BMCR 2002.12.31

Cassandra, la vergine e l’indovina: identità di un personaggio da Omero all’Ellenismo. Filologia e critica 88

, Cassandra, la vergine e l'indovina : identità di un personaggio da Omero all'Ellenismo. Filologia e critica ; 88. Pisa: Ist. Ed. e Poligrafici Internazionali, 2001. 336 Seiten, [8] Blätter : Illustrationen.. ISBN 8881472430

Kassandra, the tragic heroine endowed with the gift of prophecy but deprived of its capacity to persuade, has never ceased to fascinate. Another addition to the numerous studies about her is the volume under review, based on Mazzoldi’s (hereafter M) 1997 PhD dissertation. Although much of the territory is familiar, and there is quite a lot of repetition, M presents a well-researched and balanced assessment of the facts. Moreover, she fine-tunes previous interpretations and makes thoughtful new suggestions.

As the title suggests, the author concentrates on the two main aspects of the figure of Kassandra—her virginity and her prophetic role—from the time of Homer to the Hellenistic period. Accordingly, Part One examines the issues of her relationship with men and Part Two examines Kassandra as a prophetess in relation to divination as a religious, historical, and social phenomenon. Specifically, the three chapters in Part Two deal with prophecy in relation to female ecstatic divination and offer a chronological examination of Kassandra’s prophetic role in the literary and visual sources together with a detailed analysis of the three fundamental sources, Aischylos’ Agamemnon, Euripides’ Trojan Women, and Lykophron’s Alexandra. M then gives a definition of the methods and the vocabulary of Kassandra’s divination and an evaluation of the varied interpretations of her prophetic role by the three authors. An appendix on mantic vocabulary provides a compilation of the most important terms used by and in reference to Kassandra, and indexes list the visual sources, mythical names and important issues, and passages discussed. The volume is well produced and typographical errors are few in number,1 but the quality of the plates is poor.

The author’s intention is not to present a catalogue of sources (already done by Neblung2 who also includes the Roman sources) but to find out what Kassandra meant to the Greeks through a study of the literary and visual sources that contain the typology of Kassandra. The recurrence and crystallisation of some motifs help in the reconstruction of fragmentary sources or entirely lost ones, and the comparison of the various versions of a mythical episode reveals variations of the function and the characteristics attributed to Kassandra by different authors conditioned by their own experience of divination. M stresses the relation and interdependence between μαντεία and παρθενία, especially in the context of Apolline divination. Both imply a close contact with the divinity and suggest a sacerdotal status in a sort of “sacred marriage” with the god. Kassandra’s παρθενία, a fusion of femininity and beauty, brings her into inevitable contact with the male world and makes her the object of desire and possession by Apollo. But her relationship with men is in general one of conflict, and her beauty and femininity turn her into an anomalous, marginal figure. Whether as a result of unfortunate coincidences or a deliberate choice, she never makes the transition to proper womanhood through marriage and brings disaster to the men involved. At the same time, she upsets the outcome of the divine possession with her refusal of Apollo. Thus her incomplete feminine status places her outside the oikos, while her incapacity to persuade turns her into a maenad and places her outside the polis.

Three themes related to Kassandra’s παρθενία are examined: the marriage that never happened, the outrage of Ajax, and her concubinage with Agamemnon.

In Homer, Kassandra is projected into the matrimonial sphere as a promised bride in exchange for allegiance, a recurring motif connected with her beauty. Her marriage, however, never takes place.

The episode of the outrage of Kassandra by Ajax received different interpretations through the centuries. An examination of the literary sources shows that before the Hellenistic period the impiety of Ajax was presented as a violation of the asylum of Athena’s sanctuary and thus as hubris towards the goddess, while Kassandra, who was dragged away, was the secondary victim. (Interestingly, the sacrilegious motif seems to have been exploited by Alkaios for political reasons.) But from the third century BC onward, the myth took on an erotic character, with the outrage consisting in the sexual violence of a parthenos suppliant in a sanctuary. This refocusing of the mythical episode, which remains the same in its factual details, is attributed by M to the degeneration of religious sentiment in Hellenistic times, when the severity and clarity of the violation of asylum was lost. I disagree, however, with the author’s suggestion that Pausanias was influenced by his contemporary interpretation of the myth and trivialised the importance of hubris when he described the Polygnotan paintings, which were clearly inspired by epic poems; the terms he used, τόλμημα and παρανόμημα, could also apply to the violation of the asylum.

The modified perception of the myth finds some correspondence in the visual tradition, with the erotic character of the scene becoming progressively more dominant during the Classical period and the action of Ajax more of an attack directed towards Kassandra than a confrontation with Athena. The greater importance assumed by Kassandra is reflected in her increasing size and a corresponding diminution of Athena’s statue (which, M clarifies, is not the Palladion) that takes on a more symbolic character. One could object, however, that an increasing degree of naturalism in art had an impact on the representation of the statue.

The change in the nature of the outrage from a generic violation of the asylum to a violation of Kassandra’s virginity, reflecting changes in the sensibilities of the Hellenistic period, appears to find correspondence also in cult. M argues that evidence for cultic acts associated with the myth appears at the time that the sexual violation became the crux. She sides with those who attribute initiatory origins to the tribute of two virgin Lokrian girls sent to serve Athena at Troad as expiation for their ancestor’s outrage. She further argues that the Lokrian rite, originally independent of the myth, consisted in sending girls to serve Athena Ilias close by, in East Lokris, but was subsequently aetiologically connected with Troy and the specific mythical episode of the rape of Kassandra, and thus the girls were sent to Troy. A similar case of the superimposition of a ritual connected to the Trojan myth of the rape of a parthenos onto a pre-existing matrimonial ritual is suggested for Daunia, where protection was offered to maidens hostile to marriage by the statue of Alexandra/Kassandra.

With regards to Kassandra’s relation with Agamemnon, M argues that Euripides’ replacement of the sacrifice of Iphigeneia with the jealousy of Klytaimnestra for her husband’s infidelity as the decisive motive for the murder reflects a change in social relations in late-fifth-century Athens, both at the level of the polis and that of the oikos. Questions seem to have centered on the figure and role of the παλλακή and the threat she may have posed to the oikos.3

Regarding the cultic manifestations of the myth, the author subscribes to the generally held idea that in Lakonia a divinity, Alexandra, was at some point (later rather than earlier) assimilated to the daughter of Priam. As this reviewer has recently argued, however,4 Alexandra was simply a local name for Kassandra who received a heroic cult at Amyklai together with Agamemnon at least since the seventh century BC. This alternative name was intrinsic to her nature and qualities in the epic and myth in general.

It is in Part Two, where she examines the prophetic role of Kassandra in literary and visual sources, that M’s contribution becomes most substantial. As she explains, the divinatory process attributed to Kassandra combines two phases: one perceptive, when she in ecstasis transmits her visions verbally without rationality, and another communicative, when her rationality intervenes to translate and organise the visions in intelligible words and structured expressions. An important role for the bestowal and practice of this intuitive type of divination is played by her gender, her virginal status, and the amorous/sexual relationship imposed by Apollo, which, because it was refused, assumes the character of a painful persecution. As established by Crippa, a comparison between Kassandra and the Pythia on one hand and the Sibyl on the other reveals a common mantic model of ecstatic feminine prophecy, founded on a possession of a sexual character at the moment of divination. The figure of Kassandra, however, reveals specific characteristics that distinguish her from the others.

Her possession by Apollo and resulting inspiration are, respectively, the cause and effect of the divine μανία, a primary condition for the practice of intuitive divination. M emphasises the double value of the term μαινομένη as an attribute of Kassandra and the relation between μαντεία and μανία, the manifestations of which often coincide in her case: the form of her divination presupposes possession by the god, often presented as delirium, and her incapacity to persuade transforms her to a μαινομένη in the eyes of those present. M sides with those who find no clear indication of Kassandra’s prophetic abilities in the Iliad and argues that she was eventually transformed from an epic heroine to an inspired prophetess in the Cyclic poems. A detailed examination of Pindar’s Paean 8 shows that, in the course of her prophecy on the occasion of the departure of Paris for Greece, Kassandra superimposes the present (departure of Paris) on the past (premonitory dream of Hekabe) and the future (destruction of Troy), establishing thereby a nexus of cause and effect and bringing out the significance of events separated in time. M argues that, though Pindar was obviously influenced by the Kypria, the motif of Hekabe’s dream was Pindar’s addition that replaced the judgement of Paris as the original cause of the Trojan misfortunes.

Most likely between the sixth and the fifth century BC there was a change in the historic practice of divination that is reflected in tragedy: intuitive divination became more privileged than inductive divination (mostly found in the epic), because it appeared to allow a direct communication with the divine.

Concentrating on Euripides’ Alexandros, the author argues for the location of the scene of inspired divination at the end of the dramatic action rather than at the beginning, not only because of reasons of content and dramatic effect but also because of Kassandra’s personality, and proposes a new sequence for the dramatic action. M agrees with other scholars that the scene of the attack against Paris after his victory in the games, which is found on Etruscan mirrors and ash urns, was not inspired by this tragedy. Interestingly, the representation of Kassandra wielding an axe against Paris can be interpreted as a visual rendering of her prophetic attack against the victor. (In this case, however, the argument that Kassandra’s armed attack does not fit well with her personality, because of her general passivity and intervention through logos rather than action, is weakened.) A similar approach in rendering her rigorous prophetic intervention is taken in the Tabula Iliaca and some Pompeian paintings, where she advances against the Trojan horse with an axe or a torch. Kassandra also appears as a prophetess on imperial gems and Pompeian paintings where she prophesies using an urn; this mode of divination, as suggested by Amandry, is a reflection of real techniques used in Hellenistic and Roman times. To the corpus of the iconography of Kassandra as a prophetess can now be added a depiction on a Hellenistic honorary decree from Amyklai that represents her playing the kithara.5

In the last chapter, M considers the causes and implications of the diverse representation of the figure of Kassandra and her divination in the Agamemnon, Trojan Women, and Alexandra as they emerge through a lexical analysis. In the first work, she appears as an inspired prophetess, in the second as a delirious maenad, and in the third as an emotionally detached Sibyl-like figure. Kassandra is examined from two points of view, one focusing on her and another on her audience, in order to bring out the degree of reception of her prophetic message.

M contributes a modified and more elaborate structural division of the stages of Kassandra’s divination in the Agamemnon. Four times the prophetess reaches a climax of mantic ecstasis, which has an ever-decreasing intensity that is broken down into four stages. In stage A, she utters incoherent screams and ritual invocations, signalling the imminent approach of clairvoyance. During stage B, that of non-mediated clairvoyance, Kassandra experiences intense visions that cancel out any temporal or spatial distance since they are simultaneously transmitted as reality. Progressively, rationality intervenes (stage C, of mediated clairvoyance), and, even though she is still in the meta-reality of the visions, she narrates rather than directly reports, being at the same time aware of the audience. Finally, in stage D (“rational” prophecy) she reaches the maximum level of intelligibility, displays a distance from the visions, and communicates with the chorus. A and B coincide with the perceptive phase of the divination (ecstatic vision), and C and D with the communicative phase (“rational” prophecy). Since Kassandra’s divination evolves to a level of greater intelligibility, the different stages are of different length and importance in each climax.

Although the chorus tries to communicate with Kassandra, the levels of awareness and expression between them are confused so that there is no point of contact. M argues that the incredulity of the chorus is due to several causes: the malediction of Apollo in action, the oracular message itself that is incomprehensible because of its metaphorical and enigmatic character, and the mental disposition of the chorus, who are selective in what they are prepared to believe.

Aischylos uses a precise mantic vocabulary to indicate that Kassandra is invaded and inspired by Apollo and acting outside the norm, like a mad woman. Her “madness,” which is in fact a divine μανία whose exit is the prophecy, is attributed to her either because she acts in an unusual way or because of the mantic ecstasis since both are manifested in a similar way and expressed in similar terms.

Euripides presents in a different light both the prophetess and her relation with her audience. According to M, he turns her method of divination into a mediated clairvoyance rather than an ecstatic inspiration. For example, during the song to Hymenaios, Kassandra is obviously in a state of emotive alteration but also displays reason through keeping touch with the world that surrounds her and consciously parodying the wedding rite. The act of divesting herself of her priestly rather than prophetic (as in Aischylos) insignia is motivated by the knowledge of incompatibility between the post of a virgin priestess and her fate as a concubine. Finally, she goes happily to meet her fate in Hades knowing that she has the means to avenge Troy’s destruction.

The mental disposition of those listening to Kassandra is totally different from that in Aischylos. Despite her exhibition of rational control, the audience cannot distinguish the prophetic message from the personal emotional involvement of the prophetess. Thus Kassandra is never acknowledged as a prophetess but is characterised, instead, as a maenad under the power of Dionysos. M persuasively argues that Euripides’ intention was not to present a mad Kassandra as such, but mad according to the perspective of the bystanders. In his conscious use of bacchic terms to connote her Apolline possession, Euripides expresses the unbridgeable distance between the prophetess and her listeners, her estrangement and marginalisation in respect to the community of both victors and defeated, and stresses her intimacy with the divine. The change to the traditional mantic model is the result both of her delirious behaviour as a bacchant and of her point of view. This is because she undermines traditional rationalism by twisting the criteria of judging victors and losers and reversing the normal relation between cause and effect by responding with joy to the present condition of total destruction. Ironically, her condition of alienation and isolation allows her a substantial liberty since she is only subjected to immutable destiny and not human control.

In Hellenistic times, the prophecy of Kassandra was transformed into a literary genre, as seen, in particular, in Lycophron’s Alexandra. The prophetic communication has here lost its immediacy because it takes the form of a narration of facts. In other words, the perceptive phase of divination is mediated and explained through logos, and the emphasis has shifted from the prophetess to the content of her prophecy. Since the prophecy develops on two levels—of myth and history—the distance between the prophetess and her message in terms of time and content increases. In contrast, by being projected on to the historical future, the prophecy becomes more relevant to the contemporaries of the author who turns into the spokesman of a political ideology that appears to correspond to that of the Ptolemaic court.

A comparison with the previous tradition reveals that Kassandra’s traditional isolation and marginalisation is here intensified, not only because of her real segregation—she is locked up in a tower—but also because she has no contact with her audience since her prophecy is placed in the mouth of an intermediary, her jailor. This results in a fixed, literary character given to the prophecy, which now has the quality of a script to be consulted, like a Sibylline oracle, a development seen even more clearly in a fragment of the Cassandrae Oracula.

In sum, this is a useful addition to the study of Kassandra, meticulously researched and containing stimulating observations offered through cautious and generally persuasive arguments. It builds on previous scholarship to paint a complete portrait of the prophetess Kassandra, illuminating the different methods of her divination and her relationship with the audience.


1. Read “sostiene” instead of “sosiene” (p. 57 n. 130); “si vedrà” instead of “di vedrà” (p. 79 n. 206); “allo schema” instead of “alla schema” (p. 84); “practical” instead of “pratical” (p. 90 n. 255); “Cassandra’s language” instead of “the Cassandra’s languages” (p. 100 n. 14); “through” instead of “throught” (p. 192 n. 305); “Leitmotiv” instead of “Leimotiv” (p. 233); eliminate the duplicate “sembra” on p. 61.

2. D. Neblung, Die Gestalt der Kassandra in der antiken Literatur, Stuttgart/Leipzig 1997.

3. See most recently A. Iriarte, “Le chant interdit de la clairvoyance,” in M. Goudot (ed.), Cassandre, Paris 1999, 42-80 esp. p. 57.

4. G. Salapata, “Myth into Cult: Alexandra/Kassandra in Lakonia,” in V.B. Gorman and E. Robinson (eds), Oikistes: Studies in Constitution, Colonies, and Military Power in the Ancient World. Offered in Honor of A.J. Graham. Leiden 2002, 131-59.

5. Salapata fig. 1.