17. "Xena," season 2: "The Xena Scrolls"

After the Halloween episodes, "Xena" followed up with "Return of Callisto." The Dionysiac villain Callisto is locked up in jail like Hannibal Lector01, but the underlying inspiration is probably "The Bacchae." Just as Penthius throws the Stranger in prison, thinking he's under control, in fact the Stranger is the one calling the shots, even while bound up and behind bars. The circumstances of his escape are very similar to how we'll see Callisto break out of jail, and this won't be the last time we see this kind of scene: in season three, at the beginning of the "Rosemary's Baby" arc, the action from this scene will be reprised when another far more deadly Dionysiac villain is introduced, one for which Callisto will only be regarded as a mere servant.

The Xena Scrolls

In "The Xena Scrolls," we get a significant glimpse at the show's creative process. The fragments of the lost satyr play, "The Trackers," provide the rationale for how the show is constructed. In issue 6 of The Official Magazine of Xena Warrior Princess, May 2000, issue 6, p.43-4, R.J. Stewart says this:

"There's a part of the mythos that we love to get into here, which is that we're working off the Xena Scrolls and this is the true history. And if it sounds simply like a writers' device, it's actually more than that. When we're sitting in a room and we're inventing an episode of "Xena", we're thinking as if this was the real history of Xena and Gabrielle as discovered on the "Xena Scrolls". So we do, of course, have modern sensibilities brought into it, but that's because we're modern people, and we also have to appeal to a modern audience. But we don't really consciously say, 'OK, let's do the modern twist on the Oedipus story or the Sisyphus story.' We act as if this is the way it really happened. That's the fun of doing the show. Even with the crazy stuff we do with Julius Caesar and all that, we behave as if this is how it really happened."

I find this quote interesting because when talking about the Xena Scrolls concept (the scrolls that Gabrielle wrote about her travels with Xena), RJ Stewart mentions the Oedipus story first. As we know, the Oedipus story never appears on "Xena"; it's mentioned once, in the pilot, "Sins of the Past," when Gabrielle tries her hand at telling it, and is corrected by someone who actually lived through it. That's probably why Oedipus first came to mind to RJ when describing the Xena Scrolls concept: because that's the first example on the show of their underlying workings, which were almost certainly inspired by the lost satyr play, "The Trackers." As we'll recall, that scene matches the surviving quotes from Euripides' play on Oedipus, and it's a kind of introduction to how these fragments will be used as inspiration. "The Trackers" was discovered in Egypt in 1907, by two British excavators, Grenfell and Hunt, who theorized that the ancient rubbish dumps of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, would likely hold scraps of more famous works used for notes by later civilizations, being valued for nothing more than their blank sides (Gabrielle often finds her own scrolls treated as such). Grenfell and Hunt's theory turned out to be correct, and the site has proven to be a rich mine of lost documents. They presented their finds at the Annual General Meeting of the Egypt Exploration Society, and Dr. Hunt began his speech:

"Three years ago we were indebted to Oxyrhnchus for some extensive remains of a lost tragedy of Euripides, the Hypsipyle. It is now the turn of Sophocles; and most fortunately the discovery to which I refer represents a side of the poet concerning which we have been very much in the dark. As you know, it was customary to produce tragedies in trilogies, or sets of three, which were followed by a Satyric drama, a lighter piece in which the chorus consisted of Satyrs, and the high tension of the preceding tragedies was relaxed. Only one specimen of such a Satyr drama has come down to us, the Cyclops of Euripides. Of the work of Sophocles, as of Aeschylus, in this line there exist only short disjointed fragments preserved in citations by grammarians and others. I am glad to say that for Sophocles what may be considered a fair sample is now recovered."

If the first lines of this speech rings a bell, by the way, we'll hear one like it on the penultimate episode of "Xena," "Soul Possession," regarding the discovery of another Xena scroll.

Only fragments of "The Trackers" survived the rubbish heaps of Oxyrhynchus, but a completed version of the play has been written by English poet Tony Harrison. His version, "The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus," adapts the play by having it set in 1907, the year of its discovery; he mixes the original play with the story of its discovery. Its British discoverers, Grenfell and Hunt, considered the "Holmes and Watson" of Oxford papyrology, are searching for it among the rubbish, when they find themselves unearthing more than just lost scrolls. They manage to take on the characteristics of the two stars of the play, Apollo and Silenus. Apollo is represented as a civilizing force, but also a sterile one, out of touch with the world except for its exclusive aristocracy. Possessed by Apollo, Grenfell speaks with his voice:

"I'm a god, Apollo, but I was tipped
on a rubbish heap inside this manuscript.
I've spent centuries asleep
on an Oxyrhynchus rubbish heap.
You can imagine my fine Olympian feelings
tossed on to a tip with old potato peelings.
Till 1907 I had to wait
when Grenfell and Hunt came to excavate."

Hunt begins to channel Silenus the satyr, and chants to release the other satyrs trapped in their papyrus fragments:

"Come on, you'll be the first to have a go
since about BC 450!
After 2000 years, lads, look, there's your text.
It''s up to you now to track what comes next."

Once fully awakened, Apollo has big ambitions:

"I foresee in ages yet to unfold
my statue in temples of marble and gold.
Palaces of culture with gold statues of me
will preside over music and poetry.
Where I'm on the pediment, where I preside,
no creatures with tails will set clog inside.
They tracked down my lyre and now that I've thanked 'em
their clogs aren't allowed in my musical sanctum..."

In other words, there'll be no room for "The Three Stooges" in Apollo's New World Order! Compare this to the events in "The Xena Scrolls." We're in Macedonia, 1942, as Janice Covington and Melinda Pappas, daughters of famous archaeologist fathers, decide to team up to unearth the long-lost Xena scrolls, in what could be the tomb of the warrior princess. Macedonia is part of ancient Thrace, where Euripides ended his days, and Orpheus is said to be buried. The tomb is said to be haunted, and like Anuket in "Mummy Dearest," and Xena in "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," both Mel and Janis live in the shadow of their fathers. Both those episodes point to this one, and signs of "The Trackers" are everywhere, literally. The tomb looks Egyptian from its markings, and so do the locals digging at the site. Mel and Janis manage to open up a tomb containing Ares, imprisoned since the days of Xena, and he has big plans for the 20th century:

"The world's become a glorious
place. The weapons more lethal. The people more
hateful. And there's a new leader: A lot of vision, a lot
of potential. His name is Hitler. With my help, he's
gonna make a lot of positive changes."

In other words, there'll be no room for Joxer in Ares' New World Order! His plans are foiled when Mel and Janice, descendants of Xena and Gabrielle, manage to channel their spirits to combat the god of war, and unearth the Xena scrolls for the whole world to read...and watch! This episode borrows its juxtaposition of modern day/ancient myth from "The Trackers," and creates the series' first flash-forward into modern times (part of a genre described as "Uber"02, in which the relationship of Xena and Gabrielle transcend their Greek lifetimes; ultimately, though, this genre can be traced all the way back to "Black Orpheus").

We see the Xena scrolls fully intact, but the spirit of "The Trackers" lies in their fragmentation: they're eager to recombine to manifest themselves for a new age, and a new audience, but they're trapped for the present in bits of papyrus lying around in the garbage, undiscovered. The device that imprisons Ares is a fixture on the wall called "The Eye of Hephaestus." It looks like an art-deco image of an eye with beams shooting out. There is no doubt this is a cyclops reference: "The Greek Myths", chapter 170, note 1 explains that the concept of the cyclops eye originated with the guilds of Hephaestus, in the form of a circular tattoo on the forehead. It's a solar image that can also be expressed as having light beams shooting out. This is a common image on both "Hercules" and "Xena," and we'll see this very same device used later on, in different contexts, but for the same purpose. Later this season we'll see it on "Hercules" in another retelling of "The Bacchae," and finally, in "Armageddon Now, part I," it'll be seen as a high-tech weapon loaned by Hephaestus for one of Ares' big plots to conquer the world: it's a highly slapstick scene, and Hercules makes quick work of it when he buries it under rubble after knocking down the surrounding pillars, like the biblical Samson. The "Eye of Hephaestus" has been thought of as a prop that's reused in the name of economy, but it's meaning has been retained throughout, and its economy is poetic as well as monetary: a sign that represents single-mindedness buried in the cavern lair of one who has plenty of will but no vision.

Though Sophocles' play is used, it's been tailored for Euripides' themes: the cyclops' eye unites it with "The Cyclops": "O Hephaestus, lord of Aetna, rid thyself for once and all of a troublesome neighbour by burning his bright eye out!" Apollo has been replaced by the Dionysiac Ares, opposed by the Orphic Xena in the lands of Thrace. This episode will help shape future comedies on both shows: many of its elements will be associated together, and with elements in Euripides' plays, that will signal to us when an episode is drawing upon the satyr play tradition--most notably, "A Day in the Life," later this season.

"The Xena Scrolls" has another tiny reference to Euripides, but not from his plays: rather, from one of his first lines in "Athens City Academy of the Performing Bards": "Twelve: the blessing of the Zodiac. It bodes well." This particular line is probably borrowed from a scene in "Black Orpheus," when Orpheus shows Eurydice a quilted blanket with the image of the zodiac on it, illustrating the endlessly recurring cycle of myth. This image of the zodiac as a cosmic cycle will be featured in season three, "The Bitter Suite," but a seed is planted here in the names of the descendants of Xena and Gabrielle. According to Prof. Weisbrot's book on "Xena"03, Melinda Pappas's original name in the script was Melinda Dillon, all the way up to the read-through. At some point it changed to Pappas. A change like this would have come not from the staff, most likely, but from the top. It may have been a late addition after the concept of the zodiac moved to the forefront of Rob Tapert's mind (since he suggested if for "The Bitter Suite") while laying the preliminary groundwork for the "Rosemary's Baby" arc. Pappas could be an homage to Irene Papas, the Greek actress who played Electra and Clytemnestra in the filmed versions of Euripides' plays; but I think it may also be a reference to the Tarot. In "The Bitter Suite" we'll see Xena dressed up as the "High Priestess" card, but other Tarot decks refer to it as the Papess, a sound-alike for Pappas/Papas. Euripides himself would've loved the pun! The Papess is the protector of the scroll and the memory of what it teaches, and her position between the black and white columns in Solomon's temple represents duality, as well as her nature as the balance between opposites. The Roman god, Janus, whose name can be heard in Janice's (production sketches by costume designer Ngila Dickson indicate her character may originally have been Janis in an earlier draft), also represents duality. Both Janus and the Papess are images relating to doors or passages, and may be derived from another image of duality, "dithyrambos," i.e. "He of the double doors," another name for Dionysus, and a reference to the origins of Greek theater mentioned on the first page of this essay. The significance of these references is to suggest these characters are standing on the verge of transition, which will be fulfilled starting early next season during the "Rosemary's Baby" arc, officially ending mid-season with "The Bitter Suite." That transition is suggested here, and not elsewhere in season two, because this is the first episode to be set far after the events of the upcoming arc, and would prompt the producers to start seeding ideas hinting at the larger conceptual view of these characters in that arc, even though the precise events of the future arc hadn't been laid out yet.

01The influence of horror movies is also felt here when Callisto taunts her jailor: "Here, piggy, piggy, piggy," a quote probably taken from Jack Nicholson's famous Three Little Pigs quote in "The Shining," a scene that inspires the final confrontation on "American Gothic." There'll be another "Slience of the Lambs" reference in "The Furies," which opens season three.
03Xena - Warrior Princess: The Official Guide to the Xenaverse, by Robert Weisbrot,, p.68


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

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