History tells us Cassandra was a Trojan princess, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba, sister of brave Hector. While still young, Cassandra caught the eye of Apollo, who promised her the gift of prophecy if she would return his love. She readily agreed, but when Apollo tried to collect on Cassandra’s end of the deal, she refused him—either because she had taken a vow of chastity, or because she considered it a woman’s prerogative to change her mind. Alas, you can’t do the gods like that, Cassandra.
Apollo, angry at having been rejected, asked Cassandra to grant him a kiss. Cassandra consented, but as they were kissing, Apollo spat in Cassandra’s mouth, putting a hex on her gift: she could still predict the future, but no one would ever believe her. After that cursed kiss, it was all downhill for Cassandra and Troy. Such is the way of the gods who rule Olympus.
You see, Cassandra couldn’t stop talking, and even though no one ever believed her, it never stopped her from trying. When Paris was born, she insisted he be killed because he would be the downfall of his people. Later, when Paris brought Helen to Troy, Cassandra threw off her golden veil and pulled at her hair, but to no avail—Helen was welcomed warmly and Cassandra was locked up in a room to keep her from causing more trouble.
Imagine Cassandra’s frustration and the burden of her cursed gift. An Oracle’s principle responsibility was protection of homeland and people, but no one could ever remember that what Cassandra had told them was true. The more she ranted, raved and implored, the more insults and indignities she had to suffer.
When the wooden horse was wheeled into Troy, it was Cassandra who screamed, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts!”, coining a term passed down through the ages. She begged the Trojans to destroy the horse, warning them that enemy forces were hidden inside, and when she was once again shunned and ridiculed, she grabbed a torch and tried to set fire to the horse herself. But the Trojans, once again, subdued Cassandra and locked her away.
Woe is Cassandra. Woe is Troy.
“Mad with zeal, and blinded with our fate, we haul along the horse in solemn state; then place the dire portent within the tower. Cassandra cried, and crushed the unhappy hour; foretold our fate; but, by the god’s decree, all heard, and none believed the prophecy.”
—The Trojan Women
As the Greeks poured out of the wooden horse and wreaked havoc through Troy—burning, looting, raping, and enslaving—Cassandra found sanctuary in the temple of Athena, clinging to a statue of the goddess for protection. Cassandra, whom the god Apollo had left a virgin, was found by Ajax The Lesser who grabbed her by the hair, pulled her from the statue, and violated her in the sanctuary of Athena. The Greeks stood outside, too afraid to enter, discussing what they should do. Odysseus suggested killing Ajax, but in the end, the Greeks did nothing, and Cassandra was given as a war prize to Agamemnon. As the Greeks dragged Cassandra to their ships, she continued offering visions of the future. “Your soldiers will never make it home,” she told Odysseus. But the Greeks only laughed, as her own people had. “Madness,” they said. This was the beginning of many years of anguish for the Greeks.
Doing violence to a supplicant in a holy sanctuary was the worst sacrilege of ancient Greece. Athena—who had sided with the Greeks during the war—was furious, to say the least. Her wrath was deep, she borrowed Zeus’s thunderbolt and asked Poseidon to join her in a bitter homecoming for the Greeks.
“I will impose on them a return that is no return. Stir up your waters with wild whirlwinds when they sail. Let dead men choke the bays and line the shores and reefs. “
—Athena, Daughters of Troy
The Greeks were punished with a terrible tempest as soon as they set sail for home. Agamemnon came close to losing all his ships; Menelaus was blown to Egypt; and the arch-sinner—the sacrilegious Ajax—was drowned. At the height of the storm, Athena hit his ship with a thunderbolt causing it to shatter and sink. Ajax somehow succeeded in swimming to a rock and would have been saved if not for his gargantuan ego. Pride always incites the anger of the gods. Ajax bragged that even the gods couldn’t drown him, so Poseidon used his trident to break off the jagged rock Ajax was clinging to and he was swept away to his death.
Odysseus didn’t lose his life, but his suffering lasted the longest. He was swept so far off course, he wandered for ten years, from one perilous adventure to another, before finally finding Ithaka again. After ten long years, Athena’s fury over the rape of Cassandra had abated—towards Odysseus anyway.
Agamemnon wandered long enough for Cassandra to give birth to twins. He returned home to Mycenae unscathed, a triumphant conqueror of Troy. “O Victory now mine, be mine forever” said Agamemnon. But there was a dark, anxious foreboding in the crowd that greeted Agamemnon’s return. His Queen, Clytemnestra, came out to meet her husband, her head held high. Agamemnon entered his long-awaited home where Clytemnestra’s accomplice and lover, Aegisthus, was lying in wait.
The anxious Mycenaeans turned to the captive Trojan princess, beautiful but strange-looking, they had heard of her prophetic ravings.
Cassandra began to speak.
Come sweet Muse. Come help me sing this dirge.
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