Cassandra (possibly fl. around 1200 BCE)

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Cassandra (possibly fl. around 1200 bce)

Trojan woman, possibly mythical, who became a prototype for historical sibyls.

Although the historicity of Cassandra's life is questionable, she became a prototype for the historical sibyls (female prophets widely dispersed throughout the Mediterranean world in antiquity). In the alleged manner of Cassandra, the sibyls successfully utilized oracular madness for centuries. Nevertheless—unlike Cassandra—sibyls were highly regarded and closely heeded until the advent of Christianity.

Legendary child of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, Cassandra was renowned as their most beautiful daughter. Whether or not there is any germ of historical truth behind the stories associated with her is unknown. Myth maintains that her beauty was so great as to attract the lust of the god Apollo, who, in bargaining for her sexual favors, is said to have bestowed upon her the power of prophesy. Granted a seer's insight and the god's promise never to revoke the precious gift, Cassandra thereafter spurned Apollo's advances. Not to be tricked by a mere mortal, however, Apollo qualified his "benefaction" by ensuring that no one would ever believe her foretellings. The most common theme running through the "life" of Cassandra associates her great beauty with ruination—of both her city and her self. At the time of her brother Paris' birth, she was thought by some to have predicted that he would be the ruin of Troy. This is said to have led to Paris' exposure, but eventual rescue by a shepherd brought her prediction to pass. (As in other myths, mere mortals could not escape fate.) The destinies of Cassandra and Paris remained intertwined; some believed that Cassandra foretold that Paris' journey to Sparta, where he met and abducted Helen, would lead to disaster for Troy. Another prophesy ignored by those Cassandra would try to save was her prediction that the Trojan horse would lead to Troy's fall. Another tale that associated Cassandra with Troy's destruction told that she was the first of her people (except Priam) to see her brother Hector's dead body as it was returned to Troy.

Cassandra's tragedy was that her fate was so linked with that of her city—and that she, like Troy, would be destroyed by beauty. Apollo was not the only male smitten by Cassandra, but unlike Apollo those mortal men who fell under her spell suffered the severest of consequences. Two would-be suitors, Coroebus of Phrygia and Othryoneus of Cabesus, fell to Greek spears before they could win Cassandra as a wife.

Cassandra's rape by the Locrian Ajax (the "lesser" Ajax, one of the second rank of Greek heroes at Troy) had far-reaching consequences. After Troy had fallen, Ajax is reported to have raped her at an altar of Athena, knocking over the image of the goddess in the process. When the Greek horde refused to punish Ajax for his impiety, the irate Athena (angry more for where the rape occurred than for the rape itself) convinced Zeus and Poseidon to attack the homeward-bound Greek armada with a great storm, in which many perished and many others were swept far from home (in Odysseus' case, for ten years). Ajax himself was either drowned or struck by a thunderbolt immediately after the tempest. One Greek who was undisturbed by the fleet's fate was King Agamemnon, but he, too, made the mistake of loving Cassandra, whom he made his slave and by whom he is said to have fathered two sons (Teledamus and Pelops). Although she was not responsible for the murderous wrath of Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra, Cassandra's very beauty enhanced that queen's ire, with the result that Cassandra and her hated master were murdered by Clytemnestra shortly after their arrival at Mycenae. Thus, myth has Cassandra end her days as the reluctant concubine of a hated enemy, murdered in a foreign land for reasons only hazily understood. Thought to be buried near Amyclae, Cassandra was as isolated in death from the bosom of her homeland and people as she had been during life after her unfortunate tryst with a randy god.

William S. Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California