The Curse of Cassandra
And Soothsaying in the ancient world...
Dear Classical Wisdom Members,
Some ancient mythological figures get all the luck… and some get none.
Poor Cassandra really got the rough end of the stick every single time. And while there are plenty of tragic characters abound in the ancient Greek myths, hers is really fascinating, in part because what it reveals about soothsayers, divination and the all important oracle of Delphi.
What role did the prophets play in history and lore? Why -really- was this particular prophetess never believed? And why was that only a smart part of her troubles?
Read on for today’s Classical Wisdom Member’s In-depth article on the Curse of Cassandra below.
All the best,
Founder and Director
Classical Wisdom and Classical Wisdom Kids
Enjoy the full article below… along with all our Member resources, podcasts, events (including yesterday’s discussion on the Myth of Atlantis) and more:
The Curse of Cassandra
By Mary Naples
“They would not listen, they’re not listening still. Perhaps they never will.”
—Don McLean “Vincent”
With a name that defines incredulity itself, it is no wonder that Cassandra—the cursed Trojan prophetess—has a hard time being taken seriously. Scorned throughout the ages, Cassandra was infamously disregarded and frequently reviled by her countrymen.Even her own mother ridiculed her. Today she has a psychiatric syndrome named in her honor for those suffering from undue hysterical negativity. In short, she gets no respect. But why such indignation toward her?
If her compatriots had heeded her guidance, the Trojan War might have ended differently for them, or it may not have begun at all. It was Cassandra, after all, who foretold the demise of Troy on account of a trip to Sparta made by her errant brother, Paris. In one tradition, she even suggests that her parents kill him as an infant—-which in hindsight may have been sage advice.
What is more, she predicts Troy’s destruction if they accept the gifted horse, “But by god’s will, Troy would never listen.” Although always disbelieved, her dire predictions were spot on. Even so, there is no point in being an incredulous prophetess. So how were other soothsayers treated in ancient Greece? And what about another priestess of Apollo—-the most highly revered Oracle of Delphi? How was Cassandra’s form of soothsaying different from those of her historical contemporaries?
Born a Trojan princess to King Priam and Queen Hecuba, Cassandra’s early life was one of privilege. Though she was famed for being a virgin priestess to Apollo, virginity, in the ancient world, had more than one meaning. Besides signifying chastity, it could highlight and draw attention to the fact that a woman was not married. Markedly, Cassandra never married... and so perhaps this was reason enough to distrust her. After all, she was a free agent. No man had any authority over her.
She was also reputed to be the most beautiful of Priam’s nineteen daughters; Homer describes her as the “peer of Aphrodite.” Because of her great beauty, the most handsome of all gods, Apollo, who was the divinity of just about everything including poetry, truth, and oracles, promised her the gift of prophecy in return for sexual favors.
But for all his good looks, Apollo was unlucky with the ladies. Cassandra was quick to accept Apollo’s gift of prophecy... and then clung to her virginity like a badge of honor. She refused to own up to her end of the bargain. Being a soothsayer, she should have known that spurning the advances of a god was ill-advised. Unable to revoke a divinely decreed power, Apollo retaliated by ordaining that all Cassandra’s prophecies were never to be believed.
Forasmuch as Cassandra has been identified as a seer throughout the ages, surprisingly of the four times she is mentioned in the Iliad, Homer does not refer to her soothsaying skills. It is not until Aeschylus’s first play of the Oresteia (458 BCE) trilogy titled Agamemnon that her prophetic powers are most fully realized.
For Cassandra, the antecedent action leading up to the play was as eventful as the play itself. Woefully, being a disbelieved prophetess was only half of Cassandra’s troubles…
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