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Sculpture of Demeter, and the veil of Despoina
ParentsPoseidon and Demeter
SiblingsArion (twin), several paternal half-siblings and several maternal half-siblings

Despoina or Despoena (/dɛsˈpnə/;[1] Greek: Δέσποινα, romanizedDéspoina) was the epithet of a goddess worshiped by the Eleusinian Mysteries in Ancient Greece as the daughter of Demeter and Poseidon and the sister of Arion.[2] Surviving sources refer to her exclusively under the title Despoina ("the Mistress," cognate of "Despot") alongside her mother Demeter, as her real name could not be revealed to anyone except those initiated into her mysteries and was consequently lost with the extinction of the Eleusinian religion.[3] Writing during the second century A.D., Pausanias spoke of Demeter as having two daughters; Kore being born first, before Despoina was born, with Zeus being the father of Kore and Poseidon as the father of Despoina. Pausanias made it clear that Kore is Persephone, although he did not reveal Despoina's proper name.

In the myth, Poseidon saw Demeter and desired her. To avoid him, she took her archaic form of a mare, but he took the form of a stallion and mated with her. From this union Demeter bore a daughter, Despoina, and a fabulous horse, Arion. Due to her anger at this turn of events, Demeter also was given the epithet Erinys (raging).[4]


The first element of the name Des-poina is derived from the PIE root *dem- meaning "house, household", Sanskrit damah "house;" Avestan demana- "house;" Greek domos "house"; Latin domus "house". Related words despotēs "master, lord"; Latin dominus "master of a household"; Armenian tanu-ter "house-lord".[5] The second element is derived from the hypothetical PIE form *pot-niha-, "mistress", "lady", "wife", is the feminine counterpart to *pótis, "husband"; cf. Latin hospēs, "host", Sanskrit páti-, "master", "husband", fem. pátnī-, "lady", "wife".[6] The Greek female equivalent for despotēs was despoina "lady, queen, mistress," source of the fem. proper name Despina. [5] (Etymologically the "mistress of the house".)

Related attested forms, written in the Linear B syllabary, are the Mycenaean Greek 𐀡𐀴𐀛𐀊, po-ti-ni-ja, (potnia) [7] and perhaps 𐀡𐀮𐀆𐀃, po-se-da-o, and 𐀡𐀮𐀆𐀺𐀚, po-se-da-wo-ne (Poseidon), [8] which were inherited into classical Greece with identical or related meanings.[n 1] An alternative etymology of the goddess Demeter is derived from the hypothetical PIE *dems-méh₂tēr, meaning "mother of the house".[9] In Modern Greek the title "despoinis" (δεσποινίς) means "Miss", literally "little mistress", and can be used to address young ladies and waitresses, amongst others.

Cult of Despoina[edit]

The cult of Despoina was significant in the history of ancient Greek mystery religions in Lycosoura, which belonged to a stratum of an earlier religion in Arcadia.[10] Evidently, the religious beliefs of the first Greek-speaking people who entered the region were mixed with the beliefs of the indigenous population. The figure of a goddess of nature, birth, and death was dominant in both Minoan and Mycenean cults during the Bronze Age.[11] Wanax was her male companion (paredros) in the Mycenean cult, and usually, this title was applied to the god Poseidon as king of the sea.[12]

In the myth of the isolated land of Arcadia, Poseidon appears as a beast (horse :(Poseidon Hippios)) which represents the river spirit of the underworld. This conception was usual in northern European folklore and not unusual in Greece. The horse (numina) was related with the liquid element, and with the underworld.[13][14] The river god Acheloos is represented as a bull.[15] Poseidon mates with the mare, Demeter,[16] and from the union she bears the horse, Arion (mythology), and a daughter who originally had the shape of a mare too. It seems that the Greek deities started as powers of nature, and then they were given other attributes. [17] These powers of nature developed into a belief in nymphs and in deities with human forms and the heads or tails of animals. Some of them, such as Pan and the Silenoi, survived into the classical age. The two great Arcadian goddesses, Demeter and Despoina (later Persephone), were closely related to the springs and the animals, and especially, to the goddess Artemis (Potnia Theron: "The mistress of the animals"), who was the first nymph.[18]

On a marble relief at Lycosura is the veil of Despoina, on which human figures are represented with the heads of different animals, seemingly, in a ritual dance. Some of them hold flutes. These could be a procession of women with animal masks or of hybrid creatures.[19][20] Similar processions of daemons or human figures with animal masks appear on Mycenean frescoes and gold rings.[21][22] Most of the temples were built near springs, and in some of them there is evidence of an eternal flame. At Lycosura, a fire burned in front of the temple of Pan, the goat god.[23] The megaron of Eleusis is quite similar to the "megaron" of Despoina at Lycosura.[24]

Sanctuary at Lycosura[edit]

Perspective reconstruction of the temple of Despoina: the acrolithic statues of Demeter (L) and Despoina (R) are visible at the scale in the cella

Despoina was worshipped in a sanctuary at Lycosura, west of the town of Megalopolis. Poseidon was the father of Despoina and he was worshipped as Poseidon Hippios (horse). [25] Although this cult remained regional rather than becoming panhellenic, this is a very important site for the study of ancient mystery religions. In Arcadia Poseidon was closely related to the pair of Arcadian great goddesses identified as Demeter and Kore. [25]

This Archaic image, the Lady of Auxerre, may be the Minoan goddess identified with Kore (c. 630-640 BCE, Louvre)

She was known by the additional epithet of Despoine among the general population, just as they surnamed Demeter's daughter by Zeus as Kore (the maiden).[26][27]

Women who worshiped at the site had to adhere to a dress code that prohibited participants from wearing black or purple, possibly because those colours were worn by priestesses.[28]


In the mysteries Demeter was a second goddess below her daughter, the unnameable "Despoina".[29] It seems that the myths in Arcadia were connected with the first Greek-speaking people who came from the north during the Bronze Age. The two goddesses had close connections with the rivers and the springs. They were related to Poseidon, the god of the rivers and the springs, and especially to Artemis, who was the first nymph. Her epithet, "the mistress", has its analogue in Mycenean Greek inscriptions found at Pylos in southern Greece and at Knossos in Crete. Later, Despoina was conflated with Kore (Persephone), the goddess of the Eleusinian mysteries, in a life-death-rebirth cycle. Karl Kerenyi asserted that the cult was a continuation of a Minoan goddess, and that her name recalls the Minoan-Mycenaean goddess 𐀅𐁆𐀪𐀵𐀍𐄀𐀡𐀴𐀛𐀊, da-pu2-ri-to-jo,po-ti-ni-ja, i.e. the unnamable "Mistress of the Labyrinth" at Knossos.[30][31]


"Despoina" was an epithet for several goddesses, especially Aphrodite, Persephone, Demeter, and Hecate.[32][33] Persephone and Demeter are two of the three goddesses of the Eleusinian mysteries. They are perhaps the "Two Queens" referred to in various Linear B inscriptions.[34] At Olympia they were called Despoinai (Δέσποιναι).[35]

The epithet, Despoina, is possibly related to the Mycenean title, "potnia" (po-ti-ni-ja), that usually referred to goddesses. Some theories suggest that this could be the translation of a similar title of Pre-Greek origin, just as the title "Our lady" in Christianity is translated in several languages.[36] It is also theorised that the original title may have accompanied a potential Aegean mother goddess.[37]


At the time of a visit to the sanctuary at Lycosura by Pausanias in the second century A.D., the sculptures would have been 300 or more years old. In the second century A.D., a statue of the emperor Hadrian was dedicated in the temple. Coins from Megalopolis, from the Severan period in the early third century, appear to depict a statue from the cult group.[38]

There is a museum at the archaeological site called the Archaeological museum of Lykosoura, housing small finds as well as part of the cult group, while the remains of the cult statues of Despoina and Demeter are displayed at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. The most significant artifact among its collection is the veil of Despoina, displaying a complex decorative program, probably representative of the types of embroidered woven materials created by contemporary artists. Also displayed are the heads of Artemis, Demeter, Anytos, and a Tritoness, from the throne in the sanctuary.

Elements of the cult sculptural group in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens
From L-R: Artemis, Demeter, Veil of Despoina, Anytus, Tritoness from the throne


  • Despina, a satellite of Neptune, was named after the goddess Despoina.

See also[edit]


Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ A Mycenaean word more directly related to despoina would be the possible theonym 𐀈𐀡𐀲, do-po-ta, provided that the latter is indeed to be read as a form of despotes.


  1. ^ Avery, Catherine B., ed. (1962). New Century Classical Handbook. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts. p. 390.
  2. ^ Pausanias, 8.25.7, 8.42.1.
  3. ^ Pausanias, 8.37.9
  4. ^ Pausanias, 8.25.5–6
  5. ^ a b Harper, Douglas. "despot". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  6. ^ J. P. Mallory, J. P.; Adams, D. Q. (2006). The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. Oxford University Press. pp. 207, 505.
  7. ^ Mylonas 1966, p. 159
  8. ^ Mycenean Linear B [1]
  9. ^ Frisk, Griechisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, Entry 1271
  10. ^ Lewis Richard Farnell (2010). The Cults of the Greek States. Cambridge University Press. p. 210. ISBN 9781108015455.
  11. ^ B.Dietriech (2004):The origins of the Greek religion Bristol Phoenix Press pp. 181-185
  12. ^ Dietrich, pp. 181-185
  13. ^ F.Schachermeyer: Poseidon und die Entstehung des Griechischen Gotter glaubens :Nilsson p 444
  14. ^ J.Grimm ,"Deutsche Mythologie", S..105 f, III S 142f: Nilsson,"Geschicte", Vol I, p.450
  15. ^ Nilsson,"Geschicte", Vol I, p.238
  16. ^ "she was Earth, who bears plants and beasts" :Kerenyi, The Gods of the Greeks, 1951:185
  17. ^ B. Dietriech (2004): The origins of the Greek religion. Bristol Phoenix Press. pp. 65-66
  18. ^ M.Nilsson (1967) Die Geschichte der Griechische Religion Vol I, pp. 479-480
  19. ^ Pausanias :8.25, 4 -8.42 -8.37
  20. ^ Nilsson, Vol I, p.479
  21. ^ Martin Robertson (1959). La peinture Grecque. Edition d'art Albert Skira. Genève p.31, National Archaeological Museum of Athens, No. 2665
  22. ^ "procession of daemons in front of a goddess on a gold ring from Tiryns" Martin Nilsson (1967) Vol I, p. 293
  23. ^ Nilsson, Vol I p.478
  24. ^ Burkert, p. 285.
  25. ^ a b Nilsson, Geschichte, Vol I, p.448
  26. ^ Pausanias 8.37.1,8.38.2
  27. ^ Reconstruction of interior of Sanctuary of Despoina
  28. ^ Dillon, Matthew (2016). "48 'Chrysis the Hiereia having placed a lighted torch near the garlands then fell asleep' (Thucydides Iv.133.2): priestesses serving the gods and goddesses in Classical Greece". Women in Antiquity. New York, NY: Routledge. p. 1365. ISBN 978-1-315-62142-5.
  29. ^ Karl Kerenyi (1967). Eleusis. Archetypal image of mother and daughter. Princeton University Press. p 31f
  30. ^ Found on the Kn Gg 702 tablet.
  31. ^ Kerenyi, pp. 89-90.
  32. ^ Hathorn, p. 13.
  33. ^ Hard, p. 102.
  34. ^ Chadwick.J. The Mycenean world. 1976. UP Cambridge ISBN 0-521-08558-6
  35. ^ Pausanias (1903). "5.15.4". Pausaniae Graeciae Descriptio (in Greek). In 3 volumes. Leipzig: Teubner. At the Perseus Project.
  36. ^ Chadwick: The Mycenean world P.92
  37. ^ F.Schachermeyer (1964) Die Minoische Kultur des alten Kreta, pp. 256, 263, W. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart
  38. ^ Jost (1985) Sanctuaires et cultes d'Arcadie. Paris

General and cited references[edit]

External links[edit]