Greek Mythology: Cassandra – the Gift and the Curse of Apollo

Cassandra by Evelyn De Morgan [Public domain] (cropped)

Cassandra

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a prophetess who could accurately foretell the future but was never believed.  This talent had been a gift from the god Apollo but when she rejected his advances he cursed her so that her predictions were never believed. She was also known as Kassandra and occasionally Alexandra.   Her parents were King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy and she had a twin brother named Helenus. Paris, whose abduction of Helen of Sparta helped spark the Trojan War was one of her brothers, as was the Trojan hero and war leader Hector. According to legend although very beautiful and intelligent she was regarded as being insane.

The Gift and the Curse

She served as a priestess of Apollo and took a vow of chastity swearing to remain a virgin for life.  In some versions of her story Apollo seeking to win her love gave her the power of prophecy on the condition that she bestowed her favors upon him.  However, after receiving the gift she went back on her word. With the gift of a divine power already given Apollo could not take it away so he added a curse to it. Although she would predict the future accurately her predictions would never be believed. In some later versions she receives her prophecies from a snake that whispered to her as she slept in the temple. 

The Gift of Prophecy

The gift of prophecy should have brought her great esteem and reverence among her people but the curse of Apollo turned it into a terrible blight on her life.  Although her predictions were always correct no one would believe her.  She was forced to watch her predictions unfold unable to do anything to alleviate their consequences until it was too late.  Her family and the Trojan people regarded her as a madwoman and a liar.  She was locked up on the orders of her father and her wardress was ordered to report all of her prophecies to him.

Cassandra by Evelyn De Morgan [Public domain]

Helenus

Cassandra had a twin brother named Helenus whom she taught how to foretell the future.  His prophecies were just as accurate as his sister’s but where her’s were disbelieved his were generally believed. She had predicted the death of her mother and had foreseen that the abduction of Helen by Paris would lead to the Trojan War warning him not to go to Sparta.  When Paris returned with Helen, Cassandra attacked her tearing away Helen’s golden veil and tearing at her hair because she knew her arrival in Troy heralded the ultimate destruction of the city.

Cassandra’s Prophecies

Cassandra had correctly prophesied the fall of Troy warning of the Trojan Horse concealing Greek soldiers. She also correctly foretold of the ten year journey and the return  of Odysseus. She predicted how her cousin Aeaneas would escape the destruction of Troy and is descendants  Romulus and Remus would found Rome. 

After the Greeks had captured the city she was taken by Agamemnon as one of the spoils of war.  Despite being consistently accurate with her predictions she continued to be disregarded and ignored to the cost of others and herself. She  forewarned him of a plot by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, to both kill him and her but he ignored her and both were murdered.  

The Love of Coroebus

Coroebus, the son of King Mygdon of Phrygia fought on the side of the Trojans because he was in love with Cassandra. During the Sack of Troy he persuaded some of the Trojan defenders such as Aeneas to disguise themselves by wearing the enemy armour.  He tried to defend Cassandra from rape by Ajax the Lesser but was killed in her defence.

Othryoneus

Another suitor mentioned in the Illiad, by Homer was Othryoneus from Cabesos.  He took part in the war on the side of the Trojans solely with the purpose of marriage to Cassandra which her father, King Priam had agreed to.  However, he was killed by Idomeneus in the Battle of Ships who cruelly mocked him as he lay dying.

Cassandra in Greek Drama

There are several versions of the story of Cassandra in Greek drama.  Quintus Smyrnaeus in The Fall of Troy, tells how Cassandra desperately tried to warn the Trojans of the danger presented by the Trojan Horse during a victory feast over the Greeks.  The Trojans refused to believe her. In desperation she grabbed a burning torch and an axe and ran towards the wooden horse intent on destroying it and the Greeks hidden inside. The disbelieving Trojans stopped her sealing their own fate.  The Greeks inside the wooden horse could see and hear what was happening but would have been helpless should the horse have been torched. They were greatly relieved she failed but alarmed she had so quickly and easily realized their plan.

Carlo Raso from Naples, Italy [Public domain]

Nevertheless, when the time was right the Greeks put their plan into action and caught the Trojans by surprise.  As they took control of the city Cassandra sought sanctuary in the temple of Athena but was followed by Ajax the Lesser.  Coroebus tried to defend her but was killed and although she embraced the feet of the statue of Athena begging her protection Ajax dragged her from it and raped her.  According to some accounts despite the goddess Athena’s support for the Greeks she found this act by Ajax abhorrent and the cheeks of the statue flushed red in anger.  Tears fell from her eyes which she averted so that she would not see the violation and made a sound that caused the floor to tremble and shake. The goddess was enraged and demanded the Greeks punish Ajax.

Despite Odysseus calling for him to be stoned to death the Greeks would not carry it out because Ajax clung to the feet of Athena.  However Athena was furious at the Greeks for not bringing Ajax to justice and sought the help of Poseidon and Zeus. As the victorious Greeks sailed home from Troy Poseidon sent storms and strong winds which sank much of the fleet and Athena herself killed Ajax.

The Cursed Chest

According to some sources Cassandra had left a cursed chest in Troy intended for the first Greek who should open it.  The chest contained an image of Dionysus which had been created by Hephaestus and given to the Trojans by Zeus. The chest was given to Eurypylus, a Greek war lord as part of his reward for helping fight the Trojans.  When he opened it he saw the image and was instantly struck by madness

The Cassandra Syndrome

It was said that when she died her soul went into to the Elysian Fields the resting place of good and worthy souls.  She also became a figure of epic tradition and tragedy. The Cassandra Syndrome is a term named after her because it applies to predictions of doom by some oracle or prophet that are disbelieved and rejected when made but later prove to be true.  It is a form of psychological denial blocking out bad, unwelcome news or inevitable outcomes. This leaves the seer in the dilemma of knowing that something good or bad will happen but powerless to influence the outcome because no one will act upon their prediction to change or minimise the impact of the prediction.

© 15/01/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright December 15th, 2020 zteve t evans

9 thoughts on “Greek Mythology: Cassandra – the Gift and the Curse of Apollo

  1. Pingback: Greek Mythology: Cassandra – the Gift and the Curse of Apollo — Under the influence! – yazım'yazgısı (typography)

  2. Cassandra is such an interesting character, Zteve, but I must admit I’d forgotten completely about her brother Helenus! You’re a Doctor Who fan, aren’t you–what do you make of the Doctor’s recurring foe Cassandra? [You don’t have to answer that if you’re too busy!] In any case, thanks for the refreshers on Cassandra–again, this is fascinating stuff and I’m glad you’re making people aware and educating them!

    • Hi Leigh, lovely to hear from you! From what I remember Dr Who’s villainous Cassandra is indeed very evil, whereas the Prophetess Cassandra is in many ways tragic. Maybe the villain’s continuous refusal to accept death is a form of the Cassandra Syndrome but I really am not sure. Anyway thanks for commenting, greatly appreciated!

      • I think you may be right about DW’s Cassandra, though I’d have to go back and rewatch it to be sure. There might be touch of tragedy in DW’s Cassandra, too. Anyhow, happy writing!

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