Shifting Our Mythological Landscape: Transforming the Cassandra Complex
Perhaps, after four thousand years, the tide is turning for the medial woman.
~ Laurie Layton Shapira,
Is it is time to heal an ingrained myth in our collective unconscious, the tragic story of Cassandra. She was the sister of Paris, famous for choosing to give Aphrodite the Golden Apple in exchange for fulfilling his wish to marry the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. This choice led to the Trojan War. We remember Paris, but what about his prophetic sister, Cassandra?
When Cassandra was child, she fell asleep in a temple devoted to Apollo. While sleeping, snakes licked her ears, which gave her the ability to understand the speech of animals. This capacity underlies the gift of prophecy. She grew to be a beautiful woman who eventually attracted the attention of Apollo. When she rejected his amorous intentions, he punished her. Though he could not take back the gift of prophecy he had bestowed upon her, he twisted its power: She would always speak the truth but no one would believe her. This led to immense suffering, both for herself and those who disbelieved.
The Cassandra "Complex” refers to individuals prone to a type of hysteria that arises when they speak the truth but people around them resist and do not heed it. Those who suffer from this complex are often gifted with an ability to perceive the future (mediality) and speak the truth about what is to come, but they suffer Apollo’s curse and are disbelieved, ridiculed, and ignored. Apollo, the God of the sun, is a symbol of the age of reason and rationality, which includes our current time. Those who have the gift of prophecy and are not able to communicate clearly can sound (and feel) hysterical in Apollo’s realm. They may also feel responsible for whatever predicted disaster comes about in part due to their inability transmit their message in ways that people can hear. Their frustration and guilt are tortuous.
Those on the path of ecological awakening and initiation may suffer from the Cassandra complex for at least some period of time. Being individually awake to the undercurrents of reality in a rational Apollonian culture can result in Cassandra-like frustration and hysteria. Ecological insanity is collective and so appears to be sane. Suffering Cassandra-like hysteria may be inevitable for individuals moving against the broad currents of collective denial.
Developing a mature ecological Self essential. This grounded belonging can provide a nourishing rootedness that supports effective communication, even in a field of disbelief. Belongs calms ungrounded hysteria, even when one is not believed or understood. Relaxing into one’s truth and trusting in one's inherent belonging—a belonging that is larger than dominant culture and our historical blip in time—can potentially transmute hysteria into easy-going confidence and reassurance for others. Gradually, one learns to trusts one’s perceptions and is, in turn, trusted by others.
Cassandra’s mediality also embodies the awakened feminine, a quality that has long been suppressed in Apollonian patriarchy. The deep feminine has a timeless affinity with wild nature, the whispers of snakes, and scents upon the wind. Perhaps ecological grounding is crucial to awakening and embodying the deep feminine that is naturally rooted in wild nature. Ecological belonging may also be the fertile foundation for the flowering of deep feminine power.
As an ecopsychologist, one of my main objectives is to support the journey through hysteria towards a grounded confidence rooted in our deep belonging to nature. In my experience, rooted belonging of a mature ecological Self or identity is the foundation for a sensitive empathic confidence, which is essential to those gifted with ecological mediality. Then ecological mediality is a gift, not a curse. Another image for this kind of grounding is Buddha sitting, his fingers placed lightly upon the ground. This gentle gesture signifies that the Earth herself is a witness to his enlightenment rather than the doubtful gaze of onlookers. Empowered by earth-witnessing, Buddha is not shaken by skepticism or degraded by self-doubt.
Earthy belonging grants us courage and warm confidence to notice how we are being received by others. One can either keep going, or make a course correction—no problem. One can take feedback and stay open to different pathways of communication. Patience is a friend. So is friskiness. Above all, one’s deep inner knowing is unshaken by disbelief. I believe it is important to heal the Cassandra complex, especially for activists and those promoting societal transformation. Hysteria does not support our effectiveness. Our healing confidence lives within that simple but profound space where Buddha’s fingers gently touch the ground, an earthy confidence available to all of us.