Issue 2: Page 14
Speaking of public performances . . .
The elephant in the courtyard is, of course, Kassandra, who bursts onto the scene by bellowing, “WAIT!” before going on to prophesy doom for Troy. Perhaps you remember her? She was the figure we saw at the end of last month’s issue, predicting a storm on the horizon. Here Priam tolerates her outburst with polite condescension, but we can imagine the fury lurking beneath the surface. Priam means to stage-manage this royal reunion, and Kassandra is not cooperating.
When I say “stage-manage,” the expression is just barely metaphorical. Do you see the way Priam brushes Agelaus aside in the first panel?
“Move aside, Agelaus. Paris, come stand beside me.”
This is our first indication that Agelaus’ displacement will be brutal and abrupt. And we know why. For Priam this is a public performance, presented to the community of spectators who are his subjects. There is no role in this play for the humble herdsman and erstwhile foster parent of the newly discovered Trojan prince.
Whether from habit, inclination or necessity, Priam is much more king than father in these panels. Compare him to Agelaus, whose explanation that “Priam and Hekuba are your parents” reveals, for all its redundancy, real depth of feeling. Agelaus isn’t worried about the way the new prince of Troy is presenting himself. He’s trying to explain to his son that he was adopted.
In this respect, Priam compares unfavorably to Agelaus. Still, kingship imposes its own obligations and necessities, and even if those imperatives don’t excuse Priam’s behavior, they at least help motivate it. Priam is trying to salvage a day that has seen his own sons committing an act of grave impiety. Think of how much would be redeemed if he could only show that these events were all for the good, that this reunion with a long-lost son is the happy result.
Then Kassandra, by announcing that this new prince will be the destruction of Troy, upends that hope.
Perhaps you remember the Odyssey’s Nestor, whose children were pious and obedient in their performance of sacrifice? How far from that ideal Priam’s children have fallen! How far, with the arrival of Kassandra and “her ravings,” they continue to fall.
This larger context perhaps helps us to understand, on a human level, Priam’s aggrieved reaction to his daughter. His indifference to her prophecies starts to looks a lot like the natural response of a beleaguered royal.
Personally, I think that the possibility of this rationalizing interpretation is something that really enriches the comic. Those of us who are familiar with Kassandra in the ancient sources know that they offer a divine explanation for her ignored prophecies. Eric has given us an alternative that can supplement or take the place of this view.
The classic statement of the divine explanation belongs to Aeschylus’ tragedy, the Agamemnon (5th century BCE). I won’t describe the tragedy’s plot just yet, but if you want to read the passage where Kassandra explains how she came to be gifted with prophecy, yet also cursed with the inability to make herself believed, you can do so here.
If you read the passage, you’ll notice that Kassandra credits her prophetic ability to the god Apollo. Eric obviously doesn’t name Apollo here in Age of Bronze, but the Sun God whom Kassandra serves corresponds to him. That’s because Apollo was himself a Greek sun god, in addition to being a god of prophecy.
And in fact, it’s Greek belief and ritual practice on which Kassandra’s ecstatic behavior, as well as her conviction that she acts as the Sun God’s mouthpiece, are based. The most famous example is the Delphic Oracle. Although its foundation is post-Bronze Age (in the 9th century BCE), the oracle’s workings nonetheless shed light on what Kassandra means when she says that the god speaks through her.
When you consulted the Delphic Oracle, you received your oracular reply from the priestess of Apollo, known as the Pythia. The Pythia went into an ecstatic trance when she made her prophetic utterances, which were then interpreted by cult personnel known as prophetai. Here is a description of a priestess in the throes of divine possession:
“. . . the God of this place [Apollo] employs the Pythia for the hearing as the sun employs the moon for the seeing. He shows and reveals his own thoughts, but shows them mingled in their passage through a mortal body, and a soul which cannot remain at rest or present itself to the exciting power unexcited and inwardly composed, but which boils and surges and is involved in the stirrings and troublesome passions from within.”
You can read the full passage here [2nd paragraph].
When Priam witnesses his daughter raving in this manner, he has no sense of what she is experiencing. He simply sees another of his children causing the royal family embarrassment. And in truth, that’s perhaps what we see as well.
On the next page, however, that will begin to change. We’ll learn how Kassandra’s prophetic experience looks from the inside.
The Plutarch quotation above was taken from here.
On prophecy in ancient Greece, see Sarah Iles Johnston’s Ancient Greek Divination.