Understanding the Myth: Why Cassandra Must Not be Silenced

Understanding the Myth: Why Cassandra Must Not be Silenced

by Laura A. Shamas

July 13, 2011

The archetype of Cassandra may be seen as a key symbol for women who warn of the dire and immutable consequences of war. The myth of Cassandra – her predictions and the costs of ignoring her — carries an important message for those in anti-war movements even today.

Cassandra was the female figure in Greek mythology who predicted the Trojan War and its devastation. Cassandra warned of violence connected to the Trojan Horse, and of the ultimate destiny of Paris, who she said would bring about the downfall of Troy. She predicted her father King Priam’s negative spiral, foreseeing that he would return with his son Hector’s body. Cassandra’s predictions were ignored and Troy was ruined. She was branded “treasonous” and mad.

As written by Aeschylus in Agamemnon, Cassandra said:

“Alas for the toil, the toil of a City, worn unto death!
Alas for my father’s worship before the citadel,
The flocks that bled and the tumult of their breath!
But no help from them came
To save Troy Towers from falling as they fell!…
And I on the earth shall writhe, my heart aflame.”

There are several different versions of Cassandra’s myth, variations added through time. In most of them, Cassandra has a complicated relationship with the god Apollo, who is credited with giving Cassandra the gift of foresight.

According to one version of her myth, Cassandra was the mortal daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba, the royal rulers of Troy. The legend held that King Priam had 50 sons and 50 daughters. While she was in Apollo’s temple, the god Apollo himself came to visit beautiful Cassandra, and offered her the divine gift of psychic powers. There was only one catch: she had to sleep with him. After Apollo gave Cassandra the ability to prognosticate, she refused to be with him romantically, angering the deity. In revenge, Apollo cursed her: according to his abrasive vow, Cassandra could still predict the future, but no one would ever believe her. She would become an outcast.

In another mythic rendition of her origin, as recounted in Pierre Grimal’s The Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Cassandra had a twin brother, Helenus. While their parents celebrated the duo’s birth (and were not watching the children), two snakes came upon the babes and licked their ears clean. In the morning, the snakes slithered into sacred laurels, a sign of Apollo. Afterward, Cassandra and Helenus had the gift of prophecy.

When Apollo, irate and rejected, later sought revenge, he took away Cassandra’s confidence in her predictions. Through his curse, she began to doubt her own worth. Although her insights had cultural and spiritual import, no one believed or heeded her. She was marginalized and called “crazy.” Her vigorous outcries against patriarchal conventions began to bear consequences; she was isolated. Depressed and alone, Cassandra went “mad.” She sought refuge in the Temple of Athena, where she was pursued and attacked by Ajax, even as she held fast to Athena’s statue. She was eventually given over to Agamemnon, as part of the spoils of the Trojan war. She died tragically, beheaded by Clytemnestra, who was angry about Agamemnon’s betrayal of their marriage.

Cassandra’s journey as an anti-war visionary who is ignored and belittled relates to the psychology of anti-war feminists today. When one sees, with certitude, a dark vision for the future, and then is ignored, or worse — dismissed or “cursed” as irrelevant, “anti-patriotic,” and powerless — what is the effect on the psyche? Patterns revealed in the Cassandra model suggest that after the shock of disbelief wears away, a numbing ambivalence sets in — a prelude to madness. Jungian analyst Laurie Layton Schapira writes of this tripartite psychological sequence — disbelief, ambivalence, madness — in her 1988 book The Cassandra Complex: Living With Disbelief. Schapira concludes with observations about society’s damnation of the Cassandra woman who “threaten[s] the conservative order. Thus she speaks treason…we shall continue to attack her for bearing bad tidings. We must be aware, however, that in many cases she bears true witness and neither she, nor we, can any longer afford to disbelieve. The Cassandra woman who escaped the curse of the patriarchal Apollo speaks for a new age. “

It is Apollo’s revenge on Cassandra that forces the female seer to live in a state of “disbelief” — of not being respected by society or recognized for her anti-war foresight, which could have saved a kingdom. Cassandra’s confidence in her own abilities, predictions and talent for intuiting the “Truth” are eroded. Insecure and anxious, she begins to doubt that her voice and visions matter. Her role in society as a futurist and spiritual leader is jeopardized.

Apollo loses, too, though. Apollo, the god of prophecy, must go on without Cassandra’s love or the use of her magnificent spiritual talents — especially important to him because of his deep connection to the Oracle of Pythia. By denying Cassandra, Apollo rejects an aspect of himself, cutting off, in effect, a part and product of his own divinity.

Myths are stories which detail patterns of human behavior repeated through millennia. Cassandra’s myth reminds us that anti-war female voices do matter and must heard, even when caught in cultural cycles of “disbelief.” Cassandra must not be silenced. According to myth, her protests must be voiced. If Cassandra’s warnings had been heeded, there would have been no bloody Trojan War. The psychological impact on Cassandra to speak against the patriarchy was heavy. She was ostracized. But myth shows that Cassandra’s female voice is needed to warn about war, to provide balance and insight, to shout of the dire ramifications of violent cycles: to try to save us.

Laura A. Shamas, Ph.D., is a writer and mythologist. Her writing intersects film, non-fiction, and theater; her myth essays have been published in The L.A. Times, Newsday, and Ecopsychology Journal, and other places. Laura’s “Pop Mythology: Collected Essays” will be released later this year. See www.laurashamas.com.