Monday, November 17, 2014

Cassandra and her name: a modern woman and her classical namesake


My purpose in the Mythmatters Blog is to explore the reception history of classical myths. It is known to the Follower(s) of the Blog that my primary interest is the narrative gain accruing to artists in their usage of classical mythological allusions. What goes through an artist’s consideration to allude to a myth? This post is the first to engage a new usage type, the naming of a real person. Maybe sometime I’ll turn to Ulysses S. Grant or Penelope Cruz or some other child of a classical-mythological name dropper.
     I have a terrifically attentive TA this semester. She has been helping me also with research in the OGCMA project for about a year. Her mother named her Cassandra, and I quipped a few weeks ago what the narrative gain of that name might have been back on the day when Cassandra was named. Did her mother know what she was getting into when she selected the name of Priam’s daughter, the most tragic of the Trojan victims, yet the most noble of her generation?
Cassandra marks Apollo's
unwelcome approach in Aesch.

  Cassandra — The Other Cassandra — of course, was Trojan princess who prophesied nothing but truth and was never believed. This gift and this curse befell Cassandra when she refused the advances of Apollo, the prophetic god. The curse’s pain was realized in the fall of Troy. Disbelieved, or at least misunderstood, by her family and townsmen, Cassandra took refuge at the foot of the cult statue of Athena, but she was brutally removed by the lesser Ajax. It is one of the most abiding images of Greek violence run amok in the sack of Troy. Then, intensifying the tragic demise of the prophetess, Agamemnon claimed Cassandra as his personal prize and led her to her final demise back in Mycenae a bloody victim in Clytemnestra’s lex talionis. Classical literature could never quite achieve the pathos of Cassandra’s final prophetic drama outside the House of Atreus in Aeschylus’ Oresteia: “I went from door to door, I was wild with the god, I heard them call me ‘Beggar! Wretch! Starve for bread in hell!’ And I endured it all, and now he will extort me as his due. A seer for the Seer. … The cleaver streams with my life blood, the first blood drawn for the king’s last rites.” (Ag. 1291 – 99 Fagles) Indeed, it has been hard to beat Aeschylus’ Cassandra (458 BC) for sheer tragic nobility.
     My Cassandra’s mother wrote a personal account to her in October 2014, answering the question about how she had come to be called after the Trojan prophetess. Baby Cassie was spending the first days of her mortality in the Neonatal ICU.
I knew in NICU nurses would be taking care of you, and I wanted them to call you by your name-- not just refer to you as generic "Baby Girl". … [Y]our dad and I talked about one of the names we had considered, which was Cassandra. … I liked the name Cassandra, I thought it was pretty, it went well with our one syllable last name, and I mostly liked the meaning-- a Greek prophetess. I wasn't that well versed on Greek Mythology, but I decided to tie "prophetess" into a gospel meaning. … All of your brothers also have names that tie into the gospel. I wanted you to have a name with great meaning, but not be so obvious as are a lot of religious girl names.
     I always have thought that the name fits you very well, and I have never had a moment's doubt about it being the right name for you. I have always thought you were a unique and special girl. You had interests that were unusual for your age. And of course, when you were 4, I bought a book about Greek and Roman mythology, and you just ate it up. You carried it around for weeks. 
     Hecuba and Priam named their daughter either Cassandra or Alexandra, whom Homer calls (Il. 13.365) the loveliest of their many daughters. She is the first (Il. 24.699ff.) to see Priam returning with the ransomed body of her brother Hector. Homer, however, makes no mention of her prophetic abilities. These come first in Proclus’ Cypria. Later authors (e.g. Verg. Aen. 2.246) have her sternly warn against the Trojan Horse’s entrance into the city. Euripides’ Troiades has Cassandra foresee Odysseus’ trials and death. Aeschylus cannonized the traditional curse of the girl’s Apollonian “gift”; although Antikleides would have Apollo’s gift bestowed upon her as a
sleeping child when she and her brother Helenus had their ears licked by the god’s sacred serpents. Years prior to the Trojan War, therefore, Cassandra was endowed with the prophetic
Cassandra vainly seeks sanctuary where she
ought to receive it during the Sack of Troy — from
Pompeii, House of Menander
foresight that identified her brother Paris — aka Alexander — as a threat to the city and anticipated generations of historical mishaps for both Trojans and Greeks. (Lycophron Alexandra, 2nd Century BC)

     Classical Cassandra passed nobly into literary reception with Boccaccio’s treatement in De claris mulieribus and thence into Chaucer, Shakespeare, and beyond. Christa Wolf’s remarkable Cassandra follows an important development in German literature from Schiller’s ballad (1802) to her own 1983 novella that has the princess mindfully approach her imminent demise with a retrospective monologue that liberates her heroically from masculine militance. Cassandra’s “emphatic and persistent” gains in importance during the 20th Century, according to Seidensticker, are due to our age’s “rediscovery of the dark side of antiquity, and especially the great wars and crises [that] endowed the unheeded prophet of impending calamity with new timeliness. ... It remains to be seen, however, whether in the long run this development will result in [Cassandra's] once again becoming more than a mere metonymic cipher for the foreteller of disaster.” (in Grafton’s The Classical Tradition, s.v. “Cassandra”)

     Because of my own personal insistence in recovering authorial intent, I am very pleased that Cassandra’s mother was willing to share this account of her daughter’s naming. Because Priam’s Cassandra achieves such great dignity in her prophetic finale she remains an especially noble namesake after whom so many Sandys and Cassies and Cassandras have been named.

— RTM with permission of CB