Final Word

Nemesis – the multi-faced goddess of revenge


The term ‘nemesis’ has been part of our modern lexicon for a while, and is usually invoked to describe a long-standing rival or an arch-enemy. But, traced back to its godly origins, there is much more to it. (Read more)

There was hardly a sports commentator or reporter to be found the weekend before last, when the Springbok rugby team and the All Blacks clashed on the hallowed turf of Ellis Park, who did not use the term.

After all, it was in 2011 that the Springboks last managed to beat the All Blacks – the only team that stands between them and the number one ranking in world rugby.

Of the 45 matches between the Springboks and the All Blacks since rugby became a professional sport just short of 20 years ago, the All Blacks have won 33 tests to the Springboks’ 12. If the amateur days are added, starting 95 years ago in 1921, the All Blacks have won 52 games, the Springboks 35. Three ended in a draw.

And that is why so many rugby pundits describe the All Blacks as the South Africans’ “old nemesis”.

But that is just one side of the nemesis story. The All Blacks were confronted by a nemesis of their own in that last test match of this year’s Four Nations Rugby Championships.

Over the 95 years, 13 of the 90 matches between the two nations were played at Ellis Park. Of those the Springboks won nine and the All Blacks just four. Of those lost by the All Blacks the, for them, most heartbreaking one was the final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

It can safely be said that for the All Blacks Ellis Park has over almost a century proven to be a nemesis. For them Ellis Park is what a reflecting pool was in Greek mythology to Narcissus, who was so mesmerised by the beauty of his reflection that eventually he died next to the pool.

And guess who lured him to that pool. Yup, it was the goddess Nemesis, who was the spirit of divine retribution against those who succumb to ‘hubris' or arrogance before the gods or the goddesses of revenge. Narcissus was, for example, lured to that pool because of his arrogance and the disdain he showed to those who loved him.

Cursed are the blessed

Nemesis got her name from the Greek words nemêsis and nemô, which translate to "dispenser of dues".

In that particular strain of Greek mythology she is reputed to have believed that no one should have it too good and she always cursed those who were blessed with countless gifts. She had another name as well, Adrastela, meaning “the inescapable”.

She also had a very chequered history in mythology. Nemesis originally meant the distributor of fortune, neither good nor bad, simply in proportion to what was deserved. Later ‘nemesis’ came to suggest the resentment caused by any disturbance of this proportion, the sense of justice that could not allow it to pass unpunished.

In the Greek tragedies Nemesis appears chiefly as the avenger of crime and the punisher of extreme pride.

But in some myths she was especially concerned with matters of love and at times closely associated with Aphrodite.

In the Roman tradition, Nemesis was occasionally worshipped by victorious generals. During Rome’s imperial period she was also seen as the patroness of the gladiators and of the venatores who took on wild beasts in the arena.

There is evidence of a belief dating from the 3rd century AD in an all-powerful Nemesis-Fortuna, worshipped by a society called Hadrian’s freedmen. In the next century Mesomedes described her in a hymn as “Nemesis, winged balancer of life; dark-faced goddess, daughter of Justice”.

The Romans usually used the Greek name (Nemesis) of the goddess, but sometimes also called her Invidia (Jealousy) and Rivalitas (Jealous Rivalry) – and this is probably from where we get the content mostly attached to it today.

by Piet Coetzer

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