In honor of Women’s History Month, Kate Farrell (author of Story Power) retells the story of a princess who today would resonant with the feminist and #MeToo movement.
Cassandra, also known as Princess Cassandra of Troy, was a mortal woman who played a role in Greek mythology. Her name is often associated as someone who was known to have strong prophecies, but cursed so no one would believe her. Cassandra’s story, however, is a lot more intense than that: When no one believed her predictions, there were considerable repercussions.
She accurately predicted such events as the fall of Troy and the death of Agamemnon, but her warnings went unheeded.
Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, which therefore made her a princess. One of the interesting things about Cassandra is that she had a twin sister named Helenus. Her sister, however, didn’t necessarily have a relevant place in Cassandra’s overall tale. Cassandra was blessed with good looks – she had dark brown, curly hair and large, dark brown eyes. She was also quite intelligent. The downside, however, was that she was considered insane. There are different stories that focus on her insanity and why it came to be, but one of the most widely accepted is that she was cursed by Apollo.
HOW CASSANDRA BECAME CURSED
The story of how Cassandra’s powers of prophecy became cursed change depending on the source. However, it is interesting to note that each version of the story relates to the god Apollo. Some versions of the story indicate that Cassandra desired the gift of prophecy so she went to Apollo so that he could grant it to her. In order for Apollo to grant it, however, as payment for the gift, she was to give herself to Apollo.
At the last minute, she changed her mind and wouldn’t give herself to him. Instead of taking away the gift of prophecy, Apollo left her with the gift, but he cursed her so that all those who heard her prophecies wouldn’t believe her. The gift itself was sound and her prophecies were real.
In other versions of the story, Apollo tried to force himself on her while she slept. When she awoke and refused him, he bestowed the curse on her.
ANCIENT LIT ABOUT CASSANDRA
Cassandra was mentioned through the ages by several sources, and each of these sources has a slightly different take on things. Hyginus and Aeschylus both wrote about Cassandra but had two different versions of her story.
Hyginus indicated that Apollo came to Cassandra in her sleep. According to the work, Mortal Women of the Trojan War:
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.
Aeschylus in his work, Agamemnon, also wrote about Cassandra, but his version was different. He indicated that she was cursed because she went back on a promise.
According to Aeschylus, Cassandra promised Apollo her favors, but after receiving the gift, she went back on her word and refused the god. The enraged Apollo could not revoke a divine power, so he added to it the curse that though she would see the future, nobody would believe her prophecies.
In other sources, such as Pseudo-Apollodorus, Cassandra broke no promise; the powers were given to her as an enticement. When these failed to make her love him, Apollo cursed Cassandra to always be disbelieved, in spite of the truth of her words.
Some later versions have her falling asleep in a temple, where the snakes licked (or whispered in) her ears so that she could hear the future.
Regardless of how the gift and curse came about, the myth reveals that Cassandra had the true gift of prophecy, but Apollo cursed her so that no one would ever believe her.
Note: Experts on Greek mythology, sexual harassment, and climate change see the current resonances of the myth, including the #MeToo movement, and the inability to heed scientists’ warnings.
Further, the repression of women’s voice over centuries is the key relevance of the myth of Cassandra today: Mansplaining, gaslighting, denial of women’s credibility in the workplace is widespread.
Feminist novels of Cassandra: One of the fascinating elements in contemporary Troy novels, especially The Firebrand, Daughter of Troy, Goddess, The Autobiography of Cassandra, and To Follow the Goddess, is the use of late twentieth century feminism and its rediscovery and/or recreation of ancient times when goddesses had their own religions and women were more powerful and better treated than they’ve been over the next thousands of years.
Whatever the actual truth of these modern feminist interpretations, Troy has become a symbol for this late twentieth century interest in the women of Troy and the ancient goddess religions. The Mycenaean Greeks are represented as the patriarchal, god-worshipping invaders who destroyed the matriarchal, goddess-worshipping civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean and ancient Near East, including Troy. The Fall of Troy is estimated to have occurred 1200 BCE.
The authors of The Firebrand, The Autobiography of Cassandra, Goddess, and To Follow the Goddess are women and clearly influenced by the women’s movement. https://novaonline.nvcc.edu/Eli/Troy/BbVersion/resources/women.html
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