Demeter and Poseidon’s daughter was not as famous as her half-sister Persephone. In fact, her name remains unknown to this day.
She was worshiped in the isolated region of Arcadia and called Despoina, “the Mistress.” This title was given to other goddesses throughout Greece, but seems to have been of particular importance in Arcadia.
The cult of Despoina is one of many that existed only in Arcadia. Even there, the goddess’s full importance was revealed only to initiates of certain cults.
Because so little was known about her even in the classical era, Despoina’s mythology and exact role remain a mystery. Historians still believe, however, that her existence can help shed light on some of Greece’s earliest religious beliefs.
Despoina was not one of the most popular goddesses in ancient Greece. In fact, only a select group of people knew about her at all.
She was a goddess of the mystery cults centered around the region of Arcadia. Elsewhere in Greece she was unknown.
Even her name remains something of a mystery. Meaning “the Mistress,” it was a cult title used to avoid the taboo of saying her true name.
While little of Despoina’s own role and mythology survive, the story of her birth has been passed down into the modern age.
According to the Arcadian mysteries, Despoina was the daughter of Poseidon and Demeter. She was the half-sister of Persephone, who the cultists referred to as Kore, or “the Maiden.”
The legend said that, just as Zeus had once desired his sister, Poseidon wished to make Demeter his lover. She resisted his advances, however, and fled to Arcadia to avoid him.
In an attempt to hide herself, Demeter hid among the herd of horses that belonged to a local king. She disguised herself among the king’s mares, hoping to evade her brother’s advances.
Even in such a disguise, however, Demeter could not hide her divinity. Poseidon soon found her and she had no way to escape.
Demeter was furious at the assault. She retreated into a cave to ritually purify herself. In her anger, she did not care about the greater repercussions of this.
Later writers claimed that Poseidon’s attack had occurred while Demeter was searching for Persephone. That story, too, included crop failures as a part of the goddess’s mourning, so the causes were combined by non-Arcadian writers like Pausanias.
Dressed all in black, Demeter spent months hidden in the cave. In her absence, crops began to fail. As plants died, livestock starved and eventually the world’s human population faced mass starvation.
Demeter eventually emerged and washed away her grief and anger in the River Ladon. The earth recovered and she allowed grains to grow once more.
As a result of her assault by Poseidon, Demeter bore two children. Their son Arion was an immortal horse, often shown with a black mane and tail. Despoina was a goddess.
Despoina was an important goddess in Arcadia, perhaps even their central female deity. The mystery cults promoted her worship, but the general populace also recognized her as an important local figure.
Despite this, almost nothing is known about Despoina’s role in the area’s religion. Historians have used the information available from archaeology, surviving writings, and comparative mythology to piece together why the Arcadians worshiped Demeter and Poseidon’s daughter.
The local religion of Arcadia is believed by many historians to represent some of the oldest beliefs in the Peloponnesian area. It is believed that many of their practices were influenced by both the first Greek-speaking people to enter the region and the indigenous pre-Greek cultures they encountered.
Arcadia was a relatively isolated area, so their mythology incorporated fewer outside sources than those of their neighbors. Their religion was more rustic and primitive than the noble, law-based views prevalent in places like Athens.
Their view of Demeter as a goddess of nature who combined human and animal traits was likely a result of this archaic belief system. Like the satyrs and other rustic gods, she maintained some of the animalistic attributes of early shamanic religions.
Descriptions of a cult statue of Demeter in the cave she supposedly hid in show the more primitive and animalistic nature of her worship in Arcadia. She had a horse’s head, snake-like hair, and grasses growing from her body.
The development of the religion can also be seen, historians claim, in the figure of Despoina.
In older stories, Despoina was born in the form of a horse. Her character gradually changed, however, to make her more human-like.
The Arcadians also retained more of their focus on Demeter as a figure of death and regeneration. While the myths of Persephone spread some of this idea throughout Greece, in Arcadia the goddess of grain was seen as a figure of death as well as life.
This remained true in many of the mystery cults that were popular throughout Greece, but most people saw Demeter as a more motherly and benevolent figure. Even her daughter Persephone, the queen of the Underworld, was usually seen as kinder than most other chthonic deities.
The Arcadian myths, however, made it clear that the goddess of grain could be fearsome as well. While the legend of Persephone had Demeter abandon her duties for only a few days out of grief, the Arcadians believed that she let humanity starve for months in her anger.
The Arcadian myths of Demeter’s daughters also showed her as a figure with mastery over all of the elements.
Demeter was by her nature a goddess of the earth. Through Zeus and Poseidon, however, she also gained ties to both the sky and the sea.
The prominence of Demeter and her daughters in the religion of Arcadia has also led some historians to theorize that the stories reflect an older version of the mythology that was less patriarchal than classical Greek mythology.
Demeter and the daughters she had with Poseidon and Zeus seem to represent a widespread archetype in Indo-European religions. They appear to be a version of the tripartite goddess.
The triple goddess is seen often in the mythologies of Europe and India. From the Hindu Tridevi to the Morrigan and Brigid in Ireland, many cultures had a goddess that was both a single force and three individual beings.
While there are some trios of goddesses in classical Greek mythology, such as the Fates, there is no clear triple goddess. Demeter, Despoina, and Persephone may be the remnants of a belief that was mostly lost elsewhere in Greece.
While the triple goddesses are often described as portraying women in the three ages of their lives, the maiden, the mother, and the crone, the three Arcadian goddesses seemed to be of a slightly different nature.
Persephone was Kore, the maiden. Despoina was the mistress of the house, a married woman. And Demeter was the mother, not a crone but an older figure nonetheless.
Despoina eventually became conflated with Persephone, the title referring to the queen of the Underworld as a married woman. The daughter of Demeter and Poseidon remained important, however, as a clue for historians to piece together what the earliest religions of Greece may have believed.
People in the isolated region of Arcadia believed that Demeter and Poseidon had a daughter together. They did not use this goddess’s name but referred to her as “the Mistress,” Despoina.
According to their legends, Demeter had attempted to escape Poseidon’s amorous pursuit by hiding among the horses of the Arcadian king. Poseidon recognized her divinity through the disguise, however.
Demeter was so disgusted that she retreated into a cave for several months to purify herself. When she withdrew from the world, crops failed and global famine nearly destroyed all life.
When she reemerged, Demeter gave birth to two children. Her son Arion was a horse, while her daughter by Poseidon was the goddess Despoina.
Little is known of Despoina, but historians believe that she may be a relic from pre-Greek religious beliefs. Arcadia’s location and isolation meant that many early beliefs were preserved there long after they had evolved elsewhere in Greek.
Demeter, Despoina, and Persephone may have formed a triple goddess, an archetype found elsewhere in Indo-European religions. They likely represented a belief system that was more matriarchal than that of classical antiquity.