The prophetess Cassandra was cursed to be always right in her prophecies, but never to be believed. That places her on a par with modern climate scientists. (image: Cassandra as interpreted by Marvel comics)
I don't have to tell you that this story is a work of fantasy, but several details are taken from modern historiography, for instance the Hittite king Mutawalli, the possible contemporary events of the battle of Kadesh and the fall of Troy, the habits of the Babylonian temple priestesses, and more, including the fact that Hittite is a language vaguely related to English and a little attempt of inventing a Sumerian root for the name "Cassandra", whose etymology is unknown. You may also like to know that this story came to my mind, nearly complete, while I was mounting some bookshelves at home; maybe I have to consider it as a gift from the Goddess Ikea.
After that I had googled "summoning spells" on the web, I found one that I liked. I needed some peculiar stuff to perform it, including crocodile liver, platypus' whiskers, bat's earwax and more. But once I got all that (via Amazon.com), I thought I could try. And, immediately, there materialized in front of me, right in my office, a translucent image of a dark haired lady wearing gold jewels and a curious dress. No less than the ghost of Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess. And I could interview her!
Ahem, Lady Cassandra, I humbly welcome you here.
Oh, where am I?
I summoned you, Lady Cassandra. You are far in the future. More than three thousand years.
Three thousand years in the future, you say? You must have some really powerful magic. Where did you learn it?
Well, we have something we call the "Internet"
A library? Plenty of scrolls you must have in there.
Not exactly scrolls, Lady Cassandra, but you can find a lot of things in it. But I must say that I am not a great expert at summoning ghosts; it is the first time I try.
You have to be careful with these summoning spells, it is dangerous stuff. You could have summoned some Galla demons and they would have shred you to pieces. But the Gods of the underworld must like you - really! They even granted me the gift of being able to speak your language. A curious language, by the way; it sounds like Hittite, you know?
We call it 'English', Lady Cassandra. But you say it sounds like Hittite? I am not sure I understand...
Well, Hittite is a language that I came to be able to speak. But never mind that; evidently the Gods like me to speak this.... this "English". But enough with this "Lady Cassandra". Why do you call me like that?
Well, after all, you are the daughter of King Priam.
The daughter of King Priam? You believe in that story?
It is what is said about you. Are you that Cassandra?
Oh, yes, I am that Cassandra - the one they say was the daughter of King Priam of Troy. A lot of things have been said about me, I know; some are even true. But the daughter of King Priam? No, no, it is just a legend, one of the many. Actually, I came to know Priam very well; and it is true that I was in Troy when the Achaeans destroyed it. But I am not Priam's daughter. You see, I was born in Babylon.....
Born in Babylon? Really? Lady Cassandra, this is surprising!
Well, Babylon is where I was born. And I was born as Kashanna before those silly Greeks mangled my name turning it into "Cassandra". Anyway, I have been in the underworld long enough that I can drop all those silly titles. But, if you really like to call me Lady Cassandra, it is fine for me. But who are you, by the way?
Oh, you see, I am nobody of any importance. I was just reading about you, and I was curious.
Enough that you risked being shred to pieces by a Galla demon? You have to be a very curious person.
It is my job to be curious. I am called, well.... we say, "scientist"
Something like a priest? You make prophecies?
Sometimes I make prophecies about climate. You know, how climate will change in the future.
And are you believed?
That's a big problem.
I know, I know! It happens all the time. Anyway, if you are so curious, I figure I could tell you a few things about me. I don't think that the demons of the underworld will leave me chatting with you for a long time. But as long as the spell lasts, why not?
Thank you, Lady Cassandra. It is an honor to be told this story.
So, Let me see.... I have to start from the beginning. As I told you, I was born in Babylon. And I became a shamhatu of the temple of Ishtar. You probably don't know what a shamhatu is; well, in the old language she would be called a Karkid, but in the end she is a hierodule of the temple. A temple girl, just that. It was my job. The job of the temple girls is to celebrate the goddess of love, Ishtar. We also call her "Inanna" in the old language, in Sumerian, that is. And we do that, you know, it means to have sex with the king, celebrate the sacred marriage of Tammuz and Ishtar - or, as they said in the times of our Sumerian ancestors, Dummuzi and Inanna.
So, I was studying to become a priestess. It was my career, to learn the old language of the Sumerians, to recite the hymns, to perform the sacrifices. It is a complicated job, you know? You have to study a lot and then, when it is time to perform the sacred marriage rite, you have to look all coquettish with the king, wear jewels, sexy clothes, all that; my gosh, not all kings are nice. But all kings like a lot to play the role of Dumuzi in the sacred marriage rite. And a priestess plays the role of Inanna, the goddess. In a way, it is fun.
Now, in my times, the big man, the king, was someone called Muwatalli the second, a Hittite. His father had conquered Babylon earlier on and, at that time, in Babylon, we were part of the Hittite Empire. So, the king of the Hittites would come to Babylon once in a while, just to make sure that everything was quiet and that everybody would pay their taxes to him.
So, he came to Babylon, this king Muwatalli, from the capital of the Empire, from Tarhuntassa. Quite a retinue he carried with him. Soldiers, slaves, ladies in waiting, concubines, servants, cooks, all the rest. And he arrived in time for the rite of the sacred marriage. And you can imagine who was the hierodule who had the task of performing the rite that year. Just the modest me; Cassandra - or rather - as I said, Kashanna.
So, I performed this rite with King Mutawalli. Not a bad guy, I'd say, although he had this idea that everyone should call him Nergal, which means the God of War, but kings have these bizarre ideas. Anyway, he must have been impressed by our rituals. You know, in Babylon, at that time, we knew how to impress people! Fancy dresses, songs, harps playing, all the rest. But I think he was more impressed by the way the priestesses could perform divinations. Kings are always interested in divinations - they must feel very insecure all the time. Or so I think.
Anyway, King Muwatalli was impressed enough by the whole circus that he wanted to take me to Tarhuntassa. People used to say that I was a nice looking girl at that time, but I am not sure that he wanted me for my looks. I think he was thrilled by the idea of having a personal Babylonian priestess at his court - available any time. Whatever, I had no choice, Kings can't be contradicted when they decide something. I remember that my Ensi, the high priestess of the temple, told me that I had to be careful, because I had learned a lot of things in the temple, even how to make prophecies, but that of prophetizing is not an easy job and that I had not learned yet how to make myself believed, and so I risked to be misunderstood all the time. She was right, of course. But I was young and I must say that I was excited at the idea to go with king Muwatalli. You know, I could have given a son to the king, then he would have married me and I would have become Queen, or Empress, or something like that. I knew that it wasn't likely that it would happen and it didn't happen. But - you know - a girl can always dream!
So, let me keep going. I went with King Muwatalli to Tarhuntassa and I became one of his concubines; he had a lot of them, as kings use to have. He also had a wife, or perhaps more than one - I am not sure. Anyway, I was not to be his wife. Just a concubine. Which is fine, after all; you know, the job of the concubine is not very difficult. You just have to be ready when the king wants you, which is not so often because the king has a lot of concubines. It was a little boring, sure, but, after a while, you get used to that. So, I learned some of the local language, Hittite, and I spent my time chatting with the other concubines, eating, drinking, and laughing. So, that could have been all of my story: to get old in the king's harem; it is the lot of concubines. But, instead, my destiny was to be completely different.
As a concubine, I was a little special, because I was from Babylon, and I had been a hierodule of the temple of Ishtar and the priests and the priestesses of Babylon have this fame of being able to make prophecies. So, one day, the king summoned me, and I went to see him all dressed up nice, kohl on my eyes, good perfume all over, and gold bracelets on my wrists and my ankles. But, that day, I found that he didn't want to play Dumuzi and Inanna with me. I saw right away that he was worried, very worried. So, he told me that messengers had come from Egypt and had told him that the Egyptian army was marching North in full strength, toward the lands of the Hittites, led by the young Pharaoh Ramses the second. And, of course, he had to stop them. So, he asked me to make a prophecy for him. A prophecy about the coming battle.
What could I do? When a king asks you something, you can't refuse. So, I wore the dress of the prophetess, had a liver from a freshly killed goat brought to me and I made this prophecy for him. And it was not a good prophecy. I saw a lot of dead people, plenty of smashed chariots, and the remnants of the Hittite army retreating. I told him that, and he got angry at me. He said that he was going to lick these Egyptians as they deserved. And that he would teach this stupid Ramses a good lesson. And that he didn't believe a word of my prophecy.
It was what my Ensi had said. That nobody would believe my prophecies; actually, she had said it was a curse, and maybe it was true. But what could I do about that? King Muwatalli assembled the army; all the chariots and the infantry, and he marched south.
From Tarhuntassa, we saw the king leaving and, a few months later, coming back. But more than half of the army was not with him anymore. Of course, the king told everyone that it had been a big victory for him, at the city of Kadesh. But the survivors told different stories; people being hacked to pieces and drowning while trying to swim across the Orontes river, pursued by the Egyptians. Later on, there came messengers from Egypt, who said that king Ramses had come back home telling of the great victory he had won against the Hittites.
So, you can understand how things were at the court of Tarhuntassa at that time. The king was worried that the Egyptians would attack again, that the provinces would rebel, that the nobles would try to overthrow him; a mess. And about me, ow, you can imagine that. It is no good having been right about a king's disgrace. I was afraid that King Muwatalli would kill me; he didn't, but for sure he didn't care anymore for me to play Inanna and Dumuzi with him. But, at this point, there happened something else.
Not that I was supposed to be told about these political things, I was just a concubine. But everything becomes known in court after a while, and so I learned that there had come a messenger from the West, from king Alaksandu of Wilusa. You probably never hear of these names, but you can surely understand if I say, instead "King Priam of Troy". So let me call him Priam, even though the Hittites called him in a different way.
Now, this messenger arrived, and he said that King Priam was in trouble because there was this king Akagamunash, ruler of the Ahhiyawa, who was planning to attack the city of Troy. Even these names, you probably never heard of, unless you speak Hittite. But they are also known as King Agamemnon and the Achaeans; people living across the sea from Anatolia. So, this messenger said that King Priam had always been a faithful vassal of King Mutawalli, and that he would remain a faithful servant forever, and that his sons would be forever faithful servants of King Muwatalli, too, and he kept going like that for quite a long time. Then, while still paying homage to the victorious king of the Hittites, he - King Priam - said that he badly needed some help from King Muwatalli and that the great Hittite ruler was surely able to chase away these barbarian Achaeans with his powerful army as if they were ants pushed away by fire.
That message made King Mutawalli even angrier and more worried than before. He had no army that he could send West to defend Troy. And if he tried to defend Troy, he would have to leave the Eastern provinces unguarded, and that could have been truly the end of him. But if he did nothing, he risked the whole left flank of the Hittite Empire. So, he had this idea: to send me to king Priam.
I don't know if that was to be taken as a joke or if he really thought I could help the Trojans - maybe yes, you know, these Babylonian priestesses have strange powers. Anyway, the king had his scribes write a pompous letter to King Priam, saying that because of his faithful service he wanted to reward him with a precious gift, a gift of great value. And he was sending him this wise woman from Babylon, prophetess of renown, and that he - King Muwatalli - was sure that King Priam would appreciate the gift for what it was worth.
All that I came to know later. What happened is that the king summoned me and he told me "Kashanna, you are going to Wilusa." And I knew nothing of that story and I said, "What?" And he laughed and he said, "Aren't you a prophetess, Kashanna? You should know!" Silly humor of kings. But let me say nothing about that.
One month later, I was there, in front of the walls of Troy, with a caravan that had traveled all the way from Tarhuntassa. And I was in front of King Priam, who came out of the door of the city to meet me. I still remember his face. He was expecting an army to help him, and all he got was a dressed up concubine escorted by eunuchs and slaves. Oh, that he was disappointed!! But he put on a brave face, and he took me into the city with all the pomp of the occasion.
Now, King Priam was too old to be interested in playing Dumuzi and Inanna with me. But his sons were young enough, and I was the new girl in town, and I think that Priam didn't want anyone to quarrel because of me. There was a war that was going to start, and he didn't want Trojans to kill each other because they were quarreling for me. So, he placed me in the temple of the Goddess with the other hierodules. In Troy, things were much different than in Babylons and the hierodules were all supposed to be virgins. Now, it is a bit strange for a hierodule of Isthar to be said to be a virgin. Curious uses they had, there. It would be like saying that Nergal, the God of War, fears blood! And, about these girls, the hierodules, actually being virgins, well, let me avoid all comments, but that's another story. So, the king placed me there, and there I had to stay. And not just that. He adopted me, telling everyone that from then on I was supposed to be his daughter and that any offense against me, any attempt to jeopardize my virginity, would be seen as an insult to the king and to the whole royal family. Well, what could I say? At least I didn't have to worry about too many things.
So, while staying in the temple, I learned a little of the local language - not so different than Hittite. Then, I learned about the city and all the buzz there was about this woman, Helen. One of the sons of King Priam, Paris, had snatched her away from her husband, a big Achaean boss called Menelaus. This Helen was supposed to be extremely beautiful, but I can tell you that she was kind of overrated. Anyway, it was none of my business whether this Paris and Helen were playing Dumuzi and Inanna together. But it didn't seem to me that it had been such a good idea to steal this woman from her husband, who was a powerful Achaean King. Now the Achaeans were buzzing like angry bees and that was the reason why Priam was expecting an invasion.
Sure enough, not long after I had arrived, there appeared on the sea a big fleet of those Achaeans, right in front of the city of Troy. They landed, and out of the ships they came with their chariots, swords, lances, and all the stuff needed for war. And all the Trojans, including the hierodules of the temple, went up the walls and looked down to the plain in front of the city and - by the sacred name of the Goddess - there was a huge band of those Achaeans there.
Later on, that day, King Priam summoned me and he asked me to perform a divination for him. And I told him, "King, I don't need to make a prophecy for you to tell you what will be the results of the war; haven't you seen how many of those Achaeans there are, out there?" And he told me not to be silly and to make this divination. So, I got myself a goat liver and I performed the ritual and I told him what I saw. Which was a lot of blood and the city in flames. And, of course, he wasn't happy. He got angry at me and he started screaming things I didn't understand. So, I told him, "king, don't you think it was a silly idea that your son, Paris, snatched away this girl, this Helen, from her husband? Now he is here with all his friends and he wants her back. So, why don't you just give her back to him, and so you save the city?" But he muttered something like "the honor of the Trojans is not negotiable!" And he left, angry, saying that he didn't believe a word of my prophecies. As if that was new.
Not that Priam was stupid. One problem was that he was old, he couldn't really tell people what to do. But there really was this idea in Troy that the honor of the city was at stake and that they had to fight, even though they understood that they had done something wrong and that the Achaeans, after all, were right at being angry at them. I know this because I spoke with other people of the city, including one of Priam's sons, a guy called Hector. He seemed to be smarter than the average, but still he didn't budge from that position: they were fighting for the honor of Troy and that was it. So, what could I do about that? I even made a divination for him, and you can imagine what came out: more blood and disasters. And he started looking at me askance as if I was a traitor or a spy; after all, I was a foreigner. Don't misunderstand me; these Trojans were not bad people - actually, I liked them. But they had this idea that there is no other way to solve problems than hacking at each other with swords. I told them that swords create problems, don't solve them, but they looked at me as if I had been a Galla demon from the underworld, just materialized in front of them. Nothing to do about that.
So, there started this war. In the temple, with the other hierodules, we couldn't see what was going on, out there, but, every evening, the warriors came back to the city and told stories of the battle. We heard of this guy having killed that guy, and of another guy coming up and killing the first in revenge. I figure this is the way wars are; not very interesting for a hierodule. Anyhow, I must say that the Trojans put up quite a good fight, though badly outnumbered. And they trusted their walls, they thought they were safe behind them.
There is a legend that says that the siege of Troy lasted for ten years, but it is not true, it lasted just for a season - what do you think those Achaeans would have eaten if they had to stay in the plain for ten years? But never mind that. One day, someone came up to the temple and he told me, "Cassandra, come and see!" So, I walked up to the battlements and I saw a big wooden thing right in front of the walls. And everyone was asking "what the heck is that?" and they asked me if I knew, because I was a priestess and I had seen a lot of things. And, of course, I knew what it was, I had read about those things; not for nothing we have a big library in the temple, in Babylon. So, I told them, "it is a siege engine!" And they looked at me with bovine eyes, and they said, "What?" And I told them, "it is made to smash down the city walls!" They looked at each other, shaking their heads. They didn't believe me. What's so new about that?
So, they kept discussing about that big wooden thing and someone came up with this brilliant idea that it was a statue in the semblance of a horse and that it was a votive offering for the God Apollon. And I told them, "Look, you idiots, that's not a horse; that's not a votive offering. That's a siege machine! You must set it on fire before it is too late." I was trying to do my best to help them, after all. But they just looked at me and, again, they started muttering that I am a foreign and that I could be a spy and that I should not be trusted. What could I do about that?
So, I went back to the temple, and night came, and I went to sleep and I woke up when I heard a lot of noise, people screaming, and the smell of things burning. I understood what was going on but, again, there was nothing I could do about that. I could only note how silly these people were. And, again, I was sorry for them. Then, at some moment, the door of the temple was smashed open from the outside and there a hirsute idiot wearing armor and carrying a sword appeared. You can imagine that I was afraid, so I clung to the statue of the Goddess, but the unwashed idiot tried to pull me away - I mean, so stupid: if he had wanted to play Dumuzi and Inanna with me, he could have asked in the proper manner. So, I got even more scared and I clung to the statue more, and in the end, I got a dislocated shoulder, quite some bruises, and the troglodyte in armor carried me away.
You can imagine how angry I was, in addition to the dislocated shoulder, this dumb lout had managed to desecrate the temple of the Goddess. So I cursed him for good, using some curses that my Ensi had taught me; while telling me that I should never use them, but I did. He was cursed for good, the big boss of the Achaeans scolded him badly for what he had done, and took me away from him. Later on, the Goddess had his ship sink at sea, and he drowned. When I came to know that, I was sorry for him, but that was how things went. He should have been more careful in dealing with a priestess of Ishtar.
So, while Troy was burning, I ended up playing Inanna and Dumuzi with the King of the Achaeans, someone called Agamemnon. I said that I was a good looking girl at that time, so he took me with him on his ship, when he sailed back to his city, Mycenae. Before leaving, he asked me to make a divination for him; which I did - the usual work with a goat's liver. I told him that I saw blood and murder, and he just laughed and he said that his loving wife was waiting for him and that everything would be fine. He didn't believe me. Nothing unusual.
So, we arrived in Mycenae, and Agamemnon took me with him to his palace. His wife, Clytemnestra, didn't like that -- not so much because of me, but because she had a lover, and she didn't want her obnoxious husband back. So she killed Agamemnon by stabbing him while he was taking a bath; loving wife, yeah, sure! And then she ran after me while yielding a battle axe - lovely lady, indeed. She almost got me, but I managed to run away. Later on, the legend spread that said that she had killed me and I was perfectly happy with that. I had already had enough troubles and I much preferred if people thought I was dead.
That was not the end of the story, but I'll skip several details of what happened later on. Let me just say that I managed to meet another Achaean who was also getting back home; Odysseus his name. He took me aboard on his ship and he played a little of Dumuzi and Inanna with me, then he asked me a prophecy for his return home. I don't have to tell you that I saw bad things there, but he didn't believe me - of course. But this Odysseus was nice enough to land me in Byblos, in Lebanon where he had stopped to get some wood to repair his ship. There, I found a ride on a caravan that took me back to Babylon.
And there I was, a few years had gone by, but in the meantime, my Ensi priestess had died and they recognized me, and they wanted me to become the new Ensi of the temple. But I didn't want to - I had enough of prophecies. I stopped being a hierodule, I stopped being a prophetess. I married a tavern keeper in Babylon and I spent my time making beer and serving it to our customers. I had children and grandchildren. I had a happy life and I died very old. And now I am a ghost. And that's the end of the story of Cassandra - known as Kashanna in Babylon.
Just one more detail; I think it may interest you. One day there came someone to the tavern, an old Greek. He was blind and he had no money, but he said he could sing for me in exchange for beer. So, I served him some good beer, and he sang for me the story of the war of Troy. It was nice, but I told him that it was wrong in many details. I tried to tell him that Cassandra was not the daughter of King Priam and that the siege engine didn't really look like a horse. But he didn't believe me - imagine that! So, I told him that he could have his beer for free, and might the Goddess bless him. And that's truly the end of this story.
Lady Cassandra, it is a nice story to hear. Thank you very much. So, you even meet Homer!
Yes, I remember that Homer was the name of that blind Greek. I think he became famous.
But, Lady Cassandra, you said that your name in Babylon was.... how did you say?
My name? Kashanna, it was my name in Babylon.
What does it mean?
Oh, it is an old Sumerian name. Kash is beer and Anna is heaven. So, Kashanna means "heavenly beer."
A very nice name.
Thank you. Do you like beer?
I do. Although sometimes it gives me headaches.
Not the beer I served in my tavern, in Babylon. I am sure that it didn't give headaches to anyone.
I don't think they make that kind of beer anymore, unfortunately. Do you like beer, Lady Cassandra?
Well, I used to. The beer I served in the tavern in Babylon was very good. But, you know, as a ghost......
Oh, sorry, I didn't mean...
No, it is all right. It is the way the Gods have arranged things to be. Everyone has to become a ghost. Sooner or later.
But, Lady Cassandra, I was thinking that I might ask you something.
You want a divination, don't you?
Well, if possible. Although I am not sure I can find a goat liver for you.
Oh, don't worry about that. As a ghost, I can make divinations even without a goat liver. No problem. And what would you like the divination to be about?
That's very nice of you, Lady Cassandra. So, you know, we have plenty of problems, here. But there is this one we call "climate change." I am not sure you are familiar with this concept.
Ghosts have special powers, you know? So, I know what you are talking about. It is very dangerous, indeed. More dangerous than having the whole Achaean army lined up in front of the city doors. So, let me make this divination for you.
Well, maybe it takes time.
No, as I said, we ghosts have special powers. I just have to think about the matter, and the prophecy comes. And, you know, I am sorry, I am really sorry.
It is not a good prophecy. It is even worse than for Troy. Everything on fire. People dying, blood everywhere. But many, many more than for Troy.
But am I not supposed to disbelieve you?
Oh, no, that curse was for when I was alive. Now that I am a ghost, not anymore. I think you believe me.
Not that I am happy about that, but I believe you.
It seems that people in your time are even more stupid than the Trojans. They just had to give back Helen to the Achaeans to save the city. All you have to do is to stop burning that awful black stuff you keep burning. Is it so difficult?
Apparently, yes. It seems to be very difficult.
I see. It must be like giving back Helen to the Achaeans, it was the right thing to do for the Trojans. And it was so simple. And yet, it was so difficult! I am sorry that I upset you.
It is all right. I should have expected that.
I am really sorry. I see that you are very upset. I should really go back to the underworld.
No, no, there is no hurry. But, Lady Cassandra, do you really think your prophecies... I mean, do they always come true?
The Gods send them to me.
See, I was sorry for the people of Troy, and I am sorry for your people, too. You see, maybe you should pray to the Goddess Inanna, maybe she can help you.
I think I should try that, yes.
Really, I guess it is time for me to go. Ghosts are not supposed to chat with the living for such a long time. And good luck, you really need it.
Thank you, Lady Cassandra.