23. "Xena," season three: Dahok and the Whale

The Deliverer
"Dahok: He Delivers"

The first big dividend from the cancellation of "American Gothic" is the Dahok arc, which officially begins with Dahok's surprise introduction in "The Deliverer," four episodes into the third season. Up until this point, season three resembled season two, and the first half of "The Deliverer" seemed to be a story about Xena coming to the aid of England's warrior princess, Boadicea. As I mentioned before, the seeds for this episode were planted long before, late in the first season's biblical episode, "Altered States," lulling us into thinking Xena and Gabrielle were going to be reforming modernizers in a world of bloody pagan ritual ("Her courage will change the world" is what we're told in the opening credits each week). Boadicea is exactly the sort of historical character we'd expect to see on "Xena," with Xena teaming up with her to battle the Dionysiac Caesar; so much so, that's it's already a cliche before it even happens, so Boadicea's appearance signals to us that we can go on safely clinging to our preconceptions of what a show like "Xena" is supposed to be about. The subplot of Gabrielle travelling with Krafstahr, a man of god preaching of the "One God" and nonviolence, and resembling a hippy guru from the counterculture of the 1960s, is exactly the sort of pal we'd expect her to hang out with. If we'd been watching closely, though, especially "Hercules," on "The Lost City," where the groovy gurus with headbands are like wolves in sheeps' clothing, then we'd know something was up. No one could predict, however, that Rob Tapert would have the main plot of Boadicea reduced to a secondary one then discarded, once it served its purpose as a magician's distraction. Part of that distraction was Ares: the god of war's discomfort with this "One God" could only be an endorsement; his fear that this new god would replace Olympus plays to our expectations that this One God must be biblical in nature, in keeping with the previous mentions. That this sleight-of-hand was deliberate is revealed when Xena declares "This is not the one god of the Israelites!"

Dahok's name, along with Krafstahr's, come from Zoroastrianism, which is not surprising, given that "Evil Dead" based its concept on a Sumerian Book of the Dead; they'd want an ancient, mystical religion from the East to provide this threat to Olympus. Dahok represents the dark side of Zoroastrianism; however, the details of this religion may provide color for the episode, but not much else. The only relevant thing we need to know about Dahok is that it starts with a "D," just like the other names associated with him: Destroyer and Deliverer. He is in fact the dark side of Dionysus, another Stranger from the East, who was regarded by Greeks in Euripides' time as a growing, vital religious force centered around a single god that would replace the declining faith in the Olympians. Krafstahr is like the Stranger of "The Bacchae," blond, with curls, charismatic, especially towards women: as King Penthius says: "People say some stranger has arrived, a sorcerer, a Lydian casting spells, his long blond hair perfumed, his cheeks as red as wine, his eyes with the charm of Aphrodite's." When he reveals his true nature, he turns into a bullish figure, just like the Stranger, and the temple of Dahok bursts into flame and light when he manifests his presence, like the Stranger breaking out of prison. King Penthius is portrayed here by Ares, the skeptic whom nobody believes, and is powerless to control events. Gabrielle is tricked into making her first kill, an important moment on this show that changes everything for a character, and it's followed by her impregnation by Dahok himself--the "Rosemary's Baby" arc has begun!

Rumors that there would be a rape scene in "The Deliverer" sparked an outcry among fans, and its screenwriter, Steve Sears, has denied that what transpired on the show could be considered rape, strictly speaking. On the show's original "Net Forum", when asked what the producers intended by it, he wrote: "The question was whether the Dahak scene was considered a "rape" scene during its inception. I can't speak for the actors on the set or the director once he was on the set, but in the writing stage, no one thought of it that way." Sears has said many times since that he is speaking for himself, and I take his word on that. His speaking for the others involved in the writing stage (who are not named here, but certainly must include Rob Tapert and RJ Stewart) must, I assume, mean that no one openly spoke in his presence of the scene as rape. That's not the same as saying the scene of Gabrielle's impregnation is not to be thought of that way in the show's larger context, however, despite Sears own intentions in dramatizing it. After all, this "Rosemary's Baby" arc was imported from "American Gothic," where several such rapes occurred, and were described as such. Of course, the tone of that show was much different; horror stories have more leeway in how they deal with those kinds of subjects. On a substantive level, however, I think Rob Tapert wasn't doing anything differently on "Xena," but wasn't being flippant about the subject either, since "Xena" allows for a much more poignant exploration; for that reason, the physical act of rape doesn't need to be dramatized for the emotions to be present. I will demonstrate in a moment exactly in what context we are to regard this scene, in a script by RJ Stewart, and one of the most important episodes of the third season: "Forgiven."

The "Rosemary's Baby" arc continues in "Gabrielle's Hope," and if we think back to "Cradle of Hope," we're on the right track. The source of the six episodes that constitute "The Rift" between Xena and Gabrielle is undoubtedly "Ion," by Euripides. A woman, Creusa, is raped by Apollo and hides her son in a cave. Years later, she meets her son, Ion, now a priest of Apollo in Delphi; she doesn't know who he is, but he has insight into her past. He asks her about her lineage, how the daughters of her ancestor Cecrops were given a box with a monstrous child kept inside to take care of by Athena. They couldn't resist, so they looked inside, and killed themselves out of horror. This myth also inspired the myth of Pandora's box, which contained all manner of demons, and at the very bottom...hope. The original story of Pandora, as Graves narrates it in "The Greek Myths," portrays hope as a double-edged sword for mankind:

"Ephimetheus, alarmed by his brother's fate, hastened to marry Pandora, whom Zeus had made as foolish, mischievous, and idle as she was beautiful--the first of a long line of such women. Presently she opened a jar, which Prometheus had warned Epimetheus to keep closed, and in which he had been at pains to imprison all the Spites that might plague mankind: such as Old Age, Labour, Sickness, Insanity, Vice, and Passion. Out these flew in a cloud, stung Epimetheus and Pandora in every part of their bodies, and then attacked the race of mortals. Delusive Hope, however, whom Prometheus had also shut in the jar, discouraged them by her lies from a general suicide."01

Graves mentions more about Hope later on: "Pandora's jar (not box) originally contained winged souls." This image of souls being released is a common motif on "Xena" and "Hercules," and it's the last climatic image we'll ever see, in the series finale.

The first of the three "Xena" movies follow "Gabrielle's Hope," the two-part episode "The Debt I&II" (The other two movies being "Adventures in the Sin Trade I&II" and "A Friend in Need I&II": all united in tone and subject, they're virtually the same story, getting closer to thematic completion each time, and indeed, the entire series could be summed up in any of these three, with a few additions). "The Debt" involves another Euripides play that takes us beyond the scope of this essay into a whole new narrative thread, but it's enough to say that the secret of Gabrielle's rape creates a rift in the characters that widens in this episode about a mother and child in "the mystic East" (to borrow a phrase from the original Xena episode on "Hercules", "March to Freedom"). The image of the maenad is present when Xena paints her face to sneak into the palace of the Green Dragon, and later, when her face is lit with a net-shaped shadow. According to Graves, Dionysus's maenads wore camoflaged faces for their woodland revelries, and we're reminded of his translation of Penelope's name: "with a web over her face" when we seen Xena's face similarly lit. According to Rob Tapert's dvd commentary, the lighting signified Xena's soul in a state of division against itself, and that's the most appropriate literal meaning, but we'll see similar lighting later on, in "Paradise Found," when Xena's soul is presumably not divided, but rather, being unified around her bacchic nature as a way of resisting the evil Yogi that's feeding off Gabrielle's goodness of spirit. In "The Debt," we're seeing Xena playing the role of matriarchal executor of the king (we'll recall that the original Odyssey legends cast Odysseus as a conniving king escaping his execution), summoned by another matriarch, so the image of "Penelope" from Graves may have been borrowed to convey this dual meaning.

After the two spectacular "Debt" episodes, several satyr plays appear; among them is "Warrior, Priestess...Tramp," in which Hestian virgins drink poisoned wine (reminding us of "The Festival of Dionysus" in the first season of "Hercules"), then "The Quill is Mightier," about Gabrielle's use of an enchanted scroll to end war. This was the wish of Euripides as a playwright, as well as his rival, Aristophanes: how Euripides would've wished to send all his problems to the cave he studied his craft in! This episode has all the earmarks of a "Xena" satyr play: there's Minya the maenad, Gabrielle invoking "The Bacchae" again, another mention of Zagreus from "A Day in the Life," and scrolls missing or conjuring things up, as in "The Trackers," which inspired "The Xena Scrolls," not to mention plenty of free ale to go around!

The Quill is Mightier
"Here piggy, piggy, piggy!"

When Joxer conjurs up the three naked Gabrielles, he's very likely recreating a scene from Aristophanes' "Peace," in which a mother tries to sell her naked twin daughters at the market place, to pass them off as pigs: it's very dark satire, because war has driven the citizens to such lengths out of hunger. We can guess that "Peace" (which Gabrielle was trying to create with her magic scroll) was the source because it very likely forms the basis for the "Rift's" resolution, "The Bitter Suite," which this episode foreshadows.

The final episode of the "Rift", "Maternal Instincts," (a phrase we should remember from "Altered States," a story about a father sacrificing a son) takes the story of a matriarch powerless to contend with her evil son, and transfers it to Gabrielle, unable to stop her evil daughter, whom she knows is the child of Dahok. Gabrielle tried to stop Xena from killing the son in "The Debt," and now tries to stop her from killing her child; the lie Xena tells Gabrielle then is mirrored by the lie she tells Xena now, and the result is the deaths of both their children. Their relationship seems beyond repair, and beyond forgiveness.

"The Bitter Suite," a musical episode, was originally to be directed by Rob Tapert, and judging from his previous directorial efforts, it's likely he wanted to be in control of what was a visually symbolic episode; he wasn't able to, and it was perhaps in part due to the realization of the strength of those symbols on their own: they wouldn't need close supervision once they were in place. There are a number of mythic references in this story; it's kind of a meeting ground of the show's themes to this point, but the most obvious is the use of Tarot and zodiac symbols. There's no need to go into those in this essay, but I am interested in pointing out the connection to Euripides. Aristophanes' play, "Peace," makes fun of Euripides as usual: in one passage, the chorus of villagers cry out against the poverty that war brings upon them: "Oh! Hateful soldier! Your hideous satchel makes me sick! It stinks like the belching of onions, whereas this lovable deity has the odour of sweet fruits, of festivals, of the Dionysia, of the harmony of flutes, of the comic poets, of the verses of Sophocles, of the phrases of Euripides..." Whereupon Trygaeus, the citizen who's trying to end war, replies: "That's a foul calumny, you wretch! She detests that framer of subtleties and quibbles." Apparently, he can interrupt his efforts against war to take a poke at Euripides plays against war!

The story of "Peace," set during the Peloponnesian War, has Trygaues pleading with Zeus to end Greece's eternal state of war, and in one scene, the villagers are playing tug of war with armed soldiers: they try to pull the goddess Peace out of her imprisonment in a pit, while the armourers try to push her back in. Their dialogue back and forth is meant to be sung, and we hear the villagers sing:

Chorus: "Friends, do you remember the happy life that Peace afforded us formerly: can you recall the splendid baskets of figs, both fresh and dried, the myrtles, the sweet wine, the violets blooming near the spring, and the olives, for which we have wept so much? Worship, adore the goddess for restoring you so many blessings...Oh! Much desired Peace! Thou art the sole support of those who spend their lives tilling the earth. Under thy rule we had a thousand delicious enjoyments at our beck; thou wert the husbandman's wheaten cake and his safeguard. So that our vineyards, our young fig-tree woods and all our plantations hail thee with delight and smile at thy coming."

This is a longer version of the chorus sung by the peaceful villagers in "The Bitter Suite":

"You and me love peace,
With the ducks and goats and geese!
While the hours away,
Baking bread, pitching hay.
We love peace, peace, peace--
Simple joys that never cease."

In this play, the God of War has usurped Olympus, and Hermes is the only god still around: he acts as translator for Peace, and after she managers to stop war, the armourers are out of a job. Now they're the starving ones, and struggle to find a decent price for their wares in a time of peace: Hermes: " Ah! Good gods! Look at that poor crest-maker, tearing at his hair, and at that pike-maker, who has just broken wind in yon sword-cutler's face."

Trygaeus: "And do you see with what pleasure this sickle-maker is making long noses at the spear-maker?"

This confrontation between the peaceful villagers and armoured soldiers set to music is likely borrowed for "The Bitter Suite," and it culminates in a confrontation in their symbolic representatives, Xena for War, and Gabrielle for Peace:

The Bitter Suite

Gabrielle is dressed as the Tarot card for the Empress, but if we examine the actual deck this was taken from02 , the Empress does not carry a scythe. It has been suggested--mistakenly, I feel--that Gabrielle here is a combination of cards: her scythe also represents the figure of Death, since she's about to take a swipe at Xena, and indeed the Tarot card for Death shows a skeleton wielding a scythe. Granted, the scythe has associations with the Grim Reaper, and that may play a visual part, but I don't think that's the full intention here. I believe she's carrying the scythe as a farm tool for the same reason Xena is carrying a sword: to represent the chorus between peace and war from Aristophanes' play.

So, why don't I think the scythe represents Death here? For one thing, it doesn't match the description on the card: the sickle of Death in the BOTA deck has a T shape handle (signalling "tau", meaning resurrection), which this one doesn't--of course, that doesn't prove a negative, but had the distinctive T shape handle been present, it would certainly signify the Death card. More importantly, Gabrielle wields the scythe in an attack, then gets killed: but the Death card doesn't represent killing or even actual death itself, as it happens. It signifies a moment of great change, and that's not what happens when Xena takes Gabrielle's scythe and "kills" her: that's simply an angry wish she's taking to its logical conclusion. In fact, it's just a reprise of Xena's dragging Gabrielle by horse, then trying to throw her off a cliff, right before they enter Illusia, so this moment adds nothing to their understanding of each other. No, the moment of great change comes after they both plummet off the cliff, and this is where the Death card is invoked. Before they reach the fantasy world of Illusia, they float together through the water like fish, while we hear the voice of the Fool (Callisto) intone the lines that open the chapters on The Hanged Man, then Death, in "The Book of Tokens," by Paul Foster Case:
"Absorb thyself in this Great Sea of the Waters of Life.
Dive deep in it until thou hast lost thyself.
And having lost thyself,
then thou shalt find thyself again."

"Even as it is written,
'She had her dwelling in the great sea,
and was a fish therein.'"

This last line, taken from the chapter on Death, had its gender altered from the original:

"Even as it is written,
'He had his dwelling in the great sea,
and was a fish therein.'"

The words from the Hanged Man chapter are compatible with Death's; Death as a symbol represents giving up old, outmoded ideas for new, life-affirming ones, and the hanged man represents the self-sacrifice such a leap requires. The water image that appears in both cards' descriptions is appropriate for both Xena and Gabrielle, who are associated with water throughout the series. Paul Foster Case comments on the meaning of the last line in the footnotes: The "He" who had his dwelling in the fish is the prophet Jonah, a man of God who ran from himself, dove into the sea, and was swallowed by a great fish sent by God from the deep.03. It's only natural that the story of Jonah would provide the subtext for this last episode of "The Rift," since it was originally intended for the season's premiere: instead of "The Furies," the first episode of season three was to be about Jonah and the whale. As Chris Manheim, that episode's intended author explained it:

"Manheim's first story for the new season was originally going to return her to the Old Testament, but for various reasons, the idea never reached fruition. 'This one was going to be based on Jonah and the Whale, so you can see right away the possibilities for special FX and an interesting monster, but that one got shelved. It was a really big show, and at that point, we needed to stretch our budget, and that precluded any big monster shows. I don't know if it'll ever see the light of day. It never got past story point anyway, but I'm guessing that we're probably moving away from that area now.'"04

As we'll see, Rob Tapert actually didn't move away from that area, symbolically speaking: it was utilized in "The Bitter Suite," (which opens with Gabrielle spending three days in a hut, the same period of time Jonah spent in the whale), and is referenced later in the series, including the series finale. The belly of the whale is a metaphor for initiatory death, as Eliade tells us many times in his books, and that metaphor applies here. In other words, Xena and Gabrielle's trip to Illusia was actually a trip through the sphere of Death: not physical death, but the metaphorical death of the Tarot, which enables these characters to transcend themselves, with their spiritual states altered (it's no wonder we'll hear Illusia mentioned again during next season's spiritually-themed India arc). Illusia is the belly of the whale that Jonah was trapped in when he thought he could escape from his destiny. When the change has been affected for Xena and Gabrielle, and each has learned to listen to the other and speak the truth from the heart, the "whale" releases them onto the beach, as Jonah was. The Jonah motif is throughout, beginning in "Hercules and the Lost Kingdom," when Hercules and Deianeira find themselves trapped in the sea monster's belly. The motif of being trapped in the belly lasts all the way through until the series finale of "Xena."

01The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves, 39.j
02Builders of the ADYTUM Tarot page

03Paul Foster Case's works were likely in Rob Tapert's collection of books used in the show (Steve Sears has stated that Rob supplied the book.) Case is mentioned by Mircea Eliade, and another of his books, "The Great Seal of the United States," was probably a source for "American Gothic," in naming the evil Sheriff Buck, and may even have played a role in "Xena" later in season six. It should be noted that Case himself was a musician, and assigned a musical value to each card in the Tarot, making it a natural choice for the musically-themed "The Bitter Suite."

04 StarLog Yearbook #16, By Joe Nazzaro August 1998. We know that the Jonah arc was conceived by Rob Tapert, because according to Chris in that same article: "I don't look to the Bible for too many stories; actually, I think that was [executive producer] Rob Tapert's area. He always thought it would be interesting to do the story of Isaac and Abraham, and that's what I was told to do for Xena."


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

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