“They would not listen, they’re not listening still. Perhaps they never will.”
—Don McLean “Vincent”
With a name that defines incredulity itself, it is no wonder that Cassandra—the cursed Trojan prophetess—has a hard time being taken seriously. Scorned throughout the ages, Cassandra was infamously disregarded and frequently reviled by her countrymen. Even her own mother ridiculed her. Today she has a psychiatric syndrome named in her honor for those suffering from undue hysterical negativity. In short, she gets no respect. But why such indignation toward her?
If her compatriots had heeded her guidance, the Trojan War might have ended differently for them, or it may not have begun at all. It was Cassandra, after all, who foretold the demise of Troy on account of a trip to Sparta made by her errant brother, Paris. In one tradition, she even suggests that her parents kill him as an infant—-which in hindsight may have been sage advice.
What is more, she predicts Troy’s destruction if they accept the gifted horse, “But by god’s will, Troy would never listen.” Although always disbelieved, her dire predictions were spot on. Even so, there is no point in being an incredulous prophetess. So how were other soothsayers treated in ancient Greece? And what about another priestess of Apollo—-the most highly revered Oracle of Delphi? How was Cassandra’s form of soothsaying different from those of her historical contemporaries?
Born a Trojan princess to King Priam and Queen Hecuba, Cassandra’s early life was one of privilege. Though she was famed for being a virgin priestess to Apollo, virginity, in the ancient world, had more than one meaning. Besides signifying chastity, it could highlight and draw attention to the fact that a woman was not married. Markedly, Cassandra never married… and so perhaps this was reason enough to distrust her. After all, she was a free agent. No man had any authority over her.
She was also reputed to be the most beautiful of Priam’s nineteen daughters; Homer describes her as the “peer of Aphrodite.” Because of her great beauty, the most handsome of all gods, Apollo, who was the divinity of just about everything including poetry, truth, and oracles, promised her the gift of prophecy in return for sexual favors. But for all his good looks, Apollo was unlucky with the ladies. Cassandra was quick to accept Apollo’s gift of prophecy… and then clung to her virginity like a badge of honor and then refused to own up to her end of the bargain. Being a soothsayer, she should have known that spurning the advances of a god was ill-advised. Unable to revoke a divinely decreed power, Apollo retaliated by ordaining that all Cassandra’s prophecies were never to be believed.
Forasmuch as Cassandra has been identified as a seer throughout the ages, surprisingly of the four times she is mentioned in the Iliad, Homer does not refer to her soothsaying skills. It is not until Aeschylus’s first play of the Oresteia (458 BCE) trilogy titled Agamemnon that her prophetic powers are most fully realized.
For Cassandra, the antecedent action leading up to the play was as eventful as the play itself. Woefully, being a disbelieved prophetess was only half of Cassandra’s troubles. This virgin priestess who prized her chastity amongst her dearest possessions was twice violated by Greek “heroes” after the sack of Troy. During the pillage, Cassandra had taken refuge in the Temple of Athena, where the appropriately named Ajax “the Lesser” dragged her from the temple and savagely raped her. For this sacrilege, Athena—-acting in concert with the god of the sea, Poseidon—–dispatched a storm that would sink most of the Greek fleet on its long journey home. But even that was not the end of Cassandra’s troubles. A blight to women everywhere, Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and commander of the Greek fleet, took Cassandra as pallake (concubine). The prize possession of his booty treasure trove. After ten long years of raping and pillaging his way through Troy, the play begins when Agamemnon returns to Mycenae with the hapless Cassandra in tow.
In her only scene of the play— at over two-hundred-fifty lines—- Cassandra’s part is larger than that of the eponymous hero. To be sure, soon after Agamemnon is given a warm welcome home, his wife, Clytemnestra, is eager for him to meet his maker. Clytemnestra draws a bath for the weary warrior, wraps Agamemnon in robes and then hacks him to death. Make no mistake, although Agamemnon’s extracurricular activities did nothing to endear him to his wife, it was not for this alone that Clytemnestra slaughtered him.
Ten years prior at the start of the Trojan Siege, the Greek fleet was stranded at the port of Aulis because their commander had boasted that he was a better hunter than Artemis, goddess of the hunt. The incensed goddess put a curse on the Greek fleet by quelling the winds which could only be lifted if Agamemnon sacrificed his eldest daughter. Faced with the choice of inevitable defeat or filicide—a choice which would give most fathers pause—-the ever-vainglorious Agamemnon, straightaway, elected to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigeneia. Her life was the price for victory. The inhumane sacrifice of their daughter was the catalyst for Clytemnestra’s rage.
Poor Cassandra, caught in a tug-of-war between the mighty Agamemnon and the steel-willed Clytemnestra. A worse fate cannot be imagined. Although Cassandra’s part does not advance the play’s action, it gives fresh insight into her prophetic nature when her first utterance is a scream.
While her mad ramblings do nothing to inspire the chorus’s confidence in her prophetic abilities, she does more than rant and rave when she accurately depicts not only her own slaying but that of her captor, Agamemnon by howling: “Drag the great bull from the mate….she gores him through and now he buckles, look, the bath swirls red—.” But besides predicting future events, her imaginings take her back in time to the grievous filial murders and cannibalism in the House of Atreus “…to the babies wailing, skewered on the sword, their flesh charred, the father gorging on their parts–”
Though the audience fully understands the content of her speech, the chorus does not. On account of Apollo’s curse, either they are unwilling or they are unable to comprehend her. “We’d heard your fame as a seer, but no one looks for seers in Argos.” Unlike manteis (soothsayers—predominantly male) in the historical record, the indifference of the chorus toward Cassandra’s prophecies is in marked contrast to how soothsayers were valued in the Greek world.
Although seers may have been misunderstood from time to time—one thing is certain—-they were never disregarded. From gods’ lips to the prophets’ ears, soothsayers acted as intermediaries between the mortal and immortal realms. Vulnerable to life’s thousand natural shocks, divination helped give the ancients an advantage by demonstrating that the gods were either for or against some of their actions. Laypeople clung to soothsayers’ every word frequently recording and analyzing them for content.
While incredulity is part and parcel of Cassandra’s story, there are other divergences between Cassandra and historical seers in ancient Greece. Gifted with “second sight,” Cassandra was able to see with luminous clarity, not only the future, but also the past. It is perhaps an irony that soothsayers in the Greek world did little in the way of actually forecasting the future as Cassandra was wont to do. Instead, foretelling involved either approving or disapproving certain courses of action based on the seer’s interpretation of omens and signs. Oftentimes the seer would read the entrails of sacrificed animals, analyze cosmological phenomena, or in the case of bird-divining, take omens from the flights and cries of birds.
How piously the Greeks followed the guidance of seers is evident in the following historical examples. In Histories, Herodotus reports how in 479 BCE the city-state of Plataea chose not to go into battle when their seer repeatedly received bad omens over several days in the pre-battle sacrifice. But that was not the end of it, in a demonstration of incontrovertible faith, when the Persians finally invaded, the Plataeans refused a counter-attack because their seer continued to receive bad omens for battle—which in hindsight, had then become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Even in the hyper-martial city-state of Sparta, complete faith in divination was demonstrated when the king and his commanders would order soldiers to turn tail at their borders when the seer decreed inauspicious battle omens. Oftentimes such retreats were at their expense militarily.
Examples abound, in the cold, hard face of reality, Greeks remained steadfastly pious to the sacred sight of their soothsayers. This faith is notably exhibited in Greek literature when in time-honored tales disbelieved prophets are ultimately redeemed when their predictions come to pass and the skeptics find their untimely ends. Half out of her mind for always being disregarded, at long last, Cassandra is retrospectively vindicated when everything she predicts materializes.
Another priestess of Apollo with whom Cassandra has frequently been compared is the Oracle of Delphi (the Pythia). Unlike Cassandra, however, the Pythia was endowed with credulity. The most important sanctuary in the Greek world, the Delphi’s origins may reach back to the Mother Goddess (Gaia) tradition which preceded the invading Mycenaeans (1700-1050 BC) by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Considered the center of the Greek world, the sanctuary was once named Pytho after the she-serpent who watched over it. Under the Greeks, Apollo, the god, replaced Gaia, the goddess, and slew the great earth goddess dragon. The Python’s rotting corpse was called the pythein and refers to the stench “which arose from the fissure that Apollo had thrown the slain serpent” and from which the word “Pythia” is derived.
The Pythia refers not only to one seer, but to a “sisterhood of mystics” whose term was for life (though they only worked one day a month and only nine months out of the year.) Because chastity was of great significance for their holy union with Apollo, originally the Pythias were young maidens or virgins. But according to Diodorus, that changed in the third century BCE, when Echecrates the Thessalian, kidnapped and raped a Pythia priestess. Afterward, only older, married women of fifty and above could be Pythias. Although married, they had to remain chaste during their service to Apollo.
Unlike traditional soothsayers who made their prophecies by examining the entrails of sacrificed animals, analyzing cosmological events, or divining the patterns and flights of birds, the cave at the shrine of Delphi was a gateway from which the god Apollo issued forth his sacred prophecies. In this way, the priestesses were conduits for him. The Pythia would sit on a stool or tripod punctured with holes and placed at the opening of the cave so that the gasses from the cavern could enter her womb. In fact, the word “Delphi” is believed to come from the Greek delphus meaning hollow or womb.
Although the Oracle of Delphi was famed for being female, the Pythia priestesses were not free agents but worked under the supervision of a male priesthood. Looming larger in the life of the Pythia priestesses than Apollo himself, the male overseers enforced what the Pythias should wear, how old they should be, and how often they should have sex. Even details such as when and with whom they should prophesy were tightly scripted for them. Nothing was left to chance in this male-supervised religious order. Questions from the public were evaluated by the priests beforehand and, in fact, even when the Pythia was prophesizing male personnel were always present. With every move directed by their male overseers, is it possible that the Pythia priestesses were merely actors playing the roles of seers?
Skepticism aside, perhaps it was their tight scripting that led to the Oracle of Delphi being the most respected and authoritative voice amongst all the Greeks (male and female alike). They consulted with the likes of Sophocles, Aristotle, and Alexander the Great—even an areligious Thucydides believed in her predictions. Unlike the incredulity that Cassandra inspired, people from all over the world would come to consult with the Pythia, who was known for her cryptic and enigmatic predictions.
This meant that these mysterious messages were not always understood. Croesus of Lydia, perhaps is the most famed for misinterpreting the oracle’s prophecy. . He had consulted with her on whether or not he should invade a neighboring country and was told “If you go to war you will destroy a great empire“. Thinking it would lead to the destruction of the enemy nation, he went to war. But not only was Croessus defeated, he was captured. Later, he wanted to know why the oracle had misled him. He was not misled, the Pythia replied. He had been told that war would lead to the destruction of a great empire and it had led to an empire’s destruction—-his own. Croesus—like so many others—had simply misinterpreted the Delphic oracle’s somewhat ambiguous prophecy.
Over the years many have believed that the Pythia’s divinations were delivered in a frenzied fashion, much like Cassandra’s. The fumes rising from a chasm in the rock beneath the temple were believed to have induced her manic ravings. But most of the reports of her ravings came from later Roman historians and early Christians who may have had an inherent bias against the Greek female mystics. Many scholars today hold that based on accounts from earlier Greek historians, the Pythia dispensed her prophecies in a non-manic, staid, and believable fashion. It was the staid manner in which the Pythia shared her predictions that helped inspire confidence in them and was in stark contrast to the frenzied nature of Cassandra’s prophecies which provoked fear and doubt. Yet, given her true gift of prophecy, can you blame Cassandra for raving when she foresaw the doom of those around her?
Although she was cursed by the god, Apollo, it was no accident that Cassandra was female and thus easily disregarded and disbelieved in a hyper patriarchal society. The story of her incredulity would have been far less credible if she were a male soothsayer, who—-even at his most dubious—- was consistently given the benefit of the doubt. The same holds true for the famed Oracle of Delphi whose strings may have been pulled by her male overseers. For a woman to be credible in ancient Greece she had to be associated with the male order. As a single woman not yoked to marriage and representing no one but herself, Cassandra was readily ridiculed by everyone she met.
An allegory for all time, Cassandra was the voice in the wilderness who persistently told people what they did not want to hear. Though she predicted the future with on-the-nail accuracy, her guidance was neither sought after nor respected. Brandishing the courage of her convictions, a nation’s scorn did not stop her from foretelling. In Agamemnon, she cries: “I loved and they hated me, they were so blind to their own demise.”
Alas, it is not a happy ending. Try as she might, she saved no lives; in the end, she would not even save her own. As always she looked ahead, prepared to die as she had always lived, under no one’s authority but her own. Her last words: “Oh men, your destiny. When all is well a shadow can overturn it. When trouble comes a stroke of the wet sponge, and the picture’s blotted out. And that, I think that breaks the heart.”