Despoena – The Mistress
Demeter was roaming, mourning, searching for her lost daughter, Persephone, when she caught the eye of her brother, Poseidon, who decided that, even under the circumstances, she still looked pretty good. He pursued her in the form of a stallion. She recognized him and to escape, Demeter took the form of a mare. It didn’t work: he mounted her and she conceived, bearing two children. Their son, Arion, is a horse. Their daughter, Despoena, is a Mystery Goddess in human form. (See the Glossary entry for Mystery for further information about these traditions.)
A theory suggests that before their incorporation into the Olympian pantheon, Demeter and Poseidon were once a pair of primal horse spirits, possibly as early as 2,000 BCE. The union of Poseidon and Demeter represents union of sea and earth. The story of Despoena’s conception may be an attempt to merge vestiges of these ancient myths with those of the later Hellenic era.
That’s the Hellenic Greek version of this myth. Others theorize that this story actually harks back to Demeter and Poseidon’s pre-Olympian identities as horse deities and that the sex between them was consensual. (Both are intensely identified with horses. Demeter is sometimes venerated in a horse-headed form.)
Most modern retellings of Greek myth tend to focus solely on the relationship between Demeter and Persephone. It is often assumed that they are the only members of their small family unit, but in fact, this is not true. Despoena is Demeter’s other daughter. Depending on which version of the myth you prefer, Despoena is her older daughter or the neglected child born while her mother was preoccupied with the loss of Persephone. Classical Greek myth now gives Despoena short shrift, often dismissing her as a “Nymph.” Archaeology and surviving ancient writings suggest otherwise: Pausanias, second-century CE Greek travel writer, writes that the Arcadians worshipped Despoena above all others.
Just as Persephone was venerated beside her mother at Eleusis, so Despoena was worshipped alongside Demeter in an Arcadian Mystery tradition. Their votive statue was made from one block of stone and depicted them sharing a throne. A statue of Hekate stood beside them. A grove stood behind the shrine featuring pine and olive trees growing from one root. (Pausanias suggested it was creative gardening; the Arcadians apparently perceived it as miraculous.) Dad was present, too: an altar dedicated to Poseidon Hippos (Poseidon the Horse) was located just beyond the grove.
Little else is known. Despoena is a fertility spirit. Her name literally means “the Mistress”; her true name was revealed only to initiates of her Mysteries.
Also known as:
The votive statue in their Arcadian shrine was the result of a dream. Someone was directed to uncover a huge hidden block of stone from within the temple precinct. This stone was carved into a statue depicting Despoena and Demeter sitting on a throne with footstools beneath their feet.
Fresh fruits but no pomegranates. Seriously.
- Olympian Spirits
Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses – Written by : Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.