The story of the heroine Cassandra is a favorite in Greek mythology. Cassandra makes an appearance in many plays and poems, where often she is depicted in her most memorable role – that of prophetess. So let me explore this compelling Greek heroine, and learn about Cassandra in myth and legend.
Cassandra is mentioned briefly in the Iliad of Homer (which, incidentally, is one of our oldest and most respected sources for information about the characters of Greek myth). Indeed, in the Iliad, we learn that Cassandra was the child of King Priam of Troy and his wife Hecuba, and therefore was a princess of Troy. She was considered to be Priam’s most beautiful daughter. However, no mention of Cassandra’s notorious prophetic power is made in this Homeric epic. We first we find Cassandra had spent a night at Apollo’s temple with her twin brother Helenus, at which time the temple snakes licked her ears clean so that she was able to hear the future. The tale of Cassandra and her legendary gifts in other works of ancient Greek literature.
Once Cassandra had grown up, she again spent the night in Apollo’s temple. According to one version of the story, Cassandra received the power to foretell the future from the god Apollo. Apparently Apollo loved Cassandra; he instructed the mortal woman and taught her about the art of prophecy because he had an ulterior motive – the god wished to win her affections. Cassandra accepted Apollo as a teacher, but not as a lover. Some say she made a promise to Apollo to become his consort, but broke it, thus incurring his wrath. Naturally; the god was insulted by this refusal. So he punished Cassandra. Apollo caused the gift that he gave Cassandra to be twisted, making everyone who heard her true and accurate foretelling of future events believe that they were instead hearing lies. In other words, the wondrous blessing bestowed upon a mortal became instead a terrible curse.
Telephus, the son of Heracles, also loved Cassandra but she scorned him and instead helped him seduce her sister Laodice.
And indeed, the burden of Cassandra’s “gift” is evident in mythology. She predicted the outcome of many disastrous events. In one memorable example, Cassandra announced the dire consequences of the Trojans accepting the infamous Wooden Horse from their Greek opponents. Her family believes she is mad, and, according to some versions, keep her locked up because of this. In versions where she is incarcerated, this is typically portrayed as driving her truly insane, although in versions where she is not incarcerated; she is typically portrayed as remaining simply misunderstood.
Death of Cassandra comes after she flees to the altar of Athena for protection during the fall of Troy, but to no avail. Ajax 2 (the Lesser) pulls her from the sanctuary and rapes her. It is told that she was clinging to a wooden image of the goddess, which was knocked over from its stand, as
Ajax 2 dragged her away. Some have asserted (but others find this account too bold).
Cassandra is 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. Upon Agamemnon and Cassandra’s arrival in
Mycenae, Clytemnestra asks her husband to walk across a purple carpet, the color purple symbolizing the gods. He initially refuses, but gives in and enters; but by walking on this purple carpet he is committing sacrilege, ignoring Cassandra’s warnings. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus then murder both Agamemnon and Cassandra. Some sources mention that Cassandra and Agamemnon have twin boys Teledamus and Pelops, both of whom are illed by Aegisthus…