Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 269
Christa Wolf’s novel about the aftermath of the Trojan War begins with the titular protagonist awaiting her execution. As she waits for Clytemnestra, who will likewise put to death Agamemnon, Cassandra renounces her status as Apollo’s priestess. She runs through her life’s main events, including her fall from grace in the eyes of her father, King Priam of Troy. Like her sister, Polyxena, Cassandra is becoming another female casualty of the war. Refusing to see her sister become a pawn in the men’s political battle, Cassandra was first imprisoned and then condemned.
The grown woman looks back at her coming of age, which meant entering into temple service. Although she had visionary gifts, her role was to serve the priests. Taken as a virgin, she should have been forced into sex, but Aeneas claimed her and spared her virtue. Although later she was a sexual servant to the chief priest, Panthous, she and Aeneas found a deeper love.
Casssandra’s disappointments were not only her own, however. With her sharp intelligence, she could see past the empty rhetoric of rescuing Helen—who, indeed, had already left Troy—and analyze the complex political and economic reasons that the men waged war. Despite her many predictions, she was powerless to stop the trajectory of destruction once it got underway. Ironically, her love for Aeneas as a person turned her away from him in wartime, as she rejected the falsity of war hero status. Cassandra remained in Troy, rather than escape with her lover and became, according to Wolf’s feminist revisionist telling, another female casualty of war.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 638
The captive Cassandra stands in Agamemnon’s chariot outside the lion gate of Mycenae, awaiting her death at the hands of Clytemnestra. She knows that Clytemnestra is now killing Agamemnon in the palace. She says as much to the Greek elders who cluster around the chariot, but they, like her own people, do not believe or cannot understand her dire prophecies. She casts aside, as a bitter mockery, the insignia of her rank as a seeress and a priestess of Apollo. What time she has left she spends recalling her past, from the time she enjoyed the status of favorite daughter to Priam, her beloved father and King of Troy, until the time when Priam imprisoned her in the dungeon. She was punished because she would not cooperate in a plan to use her sister, Polyxena, as erotic bait to trap Achilles in the temple of Apollo. Achilles had demanded Polyxena as the price of giving back the body of Hector. According to the plan, while Achilles was making love to Polyxena, Paris would wound him in his vulnerable heel.
Cassandra’s adamant refusal to cooperate with this plan was not motivated by any love for Achilles, whom she abhorred, nor was it a statement against the profanation of the temple, which had been declared neutral territory in the contest between Trojans and Greeks. To Cassandra, her refusal was a protest against a long process by which women had been deprived of all autonomy in this irrational war. This supposedly gallant contest over a woman was a lie from the very beginning. There was no Helen in Troy; the king of Egypt had taken her from Paris after Paris had abducted her from Menelaus’ palace. The original kidnapping had been justified, presumably, by the fact that Priam’s sister had been kidnapped by the Greeks in the past. Kidnapping was, after all, a rather common practice among the Greeks.
Cassandra, who began as a merry and thoughtless girl enjoying her privileges, realized that women were simply pawns in men’s military and commercial rivalries. The Greeks did not want to acknowledge Trojan control of the commercial sea route between East and West. Besides, warfare was a way of life for the Greek soldiers, and it had become so for many of the Trojan men as well. Even the imperial Hecuba, Priam’s wife, who had shared actively in government, was denied access to the inner councils, and old Priam was controlled by a military junta that cared little about family honor.
Cassandra had her first lesson in the necessity of submission to men at the time of her first menstrual period. Like all other women of that time, she had to sit before the temple of the love goddess until a man threw a coin in her lap; she then had to follow that man—whoever he was—into the sanctuary, where he would deflower her. (Herodotus describes this custom and notes that ugly women were forced to return again and again until they were chosen.) Cassandra was spared humiliation, however, because Aeneas hastened to claim her. Instead of violating the frightened girl, Aeneas simply reported to Hecuba that the deed was done. Cassandra fell in love with Aeneas because of his kindness on this occasion. She fantasized about him when the chief priest, Panthous, came to her bed at night.
Only much later did Aeneas actually become her lover. Perhaps the least plausible detail of this story (which is made more believable in many ways than the original epic) is Cassandra’s refusal to leave Troy as it burns, when Aeneas asks her to flee with him. She says that he is going to be a hero and that she could not love a hero. “We have no chance against a time that needs heroes,” she says.