A 2014 article by Rebecca Solnit recently sparked my interest in the myth of Cassandra, a woman blessed by Apollo with the gift of prophecy then cursed to never be believed, all because she would not sleep with him. In the article, Solnit uses the myth to illustrate the curse of all women to be questioned, gaslighted, and otherwise discredited when trying to speak the truth.
As is typical for me, I wanted to read more about Cassandra and see if anyone else had come to the same conclusion as Solnit. What I came across was a 1984 article by Mary Lefkowitz discrediting the work of Christina Wolf, Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays. It seems Wolf came to a similar conclusion as Solnit: the myth of Cassandra reflects the reality of all women living under patriarchy.
Lefkowitz describes Wolf’s conclusion as “ambitious” and containing a “series of imaginative leaps.” I don’t know about you, but my imagination did not have to stretch far at all to see the metaphor in the myth of Cassandra. Lefkowitz goes on to say that
If Mrs. Wolf had looked more closely at Aeschylus instead of relying on a 19th-century handbook’s recasting of the myth, she would have seen that in the original story Cassandra chose her own fate. Apollo offered her, the most beautiful of Priam’s daughters, whatever she wanted if she would have intercourse with him. She asked for the gift of prophecy but then refused to keep her part of the bargain, so the god punished her by keeping her from being believed. If she had slept with him, she would have been able to prophesy and to bear a son who would have become a famous hero – not a bad deal considering what the gods were capable of doing to men and women if they felt like it. The ancient Greeks, whatever their limitations, believed in freedom of choice; their women were no more victimized by the world around them than their men;
they recorded not only the oppression of individuals and groups but of humanity. (bold emphasis mine)
I just about fell over when I read this. I’d like to think that this type of opinion is outdated, but it’s not. Women and men still believe that a woman’s decision to submit is as free and fair a choice as any that a man would make. In fact, this is the view popularized by the “sex-positive” movement. Women who “choose” to acquiesce, relent, and give in to the desires of men are somehow empowered. But the real myth here is that women are just as free to choose not to submit.
Women who choose to say “no” still face the threat of violence, loss of financial security, and social or physical death. Confronted with this reality, many women feel they have no choice. Or, like Lefkowitz seems to suggest, they decide that unlimited access to their bodies is a small price to pay for safety and security.
It is the devaluation of women in patriarchal society that makes constant violation seem like a viable choice. Indeed, in regards to unwanted sex, women and girls are often told “it’s not so bad” or “it’s supposed to hurt.” They’re made to believe that rape is a fantasy desired by some women and are subjected to a relentless onslaught of media sexualizing violence and dominance/submission.
It’s with this amount of denial, gaslighting, and outright lying that the myth of Cassandra retains its poignancy. Women have and do exist in a world where they are routinely discredited and slandered for speaking the truth. It angers and saddens me to no end that one of the best weapons the patriarchy has found to use against us is other women. It is for this reason that I believe, as is stated in the book description for Cassandra, that stories like this are “an urgent call to examine the past in order to ensure a future.”