Cassandra was cursed to utter prophecies that were true but that no one believed. The older and most common versions state that she was admired by the god Apollo, and he offered her the gift to see the future in order to win her heart. Cassandra agreed to be his lover in return for his gift, but after receiving the gift, she went back on her word and refused him. Apollo was angered that she lied and deceived him, but since he couldn't take back a gift already given, he cursed her that though she would see the future accurately, nobody would ever believe her prophecies.
Some of the later versions have her falling asleep in a temple, where snakes licked (or whispered in) her ears so that she could hear the future.[a]
In modern usage her name is employed as a rhetorical device to indicate someone whose accurate prophecies are not believed by those around them.
Hjalmar Frisk (Griechisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, Heidelberg, 1960–1970) notes "unexplained etymology", citing "various hypotheses" found in Wilhelm Schulze, Edgar Howard Sturtevant, J. Davreux, and Albert Carnoy. R. S. P. Beekes cites García Ramón's derivation of the name from the Proto-Indo-European root *(s)kend- "raise".
Cassandra was a princess of Troy, the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba and the fraternal twin sister of Helenus. According to legend, Cassandra had dark brown curly hair and dark brown eyes, and was both beautiful and clever, but considered insane.
Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy, but was also cursed by the god Apollo so that her accurate prophecies would not be believed. Many versions of the myth relate that she incurred the god's wrath by refusing him sex, after promising herself to him in exchange for the power of prophecy. In Aeschylus' Agamemnon, she bemoans her relationship with 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!
And she acknowledges her fault
"... I consented to Loxias (Apollo) but broke my word... Ever since that fault I could persuade no one of anything."
Cassandra, daughter of the king and queen, in the temple of Apollo, exhausted from practising, is said to have fallen asleep; whom, when Apollo wished to embrace her, she did not afford the opportunity of her body. On account of which thing, when she prophesied true things, she was not believed.
In some versions of the myth, Apollo curses her by spitting into her mouth.
Cassandra had served as a priestess of Apollo and taken a sacred vow of chastity to remain a virgin for her entire life.
Her cursed gift from Apollo became a source of endless pain and frustration to Cassandra. She 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 the orders of her father, King Priam. 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".
According to legend, Cassandra had instructed her twin brother Helenus in the power of prophecy so he could 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, and all of her prophecies were disbelieved except for one, when she foresaw who Paris was and proclaimed that he was her abandoned brother. Cassandra foresaw that Paris’ abduction of Helen for his wife would bring about the Trojan War and warned Paris not to go to Sparta. Helenus echoed her prophecy, but his warnings were ignored. Cassandra saw Helen coming into Troy when Paris returned home from Sparta. Cassandra furiously snatched away Helen's golden veil and tore at her hair, for she had foreseen that Helen's arrival would bring the calamities of the Trojan War and the destruction of Troy. The Trojan people, however, welcomed Helen into their city.
Cassandra foresaw the destruction of Troy. In various accounts of the war, she warned the Trojans about the Greeks hiding inside the Trojan Horse, Agamemnon's death, 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 the latter's children Electra and Orestes. Cassandra predicted that her cousin Aeneas would escape during the fall of Troy and found a new nation in Rome. However, she was unable to do anything to forestall these tragedies since no one believed her.
Coroebus and Othronus came to the aid of Troy during the Trojan War out of love for Cassandra and in exchange for her hand in marriage, but both were killed. According to one account, Priam offered Cassandra to Telephus’s son Eurypylus, in order to induce Eurypylus to fight on the side of the Trojans. 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 Greek warriors were 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. 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 Horse were relieved that the Trojans had stopped Cassandra from destroying it, but they were surprised by how clearly she had seen their plan to defeat Troy.
At the fall of Troy, Cassandra sought shelter in the temple of Athena. There she embraced the wooden statue of Athena in supplication for her protection, but was abducted and brutally raped by Ajax the Lesser. Cassandra was clinging so tightly to the statue of the goddess that Ajax knocked it from its stand as he dragged her away. One account claimed that even Athena, who had worked hard to help the Greeks destroy Troy, was not able to restrain her tears and her cheeks burned 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, and her image turned its eyes away as Cassandra was violated, although others found this account too bold. Ajax's actions were a sacrilege because Cassandra was a supplicant of Athena and supplicants were untouchable in the sanctuary of a god, being 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 sexual intercourse in a temple.
Odysseus insisted to the other Greek leaders that Ajax should be stoned to death for his crimes, which had enraged Athena and the other gods. Ajax avoided their wrath, because none of them dared to punish him after he clung, as a supplicant, to Athena's altar and swore an oath proclaiming his innocence. Athena was furious at the Greeks' failure to punish Ajax for raping Cassandra in her temple, and she punished them severely with the help of Poseidon and Zeus. Poseidon sent storms and strong winds to destroy much of the Greek fleet on their way home from Troy. Athena punished Ajax herself, by causing him to have a terrible death, although the sources differ as to the manner of his death. The Locrians had to atone for Ajax's great sacrilege against Cassandra in Athena's temple by sending two maidens to Troy every year for a thousand years to serve as slaves in Athena's temple. However, if they were caught by the inhabitants before they reached the temple they were executed.
In some versions, Cassandra intentionally left a chest behind in Troy, with a curse on whichever Greek opened it first. 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. When he opened the chest and saw the image of the god, he went mad.
Cassandra was then taken as a pallake (concubine) by King Agamemnon of Mycenae. Unbeknown 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 was buried either at Amyclae or Mycenae. The two towns disputed the possession of her grave. Heinrich Schliemann was certain that he had discovered Cassandra’s tomb when he had excavated Mycenae, because he found the remains of a woman and two infants in one of the circle graves at Mycenae.
The play Agamemnon from Aeschylus's trilogy Oresteia depicts the king treading the scarlet cloth laid down for him, and walking offstage to his death.:ln. 972 After the chorus's ode of foreboding, time is suspended in Cassandra's "mad scene".:p. 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.:p. 11 She speaks, disconnectedly and transcendent, in the grip of her psychic possession by Apollo,:ln. 1140 witnessing past and future events. Schein says, "She evokes the same awe, horror and pity as do schizophrenics".:p. 12 Cassandra is someone "who often combine deep, true insight with utter helplessness, and who retreat into madness."
Eduard Fraenkel remarked:p. 11, note 6 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.:pp. 42–55:pp. 52–58
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, Woody Allen, Marion Zimmer Bradley, David Gemmell, and Hector Berlioz. A number of songs have also referred to her, such as "Cassandra" (1982), by Swedish pop band ABBA.
The chorus find her to be "crazed in mind and transported by a god"
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