Cassandra

A certain line of though I had earlier this morning intrigued me personally enough that I decided that I wanted to expand on the idea, and this has directy to do with the myth of Cassandra as represented by the tragedians. Cassandra herself is an interesting figure because we see no mention of her prophetic arts in the Iliad, and we only have a vague mentioning of her being engaged to a hero fighting on the side of Troy. However later tragedians depict Cassandra in a continual state of utter madness from the beginning to the end of every scene that she is in. Lycophron wrote a lengthy poem just about her which I have yet to read all the way through, but it is high on my list to finish because it may reveal more on how the ancients viewed Cassandra.

So first lets summarize the myth of Cassandra. Cassandra was a daughter of king Priam of Troy, and quite beautiful. In exchange for the oracular art she promised Apollon that she would bear his child. However after he consented and the gift was given she revoked her promise for which Apollon spat into her mouth and she was cursed thereafter to deliver prophecies that would never be believed. She foresaw the fall of Troy but due to Apollon’s curse no one would believe her visions. In Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon we see the final scene of the life of Cassandra. She is being embraced by Apollon describing in terms which I would call overwhelming, and all the while lamenting that Apollon is her destroyer.

A scholar who wrote on Cassandra in this play spoke of her state given by the god, is one in which there is no hope because her own future is not hidden from her. She is not just a vessel of the god, but she is fully aware in her own state of visions. And in fact the past and the future all together as she sees the crimes commited by Atreus, and sees her own death. This complete removal of the veil of time to her he considers to be her curse because it leaves her in a state of  hopelessness. Therefore she is recriminating Apollon for not only saving her city, but also for the state she finds herself. He speaks more at length on this subject, but this is a brief paraphrase from my memory.

But I think that there is another way to look at it too from the perspective of the contact between the soul and the divine. If we consider the art of prophecy and poetry to be products of a union between the soul and the god, we consider these to be like small babes born temporarily into the world. That she was able to receive her gift from him before revoking her own pledge leads the reader to understand that there is already union between Cassandra and Apollon that has been committed. That she was cursed because she was unwilling to bear his children makes one wonder if perhaps it was because she was unable to. Union with a god is often described in terms of madess, and such madness was generally accepted in temporary terms. However, long term madness was something unacceptable and more along the lines of a curse from the gods…one which required healing and purification. That said, long term madness would be of a different character than the brief touches of the god (the moments of which Cassandra distinguishes quite verbally within the play), and I can only suggest may be due to a flaw of the vessel itself that falls into a long-lasting state of confusion. In which case when the vessel experiences the presence of a god may feel itself to be terrorized or being punished.

The lie itself of Cassandra can be equated directly to the flawed nature of the girl, and spitting into her mouth can be seen as a less intimate form of sharing influence as it is fluid in its nature. Most seem to align this with the moment of the curse itself, that this was the curse of the god that the girl would never be beleived. However, spitting usually doesn’t imply evil things. Aristaios, the son of Apollon, for instance spat into the mouth of Glaucus in order that the divine arts which he had been forced to teach the boy would not be recalled. This may have been a measure to prevention. People still spit at weddings to this day in order to avert evil influence. So it seems to me that this scene in which Apollon spat may have been an attempt to avert the illness within her even though he would have known that this attempt would be in vain. which we all see in a myth involving his son Aristaios if memory serves me correctly. Such is often associated with Apollon poetically, acting or speaking despite his knowledge…a faining of ignorance. In a poem of Kyrene he is laughed at for asking who the girl was when he already knew everything of her. It seems that such displays are in itself an attempt to show a difference between a nature of unconformity of the god contrasted to his knowledge of the will of Zeus and the future. It is as a becoming trait of youth to be eternally hopeful, a trait which I think has often displayed the god in myth as a champion of humanity. Therefore the prophecies that issue from her as a “curse” seem to be nothing more than the rambling of mental instability because she blends together the terrors of her mind with the prophetic touches of the god into a confusing mass. She is disordered and speaking regardless of the god’s presence, her mind fractured.

There is a point to all of this, that connections to the gods are good and beneficial to us in our spiritual development. However, that said, we must be mindful of our own mental health and keep a perspective on reality less we slip down the hole into madness. The gods are good, but we are imperfect.

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