19. "Xena," season 2:
"A Day in the Life" & "Ulysses"

Just as the ancient satyr plays of Greece were considered as religiously important as the tragedies they mocked, so the comedies here should be examined closely, for they play with the same elements the more serious episodes employ, and do so right in front of our eyes. "A Day in the Life" is the number one fan favorite of all "Xena" episodes; it depicts a typical "uneventful" day for Xena and Gabrielle, amusing themselves with games of twenty questions while battling the random warlord, giant and obsessed fan. The heroes seem as approachable as the rest of us on their days off, and their skills undiminished, regardless of the challenge. There are no days off on a television show, however: "A Day in the Life" is at least as grounded in the myths as the dramatic episodes, if not more. One of the sources is chapter 30 in "The Greek Myths" dealing with Zagreus, the Cretan version of Dionysus. Zagreus, a son of Persephone before she was taken by Hades as wife, was lured away by the Titans and torn limb from limb, like young Dionysus. His heart was rescued and he was reconstructed as an immortal. Zeus avenged him by striking the Titans dead with thunderbolts.

A Day in the Life
Minya the maenad, Zagreus the warlord and Gareth the giant.

All these elements are present in "A Day in the Life": Xena prepares for the arrival of Gareth, the giant who killed Goliath's family in "The Giant Killer". Despite the lightheartedness of this episode, it's the sequel of a tragic one. Xena gets her inspiration for the first kite when she hears thunder: "Zeus killed giants with lightning bolts." She's referring to the giants who tried to overthrow Olympus, reminding us of the giants' graveyard in the opening scene of "The Giant Killer," but Zeus also killed Zagreus's tormentors, the Titans, with lightning, according to section b of chapter 30 in "The Greek Myths." The kite conducts lightning to kill Gareth (even though he's taken precautions to armor his "eye"). In this episode, Zagreus is not a victim, because Dionysus's stand-in is Xena herself. Instead, he's akin to the giant, presented as an equal threat from another direction that Xena has to juggle back and forth: he's taken care of not by Xena, but her obsessed fan, Minya, who knocks him out with Xena-like flourish. Zagreus here is a giant for the rest of us mortals to defeat! In an early draft01 , there's an inside joke as Xena implies that Zagreus's mother is worse than he is: since she is Persephone, queen of the Underworld, she is indeed a chilling sight for mortals to behold.

There's more to this, though, as we'll see when we consult another source for the show: the Varia Historia (in season six, we'll meet the amazon Varia, whose name means "miscellany"; her name is clearly derived from this work). In book 3, passage 39, we read: ""They say that only the daughters of Minyas, Leucippe, Arsippe, and Alcithoe, rebelled against the dance in honour of Dionysus, and they did so for love of their husbands; for this reason they did not become maenads of the god. He was angry. They sat at their looms and toiled industriously in honour of Ergane, and suddenly ivy and vines began to envelop the looms and snakes made their lair in the baskets of wool. Wine and milk dripped down from the ceiling. but not even these events persuaded the women to join in the worship of the god. Then they committed a terrible act...The daughters of Minyas tore to pieces, as if he were a fawn, the young child of Leucippe, a boy still of tender years. This was their first act of madness, and then they rushed off to join the women who had been maenads from the first." The bacchic daughter of Minyas is renamed after her father and used for what the teleplay describes as a fan of Xena. "Maenad" means "mad woman," and according to E.R. Dodds, author of "Greeks and the Irrational," (a source I believe was used on the show), the Dionysus cult was an acceptable place for women, second-class citizens in ancient Greek to express their fury. In this episode, the fandom has found an acceptable place onscreen beside its bacchic hero.

That Minya is a maenad is reinforced in a scene where she reads one of Gabrielle's scrolls about the bacchae, and earlier, we see Gabrielle composing it, acting it out as she writes. There's a borrowing from "The Trackers," in one of the most famous moments in the series, when we discover Xena has used one of Gabrielle's scrolls as toilet paper--not an entire scroll, of course, just a blank scrap. Those blank scraps, on one side, have the secrets to the past on another, according to Tony Harrison's adaptation: after the satyrs have arisen from the lost scraps of ancient satyr plays, Silenus distributes the scraps among them: "Here take this little bit, it'll come in handy after a shit...." It's a play off the satyrs' irreverent nature, but it's also a comment on the rubbish heap where the lost works of ancient masterpieces lay. This is a gag that will be repeated consistently on the show: after this, a sign of an episode's "satyr" nature is the presence of scrolls used like toilet paper, Minya, and the Bacchae.

The second season of "Xena" ends with a trilogy of water-based episodes that play off of earlier stories without connecting with them directly. "The Price" picks up the theme of water as a bridge of communication, introduced in "Hercules and the Underworld." That film has water quenching the thirst of a warrior and a beast, and the two are combined in what seem to be the indigenous tribes of Greece's borderlands, savage as animals in warfare, yet with a code of conduct that can be understood. The breakthrough comes when Gabrielle realizes the war god they're said to pray to with their dying breaths are actually a call for water. She jumps over the besieged walls, risking her life to give water to the enemy. The episode's writer, Steve Sears, has said this moment represents Gabrielle's decision to define her own death, and as we've seen before, this motif is an act of defining a destiny that otherwise seems unalterable. It's a brave act of freedom that can liberate the individual, and in this episode, both sides of two warring parties. The entire series is an act of self-definition for Xena, and by temporarily reverting to her old warlord ways, she sets herself back and risks losing her redemption, not to mention the lives lost on both sides from her ruthless strategy. Her quest for self-definition is put to service for Gabrielle in this episode, which brings Xena back on track to her original resolve in "Sins of the Past." In "Lost Mariner," Xena and Gabrielle find themselves on Cecrops' ship, cursed by Poseidon never to land until he's freed by love. This story is a variation on the Ulysses theme, and the story of Cecrops is the story of realizing that one's freedom is always within reach; the ship is a prison that lasts as long as he refuses to understand his own freedom. He doesn't begin to realize until a loyal shipmate sacrifices his life for him. The ship is a reprise of the pirate ship in "Destiny," and Cecrops, like princess Anuket in "Mummy Dearest," doesn't realize until it's nearly too late that love was always close by, and so was freedom. There's more to the story of "Lost Mariner" in anticipating season three, outside the scope of this essay, but for the moment, it's more instructive to look at how it relates to the chief water episode of the trilogy, written by head writer RJ Stewart, "Ulysses."

"Ulysses" has been criticized for not doing the original epic by Homer justice, but I don't think they were trying to adapt the story of Homer, but rather, of Robert Graves as he described it in "The Greek Myths." There, Graves suggests that the original author of "The Odyssey" was not Homer, but a woman. It was first suggested in late Greco-Roman times that "The Odyssey" was actually depicting a voyage around Sicily, and novelist Samuel Butler, in his "Authoress of the Odyssey" concluded that Nausicaa, the princess who rescues Odysseus and helps him to return to his wife, is actually a self-portrait of "The Odyssey's" true author, a Sicilian princess who had taken several different myths and combined them to tame the warlord scoundrel of Greek myth, romanticizing him into one whose misfortunes and numerous temptations help forge the ideal devoted husband. Graves speculates that "Nausicaa," the name he gives this young princess, took existing stories of the Greek hero's return from Troy (Graves calls him "Odysseus"), and combines them with remnants of matriarchal legends about a king who would not allow himself to be sacrificed when his reign as queen's consort had ended (Graves calls him "Ulysses," borrowing the Roman version of the name to distinguish them). Thus, the islands that "Ulysses" visits in "The Odyssey"--the Lotus eaters, the Cyclops, Scylla and Charibdis, etc.--are all adaptations from matriarchal legends still in circulation at the time "Nausicaa" wrote her story, and all depict in corrupted form a tale of a king eluding his sacrificial destiny--just as Xena does throughout the series. For example, the Cyclops episode (which Euripides based his satyr play on) depicts Odysseus as eluding his sacrifice by the smith guild of the solar eye that later became identified as the one-eyed cyclops who served the pre-Olympian, matriarchal Titans (you'll recall the Titans worship Gabrielle as a goddess when she restores them to life in "The Titans"). His thirteen-man crew symbolize the thirteen months of the sacrificial king's year of service. This is explained in "The Greek Myths," chapter 170, notes 1 and 2, and its details will become important in season six.

As Graves describes why he agrees with Butler that a woman wrote "The Odyssey," he cites the evidence: "He points out that only a woman could have made Odysseus interview the famous women of the past before the famous men and, in his farewell speech to the Phaeacians, hope that 'they will continue to please their wives and children,' rather than the other way about (Odyssey, xiii. 44-5); or made Helen pat the Wooden Horse and tease the men inside." We should keep in mind that virtually the entire Odyssey is told in flashback to Nausicaa's father, in her presence, after she rescues him, so this is an internal clue that the author has declared herself Odysseus's chronicler--much like Gabrielle is to Xena. John D'Aquino, who played the title role in "Ulysses," is perfectly cast. He plays a young girl's fantasy of a man who's both the perfect husband and reassuring father, keeping the world at bay for young princesses, and refusing to talk about its cruel realities at the dinner table; he just wants to protect his wife and child. When he does face temptation, in the form of Xena and the Sirens, it's hard to imagine him getting much pleasure from it. Xena recognizes this and in turn, becomes his protector: at the end, she even protects his reputation for posterity, instructing Gabrielle that his myth will stay intact, at her expense.

"Ulysses" is a sequel to "Athens Academy of the Performing Bards" because we see Gabrielle taking her place as "The Odyssey's" author, and like Graves' hypothetical "Nausicaa", the Sicilian princess, she's placed in the story as a witness. But she and Xena do much more than just provide behind-the-scenes help: they take on the role of the other matriarchal figures as well, and when we know the backstory, we can see that the harsher reality of sacrifice and destiny is also at play. Xena and Gabrielle encounter Ulysses on a beach near a cave: he's trying to regain his ship from pirates to return home, and Xena and Gabrielle agree to help him. There are two important beach scenes in "The Odyssey": one, when Odysseus leaves the island of the nymph Calypso; on orders from Zeus, she agrees to give him the tools to build a raft. She had kept him for seven years as a sexual prisoner, and as I've previously mentioned, this scene is referenced in the Queen Omphale scene in "Hercules and the Lost Kingdom." It should now be clear that the "lost kingdom" of Troy is a stand-in for Ithica, and it's not surprising that the "lost princess" of Troy is a young woman who's destined for sacrifice to the sea--played by Renee O'Connor! It's been nearly three years since that film, and the show is still circling in those waters. This will continue, and we'll meet princess Nausicaa much later on towards the end of season five of "Hercules": there, both princess Nausicaa and the sea nymph Calypso will be combined to form princess Nautica, the future bride of Iolaus's court-jester counterpart, who, like Ulysses, will end his wandering and join his bride's sea kingdom. The other beach scene follows this one, when Odysseus meets princess Nausicaa and her maids on the shore of Phaeacia. She gets her father to help him make the final short voyage home to Ithica. We'll see this island later on, transformed into a cave, in season five of "Xena," in the episode "Them Bones, Them Bones," where Phaeacia is referred to by its alternate name, Scheria. Shortly before the sequel to "Them Bones, Them Bones," later that season, Gabrielle herself will morph into a dream-like version of princess Nauticaa in "Married With Fishsticks."

"No one can resist the madness!"

The two beach "Odyssey" beach scenes described above are combined into one, just as their elements are combined later on in the series. The second is depicted when Xena and Gabrielle offer to help Ulysses return home after discovering him on the beach, like princess Nausicaa and her maids. The way they'll regain his ship is to have Gabrielle dress like an exotic dancer to distract the pirates while Xena conducts a surprise attack. This is a visual pun: Gabrielle imitates a Calypso-dancer, which recalls the first beach scene on Calypso's island. The Calypso dance is part of the island culture of the Carribean, and plays a part in its celebration of Carnival, which ties into "Black Orpheus." This is a kind of reprise when Xena performed it as the dance of the three veils in first season's "The Royal Couple of Thieves". Both were used as a distraction, but Gabrielle's costume has no veils, and is more Caribbean in appearance, unlike Xena's variation on her regular costume. What this reprise tells us, though, is that while "Ulysses" borrows from "The Royal Couple of Thieves," it's possible that 'The Royal Couple of Thieves" anticipates "Ulysses," and more.

"The Royal Couple of Thieves" (a play off of the royal couple of Thebes: Oedipus and his wife/mother Jocasta) features Autolycus, in a story borrowed from "Raiders of the Lost Ark," which anticipates a similar borrowing in "The Xena Scrolls." Given that there's probably more to this connection than that, we'll check the sources to discover that the satyr play used by "The Xena Scrolls", "The Trackers" is about young Hermes' theft of Apollo's cattle. As we learn in "The Greek Myths," chapter 67, Hermes' son, Autolycus, was a thief who stole cattle from Sisyphus, and when he discovered the culprit, seduces Autolycus's daughter and conceived Odysseus. We'll hear a variation on this story in season three's "Vanishing Act," with Sisyphus renamed Tarsus, and Autolycus's theft recast as an act of vengeance for his brother's death. Right before "Vanishing Act," we have another Autolycus episode, "Tsunami," a water story based on "The Poseidon Adventure" (a sly reference to Odysseus's wanderings due to Poseidon's curse). The satyr play source, "The Cyclops," is brought in when Autolycus demonstrates that wine skins are a source of air for the capsized crew, connecting it to the story of Odysseus. You'll recall earlier when I quoted RJ Stewart discussing the Xena Scrolls, how he mentioned Oedipus and Sisyphus in its context. We can now see in these episodes the connection of these names as they relate to "The Trackers," and how it's employed as a guiding force on the show. It may seem like Autolycus's character has evolved by the time of "Vanishing Act," but in reality, he's only revealing another part of his backstory, using the same ingredients present in "The Greek Myths" from the beginning.

So Ulysses is found trapped on a shore near a cave (a nod to "The Cyclops"), and instead of being held prisoner by Calypso, he's freed by her and the princess Nausicaa, in the form of Xena and Gabrielle. His captors are the suitors he shouldn't be involved with until after he gets home, but here, they're turned into pirates intercepting his travels. We've already seen pirates on the show, in "Destiny," led by Xena in her Dionysiac form: when Dionysus leads an army, it's an army of satyrs, and as we recall in "The Cyclops," which uses the Hymn to Dionysus as its source (as does "Destiny"), these sea-born pirates are satyrs who end up at the cyclops' cave. Obviously not all of these elements are used here in full, but the basic equation of them is borrowed, and it makes more sense when we discover in "The Greek Myths" that the original story of Penelope was less romantic: she prevailed over maenadic ritual orgies (as the goddess of spring Penelope), and she gives birth to the god Pan at one of them: this makes the suitors satyrs! The Sicilian princess cleaned up this story so that Penelope is ever the faithful wife: she didn't approve of extra-marital affairs, and neither does reformed Xena, which is why she sends Ulysses back to his wife. Unreformed Xena has no problem with extra-marital affairs: in "Last of the Centaurs," we see her in her full bacchic-revelling state, stealing Borias in full view of his wife and children. This could be taking a page from the matriarchal version of the story of Penelope, and we'll see clues elsewhere that this is likely the case.

Xena is more than just a stand-in for female characters from "The Odyssey," though: she has traits from Odysseus as well: "I have many skills," her signature quote, reflects the "Many-skilled Odysseus" of Homer, and there's a scene that at first glance looks like she's taking Ulysses' place: sailing past the Sirens, Ulysses is bound with ropes to prevent falling under their spell and sailing the ship into the rocks of their island. It doesn't work, and when he steers the ship dangerously, Xena competes with them, singing like a Siren to bring Ulysses back to his senses. This scene actually combines two scenes from myth: the Siren scene from "The Odyssey," when Ulysses has his men plug their ears to steer the ship safely past, but has himself tied down so he can experience their allure without endangering the voyage; the other scene is from the story of Jason and the Argonauts, when they sailed past the Sirens a generation before Odysseus did, and Orpheus's playing of the lyre was even more beautiful to the sailors than the Sirens' song!02 It should be noted, by the way, that many of the Argonauts, including Jason himself, were sons of Minyas's daughters, making them sons of maenads.03 "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" tells us Orpheus had the power to calm the bacchae with his playing (which we can also see in "The Greek Myths," chapter, when he stopped their barfights with his playing04, and this applies to their sons, as well, it seems. This comparison with the bacchae is in the dialogue: Ulysses himself during his temptation by the Sirens cries out "They're calling me...to ecstasy!" Ecstasy is the chief experience of being a bacchae, and it's also the chief experience of being a shaman: the choice of this word, therefore, is likely a deliberate foreshadowing, since season three will culminate in a close look at the shaman experience. Here, it signifies that Ulysses is falling under a bacchae spell, which only Orpheus can deliver him from. I've mentioned previously that Xena herself compares her experience with the cyclops to Ulysses', and this occurs during the scene when both of them confront Poseidon on the sea cliff: this scene deliberately mirrors the scene in the opening credits, when we see Xena defying Poseidon with a raised sword. Ulysses' name means "angry": that's the last word we'd use to describe this version of the character, but it certainly fits Xena's descent ten years previously. Throughout the series, we see flashbacks that always go back ten years, the duration of the Trojan war, half the time of Odysseus's wanderings; her personal history has been given a mythic timeframe!

01Whoosh episode guide: A DAY IN THE LIFE
02The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves, 154.d
03The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves, 148.j
04The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves, 19.a


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

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