Cassandra was a princess of Troy, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba, and she is often a central character in myths and legends about the Trojan War. She has also, especially in the modern world, become a symbol of tragedy and an archetype of prophecy—especially true prophecy that is disbelieved. In most stories, Cassandra is dark-haired, dark-eyed, and clever-but-crazy.
As is true of many other central figures of Greek myths and legends, sources disagree about Cassandra’s back-story. In what has become the most prominent version, Cassandra was quite beautiful, and the god Apollo fell in love with her. He gifted her with prophecy in an attempt to woo her, but when she rebuffed his advances, he turned the gift into a curse—no one would believe her prophecies. (The other version of this story is that Cassandra promised to have sex with Apollo in exchange for the gift but then broke her word, so he cursed her.) In the other dominant telling of the story, Cassandra fell asleep in the temple, where snakes whispered in her ears, allowing her to hear the future.
Whatever the origin of her powers, the result is always the same: Cassandra’s gift was a curse. The Trojan people, and indeed Cassandra’s own family, disbelieve her prophecies and consider Cassandra crazy, even dangerous. Her father, King Priam, sometimes locks her away in a citadel.
It was Cassandra who foresaw the fall of Troy. Sometimes she is depicted as having foreseen the fall before Paris leaves on his ill-fated journey to Sparta, warning him not to go and angrily greeting Helen, whose arrival would herald in the war between Troy and Sparta.
During the war, when the Greeks constructed the infamous Trojan horse, Cassandra warned against accepting the gift into the city–she also foresaw the deaths of many other central figures in the Trojan court. But because of her curse, no one believed her. During the final battle in Troy, Cassandra fled to Athena’s Temple, where she was found by Ajax, who dragged her from the temple and raped her. She was given to Agamemnon after the war as a concubine; Agamemnon’s wife and her lover murdered Cassandra, Agamemnon, and their two infants shortly after they arrived home in Sparta.
Cassandra’s story is a poignant one. A tragic one. She is disbelieved. She is isolated. She is wounded. She is violated and brutalized on almost every level. And because no one ever believes what she is saying, she and many other people die. But is she a witch?
Maybe, maybe not. By strict interpretations that require cauldrons or spells, enchantments or familiars, Cassandra wouldn’t fit the category of witch. But her prophetic gifts mark her as something other than human, and they ally pretty closely with other stories of second sight and prophetic gifts. Cassandra also bears the fate of many witches—and many witches have born the fate of Cassandra. Indeed, the so-called Cassandra Complex is an enduring part of fiction writing, and we’ve already seen that real-life witches were not necessarily safer than their fictional counterparts.