8. Hercules: The Legendary Journeys

With Hercules' labors over, his journeys begin the tv series. I've been mentioning Robert Graves' "The Greek Myths" as a sourcebook for the show. This has been mentioned by Rob Tapert in numerous interviews, and according to David Eick, Rob's assistant at Renaissance Pictures, and co-producer (currently the creator of the "Battlestar Galactica" remake), has said that "The Greek Myths" were used extensively: "I did a show with Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi called HERCULES. At one critical point during development of that show, Rob Tapert instructed everyone at the company to go home and read Robert Graves, to become immersed in mythology and Greek myth. Everyone dutifully went home and read the materials, and I very deliberately chose not to. Something interesting happened. Over the course of the next few months, I was the guy in the room that it had to make sense for. Someone in the room would say Narcissist was such and such, and I would say "I don't know what that means." It was a good balance, because there was always a voice for the audience saying you can't just have things written for people who know the mythology, otherwise we won't have a TV show." This statement indicates that everyone involved was on the same page as far as the show's basic approach to Greek myth. Graves' book is extensively annotated, and his interpretation of the myths gave them much greater access to their inner workings had the staff simply relied on a more superficial retelling of them. The book's main thesis is that the ancient myths are actually layered, like a geological site, revealing within the more recent tales far more ancient ones, in which we can glimpse a prehistoric matriarchal culture that was overthrown by the fierce warlords that later ruled Greece: we can find men like them in "The Illiad", brash, cynical and disrespectful of the more refined eastern culture of Troy, with its matriarchal traditions still going strong. Tapert's staff digested these ideas, and we can see them everywhere on the show, including the sets and costumes. We can also glimpse a bit of the show's underlying motifs in Eick's statement. He mentions Narcissus was "such and such": if we consult Graves, we can fill in the blanks. Narcissus was a narcotic, and was known as Spring Dionysus, and "...elsewhere he is called Antheus (see 159.4), a surname of Dionysus."01 We'll see why this association is important later on, in the first season of "Xena"!

The series begins with "The Wrong Path", borrowing Euripides' approach by having the murder of his family as the motivation for Hercules to help others in his journeys. The motivation in the play, "Herakles", stems from his quest for redemption, since he himself killed them. That darker side of the story has been set aside for a Dionysiac character, since the murders are described as a kind of bacchic madness. Such a character will have a dark past to overcome, and only then can Hercules' story be told in full. She'll appear later on this brief season, but until then, the Dionysus motif will manifest itself nonetheless. Hercules may not have inherited the darker side of Dionysus, but he'll represent the god's brighter mission of bringing freedom to all men, regardless of their station.

The next episode, "Eye of the Beholder", introduces the Cyclops motif to the series. We know we're back in Euripides' satyr play when we meet the chief satyr himself, Salmoneus. His name even sounds a bit like Silenus, and this may be no accident. A point made throughout Graves' book is that the ancient Greeks read great significance into words that sounded alike: they were not coincidences, but a sign of higher truth. One example Graves' provides is "Silenus" and "Solon", who, contrary to what we might think, had a number of things in common. We'll explore this more later this season, but the notion of sound-alikes being important is found throughout Euripides' plays, who was fond of puns. Of course, we wouldn't know this unless we read a good annotated edition of his plays, but given the preference made by Rob Tapert for the heavily-annotated "The Greek Myths", I would assume he'd want the same kind of resource for Euripides, and therefore make use of these puns as another kind of creatively liberating tool. Sometimes, annotations aren't even necessary in Euripides: in "The Bacchae", he has Dionysus tell king Penthius, "Penthius means 'sorrow'. The name fits you well."

Getting back to Salmoneus: he's stripped naked by the 50 daughters of Thespius, at one point, his hairy body and mischievously arched eyebrows providing a very satyr-like moment. Since we know that Rob was familiar with the Queen Omphale story in Graves, then we can be sure he knew about Pan's involvement in it, in which he mistakes Hercules for a woman, since he's wearing the Queen's clothes. Humiliated to learn otherwise, Pan vows never to wear clothes again, and insists his worshippers attend his rites equally unclothed. In the myths, Pan is analogous to Silenus, who's also a goat-man, and this association with clothes helps shapes Salmoneus's character. Here, he's a clothes-salesman, specializing in togas, a new type of garment. Actually, togas are not Greek, but Roman, so they would be new in the Greek world. Why togas? Perhaps because of the Roman association: Salmoneus's character is not just as a Pan-figure, but a self-interested merchant who negotiates himself into the middle of the worst kinds of situations, but who ends up doing the right thing at his own expense. We can find a similar character in the film that's used as a source of inspiration for "Hercules" and "Xena": "Spartacus". Peter Ustinov's character, Lentulus Batiatus, is the slave-dealer who discovers Spartacus, and will be the man who helps free his family at the end. He's the comic relief in a grim movie, and his character dovetails nicely with the goat-men of the satyr plays. In this episode, the association with satyrs and Dionysus is made explicit when we find Salmoneus in a tavern, trying to cut a deal with Hercules. In the background, the music playing is the bacchic samba beat from "Black Orpheus"!

This episode's featured player is a cyclops who tends Hera's vineyards. The man in charge of the vineyards is a rat-like fellow who carefully tends the cyclops lifelong resentment of the villagers who cower with disgust at his monstrous appearance. They also resent him as the one who changed the course of the river to irrigate the vineyard. He protects them at the villagers' expense, to protect the source of the wine that'll be poured at the "festival of the believers". This is one of several signs that we're in a story about Dionysus: this festival involving wine sounds very much like the festival of Dionysus, which we'll see later; it may not be the very same festival, but it invites the comparison, especially with the star of "The Cyclops" involved.


There's even a scene in the cyclop's cave: Hercules is offered a drink by him, reversing the scene between Ulysses and the cylcops in Euripides' play; that's appropriate because the relationship is the inverse-Hercules is the only one who doesn't want to deceive the giant. The title refers to beauty, and by the end of the episode, the cyclops saves the villagers, including a beautiful woman named Scilla, who sees the beauty in him. This play of words using the concept of the blinded eye will have many variations throughout both series.

This first season contains numerous references to things that will be important to Xena's story later on: Thrace, Ares, Spartacus, and Dionysus. As mentioned, there are references taken from Euripides, and the next episode is the first of a number of adaptations we'll see of "The Bacchae": "The Festival of Dionysus". It's significant that the first manifestation of Ares on both shows begins in this episode. The equation "Ares=the dark side of Dionysus" begins here. Like The Stranger in "The Bacchae", Ares is the dark seducer, eager to win followers for his murderous cult. Or at least, that's one aspect of Dionysus, which is given to the god of War. He's mentioned in "The Bacchae", by the prophet Teiresias: "He [Dionysus] has his share of Ares, too." This aspect will become much more important in season three of "Xena". Before we get to "The Festival of Dionysus," we must take "The Road to Calydon". In myth, Calydon is where King Oeneus received the first grape vine from Dionysus, and we'll recall that the king's daughter, Deianeira, is actually the daughter of Dionysus. The story of "The Road to Calydon," is about the road to freedom; freedom is an aspect of Dionysus, and therefore, that episode is the road to "The Festival of Dionysus," which happens to be the next episode:

The episode opens with Hercules in a drinking contest in a tavern versus a satyr; unbeknownst to him, the satyr has a twin brother who switches places, so they can outdrink anybody without them noticing it. The presence of the satyr, and wine, tells us we're in Dionysus's theatrical territory--they usually end the evening's performance, but here, they're introducing it. Hercules drinks until he sees double, recalling "The Cyclops", and the scene in "The Bacchae" when king Penthius falls under the sway of The Stranger: "Why, I seem to see two suns; I see a double Thebes, and the city wall with its seven gates - double! I see you leading me forward - you are like a bull, you have horns growing on your head. Tell me, were you an animal a little while ago? You have certainly become bullish." In this case, however, Hercules realizes he isn't as drunk as he thinks: there really are two satyrs, and he makes quick work of both!

When Hercules is told about trouble brewing at the Festival of Dionysus, he goes to help: "I guess that old lush isn't as bad as the other gods." It's discovered that the king of its hometown performs a ritual over the new wine: he has Dionysus bless it, then virgins drink it. If the wine is acceptable, the king will survive for another year. If not, the virgins become maddened, like bacchae, and slay the king while he sleeps. There is no ritual in the actual myths, as such, but Graves generally describes the most ancient form of Dionysiac worship, during the matriarchal era, in which kings served with their queens for only a year--the king's royal "twin" then took over the kingship for the next year. The twin satyrs in the drinking contest therefore were a kind of foreshadowing of this ritual. This kind of matriarchal servitude was the subtext of the Queen Omphale story, you'll recall, and that film was also about sacrifice of a virgin. Just as he did then, Hercules doesn' t approve of human sacrifice, but he's assured that the virgin rites here have become merely a quaint celebration of an old tradition: no king has been killed in anyone's memory.

The king's son, Penthius, decides this rite is the perfect cover for his seizing the throne. But his motivation isn't merely personal ambition: he's disgusted with how his father has let the city's former warlike spirit decline. With new leadership, "Real warriors will rule again." His motivation is very much like his namesake's in "The Bacchae", in other words. He personally lacks any experience, or skill, but it won't stop him from standing in judgment on others wiser in these matters than himself. His plot is to make the virgins mad from the wine, but not because of Dionysus's will, but Ares'. This is significant, because this is Ares' first episode, and he's already equated with the dark side of Dionysus--which will be identified in these series' with Bacchus. In fact, the same actor who will play Ares in the flesh, Kevin Smith, portrays Bacchus on a later spin-off, "Young Hercules". The light side of Dionysus is identified with Hercules: he is the Stranger in this town who will exert his will over the young brash would-be king. There's nothing ambiguous about this association: we'll see him play this role again in future episodes--in fact, in the final season, we'll see him play the Bacchus role as well, just as his namesake did in Euripides' play, "Herakles".

Originally, Ares was to be represented not by an actor, but by a pool of blood; in other words, very much like Dionysus's pool of wine. He was meant to be an evil influence only, and in "Ares", he persuades a gang of boys to become his acolytes of war. This is the first of another motif we'll see more of: the group of young students and their mentors, both good and bad. Euripides himself will appear in one of these episodes. In "Gladiator", the story of Spartacus is reimagined02, including the ending, with Gladius seeing his son and wife freed. We'll see the actual scene from "Spartacus" in Euripides' guest appearance on the first season of "Xena", another story about a band of students. The significant image of "Ares" is that of boys smashing bottles of what could be either wine or blood, and Ares manifests himself in the sky--a hot, bloodstained sun splits into two, forming Ares' eyes in the sky, like Hera's twin peacock feathers that haunt Hercules each week. Again, this image is associated with Bacchus; we'll see the dark god of wine's eyes in the sky in season two of "Xena", but we also recall the quote of king Penthius in "The Bacchae", as he falls under the spell of the Stranger: "Why, I seem to see two suns." In "Ares", these young boys are much like Penthius, led astray by the intoxicating madness of the war god.

Eyes of Ares

The final non-Xena related story of this first season is "The Vanishing Dead", also featuring Ares; like the Minotaur, he's trying to raise a zombie army--actually an army of ghosts. They're caught in limbo, unable to cross over into the afterlife, and forced to stay and fuel Ares' powers. Just as we saw in "Hercules in the Underworld", he arrives at a solution of non-violence, rejecting the Dionysiac god of war, and freeing the dead souls he's enslaved: "Now we can cross over to the other side." This plot device will be repeated many times, most notably the very last "Xena" episode; its origin, however, is near the beginning of the parent show, "Hercules", just a we'd expect it to be, if there was an intentional, unifying vision from the start.

01The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves, 85.2
02Hercules X-Posed: The Unauthorized Biography of Kevin Sorbo and His On-Screen Character, by Ted Edwards and Ed Gross, p. 57


The Types and Patterns of All Things Xena  > Free To Be Euripides: Chapter Index

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