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Cassandra by Evelyn De Morgan (1898, London); Cassandra in front of the burning city of Troy at the peak of her insanity.

In Greek mythology, Cassandra (Greek Κασσάνδρα, also Κασάνδρα; ),[1] also known as Alexandra or Kassandra, was the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. Her name means 'she who entangles men' in Greek. She had the power of prophecy and the curse of never being believed. A common version of her story is that Apollo gave her the power of prophecy to seduce her, and then cursed her when he failed. In an alternate version, she fell asleep in a temple, and snakes licked (or whispered in) her ears so that she was able to hear the future (this is a recurring theme in Greek mythology, though sometimes it brings an ability to understand the language of animals rather than an ability to know the future).[2] When Cassandra refused Apollo's attempted seduction, he placed a curse on her so that her predictions and those of all her descendants would not be believed. She is a figure of both epic tradition and of tragedy.


Woodcut illustration of Cassandra's prophecy of the fall of Troy (at left) and her death (at right), from an incunable German translation by Heinrich Steinhöwel of Giovanni Boccaccio's De mulieribus claris, printed by Johann Zainer at Ulm ca. 1474.

According to Greek Mythology, Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam (Priamos) and Queen Hecuba (Hekabe) and the fraternal twin sister of Helenus and a princess of Troy. Cassandra had often been shown with brown hair kept in curls, brown eyes, and fair skin.[1] She was considered to be beautiful, intelligent, charming, and desirable and she was depicted to be the second most beautiful woman in the world with her beauty even compared to that of Aphrodite and Helen of Troy, but she was described to be insane.[2] However her perceived insanity ended up being the result of her being cursed by the god Apollo.

Many versions of the myth relate that she incurred the god's wrath by refusing his sexual advances, sometimes after first promising herself in exchange for the power of prophecy. As to one version of the myth told by Anticlides had Cassandra and Helenus acquired their gifts of prophecy as infants at a feast that their parents King Priam and Queen Hecuba held for them in honor of their birth at the temple of Apollo. [3] The two children became tired from playing with each other and came to fall asleep in a corner of the temple while their parents and their friends did get drunk from wine at the festivity. Their drunken parents and the guests ended up forgetting about them and had gone home leaving the children alone to spend the night in the temple of Apollo by themselves. [4] Next morning when their mother Hecuba had returned to retrieve them at the temple, she found Apollo’s sacred serpents “purging with their tongues the organs of sense of the children," and Hecuba screamed in terror at the sight of it. The serpents disappeared into a pile of laurel boughs beside the infants on the floor, but from that moment on both Cassandra and Helenus possessed the gift of prophecy. [5] When Cassandra had grown up, she again spent a night alone at the temple of Apollo. This time the Apollo appeared before her and he tried to get her to yield to his desire for her, but Cassandra refused to do so and she scorned him which the god punished her for by causing her to always be correct in her prophecies, but to never be believed by anyone whenever she made them. [6]

Hyginus says:[7]

Cassandra, daughter of the king and queen, in the temple of Apollo, exhausted from practicing, 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 another version, Cassandra consented to sexual relations with Apollo in exchange for the gift of prophecy, and then broke her promise. Her punishment was the curse of never being believed. This version of the myth is told by Cassandra in Aeshylus's Agamemnon: "Oh, but he struggled to win me, breathing ardent love for me....I consented to Loxias (Apollo) but broke my word....Ever since that fault I could persuade no one of anything."[8]

In some versions of the myth, Apollo curses her by spitting into her mouth during a kiss. In Aeschylus' Agamemnon, she foretells the betrayal of Clytemnestra. She also bemoans her relationship with Apollo:

Apollo, 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!

Cassandra had served as a priestess of Apollo and taken a sacred vow of chastity to remain a virgin for her entire whole life.[9]

Her cursed gift from Apollo became a source of endless pain and frustration to Cassandra. Cassandra was seen as a liar and a madwoman by her family and the Trojan people and in some versions she was often locked up in a pyramidal building on the citadel on her father King Priam’s orders with the wardress who cared for her under orders to inform him of all of his daughter's "prophetic utterances".[10] She was driven truly insane by this in the versions where she was incarcerated, though in the versions where she was not, she was usually viewed as being simply misunderstood.

In according to legend, Cassandra had instructed her twin brother Helenus in the power of prophecy for him to be a prophet and like her Helenus was always correct whenever he had made his predictions, but unlike his sister people believed him.

Cassandra made many predictions with almost all of her prophecies not being believed except for one. She was believed when she foresaw who Paris was and proclaimed that he was her abandoned brother after he had sought refuge in the altar of Zeus from their brothers’ wrath which resulted in him reuniting with their family.[11] Cassandra foresaw that Paris’s abduction of Helen for her to be his wife would bring about the Trojan War and cause the destruction of Troy. She did warn Paris not to go to Sparta along with Helenus who echoed her prophecy, but their warnings ended up being ignored. [12] Cassandra ended up seeing Helen coming into Troy at Paris's return home from Sparta and she furiously snatched away Helen's golden veil and tore at her hair for she had foreseen the calamites of the Trojan War that Helen's arrival would bring and cause Troy to be destroyed, but the Trojan people gave Helen a warm welcome into their city. [13] While Cassandra foresaw the destruction of Troy (she warned the Trojans about the Greeks hiding inside the Trojan Horse, Agamemnon’s death and 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 her children Electra and Orestes), she was unable to do anything to forestall these tragedies since no one believed her. [14] Cassandra predicted that her cousin Aeneas would escape during the fall of Troy and found a new nation in Rome.[15]

Coroebus and Othronus came to the aid of Troy during the Trojan War out of love for Cassandra in exchange for her hand in marriage. Priam decided to betroth Cassandra to Telephus’s son Eurypyplus after Telephus had reinforced the Trojans by sending them an army of Mysians to come to defend Troy for them.[16] 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 she had foreseen about the Greek warriors hiding in the Trojan Horse while they were celebrating their victory over the Greeks with feasting, but she was not believed by them and this caused them to call her names and degrade her with insults.[17] She did grab an axe in one hand and a burning torch in her other hand and ended up running towards the Trojan Horse intent on destroying it herself to stop the Greeks from destroying Troy, but the Trojan people stopped her before she could do so. The Greeks hiding inside of the Trojan Horse were relieved that the Trojans had stopped Cassandra from destroying it, but they were surprised by how well she had known of their plan to defeat Troy.[18]

At the fall of Troy, Cassandra sought shelter in the temple of Athena and there she embraced the wooden statue of Athena in supplication for her protection, where she was abducted and brutally raped by Ajax the Lesser. Cassandra was clinging so tightly to the statue of the goddess that Ajax knocked it over from its stand as he dragged her away.[19] One account claimed that even Athena, who had worked hard to help the Greeks destroy Troy, was not able to restrain her tears, burned her cheeks with anger, and caused her image to give forth a sound that shook the floor of the temple at the sight of Cassandra’s rape before her image turned its eyes away as Cassandra was violated although others found this account to be too bold. [20] Ajax committed sacrilege since as Cassandra was a supplicant of Athena he should have left her alone for supplicants were untouchable in the sanctuary of a god under the protection of that god and he did commit another sacrilege since he raped her inside the temple Athena despite it being strictly forbidden for people to have intercourse in the temple of a god.[21] Odysseus demanded to the other Greek leaders that Ajax should be stoned to death for his crimes which had enraged Athena and the other gods, but Ajax ended up saving himself from their wrath as none of them had dared to punish him as he had clung as a suppliant to Athena’s altar proclaiming his innocence of his crimes with an oath. [22] Athena was furious over the Greeks’ failure to punish Ajax for his crime over his rape of Cassandra in her temple and she gravely punished them with the help of Poseidon and Zeus as Poseidon sent storms and strong winds for her to destroy much of the Greek fleet on their way home from Troy. She punished Ajax herself by causing him to have a terrible death though the sources of his death differ. The Locrians had to atone for Ajax's great sacrilege against Cassandra in Athena's temple as they were obliged to send two maidens to Troy every year to serve as slaves in Athena's temple there for a thousand years, but if they were caught by the inhabitants before they reached the temple they were executed. [23]

Some versions told that Cassandra had intentionally left a chest behind in Troy which she had placed a curse on it to whichever Greek would open it first.[24] 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 for when he opened the chest; on seeing the image of the god, he went mad. [25]

Cassandra was 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. 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 had been sent to the Elysian Fields after her death as her soul was one of the ones judged worthy enough from her dedication to the gods and her religious nature during her life to be there.[3]

Cassandra was buried either at Amyclae or Mycenae for the two towns disputed the possession of it. [26] She had been buried most likely in Mycenae. Heinrich Schliemann was certain that he had discovered Cassandra’s tomb when he had excavated Mycenae since he had found the remains of a woman and two infants in one of the circle graves at Mycenae. [27]

Agamemnon by Aeschylus[edit]

Ajax taking Cassandra, tondo of a red-figure kylix by the Kodros Painter, c. 440-430 BC, Louvre

In Aeschylus' Agamemnon, the king, treading the scarlet cloth laid down for him, walks offstage to his sure death at line 972. After the chorus's ode of foreboding, time is suspended in Cassandra's "mad scene".[4] 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,[5] but she speaks, disconnectedly and transcendent, in the grip of her psychic possession by Apollo,[6] witnessing past and future events. According to Seth Schein, "She evokes the same awe, horror and pity as do schizophrenics",.[7] Cassandra is someone "who often combine deep, true insight with utter helplessness, and who retreat into madness." Eduard Fraenkel remarked[8] 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.[9]

Modern adaptations[edit]

A modern psychological perspective on Cassandra is presented by Eric Shanower in Age of Bronze: Sacrifice. In this version, Cassandra, as a child, is assaulted by a priest of Apollo.

In the DC comic The Sandman, Delirium, one of The Endless, has some form of prophetic knowledge but due to her chaotic nature, her prophecies almost never make sense until it is too late and no other character recognizes them.[citation needed]

A similar situation occurred in Lindsay Clarke's novel The Return from Troy (presented as a reawakened memory), where a priest of Apollo forced himself upon Cassandra and was stopped only when she spat in his mouth. When the priest used his benevolent reputation to convince Priam that he was innocent of her wild claims, Cassandra subsequently went insane.

The story of Cassandra is also retold by German author Christa Wolf in Kassandra. She retells the story from the point of view of Cassandra at the moment of her death and uses the tale as an allegory for both the unheard voice of the woman writer and the oppression and strict censorship in East Germany.

Cassandra is the main protagonist of the eponymous play by the Ukrainian author Lesya Ukrainka.

The author Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote a fantasy novel called The Firebrand, which presents a story from Cassandra's point of view. Marcus Sedgwick's novel The Foreshadowing features a protagonist named Alexandra who has the gift of foresight, though she sees mainly others' pain and death.[citation needed]

In David Gemmell's Troy trilogy, Cassandra is credited with opening the mind of exiled Egyptian prince Gershom (Moses) to his own gift of prophecy. Cassandra got her gift after suffering from 'brain-fever' as a young child, and dies in the volcanic eruption of Thera.

In the section Cassandra of Suggestions for Thought to Searchers after Religious Truth, Florence Nightingale protests the over-feminization of women into near helplessness, such as what Nightingale saw in her mother's and older sister's lethargic lifestyle despite their education. The work also reflects her fear of her ideas being ineffective, as were Cassandra's.

In Hector Berlioz’s opera Les Troyens (1863), based on Virgil's The Aeneid, Cassandra commits suicide with other Trojan women as Troy falls, rather than being raped by Ajax. She dies with the word “Italy” on her lips, presaging (in prophetess mode) her cousin Aeneas’s eventual founding of Rome. This is a role written for a dramatic mezzosoprano, whose most important interpreters in the last years were singers like Petra Lang, Jessye Norman and Anna Caterina Antonacci.

In the 2001-2011 television series Smallville, the Season 1 episode "Hourglass" features a character named "Cassandra Carver" (played by Jackie Burroughs), an elderly woman who can see the future.

In the 1997-2003 television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the seventh season episode "Help" features a character named "Cassie Newton" (played by Azura Skye), a teenage girl who can see the future, such as her own death, her best friend's history test results, the protagonist Buffy Summers' future battle with The First in "Chosen," etc.[citation needed]

In The Secret Series by Pseudonymous Bosch, the narrator gives each character a fake name to hide their identity (for the characters' protection). The name he gives the main protagonist is "Cassandra", or "Cass" for short, naming her after Cassandra of the myth, as Cass is always predicting dangerous events.

An episode of BBC science fiction sit-com Red Dwarf called 'Cassandra' depicts the ship's crew dealing with a computer called 'Cassandra' who can predict the future with "an accuracy rating of 100%."

Cassandra appears as a main character in Disney's Hercules voiced by Sandra Bernhard. She appears as a friend of Hercules and Icarus. Like in mythology, she could foresee the future and was generally unbelieved until the event happens. This has caused her to be pessimistic to humorous levels.

In J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, the Divination professor is said to be the great-great-granddaughter of "the celebrated Seer Cassandra Trelawney." (See: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, chapter 15)

In Theresa Tomlinson's novel "The Moon Rider," Cassandra becomes a Moon Rider and is presented as Trojan princess promised to Apollo.

The musical group 'ABBA' has a song named "Cassandra" including the lyrics "But none of us would listen to words of warning", and "Sorry Cassandra, I didn't believe you really had the power; I only saw it as dreams you would weave, until the final hour."

Norwegian gothic metal band, Theatre of Tragedy wrote a song titled "Cassandra" on their 1998 album, Aégis. Each song on the album dealt with a famous female figure in folklore or mythology.

The artist Emmy the Great has a song called "Cassandra" on her second album, "Virtue". The song refers to Cassandra's prophetic power and inability to change the future: "And daily, you saw it come, And you gave warning but couldn't run, And so you watched until it was broken, And knew that foresight delays no motion."

In the 1997 horror film, Scream 2, the main character of Sidney Prescott plays the title role of Cassandra in her college's play about the myth. She is shown rehearsing a scene from after the fall of Troy.

In Sheri S. Tepper's post-apocalyptic novel The Gate to Women's Country, the women put on a performance of a play entitled "Iphigenia at Ilium", which tells the story of the Siege of Troy from the point of view of the women in the story, including Cassandra. Cassandra appears as a ghost in the play.

In the film 12 Monkeys, Cassandra is referenced by a protagonist who has difficulty believing a time-traveler from the future.

In the Dresden Files series, the protagonist meets a character afflicted with Cassandra's Tears, well known in-universe among the supernatural community. The victim is seized with visions of the future, which always come to pass but are never believed by others. The condition itself might be considered a Cassandra affliction, in addition to the visions - there is no physical or psychic evidence of it on a person, so others often do not believe that they have it.

In the 1995 film, Mighty Aphrodite, one of the Greek Chorus is Cassandra.

In the 2009 film, Push, one of the main character, Cassie Holmes, played by Dakota Fanning, has the power to see glimpses of the future.

Modern usage[edit]

In more modern literature, Cassandra has often served as a model for tragedy and romance, and has given rise to the archetypal character of someone whose prophetic insight is obscured by insanity, turning their revelations into riddles or disjointed statements that are not fully comprehended until after the fact.

In his 2011 novel The Diviner's Tale,[10] Bradford Morrow names the protagonist Cassandra. She is a Diviner, also called a water-witch or dowser, who finds spots for wells and ponds in the back country, for farmers and developers. Cassandra foretells a murder that seems unlikely at first, and then impossible, but finally proves to be prophetic and leads to the discovery of a serial murderer.

A manga called "Uncassandra" by Hifumishi Gorou refers to Cassandra's prophetic ability and stars two people who have the ability to predict disasters, but who decide to sabotage their own prophecies and prevent the disasters they've seen from occurring.

Greek and Latin sources[edit]

Quintus Smyrnaeus: Posthomerica (after Homer)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hjalmar Frisk (1970) notes "unexplained etymology", citing "various hypotheses" found in Schulze Kleine Schriften (1966), 698, Hoffmann Glotta 28, 52, Sturtevant Class. Phil. 21, 248f., J. Davreux La légende de la prophétesse Cassandre (Paris 1942) 90ff., Carnoy Les ét. class. 22, 344.
  2. ^ Compare Melampus; Athena cleaned the ears of Tiresias
  3. ^ Westmoreland, p. 179
  4. ^ Schein, Seth L. (1982). "The Cassandra Scene in Aeschylus' 'Agamemnon'". Greece & Rome. Second Series 29 (1): 11–16. doi:10.1017/S0017383500028278. 
  5. ^ Or descriptions of madness, such as that of Heracles in The Women of Trachis or Io in Prometheus Bound, two further familiar examples cited by Schein 1982:11.
  6. ^ The chorus find her to be "crazed in mind and transported by a god" (Agamemnon, 1140).
  7. ^ Schein 1982:12
  8. ^ Fraenkel, Kleine Beiträge zur klassische Philologie , vol. I (Rome) 1964, 344-48, 375-87, noted in Schein 1982:11 note 6
  9. ^ Analyses of the Cassandra scene are in Bernard Knox Word and Action: Eassays on the Ancient theatre (Baltimore and London: Penguin) 1979:42-55; and more briefly, in Anne Lebeck, The Oresteia: A study in language and structure (Washington) 1971:52-58.
  10. ^ Morrow, Bradford. "The Diviner's Tale". Houghton Mifflin. 

Further reading[edit]

Primary sources[edit]

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