CASSANDRA AND THE POETICS OF PROPHECY IN GREEK AND LATIN LITERATURE

Emily Pillinger

CUP (2019) h/b 268pp £75.00 (ISBN 9781108473934)

This text examines the ‘miscommunications’ of the prophet Cassandra and employs insights from translation studies to examine the interactions between Cassandra and her interlocutors, as well as considering the audience of the texts. The main argument of this book is that not all of Cassandra’s articulations are nonsense, or confused in their utterance; rather, the miscommunications and misunderstandings can occur deliberately on the side of the interlocutor within the text, with the message being clear to the audience. The author also tracks the relationships between the Cassandras of different texts over time and establishes threads of intertextuality between those texts.

Along with the introductory and concluding chapters, there are five chapters which take a specific text as its focus: Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Euripides’ Trojan Women, Lycophron’s Alexandra, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Seneca’s Agamemnon. Cassandra is ‘generally found on the periphery of the narrative’ (p. 2), with two main exceptions in this selection of texts. In the Alexandra, Cassandra’s narrative is repeated verbatim from the messenger to Priam, and thus controls most of the narrative; and in the Aeneid, Cassandra as a prophet figure is increasingly effaced and marginalised until she is subsumed into the figure of the Cumaean Sibyl. Yet in this text, prophecy is given to a variety of characters, including the harpy Celaeno; in portraying her as both a seer and a Fury, Virgil ‘sustains prophecy’s connection to Cassandra’ (p. 156) through Cassandra’s portrayal as a revenge-seeking Fury in Aeschylus. The author suggests that the figure of Cassandra allows authors and playwrights some leeway to explore literary techniques and innovations, which have impact both upon later reception and Roman myth-making. This is exemplified through her refocusing the Trojan War as a Trojan success story in Trojan Women, which ‘establishes a basis for later Roman triumphalist reconfigurations of the Trojan myth’ (p.95), picked up most effectively in Seneca’s play. 

In utilising translation studies, the author suggests that the difficulties in communication can be ascribed to a range of issues: that Cassandra is both a stranger but also not ‘uncomplicatedly other’ (p. 4), that miscommunications occur even in native or fluent languages; and that there is a double narrative—Cassandra is translating Apollo in her prophecies, and then being translated by her interlocutors. Her language is ambiguous, understood better by the external audience (with knowledge of the context and conclusion of her narrative trajectory), but also, in its striking honesty, is almost too imperfectly conveyed. She does not translate enough for her audience, it is argued, but her ‘inexact translations’ of her prophecies ‘buy her more time’ (pp. 23-4) within the textual context.

Cassandra is not, this study argues, mad; she makes very deliberate and, in some respects, calculated decisions. An example to support this assertion can be found within Trojan Women, when she withholds details of Hecuba’s future as an act of kindness (p. 92); her speech in this play is incongruous, rather than nonsensical (p. 95), and unusual narrative techniques, verbal tricks and hapax legomena create the sense of her speech being difficult to understand. 

Throughout the texts, which the author examines in order of chronology of writing, Cassandra talks back to mythology, which is applied to the events that she prophecies. There is increasing intertextuality through the roles of messengers, the figure of the Furies which Cassandra herself is said to embody, the symbol of fire which recurs through her prophecy and the settings in which the texts place her, and linguistic mirroring also works across texts and through time to build a changing picture of this inspired prophet. The conclusion highlights the longevity of the figure of Cassandra, tracing her development through selected reception texts and highlighting through these the main difficulties that arise from portraying Cassandra. Throughout ancient and modern reception, Cassandra has a ‘twisted relationship’ between sounds and sense (p. 230), and her flawed speech has endured ‘through repeated, flawed translation’ (p. 236). However, her power is shown through the many receptions of Cassandra, in her ability to draw many people into the madness of her inexact utterances and perfect understanding through the authors’ linguistic tools.

This is an exceptionally detailed and minutely researched text which explores how the figure of Cassandra is used to effect within the texts it examines, and its engagement with the language and symbolism used establishes a chain of narrative processes that write intertextually across chronological time even whilst their contexts move back and forth across mythic time. Yet the argument of the study remains clear throughout and will encourage its reader to re-examine all that they know of Cassandra, seeking out texts with which they are unfamiliar; a successful result for any academic study.

Anactoria Clarke
The Open University

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