Themis

Definition

Liana Miate
by
published on 07 February 2023
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Available in other languages: French, Spanish, Turkish
Allegory of Justice - Themis (by Marcello Bacciarelli, Public Domain)
Allegory of Justice - Themis
Marcello Bacciarelli (Public Domain)

Themis is the personification and goddess of divine law, will, and justice in Greek mythology. She was held in high esteem by the Olympians, often sitting by Zeus' throne and giving him wise counsel. Themis held the place of Oracle at Delphi before passing on her prophetic powers to Apollo. Common epithets of Themis include Gaia Themis ('Earth' and 'Right').

Themis was the daughter of Uranus (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth) and the second wife of Zeus. She is often depicted with the sword of justice and scales, symbolising the law and judgement she gives.

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Birth & Family

In Hesiod's (c. 700 BCE) Theogony, Themis is the daughter of Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (Heaven). She is the sister of Oceanus, Rhea, and Cronus.

And then she lay with Heaven, and bore
Deep-whirling Oceanus and Koios; then
Kreius, Iapetos, Hyperion,
Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne,
Lovely Tethys, and Phoebe, golden-crowned.

(Theogony, 136-140)

Themis became Zeus' second wife (although some sources say she was his first). Her children with Zeus represented the visible order of the world. They included the Horae (the Seasons), Eirene (Peace), Dike (Justice) and the three Fates (Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos). In some sources, such as Aeschylus' (c. 525 to c. 456 BCE) tragedy Prometheus Bound, Themis is listed as being Prometheus' mother, although he is more commonly known as being the son of Iapetus and Clymene or Asia.

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Appearance

She is often found to be holding the sword of justice & a chain in her right hand, & the scales in her left hand.

Ancient artists depicted Themis as a mature woman with large eyes and a flowing garment tied at the shoulder. In Greek art, she is often found to be holding the sword of justice and a chain in her right hand, and the scales in her left hand which symbolise the causes that she judged. Her eyes are sometimes covered to show her impartiality to each individual being judged.

Goddess of Divine Law, Will, & Justice

As the goddess of divine law, will, and justice, Themis oversaw all the laws that governed both mortals and immortals, often at assemblies that were held by kings who would overhear petitions and make judgements. These laws would often be impervious to any outside or human influences.

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Themis
Themis
Ricardo André Frantz (CC BY-SA)

Themis' trustworthy and fair nature meant that the Olympians, including Zeus, trusted her judgment. According to the Homeric Hymns, she often sat next to his throne and gave him judgement and advice, listening to his wisdom in return. Themis also presided over the feasts of the Olympian gods and was sometimes viewed as the goddess of the rites of hospitality.


From the peak of rugged ridged Olympus
Zeus commanded Themis to call the gods to council.
Themis made her rounds, ranging far and wide
and summoned all to march to Father's halls.

(Homer, Iliad, 20.7-9)

During the Titanomachy, Themis came down to earth during the golden age and taught humans the practice of moderation and good behaviour. However, humanity soon forgot her lessons and began acting in sinful and disgraceful ways. So Themis returned to Mount Olympus.

Themis' Prophecies

As a great goddess, Themis had prophetic powers, which she used to aid both mortals and immortals. Her most famous prophecy was the one relating to the son of the Nereid Thetis. Zeus had intended to marry Thetis until Themis informed him that any son of Thetis would be far greater than his father. Unsurprisingly, Zeus did not want anyone challenging his power, least of all his own son. So he gave up his pursuit of Thetis and instead arranged for her to marry the mortal King Peleus of Phthia. Themis was correct; from this marriage came the great Greek hero Achilles, whose legendary feats are still spoken about to this day.

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In the Greek tragedy Prometheus Bound, Themis made several prophecies which are relayed by Prometheus, her son. The first one has to do with the fall of the Titans. During the Titanomachy, Prometheus told the Titans that they could not overthrow the children of Cronus with strength and brute force alone. According to Themis, the ones who were wise and used their wiles would be the ones to rule. The Titans did not heed this advice, and Themis and Prometheus joined the side of Zeus and the other children of Cronus, who defeated the Titans. Themis also foretold that Prometheus will be rescued from his repetitive punishment by a famous archer (Heracles).

Modern Statue of Themis
Modern Statue of Themis
Scotted400 (Public Domain)

In Ovid's (43 BCE to 17 CE) Metamorphoses, Zeus sent a great flood to earth. Deucalion, a king of Thessaly and son of Prometheus (according to some traditions), and his wife Pyrrha were the only survivors. They reached Mount Parnassus, where they honoured Themis. A distraught Deucalion mourned the loss of human life, and they decided to pray to Themis near her shrine on the river Cephisus. They prostrated themselves and kissed the cold ground, invoking gentle Themis to restore the world to its original form. Themis was moved by their pleas and instructed them to leave the sanctuary, cover their heads and undo their clothes. Much to their shock, she then instructed them to cast their mothers' bones behind them. Deucalion suggested that no oracle would order them to do something so disrespectful and theorised that she meant Mother Earth. They followed Themis' instructions, throwing stones behind their back. The rocks began to soften and assumed the shape of men and women, and so Themis helped restore the world after the great flood.

In Book 4 of Metamorphoses, the Titan Atlas recalled when Themis told him an ancient prophecy at Delphi. She warned him that his tree would one day be robbed of its golden apples by a son of Zeus. Atlas took her warning seriously, built a high wall around his orchard and set a fearsome dragon to guard it. And so, when the Greek hero Perseus turned up at his home, Atlas was wary and reluctant to offer him hospitality, with the prophecy of Themis always present in his mind. In anger, Perseus pulled out the head of Medusa and turned Atlas into a stony mountain range.

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Gaia & her daughter Themis were reading oracles before Apollo went to Delphi.

Another prophecy that is featured in Metamorphoses is one regarding Iolaus and the sons of Callirhoe. Hebe, the goddess of youth, had made Iolaus, the nephew of Heracles, young again. Upon seeing his youth restored, Hebe swore she would never again bestow her gift upon anyone else. Themis argued with her and told her that Thebes was going through a civil war with brothers killing each other and sons killing mothers to avenge their mothers.

Alcmaeon, leader of the Argives, had married Callirhoe, daughter of the river god Achelous. His new wife was obsessed with obtaining the cursed necklace of Harmonia, the goddess of harmony. Unfortunately, Alcmaeon was murdered during his quest to retrieve the necklace. In her grief, Callirhoe begged Zeus to take Iolaus' years and add them to her sons' ages, so they would be old enough to avenge their father. Zeus, who was Callirhoe's lover, agreed to this, and so from then on, children would be turned into adult men with the help of Hebe and Zeus. After Themis had told the gods of this prophecy, they were unhappy and wondered why this gift could not be granted to others – each of them having someone in mind.

Themis, Delphi & Apollo

The Delphic Oracle was by far the most popular of the ancient Greek oracle sites. Although Apollo is most commonly associated with Delphi, its long history began before Apollo's birth. A widely accepted fact in Greek mythology is that other deities, such as Gaia and her daughter Themis were reading oracles before Apollo went to Delphi.

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Aegeus Consults the Oracle at Delphi
Aegeus Consults the Oracle at Delphi
Bibi Saint-Pol (Public Domain)

According to Aeschylus, Delphi was passed down in succession – Gaia passed it on to her daughter Themis who then passed it on to her sister, the Titaness Phoebe, who handed it over to Apollo. Pausanias (c. 115 to c. 180 CE) says that Poseidon and Gaia both shared the oracle before Gaia passed it on to Themis, and Themis passed it on to Apollo. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo mentions that Themis was present at Apollo's birth, along with the other great goddesses. Instead of being suckled, Themis fed Apollo nectar and ambrosia. As soon as he consumed these heavenly foods, Apollo was given the gift of the oracle.

Themis & the Trojan War

The lost epic poem Kypria mentions that Themis and Zeus planned the Trojan War. Themis was the first one who brought up the idea of a great war to Zeus in order to punish humankind's sinful behaviour and reduce the earth's population. She further set her plan into motion with her prophecy that ultimately caused Thetis to marry King Peleus instead of Zeus or Poseidon. Eris' appearance at the wedding and her Golden Apple of Discord with its inscription "to the fairest one" set up the events that would ultimately lead directly to the greatest war of all time, just as Themis intended.

The Trojan Horse
The Trojan Horse
Tetraktyas (CC BY-SA)


Worship

In the Orphic Hymn to Themis, she is referred to as the "prophetess of the gods" and the first to show humankind the holy oracle.

Amid reverence and honour
you shine in the night,
for you were first
to teach men holy worship.

(Hymn to Themis, 79.7-8).

Evidence shows that people across ancient Greece worshipped Themis. According to Pausanias in his Description of Greece, Themis had a shrine dedicated to her in Attica. In Corinth, a sanctuary dedicated to Aphrodite and Themis was located inside a grove. In Boeotia, near the Neistan Gates, there was a sanctuary of Themis with a white stone statue next to it. In Olympia, there was an altar of Themis. At Rhamnus, she was worshipped alongside Nemesis, the goddess of revenge.

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Bibliography

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About the Author

Liana Miate
Liana is the Social Media Editor for Ancient History Encyclopedia. She holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree with a major in ancient Greece, Rome & Late Antiquity. She is particularly passionate about Rome and Greece, and anything to do with mythology or women.

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Questions & Answers

What is Themis goddess of?

Themis is the goddess of divine law, will, and justice.

Who is Themis to Zeus?

Themis is Zeus' second wife, and she also gave him wise counsel.

Was Themis a prophetess?

Before Apollo, Themis was an oracle at Delphi. She foretold many prophecies.

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Cite This Work

APA Style

Miate, L. (2023, February 07). Themis. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/Themis/

Chicago Style

Miate, Liana. "Themis." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified February 07, 2023. https://www.worldhistory.org/Themis/.

MLA Style

Miate, Liana. "Themis." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 07 Feb 2023. Web. 21 Feb 2024.

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