A common version of her story relates how, in an effort to seduce her, Apollo gave her the power of prophecy—but when she refused him, he spat into her mouth to inflict a curse that nobody would ever believe her prophecies. In an alternative version, she fell asleep in a temple, and snakes licked (or whispered in) her ears so that she could hear the future. (A snake as a source of knowledge is a recurring theme in Greek mythology, though sometimes the snake brings understanding of the language of animals rather than an ability to know the future. Likewise, prophets without honour in their own country reflect a standard narrative trope.)
Hjalmar Frisk (Griechisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, Heidelberg, 1960–1970) notes "unexplained etymology", citing "various hypotheses" found in Wilhelm Schulze, Kleine Schriften (1966), 698, J. B. Hoffmann, Glotta 28, 52, Edgar Howard Sturtevant, Class. Phil. 21, 248ff., J. Davreux, La légende de la prophétesse Cassandre (Paris, 1942) 90ff., and Albert Carnoy, Les ét. class. 22, 344. R. S. P. Beekes (Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Brill, 2009, p. 654) cites García Ramón's derivation of the name from the Proto-Indo-European root *(s)kend- "raise".
Family and gift of prophecy
Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam (Priamos) and Queen Hecuba (Hekabe) and the fraternal twin sister of Helenus and a princess of Troy. According to legend, Cassandra had dark brown curly hair and dark brown eyes and was both beautiful and clever, but considered insane. However, her perceived insanity is the result of being cursed by the god Apollo. Many versions of the myth relate that she incurred the god's wrath by refusing him sex, sometimes after first promising herself in exchange for the power of prophecy. Hyginus says:
Cassandra, daughter of the king and queen, in the temple of Apollo, exhausted from practising, is said to have fallen asleep; whom, when Apollo wished to embrace her, she did not afford the opportunity of her body. On account of which thing, when she prophesied true things, she was not believed.
In another version, Cassandra consented to have sex with Apollo in exchange for the gift of prophecy, and then broke her promise. Her punishment was the curse of never being believed. This version of the myth is told by Cassandra in Aeschylus's Agamemnon: "Oh, but he struggled to win me, breathing ardent love for me....I consented to Loxias (Apollo) but broke my word....Ever since that fault I could persuade no one of anything."
In some versions of the myth, Apollo curses her by spitting into her mouth during a kiss. In Aeschylus' Agamemnon, she foretells the betrayal of Clytemnestra. She also bemoans her relationship with Apollo:
- Apollo, Apollo!
- God of all ways, but only Death's to me,
- Once and again, O thou, Destroyer named,
- Thou hast destroyed me, thou, my love of old!
Cassandra had served as a priestess of Apollo and taken a sacred vow of chastity to remain a virgin for her entire life.
Her cursed gift from Apollo became a source of endless pain and frustration to Cassandra. Cassandra was seen as a liar and a madwoman by her family and by the Trojan people. In some versions of the story, she was often locked up in a pyramidal building on the citadel on her father King Priam’s orders. She was accompanied there by the wardress who cared for her under orders to inform the King of all of his daughter's "prophetic utterances". She was driven truly insane by this in the versions where she was incarcerated; though in the versions where she was not, she was usually viewed as being simply misunderstood.
According to legend, Cassandra had instructed her twin brother Helenus in the power of prophecy so he could be a prophet. Like her, Helenus was always correct whenever he had made his predictions, but unlike his sister, people believed him.
Cassandra made many predictions, with all of her prophecies being disbelieved except for one. She was believed when she foresaw who Paris was and proclaimed that he was her abandoned brother. This took place after he had sought refuge in the altar of Zeus from their brothers’ wrath, which resulted in his reunion with their family. Cassandra foresaw that Paris’ abduction of Helen for his wife would bring about the Trojan War and cause the destruction of Troy. She did warn Paris not to go to Sparta along with Helenus who echoed her prophecy, but their warnings ended up being ignored. Cassandra saw Helen coming into Troy at Paris' return home from Sparta. She furiously snatched away Helen's golden veil and tore at her hair, for she had foreseen that Helen's arrival would bring the calamities of the Trojan War and the destruction of Troy. The Trojan people, however, welcomed Helen into their city.
Fall of Troy and aftermath
Cassandra foresaw the destruction of Troy. She warned the Trojans about the Greeks hiding inside the Trojan Horse, Agamemnon’s death and her own demise at the hands of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, her mother Hecuba's fate, Odysseus’s ten year wanderings before returning to his home, and the murder of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra by her children Electra and Orestes. Cassandra predicted that her cousin Aeneas would escape during the fall of Troy and found a new nation in Rome. However, she was unable to do anything to forestall these tragedies since no one believed her.
Coroebus and Othronus came to the aid of Troy during the Trojan War out of love for Cassandra in exchange for her hand in marriage. Priam decided to betroth Cassandra to Telephus’s son Eurypyplus after Telephus had reinforced the Trojans by sending them an army of Mysians to come to defend Troy for them. Cassandra was also the first to see the body of her brother Hector being brought back to the city.
In The Fall of Troy told by Quintus Smyrnaeus, Cassandra had attempted to warn the Trojan people that she had foreseen the Greek warriors hiding in the Trojan Horse while they were celebrating their victory over the Greeks with feasting. They disbelieved her, calling her names and degrading her with insults. She grabbed an axe in one hand and a burning torch in her other, and ran towards the Trojan Horse, intent on destroying it herself to stop the Greeks from destroying Troy. The Trojan people stopped her before she could do so. The Greeks hiding inside the Trojan Horse were relieved that the Trojans had stopped Cassandra from destroying it, but they were surprised by how well she had known of their plan to defeat Troy.
At the fall of Troy, Cassandra sought shelter in the temple of Athena and there she embraced the wooden statue of Athena in supplication for her protection, where she was abducted and brutally raped by Ajax the Lesser. Cassandra was clinging so tightly to the statue of the goddess that Ajax knocked it over from its stand as he dragged her away. One account claimed that even Athena, who had worked hard to help the Greeks destroy Troy, was not able to restrain her tears and her cheeks burned with anger. In one account, this caused her image to give forth a sound that shook the floor of the temple at the sight of Cassandra’s rape before her image turned its eyes away as Cassandra was violated, although others found this account too bold. Ajax's actions were a sacrilege because Cassandra was a supplicant of Athena and supplicants were untouchable in the sanctuary of a god, under the protection of that god. Furthermore, he committed another sacrilege by raping her inside the temple of Athena, despite it being strictly forbidden for people to have intercourse in the temple of a god. Odysseus insisted to the other Greek leaders that Ajax should be stoned to death for his crimes, which had enraged Athena and the other gods. Ajax avoided their wrath, as none of them dared to punish him after he clung, as a suppliant, to Athena’s altar and swore an oath proclaiming his innocence.  Athena was furious at the Greeks’ failure to punish Ajax for raping Cassandra in her temple, and she gravely punished them with the help of Poseidon and Zeus. Poseidon sent storms and strong winds for her to destroy much of the Greek fleet on their way home from Troy. She punished Ajax herself, by causing him to have a terrible death though the sources of his death differ. The Locrians had to atone for Ajax's great sacrilege against Cassandra in Athena's temple by sending two maidens to Troy every year for a thousand years to serve as slaves in Athena's temple—but if they were caught by the inhabitants before they reached the temple they were executed.
In some versions, Cassandra intentionally left a chest behind in Troy, with a curse on whichever Greek opened it first. Inside the chest was an image of Dionysus, made by Hephaestus and presented to the Trojans by Zeus. It was given to the Greek leader Eurypylus as a part of his share of the victory spoils of Troy. When he opened the chest and saw the image of the god, he went mad.
Captive of Agamemnon in Mycenae and Death
Cassandra was then taken as a concubine by King Agamemnon of Mycenae. Unbeknownst to Agamemnon, while he was away at war, his wife, Clytemnestra, had begun an affair with Aegisthus. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus then murdered both Agamemnon and Cassandra. Some sources mention that Cassandra and Agamemnon had twin boys, Teledamus and Pelops, both of whom were killed by Aegisthus.
Cassandra was sent to the Elysian Fields after her death, as her soul was judged worthy because of her dedication to the gods and her religious nature during her life.:p. 179
Cassandra was buried either at Amyclae or Mycenae for the two towns disputed the possession of it. She had been buried most likely in Mycenae. Heinrich Schliemann was certain that he had discovered Cassandra’s tomb when he had excavated Mycenae since he had found the remains of a woman and two infants in one of the circle graves at Mycenae.
Agamemnon by Aeschylus
From Aeschylus's trilogy Oresteia, the play titled Agamemnon depicts the king, treading the scarlet cloth laid down for him, walking offstage to his sure death.:ln. 972 After the chorus's ode of foreboding, time is suspended in Cassandra's "mad scene".:pp. 11–16 She has been onstage, silent and ignored. Her madness that is unleashed now is not the physical torment of other characters in Greek tragedy, such as in Euripides' Heracles or Sophocles' Ajax.
According to author Seth Schein, two further familiar descriptions of her madness are that of Heracles in The Women of Trachis or Io in Prometheus Bound.:p. 11 She speaks, disconnectedly and transcendent, in the grip of her psychic possession by Apollo,:ln. 1140 witnessing past and future events. Schein says, "She evokes the same awe, horror and pity as do schizophrenics".:p. 12 Cassandra is someone "who often combine deep, true insight with utter helplessness, and who retreat into madness."
Eduard Fraenkel remarked:p. 11, note 6 on the powerful contrasts between declaimed and sung dialogue in this scene. The frightened and respectful chorus are unable to comprehend her. She goes to her inevitable offstage murder by Clytemnestra with full knowledge of what is to befall her.:pp. 42–55:pp. 52–58
Cassandra is an enduring archetype. Modern invocations of Cassandra are most frequently an example of a Cassandra complex. To emphasize such a situation, Cassandra's name is frequently used in fiction when prophecy comes up, especially true prophecy that is not believed. This can include the names of people, objects, or places.
Cassandra has been used as metaphor and allegory in psychological and philosophical tracts. For example, Florence Nightingale's book Suggestions for Thought to Searchers after Religious Truth has a section named for Cassandra, using her as a metaphor for the helplessness of women that she attributes to over-feminization. (Further examples are located on the Cassandra complex page.)
The Cassandra myth itself has also been retold several times by modern authors of novels and dramatizations, including works by Eric Shanower, Lindsay Clarke, Christa Wolf, Lesya Ukrainka, Marion Zimmer Bradley, David Gemmell, and Hector Berlioz. A number of songs have also referred to her, such as "Cassandra" by Swedish pop band ABBA.