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Themis Origin Story

Chairestratos: Themis. Marble, c. 300 BC. Found in Rhamnonte, at the temple of Nemesis. Dedicated to Themis by Megacles. National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
Photography by: Ricardo André Frantz

Themis, goddess of Justice, appears already in the earliest Greek literature of the eighth century BCE, which recorded far earlier oral narratives. She is featured briefly in Homer’s Iliad, comforting the goddess Hera after a fight with Zeus and later calling the gods to an assembly; in the Odyssey she oversees a human assembly as well. She plays a larger role, however, in Hesiod’s contemporary epic, Theogony. Hesiod’s family tree of the gods defines Themis’s parents as Gaia (the earth) and Ouronus (the sky), placing her among the second generation of deities, the Titans. Although the poem recounts the violent overthrow of the Titans by the youngest divine generation, the Olympians, it associates Themis closely with the rule of Zeus, king of the Olympian deities. According to the poem, Themis was the mother of Eunomia (goddess of legislation), Dike (goddess of fair judgement), and Eirene (goddess of peace) as well as the Horae (seasons) and Moerae (fates), all with Zeus as father.

Later Greek literature often ties Themis to Gaia—sometimes compressing the two into one goddess—as well as to Nemesis (goddess of retribution), echoing Classical Greek views on the natural order of justice and punishment. The literature also presents her as oracular, a god who inspired humans with prophecy. In fact, several traditions associate her with the most important oracular shrine of the ancient Mediterranean world, the sanctuary at Delphi, where human Oracles provided guidance from the gods. In Aeschylus's Eumenides, for example, Themis had been gifted the shrine by Gaia and later gave it to her sister Phoebe (Titan goddess of the moon), who eventually passed it to the Olympian Apollo. Following Ephorus, Themis and Apollo founded the sanctuary together, as a gift for humans from the gods. Themis's most famous prophecy, however, was given not to humans but to Olympians. According to Pindar, both Zeus and his brother Poseidon wished to marry the sea-goddess Thetis, until Themis prophesied that Thetis's son would be far stronger than his father. The brothers—remembering how they had overthrown their own parents—opted instead to pair Thetis with the human king Peleus. The two became the parents of Achilles, most powerful of the Greek heroes.

Themis and Aegeus. Attic red-figure kylix, 440–430 BC. From Vulci.

Few representations of Themis survive from antiquity. One certain image appears in the bowl of a ceramic wine cup (known as a kylix) that was produced in Athens around 430 BCE. The scene shows the goddess seated on a tripod, veiled and barefoot. She holds a laurel branch in her right hand and gazes into an offering bowl (phiale) in her left. A bearded man wearing a laurel crown approaches her; a column in the background indicates that the two are indoors. Although the scene often is identified with the Pythia, Apollo's later Oracle at Delphi, captions over each of their heads identify the figures at Themis and Aegeus, a mythical founder of Athens. Despite its Athenian theme and manufacture, the cup was recovered far from Greece, in the tomb of a wealthy Etruscan family at Vulci, Italy.

Themis had temples and shrines in various Greek city-states and sanctuaries, including Dodona, Tanagra, and Olympia. Remains of her temple in Athens still survive on the south slope of the Acropolis, below Athena's Parthenon. She sometimes shared her temples with related gods, such as at Rhamnous, where she was worshipped together with Nemesis. Here, a larger-than-life sized marble statue dated to around 300 BCE was recovered in 1890. On the base, an inscription recorded that it had been created by the local sculptor Chairestratos and dedicated to Themis by a certain Megacles. The sculpture shows the goddess as a young woman, wearing a voluminous wrap (himation) over a lightweight, sleeved dress (chiton). Her hair is twisted into an updo, and she wears low platform sandals. Although both arms were missing upon excavation, she probably held scales in her left hand and an offering bowl in her right. The image serves as a reference for many later depictions of Themis, including our own. She likely did not gain her sword until the Roman period, as the goddess Justitia, and her blindfold appeared first in the Renaissance.

While precise oversight and implications have changed across time and through various cultures, Themis today stands as the personification of the Krewe of Themis's commitment to social justice, community, and inclusivity.

Written by:
Allison LC Emmerson

Associate Professor, Department of Classic Studies, Tulane Univerity
Themis Charter Member

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