21. "Xena," season three: "The Furies"

According to RJ Stewart, season 3 of "Xena" was the first to have a season-long story approach. They knew roughly how the season would begin and end, and various points along the way could be fleshed out as they went along. It's clear that they didn't abandon their techniques of borrowing from sources like Euripides, however; instead, they were able to make even greater use of his works, over a larger canvas. This is particularly clear in the "Rosemary's Baby" arc of the first half of season three.

Season three's first episode begins with a story that could've easily have appeared in season two: a stand-alone story based on the final play of Aeschylus's "Oresteia", his trilogy about Orestes wrestling with the question of vengeance, and the consequences of murdering his mother. The final play, "The Eumenidies," shows him harassed into madness by the Furies, the spirits who demanded justice for the slaying of the mother. The Furies are a matriarchal force, protecting the mother of the family, but in Aeschylus's play, their power ends when they are called to the world's first murder trial, set on the Aereopagus, the "Hill of Ares." Athena presides over the trial, and hears the Furies explain their manner of enforcing justice. The jury is split, which means that Athena, a goddess, must pass judgment on this matriarchal force seeking to protect the female head of the household. She gives them a thumbs-down, explaining that though she is also female, she was born of a male god, and that women are not true parents, since they do not create: the father is the creative force, and the woman is merely the empty vessel who temporarily hosts the growing child. Athena declares that with this new form of justice--the court system--there is no further need for the Furies, and they must find a new role in Greece. Since Athena wishes to lead Greek armies to take possession of its surrounding barbaric lands, the Furies would do well to demonstrate their support of this new order by becoming household goddesses of the hearth and childbirth: they can help women give birth to future Greek soldiers who will carry Athena's standard. The Furies will henceforth be known as "The Kindly Ones," (in Greek, "The Eumenides"). The Furies agree, and submit to the Athena's military authority in the name of Zeus.

This kind of Greek chauvinism (both male and political) has no place on "Xena," of course, and given that "The Furies" comes only three episodes after "The Price," an episode about Greek expansion into barbarian lands, in which Xena reverts to her warlord ways after the soldiers call on Athena to aid them, this suggests an attitude towards Athena that doesn't coincide with Aeschylus's version (regardless of whether the author of "The Price" felt that way, that seems to be the larger context of it). "The Furies" is about Xena's persecution by the Furies for not avenging her father's death; in order to stave off madness, she must kill his murderer; unfortunately, she discovers the guilty party is her mother. Ares instigates this by getting the Furies to pass judgment on Xena, and strike her with madness. This court room scene happens in the form of a lap dance in Ares' temple, and they all agree to give Xena a thumbs-down. I mentioned the thumbs-down above in "The Eumenides": that gesture of Athena's is in the dramatization of Tony Harrison's translation of the "Oresteia," which was available on video in libraries in Los Angeles during this time, and would be easily accessible to the show's research assistants (we'll recall that Tony Harrison also adapted "The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus" used for "The Xena Scrolls"). We know that "Xena" rejects the conclusion of Aeschylus's version when she meets Orestes in a madhouse: he avenged his father by killing his mother, but the madness didn't stop; Athena doesn't have the power to lift such a sentence in the Xenaverse.

RJ Stewart's draft of the script has this description of the Furies: "Three beautiful but horrifying women do a hideous dance in this murky hall. Their movements are brutal, irrational, angry and dissonant. Is it a dance at all? Or rather an expression of the mad chaos that lies behind the grid of sanity we project onto the world." This last sentence refers to a concept he uses frequently, in association with Callisto, and later on with other formidable women such as Lao Ma and Alti: it's the idea behind Schopenhauer's "The World as Will and Representation." Clearly he regards the Furies as representing the unconscious Will that drives the illusory representation we regard as our world, upon which reason itself is only a surface feature, and he's comparing these chaotic female forces with others who have a greater understanding of it. This Will, lurking behind numerous masks of illusion, is a force Xena will have to understand and contend with before the series is over. Ares plays on this when he tells Xena: "For those who just endure life, yeah-- it is a very nasty joke. But for those who form it with their will, the joke is on those who get in the way." He comes close to making the kind of argument Sheriff Buck makes on "American Gothic," but it relies on the pressures of madness and the Furies to make Xena vulnerable to it.

Xena's mother, Cyrene, killed her father because of a meeting he had with Ares, of whom he was a devout worshipper. He came home and prepared to kill young Xena. We're not told exactly why, but when we examine the sources, we can narrow down the possibilities. Euripides' "Iphigeneia in Aulis" has Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter over Clytemnestra's objections; she kills him, prompting Orestes to avenge his father's death (even though his father sacrificed his sister to Artemis to help the Myceneans sail to Troy). We can then regard Cyrene as modelled on Clytemnestra, and this is reinforced on the episode when Xena mentioned she had already avenged her brother's death: a possible reverse-mirror of Orestes and Iphigeneia. Xena's father was named Atrius, of Mycenae, and since Agamemnon's father was Atreus, this strengthens the connection. On the other hand, many fans have argued that Xena's father was probably angered when he found out that the god of war was the true father of Xena; while he was off to war in service to Ares, Cyrene says she was visited by Atrius and conceived a child with her, and her statement would strengthen the theory that Atrius regarded Xena as an illegitimate child. This also has a grounding in Euripides: his play, "Ion," is about a child conceived by a god (Apollo) who is nearly killed by a parent for being illegitimate, and a threat to the parent's standing in the family. So which is it? Both! The story of Iphigineia, as dramatized by Euripides, has already been used as subtext in the previous family episode, "Death Mask," and will be again, in "A Friend in Need." Plus, the Iphigineia story is a bookend for another Euripides' play, "Hecabe," in which Polyxena is sacrificed for the return voyage from Troy. "Ion" will play a major role in the upcoming "Rosemary's Baby" arc (referred to by fans as the "Rift" between Xena and Gabrielle, or the "Dahok arc," after the god who takes Apollo's role as impregnator), so it's quite appropriate that it be introduced here in the first episode of season three. Of course, hinging on this question of source is the issue of whether Ares is Xena's father or not: the writers differed on this, apparently, but I don't think it's an important question, because it requires us to think about these characters in literal terms using conventional story logic, which doesn't really apply here, so any questions approached on the basis of it will fail to lead to a resolution. Better to just say: Ares is one of many wearing the mask of her father, and this is one of many stories about her relationship to him.

After all, we'll see another father figure immediately after Xena is told she must avenge his death: running through the forest, she sees Bacchus's face in a tree, laughing, and later on, a dryad flying through the branches, then Callisto, the bacchae she created. All are Dionysiac images, which make this a story of bacchic madness in which the center of her being is spinning out of control. Both Rob Tapert and Liz Friedman confirmed the Bacchus-in-tree image is a reference to "Evil Dead," which means we can regard this as a kind of foreshadowing of "A Friend in Need," in which Xena battles a monster that's inspired by the tree demon of the movie it borrows from, "A Chinese Ghost Story," which in turn borrowed its tree demon from "Evil Dead." This idea of a tree housing a divinity should make us think of the show's religious themes, and so, turning to Mircea Eliade's "Patterns in Comparative Religion" (p.279-80), we find the observation that Greek gods Artemis and Dionysus were associated with trees, and Dionysus's own "epiphany" was the "Dionysus Dendritis." There are only two sacred trees in ancient Greece, however, and one of them was the tree mentioned regarding "Athens City Academy of the Performing Bards": it's the tree that gets bent backwards and slingshots King Penthius over the treetops while he's spying on the bacchae. We'll see numerous tree images throughout both series, particularly this image from "The Bacchae," and it makes sense, since Eliade's references to trees will have stood out to the makers of "Evil Dead."


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

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