First published in September 2009 in First City, Delhi
The Greeks believed that just before a child was born, the Fates, three sisters known as Moirae, would determine the child’s destiny. By this they meant the time of death and the circumstances of death. Everything else – what the child wished to do in his life – was left to the child. The Fates were visualized as women who spun yarn. One made the yarn, one measured its length and the third cut it with a knife of scissor, the length of the thread representing the length of a lifespan.
During life, a human could, depending on the will, or whim, of the gods and goddesses who lived in their abode of Mount Olympus, attain fortune or face misfortune.
If misfortune was faced heroically, and stoically, it earned man a place in the Elysian Fields, a special place in the hereafter. Those who succumbed to misfortune went to the Asphodel Fields reserved for those who lived unremarkable lives. And those who caused misfortune to fellow humans went to the Greek Hell known as Tartarus.
When blessed with fortune, a man was expected to be gracious and humble and kind. Fortune could take the form of beauty or wealth or rank or power or skill or strength. It could result in Hubris, a notion that the Greeks feared most. Hubris means great arrogance which manifests in the humiliation and shaming of those around. In Hubris, a man loses all good sense, and assumes he is greater than the gods, a master of his own destiny. Hubris is the victory disease, the megalomania that follows when one gets what one desires. The ancient warned against Hubris in their songs and stories and plays. For those who were struck with Hubris had to face the wrath of the Olympians that manifested in the form of a terrifying and remorseless goddess called Nemesis. She made the arrogant and the proud regret their ways. She humbled the supercilious and humiliated the haughty. She was visualized as being winged, sometimes blind, holding in her hand a scourge, a stick, a measurement scale, a balance and a sword.
In Homer’s great epic Iliad one encounters Hubris repeatedly. Iliad tells the story of Illium or Troy whose prince Paris elopes with the most beautiful woman in Greece, Helen, queen of Sparta. To bring her back, her husband, Melenaus, and his brother, Agamemnon, set sail with an armada of a thousand ships. They besiege the city of Troy determined to avenge their humiliation and bring the Trojans to their knees. The siege which goes on for ten years is, in a way, an act of Nemesis. Troy is paying the price for its Hubris, the arrogance that its prince can get away with adultery.
In the Greek army is a warrior called Achilles. When his concubine is claimed by Agamemnon, he is so angry that he refuses to fight. Agamemnon displays Hubris when he assumes he can just get away with taking what belongs to another; as a result he faces severe defeat at the hands of the Trojans. He is pushed back and his army faces many defeats. Achilles also displays Hubris because he arrogantly knows that without his support the Greeks cannot win. For this he pays a price: his beloved friend (some say lover) Patrolocus is killed by the Trojans. In fury, Achilles reenters the battlefield and challenges the great warlord Hektor, eldest of the Trojan princes, to a duel. Achilles wins but in a fit of megalomania he does something that disgusts the gods. He ties the ankles of the dead Hektor to his chariot and drags it around like a piece of rag cloth. Hektor’s entire family including his old parents witnesses the humiliation of his dead body. The king of Troy, Priam, begs Achilles to stop and finally pays Hektor’s weight in gold to reclaim the body of his beloved son. For this display of overweening pride, Achilles dies before the Greeks win the Trojan war. His desire to find glory in victory is taken away from him by the gods.
In his other epic, Odyssey, Homer once again makes reference to Hubris. The hero Odysseus is an extremely shrewd and cunning warrior. He builds the Trojan Horse that enables the Greeks to gain entry into the walled city of Troy. The gods ensure that the Greek soldiers hiding inside the horse are not discovered. And this ensures the victory of the Greeks. Instead of thanking the gods in general,and Poseidon, the god of the sea, in particular, Odysseus takes full credit for the success. For this Hubris, he ends up wandering the seas for another ten years, facing many hardships and ordeals, before he is finally able to make his way home to Ithaca.
In the story of Oedipus, we learn how the young man, in arrogance kills a man who dared block his path on a bridge. He then proceeds to marry the man’s widow and become master of his land. He is humbled and humiliated when he learns later in life that the man he murdered was his father and the woman he married was his mother. He realizes too late that man can be blind even when he has eyes. In shame, he blinds himself.
King Creon commits Hubris when he denies burial rites to the body of Polynices, who rebelled against him. The body of Polynices lies in the open. Dogs and crows feed on him. His sister, Antigone, daughter-in-law of Creon, begs that he be given the respect due to the dead. Creon remains firm, refusing to brook any argument, accusing all advisors of treachery when they try to make him change his decree. Nemesis strikes Creon – Antigone kills herself. Unable to bear this, Creon’s heartbroken son, Haemon, also commits suicide. This causes Haemon’s mother to kill herself too. Thus Creon who in Hubris wanted to get his way ends up facing Nemesis who takes away his entire family.
When Daedalus makes wings of wax so that he and his son, Icarus, can escape from their prison tower, Icarus shows Hubris when he flies too close to the sun. Nemesis causes the wings to melt and he tumbles down to his death.
Narcissus falls in love with his own beauty. And so the gods decide he would fall in love with himself and drown as he tried to kiss his own reflection on water.
When Andromeda’s mother bragged that her daughter was more beautiful than the goddess Aphrodite, she ended up being chained to a rock and tormented by a monster until she was rescued by the hero, Perseus.
Jason, the leader of the Argonauts, brought back to Greece the Golden Fleece of Colchis. He succeeds because of help given to him by Medea, princess of Colchis, who to save Jason kills her own brother. Later Jason decides to marry another woman so that he can become a king and abandons Medea. He believes that as a man he can get away with this and that he owes no allegiance to Medea, who being faraway from her home is alone and helpless. But with this Hubris comes Nemesis: Medea strikes back by killing Jason’s young wife and her own two children so that Jason is left with no family. A shattered Jason takes shelter in the shadow of his old ship, Argo, on which he had sailed to Colchis but even the old ship rejects him. Its crumbles and falls and crushes him to death.
As the Greek world made way for Christianity, ideas such as Hubris and Nemesis survived for they played a critical role in creating a noble society. Humility became a critical Christian virtue, pride one of the seven deadly sins and Nemesis transformed from a fearsome goddess to simply a metaphor for the wrath of an angry God. In Victorian times, Nemesis became a model for the figure of Justice that came to grace the halls of many a courthouse. Artists visualized her as being blindfolded, holding a balance scale in one hand and a sword in the other, a form which is familiar to all of us even today.