11. "Xena, Warrior Princess"

"Her courage will change the world"
--Opening prologue

"To see and understand, is a gift of grace
That transforms the world"

--Iphigeneia in Aulis, Euripides


Before we continue to look for the other influences, I want to stay with Euripides' play, "Herakles", a little longer because just as it helped transition Hercules' character from the movies to the series, the same mechanism is used to help Xena spin-off onto her own series, though not exactly in the same way. The story of "Herakles" killing his family was inverted for Hercules' story: instead of being Hera's tool, he's Hera's victim, and this makes him not only mankind's champion, but one of mankind, someone who shares their suffering and can fight on their behalf. Though he is immortal, his loss has made him feel mortal, and therefore, compassionate to other mortals. His journeys are not a quest for redemption, as in the play, but a defense of the mortal world. It's surprising how big of a role acceptance of mortality plays in both these action-adventure series.

Xena's case is a little different. In her last appearance on "Hercules", she mentions Hercules' motivation--fighting for his lost family--and laments she doesn't share that, so she doesn't know what to fight for. Merely fighting for her own redemption isn't enough; making reparations for what she's done will never be enough either; her crimes are too great, and no amount of good works will ever rectify them. Her quest is too abstract for a mortal to take on, and as we can see in "Herakles," it's too much even for an immortal to handle alone.

"Herakles" shows Hercules returning from his last labor, the capture of Cerberus, and before he completes its delivery, he stops to see his family--after returning from the grim world of death underground, he wants to see the people he loves the most before anyone else; they best can restore his spirit to the land of the living. They're being held prisoner by the king who wants his rival's children dead before they can grow to avenge Hercules, whom the king assumes will not return from Tartarus. They learn that Hercules has returned, and await their rescue. But Hera has been watching Hercules' success in his labors, and fears what will happen next when he returns; he'll be like a god on earth, powerful enough to defy the gods. To neutralize his powers, she sends Iris (Strife) and Lyssa (Madness) to instill in him a bacchic fury. In a scene too gruesome to be staged, Hercules murders his family, one by one. If "The Bacchae" was the first horror film, "Herakles" was the first slasher film. Hercules regains his wits afterwards, but it's too late. There can be no redemption for someone who commits such a terrible crime. All of his powers are now useless: Hercules' great fame all over the world will now carry the news of his crime, and no one could be expected to give him the chance to earn his redemption. Hera's sabotage of Hercules as a champion of men is ruthless, and apparently, foolproof.

However, before Hercules captured Cerberus, he also rescued his friend. Theseus had gone to Tartarus to reclaim Persephone from Hades as a bride for another, fulfilling an oath he made even though he thought it was impossible to carry out. He was tricked into sitting in the Chair of Forgetfulness, unable to move and unable to remember why he should leave. Hercules broke his chains and restored his memory, giving him back his home. Arriving now to find Hercules burying his weapons and preparing for death, Theseus returns the favor of friendship, offering him a refuge to cleanse his blood-guilt, along with a share of the treasure he won from the Minotaur. Hercules doesn't feel he deserves such mercy, but Theseus won't take no for an answer:

"Uncover your face,
hold up your head to the sun:
against your grief
friendship,
like a wrestler,
throws its weight."01


The first "Xena" episode, "Sins of the Past," opens with a similar moment: Xena confronts the latest of her victims, a boy she recently orphaned. There's no mention here of her change of heart on "Hercules"; it's restaged now to fit the "Herakles" model, transitioning her to her own friendship. She goes into the woods to bury her weapons, and become one with the "sheep" (a common reference to the warlords' victims in this series' earlier episodes). She's interrupted when a group of warriors come by, threatening to sell a nearby village's young women into slavery. One woman, Gabrielle, defies them. She's played by the same actress appearing in "Hercules and the Lost Kingdom" as Deianeira, but unlike that character, she's unwilling to accept her fate. Though full of spirit, like Oi-Lan, she's a victim in need of rescue. The relationship of Hercules and Theseus in "Herakles" is reenacted here: Xena will save young Gabrielle from bondage, and Gabrielle will put her life on the line when Xena is nearly stoned in her hometown: like a wrestler, she throws the weight of friendship against Xena's stoic acceptance of her punishment.

One more important reference must be looked at before we move on: in "Herakles," when Hercules buries his weapons, he's preparing for suicide. Is that what Xena does here? It's a long-debated question among fans, and if we rely solely on "Herakles" as the source of inspiration, then we must conclude yes. That would mean that in the series finale, when Xena once again buries her weapons, coming full circle before facing certain doom in battle, she ends the series with an act of suicide. I don't think that's the case, and we see why when we consider the other major inspiration for this scene: Romania's oldest and most famous ballad, the Mioritza. In it, a shepherd is told by one of his sheep that he will be met on the road by robbers and killed. The shepherd decides to face his fate, and instructs his sheep to bury the tools of his trade with him, but don't tell anyone about the murder. Instead...

"Tell them that in good truth I married a peerless queen, the bride of the world; that at my wedding a shooting star fell; that the sun and the moon held the crown for me; that the great mountains were my priests, the beeches my witnesses, all to the singing of a thousand birds, and the stars my torches!"


The meaning of this ballad has been debated ever since it was first written down in the mid-nineteenth century; it's been around longer than that, and it's speculated that its obscure images date all the way back to Greco-Roman times. Some feel that the song is pessimistic, about resignation to one's fate, but one religious historian disagrees: he feels it's about defining one's destiny. The shepherd is not being passive; rather, he's expressing a deeper decision about the reality of his life: "man cannot defend himself against fate as he can against enemies; he can only impose a new meaning on the ineluctable consequences of a destiny in course of fulfillment. There is no 'fatalism' here, for a fatalist does not even believe that he can alter the meaning of what has been predestined for him."02. And later on:

"The most profound message of the ballad lies in the shepherd's will to change the meaning of his destiny, to transmute his misfortune into a moment in the cosmic liturgy, by transfiguring his death into 'mystical nuptials, by summoning the Sun and Moon to attend him, and projecting himself among the stars, the waters, and the mountains..."03 If this quote's meaning sounds familiar to you, it should: we've already heard it on "Hercules and the Maze of the Minotaur," when the Minotaur says he doesn't want to as a monster. We heard it in the final scene of "Herakles", and we'll hear it again in many different ways, all the way until the very last episode of "Xena", even including hapless Akemi, Xena's long lost love, when she writes: "Yesterday, the moon took lodging on my sleeve. Today, I have hope for even the brokenhearted stars."

The religious historian I quoted above is Mircea Eliade, a Romanian author who studied the connecting experiences of religions around the world. He's religious history's equivalent to Robert Graves, his contemporary. The connections he wrote about are unique, at least in popular literature, and we can easily spot them in the television shows that Renaissance Pictures produced during this period. There's absolutely no doubt that Eliade provided much of the inspiration for "Xena" and "Hercules", from the beginning, and that his essay on the Mioritza influenced the staging of "Sins of the Past." It would be used later on, in season three of "Hercules," for his wedding to Serena, which was one of the show's more beautiful, and odd, moments. I'll quote from the ceremony below, which ends with a showering of stars from the ghosts of Hercules' family above:

Hercules: "I'm afraid the trees will have to be our witness."

Serena: "They're family."

Hercules: "Ready?"

Serena: "Yes, I am."

Hercules: "We ask the force that created the sun, the earth, the seas, and the skies... "

Serena: "... to bless this union, make us one, inseparate, always."

Hercules: "Always. And everything is gonna be OK."



Wedding

The Mioritza is used in the above case to illustrate Hercules defining his relationship to Serena, a woman formerly under the control of Ares, but has won her freedom and a life among mortals; this ceremony rejects the gods' authority, as Hercules and Serena call upon the mortal world as their witnesses (I would also argue that the Miroitza's elements are reconfigured for the second season "Hercules" episode, "Promises"). It's contribution to "Xena" is to demonstrate she's defining whether she'll be a mortal or a monster, and this context changes the meaning of her final act in "A Friend in Need". Eliade says in another passage that the ballad's ancient meaning is inspired by an old tradition regarding the importance of a proper burial; those who are denied one will become a malicious spirit.04. One of the predominant themes in many of the Greek plays involves proper burial, and we see that in both these shows. Xena buries her weapons prematurely in the pilot, and quickly snatches them back after rescuing Gabrielle; only at the very end, when she's ready to confront the figure of Death that personifies her crime at Higuchi, will she be ready to bury her weapons with the knowledge they won't come back to haunt her.

According to Eliade, ancient Thrace was the crossroads for virtually every religious idea in Eurasia, and the use of the Mioritza in "Xena" and "Hercules" shouldn't surprise us after we learn from Eliade that its symbolism is descended from the Orphic rites of the Thracians. This isn't the only sign of Orpheus in this first episode of "Xena". The theme music is Bulgarian, and the music of this region is associated with the ancient Orphic traditions of Greater Thrace; Rob Tapert has been a fan of this musical genre since the '80s, and composer Joe LoDuca thought it would be appropriate to associate it with the Amazons at the beginning, in "Hercules and the Amazon Women". We'll hear one in particular, as Xena ends her exile, riding home to warn her home village of an impending raid. We'll see the women of the village working in the fields gathering bundles of plant stalks, singing a Balkan threshing song, "Glede ma glede". There is a deeper symbolism here to be found in "The Greek Myths". In the chapter dealing with Linus, brother of Orpheus and a singer of Dionysus's praise, Graves explains: men are not admitted to the flax harvest; "the women who beat the flax, called Bechlerinnen, chase and surround any stranger who blunders into their midst. They make him lie down, step over him, tie his hands and feet, wrap him in tow, scour his face and hands with prickly flax-waste, rub him against the rough bark of a felled tree, and finally roll him downhill...Near Salzburg, the Bechlerinnen untrouser the trespasser themselves, and threaten to castrate him; after his flight, they purify the place by burning twigs and clashing sickles together."05 Graves goes on: "Little is known of what goes on in the spinning rooms, the women being so secretive; except that they chant a dirge called the Flachses Qual ("Flax's Torment"), or Leinen Klage ("Linen Lament"). It seems likely, then, that at the flax-harvest women used to catch, sexually assault, and dismember a man who represented the flax-spirit; but since this was also the fate of Orpheus, who protested against human sacrifice and sexual orgies, Linus has been described as his brother."

In other words, this scene establishes Amphipolis as a spirit of strong female defiance; they resist trespassers with a bacchic fury. Just as Xena defended her hometown years before, so the women before her, including her mother. Xena's return is ambiguous to them: they associate her with the fast-approaching warlord Draco, and not as one of them. Even after she repels Draco's assault, the men of the village are still wary of her, but the women, in the person of her mother, recognize her as one of them. In season five, we'll see her mother standing up against another female warlord, Athena, who threatens to destroy the town if she can't take Xena's baby. Like Xena in "Sins of the Past", Athena in "Battle For Amphipolis" is not considered one of them, but a representative of an Olympian male agenda. Cyrene, Xena's mother, defies her with an impromptu chant of the anthem of Amphipolis, "Glede ma glede," a sign that the patriarchal goddess of Olympus will not pass without suffering the Orphic punishment of the town's women.

References to Euripides can be found in a comedic subplot as Gabrielle and Xena head towards Amphipolis. Xena encounters a cyclops, which we will recognize throughout the series as a sign of one of two things: either a satyr play reference, or a Ulysses-related metaphor for blindness. Here it's a satyr play: the giant is a blustering fool, having been already blinded by Xena (which establishes her Ulysses-inspired backstory), and he's looking for human flesh. Xena suggests he hire himself out as a village protector, eating sheep graciously tossed to him instead of people. This reminds us of the line in "The Cyclops", when Silenus the goat-man warns the cyclops: "...they'd sell you for somebody's heavy labor, or maybe it was to make you do their millwork somewhere..." "They" refers to Ulysses and his men, and it's no wonder the cyclops here is wary of such well-meaning advice--as with the wily Ulysses, he doesn't trust the wily Xena, who already wounded him once. Gabrielle follows in both Xena's and Ulysses' footsteps: she walks right into his cage! Again, we remember these lines from "The Cyclops":

Silenus: "Inside the cave, and quick--in there you can't be seen."
Odysseus: "A dangerous idea, I think, to fly into a cage."


Some might interject here and start to fret about the contradictions involved: is this the same giant that Ulysses blinded? If so, how can Xena have blinded him? How can they be the same person, when we'll see both of them in a later episode, talking about two different cyclops? What does one cyclops have to do with another? I think that's the wrong way to look at it. A literal interpretation of these stories is missing the point. We're meant to see all these events as glimpses of a magical reality behind the dry scraps of antique scrolls that we all learned about in school. These are not just mere "alternate history" scenarios; they're the spirit of myth shining through our patchwork history with new vigor.

Gabrielle's confrontation continues as she banters with the giant: "She'd never let a man get close enough to do her...at least, not that kind of `do her.'" This double-entendre is found in the original "Cyclops", "It's far too long since I enjoyed a man," the cyclops bellows, as Silenus interprets this several ways, and the goat-man later shouts: "Ah, womankind! I say let all of them go down...and preferably on me!" Ribald dialogue like this on "Xena" and "Hercules" is a sign that we're in satyr-play territory, and we'll often see related borrowings in these scenes.

Later on, Gabrielle tries to follow Xena on foot, and tries to hitch a ride with a wagon driver. She attempts to charm him with her rendition of the Oedipus myth, but she doesn't get the desired results:

Gabrielle: "I sing of Oedipus, King of Thebes, the most tragic of men!"

Wagon Driver: "'Oedipus, the most tragic of all men'. Biggest fool of all men, more like."


In terms of character development, this is the first inkling we get of the theme of innocence versus experience: Gabriellle's lack of experience in the realities behind the myths will play a role in her wanting to accompany Xena, a real-life hero that Gabrielle can learn from and incorporate into the myths herself--she'll become a writer who draws from experience, not from other myths. But there's more than that: this scene comes from the series' backstory, it's "external" structure. When you first watched this scene, you probably thought the writer was drawing from Sophocles' play, "Oedipus," which is usually one of the few Greek myths most people learn in school. But I don't think that's the real source here. Instead, it's probably from a lesser-known play by Euripides, one that's lost to history (like Xena herself would be, ironically). The only surviving lines from Euripides' version comes to us from his satiric rival, Aristophanes, who often poked fun at the playwright by including him in his satires. In "The Frogs," Aristophanes has Euripides quoting from his own play of "Oedipus" while trying to prove to Dionysus that he's a better playwright than his predecessor, Aeschylus. Here are the lines from their context in the play:

Dionysus: "Come, speak; 'tis my turn to listen. Let us hear the beauty of your prologues."

Euripides: "Oedipus was a fortunate man at first..."

Aeschylus: "Not at all; he was destined to misfortune before he even existed, since Apollo predicted he would kill his father before ever he was born. How can one say he was fortunate at first?"

Euripides: "...and he became the most unfortunate of mortals afterwards."

Aeschylus: "No, he did not become so, for he never ceased being so. Look at the facts!"


As you can see, Aeschylus contradicts Euripides's version of events with silly nitpicking, but this kind of ego-puncturing that Aristophanes' practiced was useful for the writers in establishing Gabrielle's character. We'll hear more from Aristophanes' "The Frogs" when Euripides makes his appearance on the show later this season.



01Herakles by Euripides, Translated by Tom Sleigh
02Zalmoxis, The Vanishing God, by Mircea Eliade, p. 252
03Zalmoxis, The Vanishing God, by Mircea Eliade, p. 253
04Zalmoxis, The Vanishing God, by Mircea Eliade, p. 250
05The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves,, note 5.
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