Shifting Our Mythological Landscape: Transforming the Cassandra Complex
by Dr. Renée G. Soule
Perhaps, after four thousand years, the tide is turning for the medial woman.
~ Laurie Layton Shapira,
It is time to heal an engrained 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.
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 great suffering for herself and others.
The “Cassandra Complex” refers to individuals prone to a type of hysteria that arises when they speak the truth but people resist and do not heed it. Those who suffer from this complex are often gifted with mediality (a gift from Apollo) and speak the truth about what is to come, but they suffer Apollo’s curse and are disbelieved, ridiculed, and ignored. (“Mediality” is a term used to describe the capacity of a “medium,” one who can foretell the future.) 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, wishing they could transmit their message more clearly or in ways that people can hear. Their frustration and guilt are tortuous. They can sound hysterical to others.
Those on the path of ecological 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. True ecological sanity is, by necessity, collective. Suffering Cassandra-like hysteria may be inevitable.
Developing a mature ecological Self can provide a rootedness that supports effective communication or transmission. Deep ecological belonging can avert ungrounded hysteria, even when one is not believed or understood. A deep knowing of one’s truth and trust in one’s inherent belonging—a belonging that is larger than one’s culture and historical blip in time—can potentially transmute hysteria into calm 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. Perhaps ecological grounding is crucial to awakening and embodying the deep feminine. Ecological belonging could be a fertile foundation for 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. In my experience, the rooted belonging of a mature ecological identity is the foundation for a sensitive empathic confidence that is deeply needed by 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. Empowered by earth-witnessing, Buddha is not shaken by skepticism of other human beings or degraded by self-doubt. This is a kind of earthy belonging grants one the courage and warm confidence to notice how one is being received. One can either keep going, or make a course correction—no problem. One can take feedback and stay open to different pathways of communication. 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 effectiveness. The healing lives in simple but profound gesture where Buddha’s fingers gently touch the ground, an earthy confidence available to all of us.