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Cassandra in the Classical World

Cassandra (also called Alexandra), in Greek myth, the prophetic daughter of Priam, king of Troy, and Hecuba his wife. For Homer, who knows nothing of her prophetic gifts, she is the most beautiful of Priam's daughters. It was according to a later tradition that she was loved by Apollo and given the gift of prophecy, but when she refused his love he condemned her to the fate of always prophesying truthfully but never being believed. She appears in Greek tragedy in this role, vainly foretelling the fall of Troy. When Troy was captured, Ajax the Locrian, son of Oileus, found her in the temple of Athena clinging to the sacred statue of the goddess (the Palladium), dragged her away, and raped her. To expiate this sacrilege the Locrians were obliged to send two maidens to Troy every year for a thousand years to serve as slaves in Athena's temple; if they were caught by the inhabitants before reaching the temple they were executed. This obligation continued into the second century BC. After the sack of Troy Cassandra was awarded to the Greek commander Agamemnon as his concubine, but on their return to Mycenae she was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra.

From The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. Ed. M.C. Howatson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Copyright 1989 by Oxford University Press.

Robert E. Bell

Cassandra was a daughter of Priam and Hecuba. She was also called Alexandra. She was very beautiful, but her family and the people of Troy considered her a little unbalanced. This came about because of her gift of prophecy. When she was a child, she and her brother Helenus were left overnight in the temple of the Thymbraean Apollo. No reason has been advanced for this night in the temple; perhaps it was a ritual routinely performed by everyone. When their parents looked in on them the next morning, the children were entwined with serpents, which flicked their tongues into the children's ears. This enabled Cassandra and Helenus to divine the future. After Cassandra grew up, she again spent a night in the temple. This time the god appeared and tried to get her to yield to his desire, but she refused. For this affront to him he punished her by causing her prophecies, though true, to be disbelieved. This curse failed to be effective on only one occasion. When Paris appeared as an adult at the court of Priam, Cassandra declared him her brother. It had been accepted by everyone that he had died in infancy from being exposed.

After the war began, Cassandra continued to predict the calamities in store for the Trojans. Nobody believed her but, perhaps deciding she was bad for the war effort, Priam concealed her in a locked chamber, where she was guarded like a madwoman. Mad though she might have been considered, she was still highly regarded for her beauty. During the war, both Othryoneus of Cabesus and Coroebus, son of Mydon, asked for her hand, but both were killed in the war. When Telephus reinforced the Trojans with an army of Mysians, Priam betrothed Cassandra to his son Eurypylus. He was also killed. Cassandra’s curse of not being heeded came to a climax when she announced there were men in the wooden horse. Only Laocoon believed her, but he was soon silenced, and this seemed to confirm that Cassandra was merely raving again.

It probably would not have mattered whether or not she was married to one of her unfortunate suitors, as things turned out. At the taking of Troy, she fled to the temple of Athena and embraced the statue of the goddess as a suppliant. The Lesser Ajax found her there and, violating one of the most powerful interdicts in ancient religion, dragged her from the temple. Some said he raped her in the sanctuary. She never learned that he paid the supreme price for his great violence and short pleasure.

When the spoils of Troy were allotted, Cassandra was given to Agamemnon. Some said he had spread the report that Ajax had raped her so he could have her to himself Others say he tried to save Polyxena from being sacrificed on Achilles' grave, again to ingratiate himself with Cassandra. He carried her with him to Mycenae, but she was scarcely in his hands before he forced her into sexual relations. As a result of this union she became pregnant and bore twins--Teledamus and Pelops. This poses a question. The trip to Mycenae could not in Agamemnon's case have taken a great deal of time since, unlike several of the other Greeks, he had no difficulties in reaching home. Therefore, he must have stayed in Troy for a few more months--as leader of the Greek army of occupation. [. . . .] There is the possibility that the twins were born on shipboard or even after arrival in Mycenae, but all accounts seem to suggest that Cassandra arrived with the babies.

Agamemnon, expecting to arrive home in glory, was murdered by Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, shortly after his arrival. Cassandra was murdered by Clytemnestra, and the twins were killed by Aegisthus. Agamemnon's bringing Cassandra back with him is repeated often as a principal motive for the slaughter, but Clytemnestra had reasons enough without Cassandra. Some say that the murders took place at Amyclae, although nobody gives a reason. This claim allowed the Amyclaeans to say that Cassandra was buried there. She also had a statue at Amyclae and at Leuctra in Laconia. Mycenae, however, had the best reason for saying her tomb was there, and Schliemann, the archaeologist, was certain of this when he found the remains of a woman and two infants in one of the circle graves at Mycenae.

The story of Cassandra is one of the most poignant of all the stories of women in the Trojan War. Possessing the divine gift of prophecy carried with it an obligation, and the principal responsibility would have been the protection of homeland and the whole Trojan race. Not being taken seriously would have been frustrating and heartbreaking enough under any circumstances, but with the safety of a whole nation at stake, Cassandra must occasionally have approached the borders of the insanity with which she was labeled. It is not difficult to think of her as a beautiful but disheveled young woman, wild-eyed and shrill. It is not too much of an exaggeration to compare her with modern-day fanatics who claim the world is ending on such and such a day. We cannot be sure that, along with everything else, she might not have developed a reputation for being obnoxious with her superior knowledge. The tendency is to regard her as a victim of circumstances, someone severely wronged by men and gods alike. Her tragedy was knowing the unhappy truth and revealing it, something highly unwelcome then as now.

From Women of Classical Mythology: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Copyright 1991 by Robert E. Bell.

Visual Representations of Cassandra


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Statue of Cassandra
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Bust of Cassandra by Max Klinger (1857-1920)
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Cassandra warns the Trojans. Engraving by Bernard Picart (1673-1733)
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