This Orphic hymn to the goddess Nemesis comes from a collection likely to have been compiled in the third century CE, and offers a glimpse of Greek-inspired pagan religion in what turned out to be its last phase.


Nemesis, I call upon you,

O goddess, O great queen,

Your all-seeing eye looks upon

The lives of man’s many races.

Eternal and revered,

You alone rejoice in the just,

You change and vary,

You shift your word.

All who bear the yoke

Of mortality fear you,

You care about the thoughts of all;

The arrogant soul,

The reckless one,

Finds no escape.

You see all, you hear all,

You arbitrate all.

O sublime deity,

In whom dwells justice for men,

Come, blessed and pure one,

Ever helpful to the initiates,

Grant nobility of mind,

Put an end to repulsive thoughts,

Thoughts unholy,

Fickle and haughty.

From The Orphic Hymns: translation, introduction and notes by Apostolos N. Athanasskis and Benjamin M. Wolkow Baltimore: Maryland, USA: The John Hopkins Press, 2013.

In his introduction to this collection, Apostolos Athanassakis talks about Orphic hymns as instances of a devotional mysticism that uses “the power of clustering epithets” for the creation of “an emotional and spiritual crescendo that might raise our human spirit and help approach the divine”. They remind him of Vedic hymns, Rumi’s verses within the Islamic Sufi world, and aspects of his own Christian Orthodox upbringing. The hymns are beautiful to read – though it is worth remembering that they are designed for group practice in a charged, incense laded atmosphere, with repetition upon repetition, perhaps accompanied by swaying, movement or dance of various kinds.

In the ancient Greek and Greek-influenced world, Nemesis was primarily seen as the goddess of retribution against hubris, arrogance before the gods. She was also called Adrasteia (the inescapable) and at times attracted the epithet Erinys (implacable). In early times she was thought of as the distributor of fortune, and Aphrodite was sometimes called Aphrodite Nemesis. Later she appears as a maiden goddess of proportion and avenger of crime, equipped with measuring rod, bridle, scales, sword and scourge.

The Orphic hymns probably date from the third century CE, a time of philosophical and religious change in the Roman Empire. They were popular for as long as it was possible to maintain a syncretistic religion forged of traditional pagan elements in those parts of the world (chiefly the Eastern Roman sphere) where it was practised. The hymns name specific pagan deities, yet appeal to universal spiritual powers. In this instance Nemesis seems to be seen as a goddess, or personification, of something akin to karma. Devotees are not praying directly for a change in their fate, but in their own thoughts and feelings, in the hope that the energy of the goddess may assist them.