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Christa Wolf: Kassandra (Cassandra)

Wolf’s novel is a retelling of the story of Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam of Troy and his wife, Hecuba, who was granted the gift of prophecy by Apollo because of her beauty but, when she would not return his love, he spat in her mouth, which resulted in no-one believing her prophecies. Wolf’s story is a fairly straightforward re-telling of the legend, though she does add an affair with Aeneas. However, the key aspect of the story is not just that it is told from Cassandra’s perspective but it is told from a markedly feminist perspective.

The novel opens and closes as Cassandra is standing in front of the Lion Gate at Mycenae. She has just been brought back from Troy by Agamemnon as his concubine and both of them will be murdered by Aegisthus in a few minutes. For Wolf, the key point is that Cassandra, as a woman, is excluded by the men. Her prophecies which, of course, were accurate, are ignored (her father, Priam, locks her up to keep her and her prophecies away). When she was younger she attended her father’s council meetings as, unlike her siblings, she was interested in politics but she is later excluded. Though Cassandra is the main female character, Wolf shows other women characters who are ignored or shunted aside, including Cassandra’s servant, Marpessa, Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, the goddess Cybele and other lesser-known women from Greek mythology.

Wolf, of course, is very much making a point here. The book was written at the height of the Cold War. The men are banging the drums – both the United States versus the Soviet Union but also within East Germany, where Wolf lived – while the women’s voices for less war, less violence were completely ignored. Some have criticised Wolf, saying that Cassandra was not a pacifist. This is irrelevant. Wolf is using her to make her point and is not merely retelling a conventional Greek legend, She tells the relatively short story very well and very effectively and the theme is as relevant today as it was in 1983.

Publishing history

First published 1993 by Aufbau
First published in English in 1984 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux