by Dr. Alena Trckova-Flamee, Ph.D.
"Misstress." According to the ancient authors, Despoena was the daughter of Demeter and Poseidon, worshiped at Arcadia in the Peloponnese. Pausanias gives us a mythical story which was known by the people of Thelpousa and Figalea. They said that Demeter came to Arcadia, looking for her lost daughter Persephone. There, Poseidon pursued her and the goddess turned herself into a mare and hid herself among the horses of a local king. Poseidon discovered her trick and changed himself into a stallion and begot upon her a daughter, Despoena, and the divine horse Arion.
Demeter was initially furious but when her hatred subsided, she bathed and purified herself in the river Ladon. For this reason she was worshiped at Thelpousa in Arcadia as Demeter Erinys (Greek éríxo, "to quarrel"; Arcadian erinyein, "to hate") and as Demeter Louisia (Greek loúo, "to bathe," "to purify"). After Demeter gave birth to her daughter, no one was permitted to pronounce her name if he was not initiated. The Arcadians called her Despoena ("Misstress"), while her mother was named by them familiarly as Deo. Her father Poseidon received the surname Hippios ("of the Horses").
Despoena was worshiped at an important sanctuary at Lycosoura on the foot of the mountain Lycaon, west of the town Megalopolis. Pausanias gives a description of this sacred place at Lycosoura, a temple built in 180 BCE, of which only ruins remain. The entrance of this sacred place was built as a stoa, ornamented with reliefs from white marble. There was also a small desk with an inscription of local rites. The altars of both goddesses — Despoena and Demeter — were placed in front of the Dorian temple of Despoena. In the middle of the temple cellar there was a big sculptural group created by the sculptor Damophon from Messene, the remains of it are presently in the collection of the Archaeological Museum of Athens. Despoena and Demeter sitting on their thrones, Artemis and the Titan Anytus, who educated Despoena, were present there. Below the gods were depictions of Curetes and Corybantes, allegedly the first people of the land.
A megaron (a central hall, sometimes subterranean, where only the priest was allowed to enter) existed beside the temple of Despoena, where the religious ceremonies were practiced and where the votive-gifts were collected. At the back of the megaron was Despoena's sacred grove with different kinds of trees. Farther on were the altars of the gods, including the altar of Poseidon Hippios.
It appears that Despoena was the most intensively worshiped goddess in the region of Arcadia and her role was even more important than that of Demeter. She was a chthonic deity and her character resembled that of Persephone. In her sanctuary she received many gifts and everyone brought her what they could. Among the offerings were the fruits of all trees, except for the pomegranate, and animals were sacrificed in her honor. In this context it is interesting to note that the Arcadians did not cut the throat of the animals they were sacrificing, but a part of a limb, which they choose at random. The sacred animal of Despoena was a hind.
- Kerényi, C. (1991). Eleusis. Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter. Princeton, New Jersey, pp. 32, 70.
- Kokkinou, S., Vrisimtzis, N. (1994). Greek Temples and Theatres. Athens.
- Mavromataki, M. (1997). Greek Mythology and Religion. Athens.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece viii, 25.4, 37.1-10, 42.1-6.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library iii, 6, 8.