Classic Characters: No one listens to Cassandra

Yet, mad with zeal, and blinded with our fate,
We haul along the horse in solemn state;
Then place the dire portent within the tow’r.
Cassandra cried, and curs’d th’ unhappy hour;
Foretold our fate; but, by the god’s decree,
All heard, and none believ’d the prophecy.”
 (Aeneid 2.323, Dryden translation)

Cassandra as Troy burns.

Cassandra is the daughter of King Priam of Troy in the Iliad cycles. She was wise, pious, well educated, and of royal blood. Her beauty was said to be second only to Helen’s. She has the ability to see (or hear in some versions) the future, a gift from Apollo. Unfortunately the Greek Gods are notoriously fickle with their gifts (beware of Gods bearing gifts?), and she is later spurned and cursed such that no one believes the future she tells. It is a tragic tale within a tragedy as Cassandra foretells and is ignored, time and time again, driven to despair and madness, helpless to to prevent or even communicate what she has seen.

I often wonder if Paul Krugman, for example, feels the same way. While plenty of people read and heed the words of someone who correctly predicted the 2008 crash and the failure of of austerity, even more choose to ignore him. Those in power, in particular seem deaf to people like the Nobel Prize winning economist, despite his track record. Compare him to the pundits who most often criticize him, and see what they said about the crash and austerity. Interestingly, despite the pundits being demonstrably wrong, more people listen to them; I believe it is because they are creating a more compelling narrative, telling the people what they want to hear and reinforcing current beliefs.

Cassandra, like most characters in Greek Tragedy, is a complex metaphor. On the surface level she is cursed by the gods, a grim warning of the eventual fate of all her house and the city of her people. On a more complex level she is an example of the type of farsighted person who warns others about alarming situations and disasters before they happen. We have a tendency to ignore these people, especially those who don’t phrase their predictions in a palatable fashion.

Nobody likes a pessimist, especially when they are right.

Cassandra was second only to Helen in beauty, notably having curly red hair. This too, is complex if one wishes to delve deep. Troy was a fair state, second only to the Greeks in power. Instead of listening to Cassandra and surviving, Paris chose to steal Helen. Among other things, this represents Troy over-reaching its place by challenging the Greeks, and thus inviting war and doom. Cassandra represents truth and is very beautiful, but Helen represents reckless ambition and is even more beautiful. There is a definite message there. Nobody likes to listen to the truth when it tells them to settled for second best.

A key illustration of  how the people of Troy reacted to Cassandras predictions is the famed tale of the Trojan Horse, the ploy used by the Greeks to Win the War.

  • After ten years of War the Greeks both sides are worn out and desperately want to win.
  • The Greeks decide to fake giving up, hoping to lure the Trojans into bringing a large wooden horse left as a sacrifice that has been hollowed out and filled with Troops inside their city.
  • The Greeks sail the rest of their ships out of sight.
  • The Trojans discover the wooden horse and bring it into their city.
  • Cassandra (and Laocoon) both correctly warn that the Horse is a ruse. Virgil (?) even has one of them knock on it, demonstrating that it sounds hollow and a strange rustling can be heard within.
  • Instead of heeding the warning, or checking to see if Cassandra is correct the Trojans throw a massive party, get really drunk, and don’t even bother posting a guard on the horse. The Greeks within get out and open the gates for their fellows accomplishing in one night what they failed to do in ten years of battle.

A surface reading of the account has the Gods meddling with the Trojans perceptions to bring about the doom of Troy. However, the Greek Gods often serve as a metaphor for the follies of men, and a deeper reading shows a struggle between faith and desire on one side and pragmatism and evidence on the other. Cassandra is willing to test her Hypothesis. The people of Troy are not. They want the war to be over, and so they willfully turn a blind eye to the danger presented by the horse and do not even bother to try to prove Cassandra wrong. They even ignore the sound argument that Odysseus is well known for his cunning and trickery. Much like stock market pundits in 2008, who wanted to believe that the bull market will last and ignored all of the mounting evidence to the contrary, the Trojans ignored the warnings that they did not want to hear.

In some versions of the tale they even ignore the scraping sound of armour coming from the horse.

In the end Cassandra Cassandra outlives Troy. She is taken back to Greece by Agamemnon, who then also fails to heed her warnings and suffers an ugly fate because if it. Interestingly Cassandra never stops trying to use her gift, despite the frustration and madness, until her bitter end after Agamemnon’s death. She was taken for her beauty as a spoil of war, but much like the lost Trojans the arrogant war-chief of the Greeks failed to see her true value and ignored her warnings. Again, even if he did not believe them he could have tested them. (Odysseus, a different Homeric character, frequently tested his beliefs — take his cautious return to Ithaca as an example.)

Cassandra represents the harsh truth that no one wants to hear. We all like to think we would know the truth if it were uttered, but we need to be ready to test our cherished beliefs, lest they turn out to be full of unpleasant surprises.

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