Artemis & Despoina from the group of statues in the temple of Despoina at Lykosoura. ©National Archaeological Museum, Athens.
After Persephone was abducted by Hades, Demeter set off in search of her lost daughter. This is well known. What is not so well known is that during her wanderings, Demeter herself was raped and from this outrage, a second daughter, Despoina, was born. The story goes thus: Seeking Persephone, Demeter arrived in Arcadia and caught the eye of Poseidon. To escape his advances, she turned herself into a mare but he saw through her disguise. He became a stallion and mounted her. Furious at this violation, she became Demeter Erinyes, that is to say a Fury wishing to avenge the wrong that was wrought on her. Later, she purified herself by bathing in the river Ladon and ‘became tender and sweet once again’. Two offspring resulted from the rape: a magical horse, Arieon, and his sister, Despoina. In some traditions, Despoina too was a horse, and the myth may point to the existence of an archaic worship of the Goddess as mare that was disrupted by the arrival of the Olympian gods.
Despoina is not a name, it’s a title meaning ‘Lady’ or ‘Mistress’. Several Goddesses such as Demeter, Artemis, Hecate and Persephone were known by this epithet, probably in the same way the Virgin Mary is called ‘Our Lady’ and indeed, in the Greek Orthodox Church, Mary is known as ‘Despoina’. We don’t know the name of the Arcadian Despoina. Pausanias, a Greek writer and traveller of the 2nd century CE, tells us ‘Despoina the Arkadians worship more than any other god, declaring she is a daughter of Poseidon and Demeter.’ However, although Demeter’s daughter by Zeus bore the title Kore but was known to be named Persephone, ‘the real name of Despoina I am afraid to write to the uninitiated.’
Despoina was known throughout Arcadia but her main sanctuary was at Lykosoura, at that time reputed to be the first city ever built in the world. Very little remains of the sanctuary, which appears to have been substantial. It was built around the 4th Century BCE but it was probably a sacred place long before that. Thanks to Pausanias we know that in the front of the sanctuary there was a temple to Artemis Hegemone (the leader). From there, an entrance led to the sacred enclosure of Despoina.
In the portico there was a tablet with inscriptions of the Mysteries; inside, an altar to Demeter, another to Despoina and beyond, one to the Great Mother. At the back stood a huge sculptural group, 5.6 metres high and 8.4 metres wide. This was crafted by a famous sculptor, Damophon, in the 2nd century BCE. Sadly, only fragments remain, held in the Archaeological Museum of Athens. But an image of the group was stamped on coins found in the area and of course, we also have a description from Pausanias.
Sculptural Group for the group of statues in the temple of Despoina at Lykosoura. ©National Archaeological Museum, Athens
Despoina and Demeter were enthroned together but their relative positions imply that Despoina took precedence over her mother. Demeter held a torch in her right hand while her left hand rested on Despoina’s shoulder. Despoina was richly clothed, held a sceptre in her right hand, and on her lap she held the ‘sacred kiste’: a box in which were kept the secret things shown only to initiates. These attributes mark her as the sovereign of the sanctuary. Beside Despoina stands a man in armour. This is the Titan Anytos, whom the Arcadians believed brought up Despoina although the details of this tradition have been lost. Beside Demeter stands Artemis wrapped in a deer skin with a quiver on her shoulder. She holds a torch in one hand and two serpents in the other. A hunting dog sits at her feet. According to Pausanias, the Arcadians believed that Artemis was not the daughter of Leto but was in fact the daughter of Demeter. To one side of the temple was a sort of hall or ‘megaron’ where the Arcadians celebrated the Mysteries ‘and sacrificed to Despoina many victims in generous fashion.’ Beyond this was a grove sacred to Despoina, altars to other gods, including her father Poseidon in horse form, and a sanctuary to Pan where a flame was kept permanently burning.
We know Despoina was worshipped in an important sanctuary, but what else do we know of her nature and the content of her mysteries? The answer is, not a lot, but we do have some clues. One of the fragments that remain from Damophon’s sculpture is part of her veil. Above its lower border is a frieze of figures disguised behind animal masks – horses but other animals as well. Some of the figures are playing musical instruments and they seem to be performing a circle dance.
This hints at some sort of ecstatic possession-ritual involving identification with what might be described as Despoina’s wild nature. The fact that 140 terracotta figurines of worshipers wearing animal masks were found in the megaron, adds weight to this possibility.
Orgiastic dances and primitive rituals lasted longer in the isolated Peloponnese than in other Greek regions. These masked dances produced a frenetic delirium leading perhaps to possession by the deity, perhaps to another sort of epiphany. Some said they could lead to wild forms of sacrifice – and the ritual sacrifices accepted by Despoina do have interesting echoes of dismemberment. The Arcadians sacrificed whatever they had and the manner of the sacrifice was distinctive. They did not cut the throats of the victim, they just grabbed whatever part of the animal they could – and lopped it off. Despoina also accepted the fruit of all cultivated trees except… the pomegranate.
The wild dancing and sacrifices may have been separate from the mysteries, or they may have been the publiccally accessible part. Despoina’s statue holds a box in which secret objects, shown only to initiates, were kept. This implies some kind of revelation, not frenzied possession. Also, Pausanias mentions an intriguing artefact: ‘On the right as you go out of the temple there is a mirror fitted into the wall. If anyone looks into this mirror, he will see himself very dimly indeed or not at all, but the actual images of the gods and the throne can be seen quite clearly.’
To look in the mirror was to see the Goddess and not the human individual. Perhaps this mirror served to remind the initiate that She is behind everything; that humans are nothing without Her. We can only conjecture what understanding they would have taken away with them as they left the sanctuary after the mysteries, and whether the mysteries involved some kind of ritual possession. However, it’s likely Despoina’s worship developed from very archaic beliefs.
It seems clear that Despoina’s mysteries were not linked to Eleusis and that she is not an Arcadian version of Persephone. She does not appear to have become a mother, is not known to have had a consort and appears to be quite self-contained. In this, she has more in common with Artemis and the archaeologist Eveline Loucas-Durie from the University of Athens, has suggested that, at some point at least, Despoina may have been identified with the wild nature Goddess – which could be why Pausanias mentions that Artemis is actually Demeter’s daughter immediately after he says he can’t reveal Despoina’s true name. Like Artemis, Despoina’s sacred animal was a hind. There was a temple to Artemis at the front of the sanctuary and a statue of Artemis in the main ‘family group’ sculpture. Further, Artemis is associated with mysteries involving sacred possession and dismemberment. However, the enthroned statue in the centre of the group sculpture does not have any obvious Artemislike attributes. And then there is another aspect to Despoina’s genealogy – her links to an archaic horse goddess.
Pausanias says that in Phigalia, a mountainous region in the west of Arcadia, there was a cave sacred to Demeter Melaina (the black). In archaic times this had contained a wooden statue of the goddess ‘with the head and hair of a horse, and out of her head grew images of serpents and other beasts. Her tunic reached right to her feet; on one of her hands was a dolphin, on the other a dove. Now why they had the image made after this fashion is plain to any intelligent man who is learned in traditions…..There is a grove of oaks around the cave, and a cold spring rises from the earth.’
The Arcadians believed that Demeter, mourning the loss of Persephone and furious about her rape, withdrew to this cave. They believed her grief and anger explained why she put on black apparel. But the epithet ‘black’ points to a chthonic aspect of a Goddess normally associated with fertility and harvest. She was wearing a long black robe, which is how her horse-headed statue was clothed, when Pan – a pre-Olympian nature god with strong links to Despoina – found Demeter in the cave and begged her to return to the world and let the crops grow again. Her rape by Poseidon puts a new perspective on her decision to cloister herself. She may well have been grief stricken at the loss of Persephone, but she was also furious at the loss of her own autonomy. It’s not mentioned where or when she gave birth to the horse twins but perhaps she also withdrew in order to give birth to the two forcibly begotten children.
This is a more complex and multifaceted Demeter than we are used to, a mistress of animals and nature rather than crops and grains. Pausanias says it was a revival of an ancient cult, possibly conflated with an ancient goddess Erinyes who had links to Poseidon and gave birth to a horse. The statue’s snaky hair also brings to mind Medusa who gave birth to Pegasus, also fathered by Poseidon. I should mention that, just as the archaic statue held a dolphin in one hand, there are dolphins carved on Despoina’s veil. Through the connection with Poseidon, she would have been linked to rivers, streams and springs as well as animals and vegetation.
Arcadia was an isolated region with its own myths and rituals, of which some may have been vestiges of a very early belief system that survived there longer than in the more central, cosmopolitan areas. Perhaps Despoina’s worship developed from an archaic cult of the Goddess as mare, or perhaps it belonged to the tradition of Artemisian cult practices. Only one thing is certain: no one knows the true name of this enigmatic Lady of the Arcadian Mysteries.