Leo M.R. asks:

I’ve a couple of questions about Cassandra, the Trojan princess/seer:

1) Were the conditions of her curse known to other people? I assume not – otherwise it’d defeat the purpose of the whole ‘will never be believed’ thing – but you never know.

2) How *did* her prophesizing work, anyway? Was it involuntary like she’d get pseudo-possessed à la Professor Trelawney from Harry Potter (which I imagine contributed to her madwoman status)? Or did she actively divined like she had to read the movement of birds or something (in which case, couldn’t she have just… *not*?)?

So, part of Cassandra’s deal is that, although we think of her as a character from the Trojan War, which we associate with the Homeric epics, the major surviving texts where she actually does anything are all tragedies (in fact, Cassandra is such a minor character in the Iliad that I don’t think Homer ever mentions her gift/curse of prophecy – it might even have been a later addition to the myth, although of course I can’t prove that). And Greek tragedies are all about mortals rushing headlong into terrible fates that they could easily have avoided if only things had gone a little bit differently. I think we’ve gotta see Cassandra’s prophecies as the same class of Thing as, like, Oedipus’ prophecy about killing his father and marrying his mother: even when you know it’s coming, you’re powerless to stop it, because that’s just the kind of thing Fate does to mortals who know the future.

Probably the main source for Cassandra, the one where we get the best look at her, is Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, because she gets a reasonably substantial speaking part in the second half of the play and we’re given a little insight into how she sees her own role in things. The Agamemnon is about the titular character’s return to Argos after the end of the Trojan War, where he is promptly murdered by his wife Clytemnestra in revenge for Agamemnon sacrificing their daughter to Artemis at the beginning of the war. Cassandra is with him, abducted from Troy as part of the “spoils of war,” and is murdered as well. Agamemnon and Clytemnestra don’t really pay much attention to Cassandra except to give her orders (she doesn’t say anything for a while and Clytemnestra seems to doubt she can even speak Greek), but she has the stage to herself for a while and talks to the Chorus, a group of Argive elders. The Chorus members already seem to know that she can see the future (line 1098: they refer to her κλέος μαντικὸν, her fame as a seer), and she even tries to explain the terms of her curse to them later (line 1212: despite her best efforts, she hasn’t been able to convince anyone of the truth of her prophecies), to which they, interestingly, respond “but to us you seem to be foretelling the truth.” The trouble is, they don’t understand her. Her longer speeches are all confusing barrages of images, metaphors and veiled allusions; to be honest, I’m not even sure she knows exactly what she’s seeing. When she desperately tries to cut to the chase (line 1246: “I’m saying it is your fate to see Agamemnon dead!”) the Chorus is troubled, but too shocked to absorb the reality of it, and they still don’t understand how it could possibly happen. Crucially, they don’t tell her she’s crazy or speaking nonsense – in fact, her words fill them with dread. The Chorus even points out (line 1255) that this isn’t especially unusual for prophecies in Greek myth: everyone knows that the oracular riddles of Delphi are always true, but their most famous recipients often don’t understand them until it’s too late.

If you’re into more obscure stuff, another fun one is Lycophron’s Alexandra, which is presented to the audience as Cassandra’s prophecy of the fall of Troy, as relayed to Priam by an unnamed slave (who is the only speaking character in the play). The entire play is a messenger speech on acid, and it’s up there with the Orphic texts as some of the most cryptic bull$#!t ever written in the Greek language. I think it lends some credence to the same interpretation of the curse I’d take from the Agamemnon: it’s not so much that no-one believed her, exactly, it’s that no-one ever had any idea what the hell she was talking about. She almost never directly names any of the major characters in the story she’s telling; it’s almost entirely obscure epithets and allusions, poetic to the point of being downright incomprehensible. Even I can barely understand an English translation of the damn thing, let alone make sense of the Greek, and I think that’s a deliberate choice on the author’s part to convey how he thinks Cassandra could have warned everyone without anything ever getting through to them.

As for the manner in which she made her prophecies, the sources seem fairly unanimous that it was involuntary, via a sort of possession (bird-based divination is more of a Roman thing). The slave in the Alexandra says that Cassandra was confused and frenzied when she delivered her prophecy (but he still reports it, because the Trojans know there’s a chance of something important being in there). Euripides in the Trojan Women, similarly, presents Cassandra as giving her predictions in a frenzied state, although in this case it’s more of a maniacal laughter situation (I’m actually going to a live performance of the Trojan Women this weekend; it’s gonna be great). It seems like she knows what’s coming and is resigned to her own death by Clytemnestra’s hand, but also delighted by all the suffering she can see in the Greeks’ future. That’s another reason people might not have interpreted her warnings correctly, of course: if a barely-coherent Trojan princess in the aftermath of the fall of Troy starts cackling about how she’s going to destroy Agamemnon, his family line and his entire city, you might assume she’s just cracked from the trauma.

[This question was moved to the front of the queue because the submitter is supporting me on Patreon! I don’t give my patrons a lot but I can give ’em this!]

3 thoughts on “Leo M.R. asks:

  1. Some very interesting things here! So my main takeaway is that Cassandra’s prophesies were worded in a cryptic, riddle-y sort of way (and delivered under a frenzied state) that confused the hell ouf of people? I could see that, especially if the stories she was in were written by Greek authors and she herself wasn’t Greek! (or at least, not Achaean?)

    If so, the natural follow-up question then is: where/when/how did the modern conception of her ‘never believed for anything’ status come to be? I assume medieval writers conflated “her prophesies confounded everyone” to “her prophesies were never believed”, much in the same way the Gigantes were conflated with the Titans.

    Also, if the Argive elders acknowledged she had “fame as a seer” (meaning people must know about it), and if she could also simply say, “you will see Agamemnon dead!”, you’d think she could’ve prevented Clytemnestra and/or Aegisthus’s plot. Then again, I suppose the whole ‘fight your fate’ theme wasn’t a thing in Greece back then, huh?


    1. Let’s see…

      Whether the Trojans, and Cassandra in particular, are “Greek” or not is… ehhhhhh… well, the way Aeschylus presents that is coloured by the fact that he’s an Athenian writing in the aftermath of the Persian Wars. Troy is in “Asia” and the Trojans are therefore “Asiatic,” and the recent clash-of-civilisations conflict with the “Asiatic” Persians is very fresh in the Athenians’ mind. Homer largely presents the Greeks and Trojans as having the same customs, worshiping the same gods and speaking the same language, ’cause *he* didn’t have “I fought at Marathon” written on his gravestone (if he was real, which he wasn’t, unless he was). If there was a “historical” Troy, and if it was the same as the Hittite Wilusa, then they weren’t Greek and (unlike the Mycenaeans) didn’t speak Greek, but I’m not sure the Greeks of the Classical period knew that.

      As for the “never believed” wording that tends to be how Cassandra’s curse is explained today… well, I don’t think it’s a *wild* reach from the text of the Agamemnon; she *does* at one point phrase it as no-one believing her (or rather, that she couldn’t persuade anyone – funny thing, the ancient Greek word for “believe” literally means “be persuaded”; this is a culture that cares a lot about speech and verbal acts of persuasion). It’s just that the actual *mechanism* as displayed in the texts we have seems to be a bit more subtle than, like, a mystical force that makes it impossible for people to acknowledge her words as true even if they know for a fact that she’s a cursed seer.

      As for whether she could have stopped it, my reading of the situation (and by all means take a look at an English text yourself to see whether you agree with this assessment https://www.theoi.com/Text/AeschylusAgamemnon.html) is that the problem is, she never explicitly pins it on Clytemnestra, which is what would need to happen for the Chorus to take action. A lot of the first half of the play is Clytemnestra hiding her true intentions from the Chorus. They don’t suspect her of anything at this point; they’re arguably being pretty obtuse about the situation even before Cassandra shows up. To an audience member who already knows the story, it’s pretty obvious what Cassandra is really talking about, but she blows Clytemnestra up into a sort of monstrous, demonic entity and never actually says her name – maybe we’re supposed to imagine that she can’t, or is too horrified to, or even that her visions come to her in such a chaotic form that she struggles to express them plainly. I think there’s some wiggle room for a few interpretations.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “if he was real, which he wasn’t, unless he was”
        Of course Cassandra is incoherent, when this is the sort of thing she has to work with. (Sure we can assume that there were better records when it was contemporary, but this is funnier)

        Liked by 2 people

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