Who is Themis in Greek Mythology?
Themis is a primordial Greek Titaness, described as “lady of good counsel,” and the personification of divine law and order, fairness, natural law and custom, and oracles. Themis is Uranus and Gaia’s daughter and siblings to the various Titans, Hekatonkheires, Cyclopes, and Half-siblings to Aphrodite, Typhon, and Python.
When we think of extremely powerful entities and Greek mythology gods, there has to be some kind of order and system of justice; otherwise, we essentially fall into chaos. That form of divine law and order comes from the Titan goddess known as Themis, another one of the first generation of Titans born from Uranus and Gaia. Themis’s name was thought to mean ‘order’, and many considered her to be the personification of divine law.
Themis was also seen as a goddess of prophecy, a governing figure to all of the most ancient Oracles, including the Oracle of Delphi. This power of prophecy certainly aided her when she created the traditional rules of conduct which were to be followed by every god. Her divine voice appeared to humankind and first introduced them to the idea of justice and morality, helping them form their first set of primal laws.
Amongst these rules were the ideas of hospitality, good governance, the conduct of assembly, and the respectful offering to the gods. Themis’s overall role in the Greek pantheon seemed to be the voice of reason and justice; being a goddess of wisdom, she naturally made outstanding counsel. This even led to her earning the nickname the ‘Lady of Good Counsel‘.
She often acted as the interpreter for god’s will, a role she maintained far past the part of the Titans. Unknown to many, Themis was one of Zeus‘s first-ever wives, and she acted as his first counsellor, often seen beside his throne, advising him on the precepts of divine law and the rules of faith. Together, Zeus infamous had many children. The most noticeable being the Horae and the Moirai, as you may know, the goddesses of the seasons and natural order and the three goddesses of fate and destiny.
It’s because of her children that she had a strong connection to the goddess Demeter. The Horae that represented spring was thought to bring life, and the Moirai were supposed to bring death—almost reflecting the aspects of Demeter’s daughter, Persephone. She also represented life and death, being a goddess of spring as well as the underworld.
As I’m sure many of you would have guessed by now, Themis sided with the Olympians during the war. When the war ended, she took residence upon Olympus, where she would maintain order and establish Zeus’ authority.
There is some mention of Themis in Hesiod’s Theogony, where it describes the daughter of Zeus and Themis, Dike (or Dice), as being temporal of justice, meaning that she would work alongside her mother. Still, she was responsible for the physical execution of the law. Sentences and punishments fell to Dike, who would carry out the will of her mother in the Moirai.
There is a clear contrast between Themis and her daughter. Themis was responsible for the concepts of morality and justice, creating laws to govern by. In comparison, Dike was the physical embodiment of divine will, carrying out sentences and punishments as justice demanded.
The classical depictions of Themis were thought to be that of a woman holding a pair of scales in one hand and a sword in the other. The scales themselves were supposed to represent Themis’ ability to determine whether someone should be punished for their crime; an image that we also see in Egyptian mythology with Anubis in the underworld way in the heart of the deceased against the feather of my heart.
The sword she carried was sought to represent Themis’ ability to cut fact from fiction; there was no middle ground, you were either lying or telling the truth, and regardless of which it was, she could not be fooled.
Themis was thought to be a tripod, as she was often depicted as sitting on a three-legged stool. Now, we can dig a little deeper here to try and understand the association between the two.
Tripods are often used to support weight and maintain an object’s stability, particularly from downward and horizontal forces. This may be somewhat of a stretch, but perhaps we can see that downward force has been the gods from above and Themis herself through law and order providing the world of stability and means to ensure that the power of the gods does not destroy everything that had been created.
Now, I can be completely wrong here, and perhaps Themis just found three-legged stool exceptionally comfortable, but it does raise an interesting point of discussion. You may see some modern depictions very similar to Themis, but instead, the woman is blindfolded.
These images are often considered modern-day versions of Themis or Lady Justice, a figure that embodies many of the deities surrounding divine order. The blindfold represents impartiality. The idea that justice should be applied to everyone, regardless of wealth, power, or status.
It’s relatively easy to confuse Themis with Nemesis, the goddess of wrathful retribution, but Themis was in no way wrathful. She was pragmatic, extraordinarily rational, and she never allowed her emotions to influence her decision.
Themis was an extremely respected goddess, not only by the ancient Greeks but also in its pantheon. Her presence almost demanded respect, often referred to by the Greek gods themselves as lady Themis.
Many wise gods and goddesses are featured in Greek mythology, but she was arguably the most intelligent of them all. Creating a system that stopped the world from plunging into chaos. You can argue that some of the gods didn’t always follow these rules, but for the most part, they were adhered to, knowing that regardless of who they were, she would not grant any of the god immunity or bias in their punishment.
I’m quite fond of Themis’s image because she represents the pursuit of truth and the notion of impartiality that justice demands.
Image Sources: Klara Szwec; KareemsBlackBook