Jul 5, 2010

Nikos Deja Vu - The story of Cassandra

Η Κασσάνδρα

Cassandra or Kassandra or Alexandra

Cassandra, or Alexandra, was a daughter of Hecuba and King Priam, the rulers of Troy during the Trojan War according to Homer's Iliad. Cassandra was a beautiful young woman, blessed with the gift of prophecy by Apollo, who was infatuated with her. Unfortunately, she shunned Apollo at the last minute and he added a twist to her gift; Cassandra was doomed to tell the truth, but never to be believed. King Priam did not know what to do with her, so he tried to keep Cassandra locked up and out of the way of the warriors of Troy. When Troy finally fell to the Greek invaders, Cassandra was attacked and supposedly raped by the Greek warrior Ajax of Locris, but eventually avenged by Athena. When Cassandra accompanied the Greek hero Agamemnon as his mistress to his homeland, she was killed by his vengeful wife, Clytaemnestra.

Cassandra has always been misunderstood and misinterpreted as a madwoman or crazy doomsday prophetess. Shakespeare presented her as a madwoman ranting and raving along the walls of Troy in his play Troilus and Cressida. More importantly, her own people and family in Troy mistook her as a raving lunatic. She has always been shown in paintings with her long hair flying around her shoulders in what has been considered luntic fashion, scantily clad, and helpless on her knees in the face of her predicted doom. But there is so much more to Cassandra than her maddened predictions and pitiable treatment. Cassandra was a great, intelligent heroine who was cursed by the gods for not playing by their rules. She is a tragic figure, not a madwoman.

Her name, Cassandra, has two distinct meanings: "she who entangles men", which is ironic since, although she was stunningly beautiful, her 'madness' repelled most men and her prophesies foretold their ignorant deaths. Today, we call a "cassandra" someone whose true words are ignored, since Cassandra's doom was to predict what others refused to believe. (Graves p747, Powell p325)

The following pages catologue Cassandra's tragic life, from her initial encounter with Apollo, through her prophesies of the fall of Troy, to her untimely death at the hands of Clytaemnestra.

cassandra on gold ring; courtesy of University of Haifa Library

Cassandra and Apollo

Stories of gods falling in love with or lusting after young beautiful women appear everywhere in Greek mythology, and the case of Cassandra is no exception. I tend to agree with Lefkowitz's belief that Greek gods chose their prey because of some distinguished characteristic or part of their geneology. (Lefkowitz p41) Cassandra was a lovely young woman, and described by Homer as the most beautiful of Priam's daughters. (Iliad13.365) Apollo, on the other hand, was the most handsome of the young gods. In Aeschylus's Agamemnon,Cassandra describes Apollo as someone who "struggled to win me, breathing ardent love for me." (1206).

There are two accounts of how Apollo granted Cassandra the gift of prophecy. The most well known story begins with Cassandra falling asleep in the temple of Apollo. She was a beautiful young woman at this time, and her beauty roused the lust of Apollo, who appeared before her. He promised to teach her the art of prophecy in return for sexual favors. Cassandra agreed to his terms, but after accepting the gift of prophecy, she denied him her body, going back on their bargain: "I consented to Loxias but broke my word." (Agamemnon1208) Apollo was outraged and added a condition to the gift: though Cassandra would always speak the truth, no one would ever believe her; "Already I prophesied to my countryment all their disasters...[but] Ever since that fault I could persuade no one of anything" (1210-13) He begged Cassandra to give him one last kiss, and as she did so, he spat into her mouth, and when he backed away from her, the curse was planted. (Pseudo-Apollodorus 3.3.2, n1 &3.12.5, n7 referring to Servius on Vergil's Aeneid 2.247) Some versions of this myth lean toward the idea of Cassandra convincing Apollo to teach her how to prophesy after he asked her to sleep with him as a return favor, but the point remains that she backed out on her end of the bargain, and was forever cursed.

The other version of this story, held to be told by Anticlides, begins when Cassandra is a young child and involves her twin, Helenus. At their birthday feast in the sanctuary of Thymbraean Apollo, they become tired and fall asleep in a corner of the temple, while their drunken parents leave them behind and return home. When Hecabe returned to the temple to find the lost children, she found Apollo's sacred serpents "purging with their tongues the organs of sense of the children", and she screamed in terror. The serpents disappeared into a pile of laurel boughs, but from that moment both Casandra and Helenus possessed the gift of prophecy. (Pseudo-Apollodorus 1.9.11, n2 referring to Scholiast on the Iliad vii.44)

I find this to be an interesting take on the story of Cassandra and Apollo, although it is not well known. Cassandra's twin, Helenus, is mentioned again in various other Trojan myths as being prophetic as well. The only question not answered in this account is the most important one; how did Cassandra become cursed to never be believed? This narrative is weak and gives few answers, but is an intriguing addition to the relationship between Cassandra and Apollo.

Gods cursing mortals for not cooperating is commonly found in Greek mythology. Men had to keep the laws of the gods, and fully deserved any punishment they received for disobeying or defying the god in question. Greek gods were very childish and immature, and highly likely to bite the head off of unsuspecting innocent Greek mortals. Apollo cannot be blamed for treating Cassandra harshly because she refused to let him defile her, yet Cassandra herself is not fully to blame, for she was intelligent enough to manipulate and trick Apollo into giving her a godly gift.

Rape of Cassandra; courtsey of University of Haifa Library

Cassandra's Prophesies

Once Cassandra had been cursed by Apollo to prophesy the truth but never be believed, Troy was doomed. Countless times before and during the Trojan War Cassandra predicted what would come of the war, but no one believed her. Always it was Cassandra who recognized a face, who predicted a fateful occurrence, who ran around the ramparts of the city with her hair flying around her shoulders, crying and spouting oracles that no one understood. Most people considered her insane and tried to subdue her, but she was only trying desperately to warn her people of impending disaster.

The Recognition of Paris

The first mention of Cassandra as a prophetess is in the story of the recognition of Paris. When Paris was born, there was an oracle that the child born would be the destroyer of the city. In Euripides' Andromache, Cassandra "shouted her order to kill him, the city of Priams' great ruin!" (295) So sorrowful Hecabe and Priam had Paris taken from the city and abandoned in the wilderness. But instead of dying, Paris was suckled by a she-wolf and eventually adopted by shepherds. While he was a young shepherd he was used by the gods in the famous judgment of the goddesses, in which he chose Aphrodite who promised him he could have Helen. Soon after, Paris returned to his home city during funeral games and conquered even heroic Hector in the contests. A fight ensued over the prize of a bullock and Paris fled to the Altar of Zeus where Cassandra recognised him as her brother. He was immediately accepted as the son of King Priam and the curse upon him was forgotten. (Pseudo-Apollodorus p2.47) There is no reference as to whether or not Cassandra predicted his doom at this time.

Priam and Hesione

One of the apparent causes of the Trojan War was the abduction of Priam's sister, Hesione. She had been taken to Greece by Telamon the Aeacid, and Priam sent Antenor and Anchises to Greece to demand her return, but they were rejected and driven away. By this time Cassandra was already predicting the tragic end of the Trojan War, but of course no one believed her. Priam was upset by her raving and had her locked up in a pyramidal building on the citadel to avoid anymore scandal. He ordered the wardress who cared for her to keep him informed of all her "prophetic utterances". (as related in Graves p626)

size=4 face=Tahoma>Cassandra Warns Paris

When Paris and Aeneas set off for Sparta to kidnap Helen, Paris' promised prize, Cassandra, "her hair streaming loose", predicted the doom his voyage would cause, and her prophetic twin Helenus agreed. They were ignored, though, and Priam refused to pay any attention to either of his prophetic children in this matter. (as related in Graves p635)

Cassandra's Mourning for Hector

In the Iliad, Priam went to the Greek camp to request the body of Hector, which the enraged Achilles had been desecrating and mutilating. Priam begged for an eleven day truce in order to complete mourning for Hector, and Achilles agreed. Priam departed with Hector's body and returned to Troy late at night. No one saw him coming except for Cassandra, "golden as goddess Aphrodite", who had climbed the ramparts and saw the chariot and wagon from a distance. She began to scream so loudly that the city walls echoed and the Trojans were roused from their beds. She lamented: "Come, look down, you men of Troy, you Trojan women!/ Behold Hector now--if you ever once rejoiced/ to see him striding home, home alive from battle!/ He was the greatest joy of Troy and all our people!"(Iliad 24.819-32, Fagles translation)

The Trojan Horse

One of Cassandra's most famous predictions was that of the Greek siege behind the gift of the Trojan Horse. Related in Vergil's Aeneid ii, the Trojans exultantly accepted the Greek gift of a giant wooden horse. Only Cassandra remained quiet and subdued. "Four times [the horse] struck [the gates]: as oft the clashing sound/ Of arms was heard, and inward groans rebound./ Yet, mad with zeal, and blinded with our fate,/ We haul along the horse in solemn state;/ Then place the dire portent within the tow'r./ Cassandra cried, and curs'd th' unhappy hour;/ Foretold our fate; but, by the god's decree,/ All heard, and none believ'd the prophecy." (Aeneid 2.323, Dryden translation) Late that night the Greeks left the horse and began the final attack on Troy.

Cassandra's Revenge

In Euripides' Trojan Women354-65, Cassandra comforts her stricken mother during the fall of Troy by predicting the doom of the Greek's return home:

O mother! Crown my head with victor's wreaths; rejoice
in my royal match; lead me and if you find me unwilling
at all, thrust me there by force; for if Loxias is indeed
a prophet, Agamemnon, that famous king of the Achaeans
will find in me a bride more vexatious than Helen.
For I will slay him and lay waste his home to avenge my
father's and my brothers' death. But let that go; I will not tell
of that axe which shall sever my neck and the necks of others,
or of the conflict ending in a mother's death, which my marriage
shall cause, nor of the overthrow of Atreus' house. But I,
for all my frenzy, will so far rise above my frantic fit, that I will prove
this city happier far than those Achaeans, who for the sake of one woman
and one passion have lost a countless army in hunting Helen.

The Rape of Cassandra

Once the final massacre of Troy began, chaos infected the city. The Trojan women were at the mercy of the blood-crazed Greeks as they rampaged throughout the city. Only by acts of sexual aggression were the Greek men appeased, as is shown in the examples of Helen baring her breast to Menalaus in supplication, and Cassandra being raped by Little Ajax. For more information on the relationship between war and sex see Analysis of the Rape of Cassandra below.

In Vergil's account of the fall of Troy in the Aeneid, Cassandra fled to the temple of Athena and clutched the wooden image of the warrior goddess, sometimes called the Palladium. There she was found by Little Ajax of the Greek side, who tried to drag her away from the statue, but she held on so tightly that he had to take it with him when he carried her off to slavery. The outraged Trojans attacked Ajax, and a skirmish ensued (Aeneid ii.402-413 Lewis translation). The narratives differ at this point as to whether or not Ajax actually carried off the image of Athena along with Cassandra, which few sources note (Pseudo-Apollodorus p2.239, E.5.22, n3). The most interesting difference is whether or not Ajax actually raped Cassandra. Most sources agree that he dragged her off into slavery, but none actually say that he raped her.

Another account describes Athena's anger at the desecration of her temple. She is said to not have been able to restrain her tears at the sight; for she saw Little Ajax enter her temple, sieze Cassandra--Athena's priestess--while she was clasping Athena's image, and drag her away by the hair. At the time, Athena did nothing to help her priestess, for she was not on the side of the Trojans, but "her cheeks burned with anger, and her image gave forth a sound that shook the floor of the temple. Turning her eyes from this scene of crime, she swore to avenge the wrong done to Cassandra." (as related in Schwab p563)

One of the worst things a Greek could do to anger the gods was to violate someone in the sanctuary of a god. Suppliants were supposed to be protected and inviolable, especially at an altar. This space was considered sacred, the place for sacrifices to be made, and the desecration of such a holy place was sure to anger the gods. Greeks were strictly prohibited from "having intercourse in a sanctuary" in Herodotus 2.64, and surely the defilement or even attack of the god's own priestess in his or her temple was even worse an offense. The crime of Ajax, whether it was rape or not, deserved a damning punishment.

What happened after the supposed rape of Cassandra is fascinating, since the sources vary once more on what happens. It is agreed that Agamemnon claimed Cassandra as a reward for himself. Then, apparently, as the Greeks were about to set sail, Odysseus felt obliged to tell Agamemnon that Ajax had raped Cassandra, which Ajax vehemently denied. Calchas warned the Greeks that if this were so, Athena must be placated for the insult. Odysseus then proposeed that the Greeks stone Ajax for punishment, but Ajax ran away and hid in Athena's temple, where he swore an oath that Odysseus was lying. Even Cassandra herself never admitted that any wrong had been done to her. Ajax finally apologized for displacing Athena's image from the temple and offered to work off his crime. (from cyclic epic Iliou Persis, as related in Graves p700, Lloyd-Jones p74-5)

It is unclear as to whether Athena wanted to punish Ajax for raping Cassandra or for removing her image from its sanctuary, but she punished him nonetheless. Ajax never returned to his homeland alive to offer sacrifices to appease Athena. Instead, like so many other Greeks in the Odyssey, Ajax was killed when his ship wrecked on the Gyraean Rocks. (Odyssey iv.500-10 Mandelbaum translation) The great storms that arose as the Greek fleet set off from the Trojan shores is generally attributed to Athena's wrath over the rape of Cassandra. Aeschylus addresses this narrative in Agamemnon (65-75), where Athena complains to Poseidon:

ATHENA: Do you not know the insult done to me and the shrine I love?
POSEIDON: I do: when Ajax dragged away Cassandra by force.
ATHENA: Yes, and the Achaeans did nothing, said nothing to him.

Schwab discusses a story in which Athena, angry at Ajax, wished to prepare a miserable death for him. She complained to Zeus that her priestess, Cassandra, had been dragged from the sanctuary of her temple, and she demanded the right to take vengeance on Ajax for the crime. Zeus not only gave her permission to wreak havoc, but lent her one of his own thunderbolts which the Cyclopes had just forged. (as related in Schwab p569)

So in essence, Cassandra was the reason that the Greeks never successfully returned to Greece. In a way, her prophetic curse that she would avenge her city through marriage had come true. If Cassandra had not been raped or attacked in any way at Athena's temple, there would have been no Odyssey.

 Cassandra and Agamemnon

Aeschylus's Agamemnon tells the story of the Greek hero Agamemnon's fateful return home to Myceneae, where his wife Clytaemnestra waits to kill him. Cassandra is a powerful figure in this play, foretelling the doom of the hero and herself through visions of a curse upon his household.

The tragedy begins with Clytaemnestra awaiting Agamemnon's return from Troy, her secret lover and accomplice Aegisthus waiting for her instructions in the palace. Clytaemnestra has perfectly legitimate reasons for despising Agamemnon; he killed her former husband, Tantalus, and her baby, he married her by force, he ordered the sacrifice of their daughter Iphigeneia in order to calm the winds when the Greeks prepared to set sail for Troy, and he left her alone, sailing away to a war which lasted ten years. (Euripides Iphigeneia in Aulis 1148, Sophocles Electra 531) Plus, Clytaemnestra hears that Agamemnon is bringing back with him a concubine who was said to be a prophetess. There is even information leading to the notion that Cassandra bore Agamemnon twin sons, named Teledamus and Pelops.

When Agamemnon and Cassandra arrive, Clytaemnestra greets them warmly and tries to comfort her in her misery of slavery. But Cassandra ignores Clytaemnestra, ready to face her fate. When Agamemnon follows his wife inside the palace, Cassandra remains outside, caught in a trance, refusing to enter the palace. She claimed that she can smell blood, and sees visions of Thyestes, who unknowingly ate his own son. No one understands her, as always, and she is ignored as a lunatic as usual. (1214-1391)

Cassandra runs into the palace and wanders the halls, ranting and raving. Meanwhile, Clytaemnestra beheads Agamemnon with an axe, and chases Cassandra to kill her with the same weapon. (Electra 99, 445-6, Agamemnon 1372, 1535) Cassandra's head rolls to the ground, and Aegisthus is said to have killed her twin sons by Agamemnon. As to where the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra are buried, the Spartans claim that Agamemnon is buried at Amyclae, where the tomb and statue of Clytaemnestra and the sanctuary and statue of Cassandra are found. Another story tells how Agamemnon's tomb stands among the ruins of Myceneae, close to those of his charioteer, his comrades murdered with him by Aegisthus, and of Cassandra's twins.

Analysis of the Rape of Cassandra

In this section, I wish to discuss a typical painting of what has been considered the rape of Cassandra, its distinguishing characteristics, and why people consider it as a suggestion of rape, since clearly there is no intercourse suggested in the paintings themselves. For my example I am using "Ajax attacking Cassandra", a detail from "The Fall of Troy", pottery attributed to the Kleophrades Painter, c. 480 BCE.

The detail focuses on who are assumed to be the Greek warrior Ajax of Locris, or Little Ajax, and Cassandra the cursed prophetess. Cassandra is kneeling next to a statue of what is believed to be Athena. There are no distinguishing characteristics of the Greek warrior to confindently label him as Ajax, particularly since his shield is missing, but analysts piece together the fact that since the warrior is attacking a young woman clasping an image of Athena, the woman must be Cassandra and the warrior must be Ajax.

Cassandra is depicted as naked, with a cape tied around her shoulders. Her legs are spread; one is braced on the ground, and she is kneeling on the other one. One arm is grasping the statue of Athena, and the other is stretched out toward Ajax. Ajax has one hand in her hair, and one hand grasping his outstretched sword. The image of Athena is facing towards Ajax, her shield and sword drawn.

It can be interpreted that Athena has her weapons drawn and facing Ajax as if she were attacking or challenging him. Ajax's sword is sticking horizontally toward Cassandra in almost a phallic stance. Cassandra is in a very erotic position, with her legs spread wide open and her breasts naked and emphasized by the knot of her cape. Her hand is stretched in either supplication or perhaps in beckoning. While the arm is outstretched and the palm is facing up, it is difficult to determine whether or not this gesture is one of acceptance toward Ajax, or one of fear and beseeching. It is interesting to note that her hand is extended directly over Ajax's groin area.

Is this really a painting of the rape of Cassandra? There is no actual sign that she is going to be raped in this painting. Ajax looks as if he is going to drag her off or capture her, but there is no hint that he is going to rape her, aside from the fact that she is in an extremely submissive sexual position, and he is in a dominant position with his sword extended. There are certainly phallic symbols in this painting, but there is no explicit reference to Ajax having an erection or preparing to ravish her. All of the artwork depicting the rape of Cassandra show her naked and kneeling in front of Ajax, sometimes with her hair unbound and flowing loose, so there is obviously a connection between Cassandra's nakedness and Ajax's violation of her, but not even Greek texts have agreed as to whether or not she was actually raped by Ajax [see The Rape of Cassandra above].

Burkert discusses why people might think that paintings such as this one are interpreted so strongly. He believes that it is the purposeful ambivalence between the warrior and the virgin that makes these stories and pictures so exciting to others. He goes into a complex argument that male aggression and male sexuality are linked and aroused at the same time, so an image of a warrior conquering people and laying his hands on a naked young woman is synonymous with a sexual act. (Burkert p59-60) This is a fascinating idea in relation to the question of Cassandra's rape, but I do not find it to be necessarily true. People may think of this when they see or hear about Ajax attacking Cassandra, but there is no logical or even historical basis for the argument that Ajax did, indeed, defile and ruin poor Cassandra, who was doomed to have a miserable life anyway.


  1. Burkert, Walter. Translated by Peter Bing. Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek

  2. Eisner, Robert. The Road to Daulis: Psychoanalysis, Psychology, and Classical Mythology.

  3. Graves, Robert. Greek Myths. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1958.

  4. Lefkowitz, Mary R. Women in Greek Myth. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

  5. Lloyd-Jones, Hugh. The Justice of Zeus. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971.

  6. Parker, Robert. Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.

  7. Powell, Barry B. Classical Myth. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1995.

  8. Schwab, Gustav. Gods & Heroes: Myths & Epics of Ancient Greece. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. 1947.

Cassandra in Art

In Greek mythology, Cassandra (Κασσάνδρα) ("she who entangles men") (also known as Alexandra) was a daughter of King Priam of Troy and his queen Hecuba, who captured the eye of Apollo and so was given the ability to see the future. However, when she did not return his love, he placed a curse on her so that no one would ever believe her predictions. Thus Cassandra foresees the destruction of Troy (she warns the Trojans about the Trojan Horse, the death of Agamemnon, and her own demise), but is unable to do anything about them. Coroebus and Othronus came to the aid of Troy out of love for Cassandra.

After the Trojan War, Cassandra is taken as a concubine and slave girl by King Agamemnon of Mycenae after being raped by Ajax. Unbeknownst to Agamemnon, while he was away at war, his wife, Clytemnestra, had begun an affair with Aegisthus. Upon Agamemnon and Cassandra's arrival in Mycenae, Clytemnestra asked her husband to walk across a purple carpet; he initially refused then gave in and entered, not believing Cassandra's warnings. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus then murdered Agamemnon, and then Cassandra. Some information says that Cassandra and Agamemnon have twin boys Teledamus and Pelops, who are killed by Aegisthus.

The Cassandra Syndrome

The Cassandra Syndrome is a term applied to predictions of doom about the future that are not believed, but upon later reflection turn out to be correct. This denotes a psychological tendency among people to disbelieve inescapably bad news, often through denial. The person making the prediction is caught in the dilemma of knowing what is going to happen but not being able to resolve the problem.

Cassandra from "The Trojan Women"

A Mihalis Kakogiannis (Michael Cacoyannis) Film (1971)
Geneviève Bujold is Cassandra
Katharine Hepburn is Hecuba
Brian Blessed is Talthybius
English translation by Edith Hamilton
A must-see film...

Nikos Deja Vu

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