Themis, Goddess of Justice

Updated Dec. 6, 2011.
Prepared by Barbara Swatt, Reference Intern. Updated by Cheryl Nyberg.

A common representation of Justice is a blind-folded woman holding a set of  scales. The origin of the Goddess of Justice goes back to antiquity. She was referred to as Ma'at by the ancient Egyptians and was often depicted carrying a sword with an ostrich feather in her hair (but no scales) to symbolize truth and justice. The term magistrate is derived from Ma'at because she assisted Osiris in the judgment of the dead by weighing their hearts. [1]

To the ancient Greeks she was known as Themis, originally the organizer of the "communal affairs of humans, particularly assemblies." [2] Her ability to foresee the future enabled her to become one of the oracles at Delphi, which in turn led to her establishment as the goddess of divine justice. Classical representations of Themis did not show her blindfolded (because of her talent for prophecy, she had no need to be blinded) nor was she holding a sword (because she represented common consent, not coercion). [3]

The Roman goddess of justice was called Justitia and was often portrayed as evenly balancing both scales and a sword and wearing a blindfold. She was sometimes portrayed holding the fasces (a bundle of rods around an ax symbolizing judicial authority) in one hand and a flame in the other (symbolizing truth). [4]

Articles & Books

HeinOnline is a UW Restricted source.

Judith Resnik & Dennis Curtis, Representing Justice: Invention, Controversy, and Rights in City-States and Democratic Courtrooms (2010). Contains black and white and color illustrations and photographs.
A companion website provides images.

Dennis E. Curtis & Judy Resnik, Images of Justice, 96 Yale L. J. 1727 (1987). HeinOnline
This essay provides an in-depth analysis of the various images depicting the concept of justice. There is only brief mention of Themis as the Greek forerunner to the Roman goddess Justitia.

Cathleen Burnett, Justice: Myth and Symbol, 11 Legal Stud. F. 79 (1987). HeinOnline
This article traces the mythological background of Themis, distinguishes Themis from Dike, princess of justice (because they are often confused), and discusses ironic depictions of Themis.

Legal Symbols of the Anglo-American Legal Tradition, 11 Guide to American Law 685 (1983).
KF156.G77 1983 at Classified Stacks
This article gives a brief explanation of the origin the goddess of justice as a legal symbol.

Richard Eadie, Justice Symbolism, B. Bull. (King County Bar Association), March 2005.
Discusses the evolution of the symbol of Themis.

Law Library Journal "Questions and Answers" columns

  • 73 L. Libr. J. 744 (1980) -- answering: "What are the scales of justice? How has this imagine been used historically?" HeinOnline
  • 64 L. Libr. J. 249 (1971) -- answering: "What is the origin of the ubiquitous and somewhat abused symbol of the blindfolded statue of justice holding the scales?" HeinOnline
  • 52 L. Libr. J. 233 (1959) -- answering: "Who is the goddess of justice, depicted usually as blindfolded with scales and a sword?" HeinOnline

Internet Resources

Greek Mythology, Themis

Legal History and Philosophy, Answer to Question About Origin of Lady of Justice
Aside from the entry about Themis, this is an interesting site that specializes in information not easily found on other internet sites.

Donna Marie Giancola, Justice and the Face of the Great Mother (East and West)
This paper traces the historical parallels between Ancient Greek and Indian images of justice. The author compares two concepts of justice: an older and often overlooked view of justice from the Goddess religions where the goddess of justice was an avenger with the more traditional patriarchal view of justice as an abstract principle which forms the basis of modern Western law.

Images of the Goddess of Justice
This site contains numerous links to images of the goddess of justice including: Statues and Figures, Drawings and Paintings, Clipart and Cartoons, and Other Images. The images run the gamut from a Peter Max image of justice to a Metallica album cover. My favorite is justice as a blindfolded dog being led by a Seeing Eye dog.

Theoi, Themis
Description and images from Greek mythology.

Places to buy images of the Goddess of Justice

For Counsel -- Products and Gifts for Lawyers, Statues of Justice, Scales & Gavels

Museum Store Company (search justice or themis)

Other Images of Law

Symbols, Images of Justice. Links to sculptures and paintings.

Photographers Direct, Stock Images, Justice. Digital photographs available for purchase.

Washington State Courthouse Tour

U.S. Supreme Court, Court Photographs. Exterior and interior photos.

Books on the Supreme Court with illustrations and photographs

The Supreme Court of the United States: Its Beginning and Its Justices 1790-1991.
KF8744.S87 1992 at Classified Stacks & Reference Office

The Illustrated History of the Supreme Court of the United States.
KF8742.S52 1986 at Reference Office

Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court, 2 vols.
KF8742.C65 1997 at Reference Office

A Reference Guide to the United States Supreme Court.
KF8742.R45 1996 at Reference Office
This volume uses a very simple image of scales at the beginning of each chapter and a close-up picture of the two marble seated figures outside the Supreme Court on p.25.

The Supreme Court A to Z, 3d ed.
KF8742.A35S8 2003 at Reference Office

Another book with photographs and illustrations of legal themes is:

United States Senate Catalogue of Fine Art (2002).
N6505.U479 2002 at Classified Stacks
See "Justice" and "Justice and History" at pages 228-37.

[1] "Legal Symbols of the Anglo-American Legal Tradition," 11 The Guide to American Law: Everyone's Legal Encyclopedia, Appendix D, 685, 687 (1985).

[2] Id. at 687.

[3] Cathleen Burnett, "Justice: Myth and Symbol," 11 Legal Stud. F. 79, 80 (1987).

[4] Supra, note 1 at 688.

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