Scholia Reviews ns 8 (1999) 32.

Dagmar Neblung, Die Gestalt der Kassandra in der antiken Literatur. Stuttgart und Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1997. Pp. 271. ISBN 3-519-07646-2. DM98.00

Elke Steinmeyer
Classics, University of Natal, Durban

Is it still possible today to write a scholarly study about a female figure without the slightest touch of feminism? Especially about a character who has been described only recently as 'a sacrificial victim' and 'the ultimate female commodity' in Aeschylus' Agamemnon?[[1]] Christa Wolf herself, whose 1983 narrative Kassandra is one of the most famous adaptations of the title figure worldwide (besides Marion Zimmer Brandley's fantasy novel Firebrand), makes the following statement: 'In Kassandra ist eine der ersten Frauengestalten ueberliefert, deren Schicksal vorformt, was dann, dreitausend Jahre lang, den Frauen geschehen soll: dass sie zum Objekt gemacht werden'.[[2]]

Neblung undertakes a brave attempt to fulfil her task. As a disciple of the 'Berlin School' she opts for a traditional approach to her topic. In a concise introduction (pp. 1-5), Neblung defines her aims and her position very clearly; she wants 'to investigate the literary development of the Cassandra figure' (p. 4) through the centuries from Homer to Dracontius and Kolluthos, putting special emphasis on a detailed analysis of the relevant texts and their interrelationships. She points out as well that she will include neither the field of visual arts[[3]] nor of religion. No other -isms or -logies are applied, Neblung concentrates on 'classical' philology.

In Neblung's book, we encounter good old German philological tradition at its best.[[4]] Her compilation of Greek and Latin sources including fragments, arranged in nine chapters in chronological order, offers an excellent and -- to my knowledge -- complete overview of the relevant passages in Classical Literature, which are listed in alphabetical order in a useful index entitled 'Textstellenverzeichnis' (pp. 252-55) at the end of the book. Each chapter is concluded by a convenient summary. The ancient texts are thoroughly researched and carefully analysed; their presentation, however, remains rather descriptive. Interpretation occurs seldom in this book and is in most cases restricted to the passage under consideration itself; its function within the context of the whole work or even the oeuvre of the author is, as Hansjoerg Woelke has rightly observed in an earlier review of this book,[[5]] only exceptionally discussed. Neblung's style is clear, precise and limpid and offers a pleasant reading. The book ends with a 'Stellenregister', an index locorum (pp. 256- 71).

The main achievement of this book is undoubtedly the catalogue of motifs, which Neblung extracts from the earliest texts, the Homeric epics, the epic cycle and archaic poetry, which form the main characteristics of the Cassandra figure: 'un noyau constant, re/sistant, qui semble e=tre l'essence du mythe', as Jean-Louis Backe\s says.[[6]] Neblung follows up their development and variations through the various authors and the various periods and starts off with five (pp. 6-19): (1) Cassandra's beauty ('Schoenheit'); (2) Cassandra as a virgin ('Jungfrau'); (3) Cassandra the prophetess ('Seherin'); (4) Cassandra and Aias; (5) Cassandra, Agamemnon and death ('Tod'). Neblung deals in a persuasive manner with the problems that arise out of the fragmentary condition of these early texts; it is interesting to learn that Pindar is the first to use the term MA/NTIJ for Cassandra;[[7]] that Lycophron is the first to call Cassandra Alexandra and the first certain source, who calls Aias' crime expressis verbis a rape and not only a violation of the right for asylum in Athena's temple;[[8]] that the scene between Aias and Cassandra was the favorite illustration among the vase-painters, while the poets preferred to depict Cassandra's relationship with Agamemnon (p. 14, n. 33). In her 'Schlussbetrachtung' (pp. 230-36), Neblung substitutes the motif of beauty by the motif of unbelief ('Unglauben'), which she considers to be the principal one. Several times, she stresses the tragic theme of the 'unsuccessful warner' (p. 230), a theme that enables everybody, in her view, to identify himself or herself with Cassandra, since everybody has experienced the feeling of helplessness, of knowing something that others do not and not being able to convince them of it (p. 2), and the desperate desire to avoid an inevitable doom by ignoring and denying it (p. 230). Neblung goes so far as to call these phenomena basic and constant anthropological situations; but since she does not pursue the anthropological issue, this term gives a slightly misleading impression. Last but not least, some of the main characteristics -- the gift of prophecy, the crime of Aias, the theme of Agamemnon - - are rearranged in a 'Motivindex' (pp. 250f.).

The Cassandra scenes in Aeschylus' Agamemnon (pp. 21-35) and Euripides' Troades (pp. 39- 57) had great influence on all later adaptations of this figure. Despite some similarities (Cassandra's total isolation on stage, for example), both authors use her for different purposes (pp. 68-71): in Aeschylus, she is totally dependent on the god Apollo, who is made responsible for her death, and she tries in vain to break his influence on her; in Euripides, she sees herself as the avenger of Troy, being the cause for Agamemnon's death, and represents human autonomy against the gods.

One third of the book is dedicated to the depiction of Cassandra in Latin literature, but it seems that most Roman authors preferred rather to 'recycle' the already existing motifs rather than creating new ones. The most important innovations can be found in Seneca's tragedy Agamemnon, in which elements of Stoic philosophy, especially the role of destiny, enrich the plot (pp. 155-77, 231), and in the works of the so called Second Sophistic: for Philostratos, Cassandra has fallen in love with Agamemnon and tries to prevent his death (pp. 186f.); Athenaios tries to justify Clytemnestra's jealousy out of fear that Agamemnon might introduce 'Asian' polygamy into Greece (p. 193); in Dares Phrygius Cassandra survives the Trojan War and lives afterward happily together with Helenos, Hecabe and Andromache in the Chersonnese (p. 201). The collection of these less famous texts, which rounds off the picture of the ancient Cassandra, must be considered to be a special merit of Neblung's book.

Besides these obvious assets, the fundamental shortcoming of the work, in my view, lies in the bibliography. Instead of a comprehensive list, the bibliographical references are split into two parts: there is one 'Literaturverzeichnis' at the end (pp. 242-49), divided again in two parts, one for primary literature, the other for a selection of secondary literature that 'has been quoted at least three times' (p. 242), the latter categorised according to the chapters in the book. All the other references are scattered in the footnotes of the respective passages. This over-organized system proves to be time-consuming and not really user-friendly, especially for a quick search. Here, some more editorial revision would have been helpful. A simple alphabetical listing and possibly a smaller, more economical font could have made the bibliography much more handy and rewarding to consult.

But there is another more general and more serious problem. It goes without saying that for a book of such a broad range we cannot expect a full bibliography for each topic (an almost impossible task anyway, due to the current flood of publications). Bibliographical references are necessarily selective and subjective. Nevertheless I was astonished to find in Neblung's book an unfortunate tendency shared with some recent publications. While authors who write in English usually limit themselves to the English literature of the last two decades (so that one gets the impression that Classics is a fairly young discipline that has emerged out of nowhere), many German authors phase out their essentially German bibliography at the beginning of the 80s (so that one gets the impression that Classics is an 'endangered species'). This attitude also seems to have left its traces in Neblung's work: except for some monographs on Cassandra (pp. 3f. and 242), we find little bibliographical information of the 80s and almost nothing of the 90s. Just to take the chapter about Aeschylus as an example: I miss a discussion of David Kovacs' hypothesis that Cassandra, who resembles Creusa in Euripides' Ion, had already been raped by Apollo (and not only by Aias);[[9]] the parallel between Cassandra and Iphigeneia as innocent victims of the Trojan War is not mentioned;[[10]] and the commentary of Jean Bollack and Pierre Judet de La Combe was not consulted.[[11]] I would have liked to see also the book of Katherina Glau[[12]] included in the bibliography, which possibly might have been not yet available at the stage of completion of Neblung's manuscript (April 1997). Her comparative approach, her detailed discussion of the theory of reception could have contributed valuable insights. So Neblung's occasional interpretations, though often subtle and sensitive, hang in the air, lacking a substantial scholarly basis.

This leads us back to the question posed at the beginning of this review: Is it still posssible today to write a scholarly study about a female figure without any consideration of feminist theory? The answer is yes it is, but one has to pay the price for it. Instead of a prism with colourful nuances, Neblung's study limits itself to a narrow focus and leaves the reader with the uncomfortable feeling that there must be something more. From her summaries of former monographs about Cassandra (pp. 3f.), we can see that Neblung has noticed the 'modern' methods of other scholars, but maintains a quite sceptical and critical position, especially against the more 'feminist' studies of P.-A. Brault and Solvejg Mueller.[[13]] The latter is a good example of unusual methods leading to unusual interpretations in the eyes of classicists. In Mueller's (somehow appealing) interpretation of Euripides' Troades, Cassandra is unambiguously keen on sexual affair with Agamemnon: ' . . . hier ist Kassandra eindeutig auf ein erotisches Verhaeltnis mit dem griechischen Fuersten erpicht.'[[14]] Erpicht oder nicht -- keen or not -- to simply reject the results of non-traditional scholarship in this way cannot be the solution.

To sum up: Neblung's book represents a solid philological rock situated in but untouched by the stormy sea of 'gender-babble'. The sequel, however, which deals less with the 'What' and more with the 'Why' still waits to be written.


[[1]] V. Wohl, Intimate Commerce: Exchange, Gender and Subjectivity in Greek Tragedy (Austin 1998) 110f.

[[2]] Voraussetzungen einer Erzaehlung: Kassandra. Frankfurter Poetik-Vorlesungen (Darmstadt & Neuwied 1983[3]) 86.

[[3]] Nevertheless, she speaks briefly about vase- painting on p. 14.

[[4]] For the difference between 'new' and 'traditional' philology see M. Gellrich, 'Interpreting Greek Tragedy: History, Theory and the New Philology', in B. Goff (ed), History, Tragedy, Theory: Dialogues on Athenian Drama (Austin 1995) 38-58, esp. 38f.

[[5]] Forum Classicum 2 (=41) (1998) 117f.

[[6]] Le Mythe d'Hele\ne (Clermont-Ferrand 1984) 6.

[[7]] Pythian Ode 11.33; p. 12.

[[8]] p. 73, n. 2 (cf. also p. 191 and n. 40) and Alexandra, 357f., pp. 14, 81-84.

[[9]] CP 82 (1987) 326-34; cf. G. Doblhofer, Vergewaltigung in der Antike (Stuttgart & Leipzig 1994) 90 n. 35 and R. Rehm, Marriage to Death (Princeton 1994) 172f., n. 12, who both find Kovacs' argument convincing.

[[10]] See, for example, G. Holst-Wahrhaft, Dangerous Voices: Women's lament and Greek literature (London & New York 1992) 140, 'she [Cassandra] will become a symbolic double of Iphigneia, an innocent victim going helpless to her death', and 141, 'The killing of Cassandra repeats the killing of Iphigeneia'; Rehm (above n. 9, 43-58); now also Wohl (above, n. 1, 107 and 110-17).

[[11]] J. Bollack et P. Judet de La Combe, L'Agamemnon d'Eschyle: le texte et ses interpre/tations (Lille 1981).

[[12]] K. Glau, Christa Wolfs 'Kassandra' und Aischylos 'Orestie': Zur Rezeption der griechischen Tragoedie in der deutschen Literatur der Gegenwart (Heidelberg 1996) (= Beitraege zur neueren Literaturgeschichte, Dritte Folge, Bd. 147).

[[13]] P.-A. Brault, Prophetess Doomed: Cassandra and the Representation of Truth (Diss. New York 1990) and S. Mueller, Kein Brautfest zwischen Menschen und Goettern. Kassandra-Mythologie im Lichte von Sexualitaet und Wahrheit (Koeln 1994).

[[14]] Mueller (above, n. 13, 54).