Long, long ago, Priam and his wife, Hecuba, were king and queen of Troy. They had several children, including the hero Hector, and twins, a boy named Helenus and a girl named Cassandra.
Cassandra was so beautiful that people compared her to the goddess Aphrodite. So it is no surprise that as she grew older, many young men fell in love with her.
And then one of the gods saw her, and her life changed forever.
Apollo, son of Zeus and Leto, was said to be the ideal of male beauty, and was the god of poetry and music.
The moment he saw Cassandra, he knew he must win her love. To do this, Apollo offered Cassandra an extraordinary gift, that of prophecy, the ability to know the future, if in return she would love him.
Hearing Apollo’s offer, Cassandra imagined the glory of such a power, and so she agreed to the god’s bargain.
Alas, once Apollo had given her the power to see the future, she broke her word to him. She did not stop to think that mortals who defied the gods were punished.
She ignored the truth she ought to have known — that breaking a promise to a god would bring only heartache.
And that is what happened. Though Apollo did not take away Cassandra’s ability to see the future, once she turned her back on him and refused to love him, he added to her prophetic powers a terrible curse.
“Cassandra, you will always know the future,” he said, “but you shall be doomed to despair. No matter that your predictions will always be true, no one will ever believe you.”
After that, Cassandra always saw clearly what would happen in the future; she knew the land of Troy would be destroyed and that her brother Hector would be killed.
For years she tried to warn her people, but no one ever believed her predictions. Hearing her prophecies, people laughed and called the poor girl mad. Even her parents did not listen to their daughter; believing her words to be ravings, they tried to keep her in her room where she would not disturb others.
Now Cassandra’s mother, Hecuba, had given birth to another son, a beautiful boy she named Paris, but just before the boy was born, Hecuba dreamed that he would be the downfall of Troy. And so, to protect the land from destruction, she sent the baby away.
The servants took him to the wilds of Mount Ida to die alone in the wilderness.
But Paris was fortunate. Wild wolves protected him until a kind shepherd found him and raised him as his own. Throughout those years Cassandra, his long-lost sister, continued to warn her people that their land was doomed, that trouble was coming. Cassandra, in truth, predicted all that followed, but Troy was flourishing, so no one worried about the future, and no one believed Cassandra.
Apollo’s curse had worked its magic.
Many years passed, and when Paris was grown he was called upon to judge a contest among three goddesses — Aphrodite, Athena and Hera. Each goddess offered Paris a bribe hoping Paris would select her as the most beautiful, and when the contest was over, Paris chose Aphrodite.
So it was that Paris won Aphrodite’s prize, the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. That woman was Helen, wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta.
“Helen is yours for the taking,” Aphrodite told Paris, and so he traveled to Sparta, stole the queen from her home, and traveled with her back to Troy.
This caused Menelaus to call the Greeks to attack Troy, and so began a war that lasted nine long years.
The battles were endless, and as the war dragged on, Cassandra tried to warn her people. “Our hero Hector will die,” she predicted, but the people were convinced Hector could not be beaten.
True to Cassandra’s predictions, Hector fell. When Cassandra predicted the abduction of her brother Helenus by the Greek hero Odysseus, no one listened, and Odysseus captured Helenus, who also could predict the future, and carried him away.
Unlike the Trojans, the Greeks and their leader, Odysseus, listened to the prophecies Helenus offered them. So it was that clever Odysseus came up with a plan to overtake Troy at long last. He ordered a carpenter named Epeius to build a large wooden horse but to leave the horse hollow inside, so that when the statue was finished, Greek warriors could hide inside.
The Greeks tricked the Trojans by burning their camp outside of Troy and sailing away to hide on a nearby island.
Only one Greek stayed behind, Sinon, who persuaded the Trojans that the Greeks had left the horse as an offering to the goddess Athena and to take it inside the city walls.
The Trojans admired the beautiful horse, but Cassandra tried with all her heart to warn the Trojans not to believe Sinon’s words. “You must not bring this horse inside our walls,” she cried, but again the Trojans ignored her. They dragged the horse inside.
That night, after all the Trojans were asleep, Sinon set free the warriors hidden inside the horse, and they killed the guards and opened the city gates, letting in the Greek soldiers who had returned silently from the island in their boats.
They slaughtered the Trojans, including the great king Priam, who huddled in fear near Zeus’ altar, and set the city on fire.
The soldiers carried Cassandra from the tower of Athena, dragging her to their own ships. Again Cassandra offered visions of the future.
“Your soldiers will never make it home,” she told Odysseus. But as her own people had, the Greeks only laughed. “Madness,” they said.
But they ought to have listened, for this was the beginning of many years of anguish at sea for the Greeks.