Posted in Literature

The Madness of Cassandra

Cassandra, a character found in Homer’s epic The Iliad and Virgil’s The Aeneid, has become the poster child for characters in literature who can see into the future and whose miraculous gift has become a curse. She was given the gift of prophecy by the god Apollo, who had fallen in love with her, but when she refused his advances, he cursed her: yes, she could see into the future, but no one would ever believe her visions. Because of this, Cassandra is seen as a mad, insane woman who predicts death and destruction everywhere she goes. Other characters shrug off her words, not knowing that she can see into the future, and that her warnings hold true. Of all the female characters found in myths about the Trojan War, Cassandra appears most often, after Helen, the woman that the war started over. Writers have been fascinated by Cassandra, painting her as a tragic victim of circumstance, someone whose genius is overshadowed by their apparent insanity.

The princess of Troy, Cassandra, daughter of Priam and Hecuba, can be found in many works of ancient literature. Cassandra appears only briefly in The Iliad, but her character is important to the contemporary literature and mythology of the time. She is a footnote in this text, but a reference to her appearance in a larger number of works. In Homer’s epic about the Trojan War she makes her first appearance in the last book, being the first to see King Priam return home with the body of Hector, her dead brother. It is stated that “No one saw them at first, neither man nor woman, none before Cassandra” (Homer 24.819-820.) Homer’s way of phrasing this sentence is done to show that Cassandra can see what others cannot, hinting at her gifts of prophecy. Upon seeing the body of Hector she screams with “her scream [ringing] out through all Troy” (24.826). Cassandra is typically seen screaming and wailing in ancient literature. She can be seen screaming again at the end of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon and her screams are mentioned in The Odyssey when Odysseus visits the Underworld and sees his dead Agamemnon, who tells him that “the death-cry of Cassandra, Priam’s daughter—the most pitiful thing I heard!” (Homer 11.476-477). Cassandra’s screams echo throughout Greek mythology and literature.

Cassandra is mentioned early on in Virgil’s The Aeneid, via flashback, warning the Trojans not to accept the gift of the wooden Horse offered by the Greeks, but she is ignored. Virgil writes, “Cassandra’s lips unsealed the doom to come: lips by a god’s command never believed or heeded by the Trojans” (2.330-332). Little do they know that the wooden horse is filled with Greek soldiers who sack the city once night falls, just as Cassandra predicted. Aeneas speaks of a man, Coroebus, who had earlier come to Troy seeking Cassandra’s hand in marriage, but was unsuccessful. The narrator laments that he was “deaf to what his bride foretold!” (Virgil 2.462). Cassandra’s unheeded warning of the destruction of Troy is her most important action in the mythology surrounding the Trojan War, but her story does not end here.

Virgil depicts Cassandra, like her mother Hecuba and her sisters, clinging to the idols of Gods and Goddesses at an altar during the sack of Troy, “enfolding holy images in their arms,” hoping the Greeks will not hurt them in this sacred place (Virgil 2.669-672). Their hope is vain for the Greeks capture them anyway. Aeneas watches in horror as Cassandra is “dragged by her long hair out of Minerva’s shrine, lifting her brilliant eyes in vain to heaven—her eyes alone, as her white hands were bound” (Virgil 2.533-537). Like most of the surviving women of Troy, she is taken to a camp outside the burning city where plans are made to divide the women up amongst the Greeks as war prizes, as concubines, as slaves.

The enslavement of the remaining women of Troy, especially its royal family, is at the center of Euripides’ play The Trojan Women. Cassandra becomes the war prize and mistress to Agamemnon. As she leaves the camp, she comforts her mother, Hecuba, saying that her “marriage will destroy those whom thou and I most hate”—the Greeks, especially Agamemnon, who would die because of his involvement with the Trojan princess (Euripides 4). A Greek soldier, Talthybius, remarks that people might have heeded her warnings if the god Apollo had not “turned thy wits astray” (Euripides 4). The tragic conclusion to Cassandra’s part in Greek literature is found in another play.

The prophetess eventually predicts her own death, just as she had the destruction of Troy. In her most famous moment in all of Greek literature, she partakes in a “mad scene” in Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon. Here her “insanity” or “prophetic” ways are seen in full force as she screams, rants, and raves of visions of death that will soon befall Agamemnon, the Greek general who has taken her as a war prize, and Cassandra herself at the hands of Agamemnon’s wife. She even hints at events that would occur in the rest of the trilogy of plays written by Aeschylus, known as the Oresteia, which covers the events after Agamemnon’s death. Up until this point in the play, Cassandra has remained silent, kept in the background, like she is in most pieces of ancient literature covering this time period. Now she is, possessed by the god Apollo, and in a trance she rambles about the fate that will befall the house of Atreus, to which Agamemnon belongs, featuring betrayal, murder, cannibalism, and matricide. As much as her death pains her, Cassandra knows it will also cause pain to her enemies, the Greeks, chanting that her “death is edged the double-biting sword!” (Aeschylus 25). She walks offstage to her death, knowing full well what is in store for her at the jealous Clytemnestra’s hands.

Cassandra is always associated with madness and prophecy. In fact a disorder known as the “Cassandra Complex” is named after her, describing valid concerns, medical or otherwise, that are dismissed. In literature, Cassandra is sometimes portrayed as being just as beautiful as Helen of Troy, and Homer even compares her to the goddess of love, describing the princess to be as “golden as goddess Aphrodite” (Homer 24.820). But no matter how beautiful she may be, Cassandra is always seen wringing her hands anxiously, telling the audience and other characters of their future deaths, visions which are never believed by anyone until it is too late.

The Trojan princess Cassandra is defined by her skills as a prophetess in literature, while the other characters in these works of literature believe her to be insane. She is a victim of war, a victim of the curse brought on from what should have been a wonderful gift. The character never fully gets her due in The Iliad or The Aeneid, but she has become a popular figure for modern writers to feature in novels about the Trojan War. Her story is haunting and tragic, being just as moving as the story of Achilles, Hector, or any other tragic hero of Greek Mythology. She does not have the physical strength of the heroes of The Iliad, but her downfall as charted over the course of several plays and poems has stayed with readers for centuries, with her screams of pain and fear echoing throughout literature as the years pass, unheard by all, except for the reader.


Works Cited

Aeschylus. “Agamemnon.” Greek Texts, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.

<http://www.greektexts.com/library/Aeschylus/Agamemnon/eng/24.html&gt;

Euripides. “Trojan Women.” Greek Texts, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2013

<http://www.greektexts.com/library/Euripides/The_Trojan_Women/eng/336.html&gt;

Greek Myths. “Myth of Cassandra.” Greek Myths-Greek Mythology, n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2013.

<http://www.greekmyths-greekmythology.com/the-myth-of-cassandra/&gt;

Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books, 1990. Print.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. Print.

Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage Classics, 1981. Print.

 

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