More about Ajax and Cassandra
The bad news is that it sucks to be a woman in the classical world. The good news is Athena’s got a girl’s back.
Cassandra was a Trojan princess who caught the eye of Apollo. Apollo was basically that annoying jock in a teen movie: ridiculously good looking, but such a creep nobody wanted a piece. He gave her the gift of prophecy hoping to get under her tunic, and when she refused, spit in her mouth so that nobody would believe her predictions.
Everyone assumed Cassandra was batshit crazy, and in one account her father locks her in a pyramid, where she actually does go insane. In another version, she warns that the Trojan Horse will bring ruin to them all and snatches up a torch to burn it, but is dragged away kicking and screaming…bad move, Trojans.
As the Greeks ravage the city, Cassandra flees to the temple of Athena and clings to her statue for protection. Ajax tears her from the altar and rapes her in front of the statue with such violence that the goddess weeps tears of rage. Odysseus wants to stone Ajax to death for his sacrilege, but Ajax saves himself by clinging to the statue of Athena (just as Cassandra had tried to do) and swearing innocence. Nice try, dude! In our preferred version of the story, Athena whips Ajax up into a maelstrom, impales him with a rod of fire, and casts his body onto jagged rocks where he is impaled again. We appreciate the phallic irony.
Unfortunately, Cassandra doesn’t fare much better. She is taken as a sex slave by King Agamemnon. Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra has been getting busy with her husband’s cousin back home. She’s also still pissed that he sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to get a fair wind to Troy. Clytemnestra and her lover murder Agamemnon and Cassandra with an axe. Apparently Clytemnestra was a fan of victim blaming. The Greeks couldn’t get enough irony, so of course Cassandra predicts her own murder but is powerless to stop it. Basically it’s the plot of a really twisted episode of That’s So Raven.
Solomon J. Solomon’s interpretation is notable among Victorian works for celebrating male nudity as much as female. Ajax is wearing his easy access rape tunic, about to blow off of his groin. That’s one way to go into battle…body armor is for Trojan nancy-boys. Meanwhile, Cassandra’s strategic covering is caught on the statue, about to expose her nether-regions. Circular cracks in the paint around Ajax’ nipple and Cassandra’s crotch suggest that someone once struck these areas with a blunt object. Could an irate visitor have been shocked by the eroticism? Tellingly, the painting was not hung in the main foyer of the Art Gallery of Ballarat for fear it would corrupt sensitive minds.
The prudes may have been right. Norman Lindsay, one of Australia’s most important artists, devoted his life to painting big titties after viewing Ajax and Cassandra as a small child. Lindsay’s work was so scandalous that when he sent it to the USA for safekeeping during World War II, American Authorities confiscated and burned it as pornography. His response: “Don’t worry, I’ll do more.” Now that’s dedication to one’s craft! Lindsay recalled that he had “tender memories” of this painting as a young boy.
Feminist critics have less “tender” feelings for this ode to sexual violence. Art historian Elizabeth Prettejohn has dismissed the painting as “a joke” and “a textbook image of patriarchal misogyny.” Cassandra isn’t laughing, but she would probably agree with the latter sentiment.