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Subject: Trojan War, Ajax the Lesser, Trojan War in popular culture, Apollo, Returns from Troy
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Cassandra by Evelyn De Morgan (1898, London); Cassandra in front of the burning city of Troy at the peak of her insanity.

In Greek mythology, Cassandra (Greek: Κασσάνδρα, pronounced , also Κασάνδρα), also known as Alexandra or Kassandra, was the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy.

A common version of her story is that Apollo gave her the power of prophecy in order to seduce her, but when she refused him, he gave her the curse of never being believed. In an alternative version, she fell asleep in a temple, and snakes licked (or whispered in) her ears so that she was able to hear the future. Snakes as a source of knowledge is a recurring theme in Greek mythology, although sometimes the snake brings understanding of the language of animals rather than an ability to know the future. Cassandra is a figure of both epic tradition and of tragedy.


Hjalmar Frisk (Griechisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, Heidelberg, 1960–1970) notes "unexplained etymology", citing "various hypotheses" found in Wilhelm Schulze, Kleine Schriften (1966), 698, J. B. Hoffmann, Glotta 28, 52, Edgar Howard Sturtevant, Class. Phil. 21, 248ff., J. Davreux, La légende de la prophétesse Cassandre (Paris, 1942) 90ff., and Albert Carnoy, Les ét. class. 22, 344. R. S. P. Beekes (Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Brill, 2009, p. 654) cites García Ramón's derivation of the name from the Proto-Indo-European root *(s)kend- "raise".


Woodcut illustration of Cassandra's prophecy of the fall of Troy (at left) and her death (at right), from an incunable German translation by Heinrich Steinhöwel of Giovanni Boccaccio's De mulieribus claris, printed by Johann Zainer at Ulm ca. 1474.

Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam (Priamos) and Queen Hecuba (Hekabe) and the fraternal twin sister of Helenus and a princess of Troy. According to legend, Cassandra was both beautiful and considered insane. However, her perceived insanity is the result of being cursed by the god Apollo. Many versions of the myth relate that she incurred the god's wrath by refusing him sex, sometimes after first promising herself in exchange for the power of prophecy. Hyginus says:[1]

In another version, Cassandra consented to have sex with Apollo in exchange for the gift of prophecy, and then broke her promise. Her punishment was the curse of never being believed. This version of the myth is told by Cassandra in Aeshylus's Agamemnon: "Oh, but he struggled to win me, breathing ardent love for me....I consented to Loxias (Apollo) but broke my word....Ever since that fault I could persuade no one of anything."[2]

In some versions of the myth, Apollo curses her by spitting into her mouth during a kiss. In Aeschylus' Agamemnon, she foretells the betrayal of Clytemnestra. She also bemoans her relationship with Apollo:

Apollo, Apollo!
God of all ways, but only Death's to me,
Once and again, O thou, Destroyer named,
Thou hast destroyed me, thou, my love of old!

Cassandra had served as a priestess of Apollo and taken a sacred vow of chastity to remain a virgin for her entire life.[3]

Her cursed gift from Apollo became a source of endless pain and frustration to Cassandra. Cassandra was seen as a liar and a madwoman by her family and by the Trojan people. In some versions of the story, she was often locked up in a pyramidal building on the citadel on her father King Priam’s orders. She was accompanied there by the wardress who cared for her under orders to inform the King of all of his daughter's "prophetic utterances".[4] She was driven truly insane by this in the versions where she was incarcerated; though in the versions where she was not, she was usually viewed as being simply misunderstood.

According to legend, Cassandra had instructed her twin brother Helenus in the power of prophecy for him to be a prophet. Like her, Helenus was always correct whenever he had made his predictions; but unlike his sister, people believed him.

Cassandra made many predictions, with all of her prophecies being disbelieved except for one. She was believed when she foresaw who Paris was and proclaimed that he was her abandoned brother. This took place after he had sought refuge in the altar of Zeus from their brothers’ wrath, which resulted in his reunion with their family.[5] Cassandra foresaw that Paris’s abduction of Helen for her to be his wife would bring about the Trojan War and cause the destruction of Troy. She did warn Paris not to go to Sparta along with Helenus who echoed her prophecy, but their warnings ended up being ignored.[5] Cassandra ended up seeing Helen coming into Troy at Paris's return home from Sparta and she furiously snatched away Helen's golden veil and tore at her hair for she had foreseen the calamities of the Trojan War that Helen's arrival would bring and cause Troy to be destroyed, but the Trojan people gave Helen a warm welcome into their city.[5]

Cassandra foresaw the destruction of Troy. She warned the Trojans about the Greeks hiding inside the Trojan Horse, Agamemnon’s death and her own demise at the hands of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, her mother Hecuba's fate, Odysseus’s ten year wanderings before returning to his home, and the murder of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra by her children Electra and Orestes. Cassandra predicted that her cousin Aeneas would escape during the fall of Troy and found a new nation in Rome.[6] However, she was unable to do anything to forestall these tragedies since no one believed her.[7]

Coroebus and Othronus came to the aid of Troy during the Trojan War out of love for Cassandra in exchange for her hand in marriage. Priam decided to betroth Cassandra to Telephus’s son Eurypyplus after Telephus had reinforced the Trojans by sending them an army of Mysians to come to defend Troy for them.[4] Cassandra was also the first to see the body of her brother Hector being brought back to the city.

In The Fall of Troy told by Quintus Smyrnaeus, Cassandra had attempted to warn the Trojan people that she had foreseen the Greek warriors hiding in the Trojan Horse while they were celebrating their victory over the Greeks with feasting. They disbelieved her, calling her names and degrading her with insults.[8] She grabbed an axe in one hand and a burning torch in her other, and ran towards the Trojan Horse, intent on destroying it herself to stop the Greeks from destroying Troy. The Trojan people stopped her before she could do so. The Greeks hiding inside the Trojan Horse were relieved that the Trojans had stopped Cassandra from destroying it, but they were surprised by how well she had known of their plan to defeat Troy.[8]

At the fall of Troy, Cassandra sought shelter in the temple of Athena and there she embraced the wooden statue of Athena in supplication for her protection, where she was abducted and brutally raped by Ajax the Lesser. Cassandra was clinging so tightly to the statue of the goddess that Ajax knocked it over from its stand as he dragged her away.[5] One account claimed that even Athena, who had worked hard to help the Greeks destroy Troy, was not able to restrain her tears, burned her cheeks with anger. In one account, this caused her image to give forth a sound that shook the floor of the temple at the sight of Cassandra’s rape before her image turned its eyes away as Cassandra was violated, although others found this account to be too bold.[5] Ajax committed sacrilege since, as Cassandra was a supplicant of Athena, he should have left her alone, for supplicants were untouchable in the sanctuary of a god, under the protection of that god; furthermore, he committed another sacrilege by raping her inside the temple of Athena, despite it being strictly forbidden for people to have intercourse in the temple of a god.[9] Odysseus demanded to the other Greek leaders that Ajax should be stoned to death for his crimes which had enraged Athena and the other gods, but Ajax ended up saving himself from their wrath as none of them had dared to punish him as he had clung as a suppliant to Athena’s altar proclaiming his innocence of his crimes with an oath. [5] Athena was furious at the Greeks’ failure to punish Ajax for his crime over his rape of Cassandra in her temple and she gravely punished them with the help of Poseidon and Zeus as Poseidon sent storms and strong winds for her to destroy much of the Greek fleet on their way home from Troy. She punished Ajax herself by causing him to have a terrible death though the sources of his death differ. The Locrians had to atone for Ajax's great sacrilege against Cassandra in Athena's temple as they were obliged to send two maidens to Troy every year to serve as slaves in Athena's temple there for a thousand years, but if they were caught by the inhabitants before they reached the temple they were executed.[4]

Some versions told that Cassandra had intentionally left a chest behind in Troy which she had placed a curse on it to whichever Greek would open it first.[5] Inside the chest was an image of Dionysus, made by Hephaestus and presented to the Trojans by Zeus. It was given to the Greek leader Eurypylus as a part of his share of the victory spoils of Troy for when he opened the chest; on seeing the image of the god, he went mad.[5]

Cassandra was then taken as a concubine by King Agamemnon of Mycenae. Unbeknownst to Agamemnon, while he was away at war, his wife, Clytemnestra, had begun an affair with Aegisthus. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus then murdered both Agamemnon and Cassandra. Some sources mention that Cassandra and Agamemnon had twin boys, Teledamus and Pelops, both of whom were killed by Aegisthus.

Cassandra had been sent to the Elysian Fields after her death as her soul was one of the ones judged worthy enough from her dedication to the gods and her religious nature during her life to be there.[10]:p. 179

Cassandra was buried either at Amyclae or Mycenae for the two towns disputed the possession of it.[4] She had been buried most likely in Mycenae. Heinrich Schliemann was certain that he had discovered Cassandra’s tomb when he had excavated Mycenae since he had found the remains of a woman and two infants in one of the circle graves at Mycenae.[4]

Agamemnon by Aeschylus

Ajax taking Cassandra, tondo of a red-figure kylix by the Kodros Painter, c. 440-430 BC, Louvre

From Aeschylus's trilogy Oresteia, the play titled Agamemnon depicts the king, treading the scarlet cloth laid down for him, walking offstage to his sure death.[11]:ln. 972 After the chorus's ode of foreboding, time is suspended in Cassandra's "mad scene".[12]:pp. 11–16 She has been onstage, silent and ignored. Her madness that is unleashed now is not the physical torment of other characters in Greek tragedy, such as in Euripides' Heracles or Sophocles' Ajax.

According to author Seth Schein, two further familiar descriptions of her madness are that of Heracles in The Women of Trachis or Io in Prometheus Bound.[12]:p. 11 She speaks, disconnectedly and transcendent, in the grip of her psychic possession by Apollo,[11]:ln. 1140 witnessing past and future events. Schein says, "She evokes the same awe, horror and pity as do schizophrenics".[12]:p. 12 Cassandra is someone "who often combine deep, true insight with utter helplessness, and who retreat into madness."

Eduard Fraenkel remarked[12]:p. 11, note 6[13] on the powerful contrasts between declaimed and sung dialogue in this scene. The frightened and respectful chorus are unable to comprehend her. She goes to her inevitable offstage murder by Clytemnestra with full knowledge of what is to befall her.[14]:pp. 42–55[15]:pp. 52–58

Modern adaptations

Cassandra is an enduring archetype. Modern invocations of Cassandra are most frequently an example of a Cassandra complex. To emphasize such a situation, Cassandra's name is frequently used in fiction when prophecy comes up, especially true prophecy that is not believed. This can include the names of people, objects, or places.

Cassandra has been used as metaphor and allegory in psychological and philosophical tracts. For example, Florence Nightingale's book Suggestions for Thought to Searchers after Religious Truth has a section named for Cassandra, using her as a metaphor for the helplessness of women that she attributes to over-feminization. (Further examples are located on the Cassandra complex page.)

The Cassandra myth itself has also been retold several times by modern authors of novels and dramatizations, including works by Eric Shanower, Lindsay Clarke, Christa Wolf, Lesya Ukrainka, Marion Zimmer Bradley, David Gemmell, and Hector Berlioz. A number of songs have also referred to her such as the Swedish pop band ABBA.

In popular culture

Cassandra is a protagonist in Hercules (1998 TV series) .

See also


  1. ^ "Cassandra". Mortal Women of the Trojan War. Stanford University. Retrieved March 24, 2014. 
  2. ^ "AESCHYLUS, AGAMEMNON 2". The Theoi Project. Retrieved March 24, 2014. 
  3. ^ "The Trojan women of Euripides". Retrieved March 24, 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c d e "Cassandra in the Classical World". Retrieved 2014-03-24. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h "Cassandra - Greek Mythology Link". Retrieved 2014-03-24. 
  6. ^ "The Internet Classics Archive | The Aeneid by Virgil". Retrieved 2014-03-24. 
  7. ^ """Full text of "The Trojan women of Euripides. 2003-11-16. Retrieved 2014-03-24. 
  8. ^ a b "Classical E-Text: QUINTUS SMYRNAEUS, FALL OF TROY 12". Retrieved 2014-03-24. 
  9. ^ "Cassandra, Ancient princess of Troy, priestess and Prophetess". Archived from the original on February 3, 2014. Retrieved March 24, 2014. 
  10. ^ Westmoreland. 
  11. ^ a b Agamemnon (play script) (in Greek). The chorus find her to be "crazed in mind and transported by a god" 
  12. ^ a b c d Schein, Seth L. (1982). "The Cassandra Scene in Aeschylus' 'Agamemnon'". Greece & Rome. Second Series 29 (1).  
  13. ^ Fraenkel, Eduard (1964). Kleine Beiträge zur klassische Philologie (book). Storia e letteratura (in German). Vol. I. Rome.  
  14. ^ Analyses of the Cassandra scene are in Bernard Knox Word and Action: Eassays on the Ancient theatre (Baltimore and London: Penguin) 1979
  15. ^ Anne Lebeck, The Oresteia: A study in language and structure (Washington) 1971

Primary sources

Further reading

  • Clarke, Lindsay. The Return from Troy. HarperCollins (2005). ISBN 0-00-715027-X.
  • Marion Zimmer Bradley. The Firebrand. ISBN 0-451-45924-5
  • Patacsil, Par. Cassandra. In The Likhaan Book of Plays 1997-2003. Villanueva and Nadera, eds. University of the Philippines Press (2006). ISBN 971-542-507-0
  • Ukrainka, Lesya. Cassandra. Original Publication: Lesya Ukrainka. Life and work by Constantine Bida. Selected works, translated by Vera Rich. Toronto: Published for the Women's Council of the Ukrainian Canadian Committee by University of Toronto Press, 1968. Pp. 181–239
  • Schapira, Laurie L. The Cassandra Complex: Living with Disbelief: A Modern Perspective on Hysteria. Toronto: Inner City Books (1988). ISBN 0-919123-35-X.

External links

  • Media related to at Wikimedia Commons
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