18. "Xena," season 2: "Destiny"

Pirate Xena
"Start wearing purple!"

The first episode to definitively tie Xena down to an historical timeline was originally called "When and Where," changed to "Destiny," and it flashes back to her fall into evil warlordism, while in the present, she lays dying, having not yet achieved her redemption. This episode depicts early Xena as a pirate, an important image on this show, and one of its associations is with Jason, who sailed with the Argonauts to steal the Golden Fleece. In "The Greek Myths," Graves describes the actual Jason and his crew not so much as heroes, but more like mercenaries, or pirates, seeking to plunder the old matriarchal civilizations of the east. We saw earlier in "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" how the dryads were linked with the bacchae and subject to the charms of Orpheus's lyre. A similar dynamic plays out in this episode: we first see Xena appearing before a tribe of neolithic men who bow down before her as a goddess. There's no information in the dialogue to tell us who these men are, but the script's notes tell us this is a tribe of the Rhodope mountains: these mountains are the birthplace of Orpheus, and his wife Eurydice, and Dionysus's worship is home to these lands. Why place such a telling clue in the script, without referring to it in the dialogue? There are a number of such clues in other scripts as well, and they seem to be for the benefit of the creative team--it's not known who placed them there, but it would be logical to assume either of the highest members of the team, Rob Tapert or RJ Stewart, who collaborated on this story (along with Steve Sears). This detail is more than just another chance to compare Xena to Orpheus and Dionysus, though; it tells us something about the creative process behind the show as well.

The story's flashback is based on an episode in Julius Caesar's life as a young man: he was kidnapped by pirates and held for ransom. As a noble, he would fetch a high price, but as an ambitious and boastful noble, he told the pirates he'd be worth a much higher price. Caesar charmed the men who held him captive, to the point where he felt comfortable ordering them around as servants. He'd boast about coming back after his release and having them all crucified. The pirates found his boasts entertaining, confident they'd elude any attempt at capture, and that young Caesar could not find his way back to their lair. After his release, he did exactly that, and this story was an early indication of the supreme confidence of a man who eventually became Rome's first emperor. "Destiny" introduces Caesar with this anecdote, casting Xena as the pirate who holds him hostage; she falls in love with him, but he keeps his word to have her crucified, helping to give birth to a dark vengeance that would have her on his trail to the end of his life (and throughout much of the series).

Whenever any kind of myth or historical tale is used on this show, it's always useful to see how it was adapted to fit the show's mythos. Where exactly did this story come from, and how was it altered? In the dvd commentary, Rob Tapert tells us that Colleen McCullough's "First Man in Rome" was "kinda the inspiration." Prof. Weisbrot01 tells us that apparently McCullough's book, "Caesar's Women" was the inspiration (he actually calls it "First Woman," perhaps confusing the first book of the "Masters of Rome" series with the last to date). They're both wrong: "First Man in Rome" was Colleen McCullough's first book in the series, in which Julius Caesar doesn't appear, while "Caesar's Women" was the last, at the time Weisbrot's book was written. Up until the publication of "Caesar's Women," just several months before "Destiny" was filmed, "Fortune's Favorites" was the latest published book in McCullough's "Masters of Rome" series, and it's this book that dramatizes Julius's kidnapping by pirates.

If we track the changes in the story, from Seutonius to Plutarch to McCullough to Tapert, we find some interesting things. For one thing, none of the accounts places the action anywhere near Thrace. In the ancient sources, Julius Caesar is in the southern Aegean sailing to Rhodes when he's intercepted off the southeastern coast of modern-day Turkey by pirates and taken to one of its thousands of small coves, which are indistinguishable from each other. The pirates are described as the "most murderous of men," but in awe of the confident nobility of young Caesar; we don't learn much more about them. We see our first hint of a connection to Xena in McCullough's book, though: there, we're introduced to the pirate leader, who's described in very curious terms: "A tall, youngish man clad in a Tyrian purple tunic heavily embroidered with gold pushed his way between the milling hordes on the deck and mounted the plank steps to the poop. He was not armed, nor did he look at all martial...The pirate chieftain's light green eyes narrowed; he put a manicured hand up to his carefully curled yellow hair. 'You're very collected, Senator,' the pirate said, his Greek indicating that perhaps he came from one of the isles of the Sporades." His name is Polygonus, "many angles," and his crew is described thusly: "Like their chief, the rest of the pirates were dandies; some sported wigs, some used hot tongs to produce rolling curls in their long locks, some were painted like whores, some preferred exquisitely close shaves and the masculine look, and all were very well dressed." Julius Caesar is very Apollonian to these Dionysian pirates; they're used to having their way, so they decide to let Julius have his, because it entertains them to do so. At one point, Polygonus is almost Bacchus-like: " 'You're an odd fish, Caesar, to save your passion for your work.' He patted his belly and sniffed appreciatively at the contents of his rock-crystal goblet. 'For myself, the only thing I like about piracy is the delightful life it brings me when I'm not sailing at sea. But most of all, I love good wine!' "

McCullough's pirate chieftain is a dandy with fine hair and clothes, like the Stranger from "The Bacchae," and dressed in purple, enjoying his wine, like Dionysus, and that's no accident. Caesar's youthful exploits among the pirates has a corollary in myth: from Homer's "Hymn to Dionysus":

"I will tell of Dionysus, the son of glorious Semele, how he appeared on a jutting headland by the shore of the fruitless sea, seeming like a stripling in the first flush of manhood: his rich, dark hair was waving about him, and on his strong shoulders he wore a purple robe. Presently there came swiftly over the sparkling sea Tyrsenian pirates on a well- decked ship -- a miserable doom led them on. When they saw him they made signs to one another and sprang out quickly, and seizing him straightway, put him on board their ship exultingly; for they thought him the son of heaven-nurtured kings. They sought to bind him with rude bonds, but the bonds would not hold him, and the withes fell far away from his hands and feet: and he sat with a smile in his dark eyes."

As a youth, Dionysus was kidnapped by Thracian pirates, until they realized only too late the true nature of their hostage. As they leapt from the ship in terror, Dionysus turned them into dolphins, but had mercy on the ship's helmsman, who found favor with him. In her characterization of the pirate chieftain, McCullough clearly takes both stories to give Caesar's story a mythic subtext compatible with the show. Xena's pirate in "Destiny" resembles both the chieftain in "Fortune's Favorites," with her purple robes (costumer Ngila Dickson calls them "violet"02) and feminine touches, and the dark-haired Dionysus with a smile in his dark eyes (Dionysus wore feminine blond curls in his Stranger disguise in "The Bacchae"). A skeptic might think Rob Tapert wasn't aware of this connection, and simply borrowed McCullough's synthesis of Caesar and Dionysus into "Destiny" without realizing what she was up to, but I don't think that's the case. The giveaway is a montage after Xena releases Caesar, then sails the seas, waiting for his return. The original script used that time to show a series of literal, plot-oriented vignettes of M'Lila teaching Xena her martial arts secrets, but these were abandoned during shooting in favor of this curious montage. This is the second episode that Rob Tapert directed, and it's likely that he wanted to direct it because the script alone would not be enough to convey all the details he wanted, and he chose to do so visually in order to communicate these ideas without putting them into words.


The deletion of this scene in favor of a montage of dolphins swimming with Xena's face superimposed on them is very likely a borrowing of the final image from the "Hymn to Dionysus." He already would be familiar with that source, since it's the basis for Euripides' "The Cyclops."

We now can guess why "Destiny" opens in Thrace, and why Xena went from village defender to vengeful warlord to the otherwise unlikely career choice of pirate. Both Xena and Caesar are established as Dionsyiac forces, but even evil Xena represents an element of the good Dionysiac force of freedom; she may be on the high seas raising funds, but she's also searching the horizon, whereas Caesar is utterly single-minded: there's no doubt in his mind where he's going, and what other people are worth to him, and he to them, down to the last dinar. The setting of Orpheus and Eurydice's homeland as the place where evil Xena is born and good Xena dies makes sense as well: it's a story of death and rebirth that will repeat itself many times.

"Destiny" contains many elements that will be repeated: the pirate motif we'll see many times, including "Ulysses" and "Lost Mariner" at the end of this season. The appearance of Caesar inaugurates a series-long arc, in both "Xena" and "Hercules," most episodes of which will have Dionysiac overtones ("A Good Day" in season four is the only one that doesn't have any, as far as I can tell). In addition to Dionysus and "The Cyclops," the other association with Euripides in this episode is the reference to "Medea." In Rob Tapert's previous (and first) outing as director, on the "Hercules" episode, "Once a Hero," he features an older Jason, bereft of his former glory earned from taking the Golden Fleece, and never the same after Medea killed his children. According to Tapert, he had long wanted to do a story about Xena mentoring Medea, only to realize she mentored the wrong person, bearing responsibility for Medea's crime as a result. He never did, but we can see how part of that story was used in "Destiny." M'Lila, the slave girl on board Xena's ship who teaches her the pinch, and wears the ram image that will inspire Xena's armor, is like a mentor to the young warrior princess. In a sense, she's training the wrong person, because Xena will use these skills for evil at first, but M'Lila sees beneath Xena's character flaws to the nobility underneath, and, as Theseus gave Hercules a new mission in life after his moral downfall, so M'Lila gives Xena a reason to live as she lays dying.


The secret to M'Lila's true nature lies in the elements of her background: she's Egyptian, but was enslaved by the Celts, and therefore speaks Celtic. She wears the sign of the ram on her tunic, and all these point to Medea. The home of the Fleece was in Colchis, a city believed in myth to have been founded by Egypt. In "The Greek Myths," chapter 155, we're told that Medea "cut a bleary-eyed old ram into thirteen pieces and boiled them in a cauldron. Using Colchian spells, which [Pelias] mistook for Hyperborean ones, and solemnly conjuring Artemis to assist her, Medea then pretended to rejuvenate the dead ram." Medea is assisted by her band of Maenads, making her a Dionysiac figure of interest to the show; her origins in an Egyptian outpost, combined with what seems to be her "Hyperborean" skills (in other words, northern, or Celtic), as well as her association with the ram and resurrection, give her the same set of ingredients as M'Lila--not to mention their names, which sound similar. "Lila" is associated with Lillith, which is associated with witchcraft and Kabbalah. We're told by Rob Tapert in his dvd commentary that RJ Stewart was asked to come up with a backstory that would account for M'Lila being an Egyptian who spoke Celtic; in other words, the concept was decided upon, and the script's explanation for it is merely an after-the-fact rationalization. In this way, the story behind the story keeps the show on track, even though there is no overall arc plotted out...yet.

01Xena - Warrior Princess: The Official Guide to the Xenaverse, by Robert Weisbrot, p. 208
02Xena - Warrior Princess: The Official Guide to the Xenaverse, by Robert Weisbrot, p.56


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

Back to Home menu