14. "Xena", season 1: conclusion

"Altared States" is loosely based on the story of Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son, Isaac. The conflict, though, is taken from the adaptation of "The Bacchae" we saw on "Hercules", in "The Festival of Dionysus." The names are changed just enough to stay recognizable: Ishmael becomes Mael, Isaac becomes Icus, and Abraham becomes Anteus. This last name should sound familiar, because of that quote earlier from co-producer David Eick about the meaning of Narcissus's name: it's an alternate of Antheus, meaning "Flowery", a title of Spring Dionysus, given to the victim of ritual child sacrifice01. The story has Mael, the older brother plotting to take his father's place, just as Penthius did in "The Festival of Dionysus" (In the original story, Ishmael was passed over in favor of Isaac, though he was the eldest). He plans to trick his father into sacrificing his rival, Icus, through the influence of drugs and staging to imitate the voice of God.

Xena enters this story in a particularly bacchic way, by emerging naked from a pond, as Icus appears, chased by men wanting to seize him for the sacrifice. As they're momentarily distracted by the sight, she scolds "Didn't your mother ever teach you it's rude to stare?" They then suffer a similar fate to Penthius in "The Bacchae," who also got in trouble for staring at women, at the hands of bacchic Xena armed only with a fish. She refers to her "maternal instincts," and is later told it's the one, true God who wishes the boy sacrificed. This combination of the maternal instinct, the one god, and sacrifice of the young appears later in two different season-long story arcs. We should expect "Black Orpheus" to figure in as well, and it does when it turns out the boy is fed a hallucinogenic-laced bread, which Gabrielle eats by mistake. There are no hallucinogens in "Black Orpheus," however; the connection is made via another movie from which this episode takes its name: "Altered States." That film, about a researcher who explores the source of religious faith using a South American mushroom drug, ties in to Robert Graves' "The Greek Myths," since the introduction refers to his other work, "What Food the Centaurs Ate". The introduction begins: "Since revising The Greek Myths in 1958, I have had second thoughts about the drunken god Dionysus, about the Centaurs with their contradictory reputation for wisdom and misdemeanor, and about the nature of divine ambrosia and nectar. These subjects are closely related, because the Centaurs worshipped Dionysus, whose wild autumnal feast was called 'the Ambrosia.' I no longer believe that when his Maenads ran raging around the countryside, tearing animals or children in pieces and boasted afterwards of travelling to India and back, they had intoxicated themselves solely on wine or ivy-ale." Instead, Graves argues, they used these beverages to wash down an intoxicating mushroom that was also used by the Norse beserkers, and which came to be known as ambrosia. According to Josh Becker's "Evil Dead" journal02, he read "Altered States" during filming, and the rest of the crew who would go on to make "Xena" and "Hercules" would have discussions about the nature of their craft under the influence of much milder hallucinogens. The influence of the film's images can be spotted throughout the series:

Altered States

This is probably where Rob Tapert's fascination with religious evolution began, because no doubt Becker did not keep his book to himself, especially since they all spent years betting their futures on a film about a monster woken by an old Sumerian religious rite (the book was written by Paddy Chayefsky, who condemned the "boredom-killing business" of television in his screenplay for "Network). This fascination would lead to Graves, "The Greek Myths," and certainly, to Mircea Eliade. Eliade's take on the use of hallucinogens in religious rites was a bit different than Graves. He felt they were used only in the later stages of primitive religions, as they began to decline, as the shaman-priests' knowledge of their rites faded. To Eliade, religion was not first experienced by man from intoxicating encounters with herbal drugs, but rather, they were deduced from the logic of the natural world around him. No drugs were needed to be in awe of the sky's omniscience or the moon's endless rebirth. Their truths were self-evident, and deeper truths could be accessed through sober discipline. There were a number of inferior routes for shamans as their powers declined03, and we'll see Gabrielle, student of the true shaman, Xena, unwittingly manifest all of them to ill effect. In this episode, she's under the influence, and can barely handle herself. Of course, she doesn't take narcotics deliberately, so the moment provides the satyr play variation on this concept. In fact, we see her intoxicated while in a cave, like the giant in "The Cyclops", indicating to us that Gabrielle has been "blinded" by her artificially-induced ecstasy. We won't see shamanism presented in a serious, straightforward way until season four.

On "Hercules", season two, around this time, we have "The Wedding of Alcmene," virtually a reprise of "Hercules and the Lost Kingdom." What's notable is that it takes the character equivalent of Deianeira and inverts her from victim to villain: she's named Sera, and any character with a name sounding like this is a reference to "Black Orpheus." It's short for Serafina, Eurydice's friend, and in this episode she's merged with the mysterious figure of Death, as a spy for Hera in the guise of an innocent woman. She'll appear as Seraphin in another retelling later on, in season three. The wedding at a seaside castle, and the theme of sacrifice, will find its bookend on one of the last "Xena" episodes, "Many Happy Returns."

"Callisto" introduces to "Xena" one of its most well-known villains. Callisto's family was a victim to Xena in her evil warlord days, and she's grown powerful in the name of vengeance. It's destroyed her soul, but it hasn't robbed her of her insight: she seems to know just what to say to get through Xena's psychological barriers. The idea of a haranguing voice of accusation can be found in "The Bride With White Hair": a sister and brother are Siamese twins, and while the brother rules his clan and pursues the Bride, the otherwise powerless sister psychologically torments him with cackling glee. Callisto is also a true Dionysiac villain, someone who knows all her opponent's weaknesses and how to exploit them. It makes for very good drama, and the dialogue between Callisto and Xena is some of the best on the series. Her background is also Dionysiac: he also sought to avenge his mother, killed by lightning, while Callisto's was killed by fire.

This episode introduces Joxer, another Dionysiac figure. He's clearly a character out of a satyr play, and may have originally been intended to be a Silenus-like goat-man, since the first travelling companion of Xena and Gabrielle was to be Pan. In any case, he's a spiritual cousin to Salmoneus, and his false bravery has roots in Greek theater: the translator of Aristophanes comments on Dionysus's character in "The Frogs": "Dionysus had no repute for bravery. His cowardice is one off the subjects for jesting which we shall most often come upon in "The Frogs." Joxer's name, we should note, has an X in it, like Xena, so maybe this is a marketing decision as well? If so, it's not merely just that, since Joxer is a pre-existing character taken from a thematically relevant play. He comes from "Juno and the Paycock," by Sean O' Casey [ the title is taken from the Greek fable, Juno and the Peacock, the last word pronounced with an Irish accent]. There he's a cowardly sidekick to Captain Boyle, a big-talking, alleged veteran of the sea whose exploits were mostly fictional. Set during the time of civil strife in Ireland, they strut like peacocks while "Juno," his wife, can't afford such illusions and must play both father and mother to her children. The reference to the Greek myth is ironic: it's about accepting yourself as you are, something the men of this play's Ireland have difficulty doing, with tragic consequences.

As the first season comes to an end, it overlaps with the season to come, and in "Callisto" we see glimpses of it in the backstory of this episode. In her evil days, Xena led an attack on Callisto's hometown, Cirra, and destroyed it. In real life, Cirra met a similar fate, but not by a lawless warlord: it was Solon, the Lawgiver, who ordered the attack. Cirra controlled access to the temple of Apollo at Delphi, abusing the pilgrims along the way. In one version of events, Solon was not content with merely besieging the city: he ordered the water pipes that supplied the city to be poisoned, killing its innocent women and children as a result. Xena didn't poison the Cirrans, but this part of the story was set aside, and saved for the fifth season, when the goddess Athena led an attack on Xena's hometown, in an ironic turnaround for her former crimes. The story of Callisto is the first part of a bookend, before Solon ever appears, and we should be on the watch for how Solon's life inspired the show in other related ways.

For those of us not very familiar with Solon , we might recognize his name as a leading statesman, not a warlord, so in season two when we learn Xena's son's name is Solon, we're probably thinking this is ironic, and maybe a hopeful sign that Xena's dark past will have a brighter future in her son: we might even wonder if this is the same Solon of history, and this is his secret upbringing. But I don't think this was the intention from the very top, despite what any others on the creative team may have desired. That's because there's more to Solon than his honored status, and more even than his attack on Cirra: he was a follower of Dionysus, and consulting Graves, we find he shares many traits with Silenus the satyr in myth04. I already quoted Graves above talking about the unusual duality of the centaurs, and Solon's relation to the goat-man (who are equated to the centaurs in some myths, according to Graves) is another aspect of this, and explains his involvement later on with the centaurs. It shouldn't surprise us that Xena's son shares some of her Dionysiac traits: the daughter of Gabrielle will, and Xena's future daughter most certainly will. In fact, this daughter will be the reincarnation of Callisto, developing this theme to its logical full circle. In real life, the redemption of Solon's poisoning of the citizens of Cirra was not achieved by him, but by another participant, Hippocrates, a mentor to all future doctors. It inspired the oath he would teach to all his medical students: "First, do no harm," which we will hear in the final episode of this first season, "Is There a Doctor in the House?"

In the penultimate episode of season one, "Death Mask," the influence of "The Bacchae" can be seen in its title. As staged by Euripides, the beheading of Penthius by his mother is represented by the actress carrying the actor's mask onstage: since ancient Greek actors wore masks, Penthius's mask alone held aloft by the actress would signify his beheading; his "death mask," in other words. We know at least one of the producers was aware of this scene, because it will be referenced in "When in Rome" in the third season. The mask here, literally speaking, is worn by Cortese, the warlord who instigated Xena's turn from a village girl into a ruthless warlord, when she defended her town against him at all costs, then vowed to hunt him down to the ends of the earth. Her youngest brother, Lyceus, had followed her to his death, and now her surviving brother, Toris, who refused to follow her then, has spent his years plotting cold-blooded revenge against Cortese ever since. Xena wants to prevent him from turning into the mindless killer she became.

If we know the sources used, we can recognize the patterns used here: Toris is likely derived from "Iphigeneia in Tauris," a play by Euripides about a brother and sister who are reunited after years of tragic separation. The sister, Iphigeneia, prevents her brother Orestes from being sacrificed, and helps him escape her own fate, trapped at the end of the world at Tauris and forced to sacrifice travellers who pass by the temple of Artemis. Orestes then returns home to avenge his father's death by killing his mother and her lover. In this episode, though, the genders are reversed, and instead of the treacherous mother being killed, the symbolic father is: Cortese is the "father" of Xena's darkness, and since he wears a mask to protect his identity, no one realizes he is also the people's king, their "father", in a sense, ruthlessly exploiting everyone. The episode ends with Toris going home, Xena's gift to their mother. The presence of the name Aescalus is further indication the story of Orestes is involved, since the playwright Aeschylus wrote the Oresteia, a trilogy about the murder of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. The character Sera once again points to "Black Orpheus": the masked warrior is like the stalking figure of Death, which Cortese represents for Xena. There's a bit of foreshadowing of the series finale, which also draws upon "Iphigeneia in Tauris," when Toris presents to Xena the mask of Cortese, the "death mask" which he'll use as a disguise to assassinate him: "It's the only way I can get close enough to Cortese to kill him." This will be a common motif in the series, and in its final appearance in "A Friend in Need" we'll see it twice. First, when Xena's young student, Akemi, poses as an actor and kills her evil father, then when Xena becomes a ghost to kill his ghost-swallowing immortal form, her disguise a different kind of "death mask."

01The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves, 85.2
03Shamanism, by Mircea Eliade, p. 495
04The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves, 83.5

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

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