By Dagwood "Dag" Nabbit
Epigraph: “If we pity the playthings of the gods, we must pity everyone, for such are we all.” --Lycurgus Diethylamides
Cassandra was a daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. Her name variants include Casandra, Kassandra, and Alexandra. Her twin brother was Helenus. Being a smart, beautiful Trojan princess with dark brown curly hair and dark brown eyes did her little good because her family and countrymen considered her insane, vicious, or both.
In an attempt to seduce her, the god Apollo gave her the gift of prophecy. When the seduction failed, he tweaked the gift with a curse: no one would believe her prophecies. The cursed gift caused her no end of frustration and suffering. She made many prophecies, but her family and the other Trojans considered them malicious lies or the ravings of a madwoman, except, ironically, for her identification of Paris as her abandoned brother, which saved his life and reunited him with his royal Trojan family (to Troy's doom).
She warned Paris not to go to Sparta, and predicted that his abduction of Helen, beautiful wife of the Spartan king Menelaus, would bring war and the destruction of Troy. Ignored.
Cassandra attacked Helen upon the latter's entry into Troy upon Paris's return from Sparta, foreseeing the calamities to come. Trojans restrained Cassandra and welcomed Helen, sealing the city's fate.
King Priam often had Cassandra locked up as a madling in a pyramidal building on Troy's citadel. Her only company was a wardress under orders to inform the King of all his daughter's "prophetic utterances." The imprisonment drove Princess Cassandra round the twist.
By the measure of accuracy, Cassandra's prophecies were first-rate: she foresaw the destruction of Troy; she warned the Trojans of the Greek soldiers hiding in the gift horse and the folly of taking the horse inside the city -- she threw herself at the horse to reveal its contents (but was restrained); she predicted the death of the Greek commander Agamemnon (and her own demise) at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus; and she foresaw the fate of her mother Queen Hecuba, the ten-year postwar wanderings of the Greek hero Odysseus before reaching his home in Ithaca, the murder of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra by the latter's children Electra and Orestes, and the escape of Cassandra's cousin Aeneas from the fall of Troy and his founding of a new nation (Rome). All disbelieved.
As she wrote in her diary: “v. frustrating.”
As she wrote in her diary: “v. frustrating.”
As Troy was falling, after the horseborn Greeks opened the city gates at let the rest of the Greeks inside for much plunder, rape, arson, and revenge, Cassandra sought shelter in the temple of Athena, where she embraced the wooden statue of the goddess in supplication for protection. It was for naught, luckless lass: Ajax the Lesser peeled her off the statue and brutally raped her there in the goddess's temple.
Cassandra had been clinging so tightly to Athena’s statue that when Ajax dragged her away, he knocked the statue off its stand and to the ground. Count two blasphemies against Ajax: forbidden sex on the temple grounds of the virgin goddess, and dishonoring the sacred statue.
One account said that Athena, who worked hard to help the Greeks bring Troy down, was so upset by the episode that she was “not able to restrain her tears, and her cheeks burned with anger.”
It would be pretty to imagine that Athena's tears were for Cassandra, but in the way of Greek gods they were doubtless tears of rage at how badly Ajax had treated Athena. “Pity mortals” is not much seen on the to-do lists of the deathless. Any road up, Ajax eventually got his, a nasty yarn not for now.
Cassandra, a king's daughter next became an item of war booty, a concubine of King Agamemnon of Mycenae, the victorious Greek commander who eventually fathered Cassandra's two sons, Teledamus and Pelops.
During Agamemnon's absence at Troy, his wife Clytemnestra had begun an affair with Aegisthus. The affair not only ended badly, it middled badly: among other misdeeds, the lovers murdered Agamemnon, Cassandra, Teledamus, and Pelops.
After Cassandra's murder, she went to the Elysian Fields, her soul judged worthy because of her dedication to the gods and her lifelong religious nature and devotion.
Elysium seems slender recompense for so much suffering. At the time, it was a very modest paradise, with nice weather that let the residents engage in the pastimes they enjoyed ante mortem, such as running foot races.
Not obviously much better than perpetually singing hymns in a celestial choir. I see the details of afterlife, if any, as more a matter of trust than imagination: “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has the human mind begun to imagine what God has readied for those who love him."
But this isn't about me, it's about poor Cassandra. It's said that in her mortal life she taught her twin brother Helenus how to prophesy, and he foretold the same things she did, but he was believed.
In the end it made no difference: the Trojans had mastered that costly recipe for wisdom called persistence in folly, or else their fate had already been woven, or something. The point is, when the appointed day arrived, down came its topless towers.
What if Cassandra had let Apollo have his way with her and so possessed the gift unburdened by the curse?
For one thing, she would have had a semidivine child, for the gods’ couplings are seldom without event. Who can say what would have happened along that thread?
On the main line of speculation, though, the prophesies of Helenus are suggestive: they were believed but somehow not made the basis of action. Cassandra’s ditto marks would probably not have made for a different outcome.
Any practical lessons here? Let’s throw out some candidates: (1) Try not to come to any god’s attention, because they are pitiless and care only for themselves.
(2) If you cross paths with a god, just do what he says -- think of it as being stopped by the police. Resistance is probably not just futile, but actively counterproductive. Appointment in Samarra and all that.
(3) If you cross paths with a god, it makes no difference what line you take -- the tapestry has been woven, the script written.
Well, this exercise is certainly lugubrious, so let’s end with a thought of faithful Penelope’s weaving. It was undone each night and woven anew each day. Maybe we have the power to unravel and reweave the Fates' tapestry, so that it does in fact matter how we act when we encounter deities.