (oizys) by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils. And Zeus will destroy this race of mortal men also when they come to have grey hair on the temples at their birth. The father will not agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother as aforetime. Men will dishonour their parents as they grow quickly old, and will carp at them, chiding them with bitter words, hard-hearted they, not knowing the fear of the gods. They will not repay their aged parents the cost their nurture, for might shall be their right: and one man will sack another’s city. There will be no favour (kharis) for the man who keeps his oath or for the just (dikaios) or for the good (agathos); but rather men will praise the evil-doer (kakos) and his violent dealing (hybris). Strength will be right (dike) and reverence (aidos) will cease to be; and the wicked will hurt the worthy man, speaking false words against him, and will swear an oath upon them. Envy (zelos), foul-mouthed, delighting in evil, with scowling face, will go along with wretched men one and all. *

*”And then Aidos (Shame) and Nemesis (Indignation), with their sweet forms wrapped in white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake mankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter sorrows (lugra algea) will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil.”

It is a reminder to those that would assume good Fortune is normal, and that actions do not have consequences; that reality bears a different lesson. Just as the Dioskouroi can be saviors, but still warriors who choose sides, Nemesis can bring swift change when balance is lost. The Wheel of Fortune card tells us that the cycles can bring good or bad, Tyche or Nemesis, and that both have their good and bad aspects to them.

Because Nemesis is the goddess of the forgotten dead, as I mentioned before, I go to a cemetery late at night and pick out a forlorn tombstone. I then lavish it with flowers and chocolate as I pour libations and say prayers to Nemesis. For me this is in part ancestor veneration, part respect for the dead, and part a call to Nemesis for balance and just allotments.

In 2009 I took flowers, a libation of wine, and chocolates to a cemetery and left them at the gravesite of a forgotten person, in honor of Nemesis. What I want to try and convey here, though, is the absolutely heavy feeling that I got in choosing a gravestone. I’m walking into a cemetery, alone, and in the dark. It’s very old and there are many forgotten, forlorn tombstones. How does one choose whom to honor? I remember standing there for a moment and feeling quite lost with that question in my mind. Who, among the many souls not only in this cemetery, but also in others, would receive the offering and the prayers for care from Nemesis? Choosing it was not easy, but once I
had chosen it felt very right.

In 2010 I did the same, but changed things a bit. By this time I had begun taking yoga, and combined my yoga practice that night with the ritual. Athletic games were often associated with Nemeseia in Roman times, and during this festival. Also, an apple branch was also one of the symbols of Nemesis. It was fitting that I spent part of the previous day picking apples at the house of a friend and co-religionist.

I took a small branch with a leaf from one of the apples with me to yoga that night and dedicated the practice to Nemesis. It was actually a very powerful session for me, very strong. When I was done, I came home, showered, ate lightly, then gathered my supplies and went to the cemetery around 10:00 P.M. The cemetery is in town but is old, quiet, and creepy. After washing in khernips I entered and chose the same tombstone as from the previous year. I then laid the apple branch from yoga, and flowers, on the gravesite. I spoke to the dead, saying I had not forgotten them. I gave them chocolates for sustenance, and khernips to quench their thirst. I then prayed to Nemesis for balance and a just allotment, thanked Her for keeping our ancestors safe, and asked that she think kindly towards me in various matters.

When I was done I noticed that a cat had wandered in and was watching me. The cat ran when I saw it and it did startle me, but all is good. I then drove out and was greeted by a gorgeous blood red crescent moon on the western horizon. It was a regular crescent when I started, but blood red when done. It was stunning, just stunning, and a good sign.

Hail Nemesis! Goddess of the Wheel, bringer of balance, mother of the blessed Dioskouroi and Helen, patron of the forgotten dead. May your power be just and may mankind always respect you.

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