Cassandra was the daughter of Priam, King of Troy, and the sister of Paris who, through his act of corrupting the fidelity of Helen, wife of Agamemnon’s brother and the king of Sparta, Menelaus, started the Trojan War. Although she could, with uncanny accuracy foretell the future, she was looked upon by the Trojans as insane, and was even incarcerated for her predictions about the fall of Troy. When Troy was taken, she fled for shelter to the temple of Minerva, where Ajax found her, and offered her violence with the greatest cruelty at the foot of Minerva’s statue. To assuage this sacrilege, the Opuntian Locrinas, Ajax’s people, were obligated to send yearly a number of noble maidens to serve as slaves in Minerva’s temple at Troy. If caught by the inhabitants before reaching the temple, they were executed. This practice, of which there is evidence in the inscriptions, lasted until the early nineteenth century. When Troy fell, Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek army, took Cassandra as a spoil of war and kept her as a slave-mistress.
In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, when Agamemnon makes his triumphant entry into his kingdom, Mycenae, in a chariot, Cassandra is at her side. His queen Clytemnestra had already planned to murder him to avenge his sacrificing their innocent daughter Iphigenia, for obtaining favourable winds when their ships were stuck in the high seas while on expedition to Troy. Feigning wifely joy she greets him and he yields to her persuasion to walk on the rich tapestry. Agamemnon then asks that Cassandra be treated kindly as the gods watch to see the conqueror who uses his power with restraint and justice. As Clytemnestra and Agamemnon enter the palace, Cassandra remains outside.
Presently Clytemnestra comes out of the palace and asks Cassandra to come inside and promises to treat her with kindness. But Cassandra does not reply. Finally, Clytemnestra gets angry and goes inside again.
Cassandra bursts forth into wildly prophetic and enigmatic utterances. She recalls the outrageous history of, and the curse on, the House of Atreus, and prophesies the murder of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. She describes Agamemnon as being snared in a “net of death” and being slain by Clytemnestra. But the Chorus cannot comprehend her and can read nothing but madness in Cassandra’s ravings. She tells how she obtained her prophetic powers: She was passionately loved by Apollo, who promised to grant her whatever she might require, if she would gratify his passion. She asked the power of knowing futurity; and as soon as she had received it, she refused to perform her promise, and slighted Apollo. The God, in his disappointment, wetted her lips with his tongue, and by this action effected that no credit or reliance should ever be put on her predictions, however true or faithful they might be. She soon goes on to predict her murder also by Clytemnestra. She adds that these killings would not go unavenged, that there is one (i. e. , Orestes) who is now “an outlaw and wanderer” who was born to slay his mother and to “wreak death for his father’s blood”.
As her prophesy ends, she casts out her staff and circlet of flowers, the symbols of a seer. She resigns herself to her fate and goes slowly into the palace. Suddenly from inside the palace there is heard Agamemnon’s agonized cry that he has been stabbed once, then twice.
The doors of the palace are thrown open to reveal the dead bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra, with Clytemnestra exulting over them. She declares that she has murdered Agamemnon for killing their daughter Iphigenia and also for keeping Cassandra as his concubine.
Cassandra is a somber figure in Greek literature, and a human symbol of Agamemnon’s wickedness. He has slain her family, destroyed her home in Troy and violated her in disregard of her sacred oath of chastity. But though ill-fated, Cassandra is a woman of courage and conviction. She is doomed to death, but she goes to her death with stoical fortitude. She impresses us as a tragic character who readily evokes both pity and fear from us.