27. "Xena," season four:
"Adventures in the Sin Trade"


The fourth season of "Xena" has a long list of truth-telling villains; like the Stranger in "The Bacchae," they all know their opponents' psychological weaknesses and how to exploit them. The season will end with Xena facing her chief villain, the dark, Dionysiac Julius Caesar.

"Adventures in the Sin Trade" just happens to be positioned right at the midpoint of the series' six year run, a happy coincidence, since Mircea Eliade, the show's muse, is best known for his thesis that religion is a process of creating a center of the world to define one's existence, that ancient Thrace was the crossroads for the religions of the world, and the central religion that linked the ancient faiths was shamanism. This episode is worthy of that significance, as it manages to act as a crossroads for many of the series' motifs and themes. It's also the second of the three "Xena movies," directed by T.J. Scott, who also directed "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," and used the same techniques filming the ecstatic dances of the bacchae with the dance of ecstasy of the shamanesses here. All three of the "Xena movies" were written by Rob Tapert and RJ Stewart; the first, "The Debt," was inspired by the Tao de Ching, and RJ Stewart's favorite philosopher, Schopenhauer. There's a little Schopenhauer here, too, but according to the dvd commentary, RJ says he knew little of shamanism, or had much interest in writing about it. That's as good a confirmation that we'll get that, unlike Robert Graves' "The Greek Myths," which were required reading for everyone on the show, the works of Mircea Eliade served as a guide for Rob Tapert alone. Whenever the staff demurs to "Rob's vision" when faced with a question they can't answer, chances are that involves something borrowed from Eliade. It stands to reason, then, that anything on the show that appears to trace its lineage to Eliade may well mark the influence of Rob Tapert, and we can therefore get a better idea of not only who wrote what, but why.

The four episode arc beginning with "Adventures in the Sin Trade" brings us back to the show's Orphic themes, borrowing heavily from "Black Orpheus." Xena, having lost Gabrielle down a volcanic chasm, decides to search for her soul. This decision, and its dramatization, comes from "Black Orpheus." After watching Eurydice die, Orpheus makes his way to the bureau of Missing Persons, where he finds stacks of paper and endless bureaucracy. He's directed by a janitor to seek her at a small Macumba church, where the dead are brought back to life through shamanic rituals. Macumba is related to Santeria and African rites, and we're also reminded of "Altered States," which takes its title from a film about the quest for the soul's origin through South American hallucinogenic ritual. Orpheus finds himself in the middle of a Macumba rite, and calls for Eurydice among the women lost in the throes of ecstatic worship. Eurydice calls for him, channeled by an older woman who begs him not to look at her to prevent her return. He does, and Eurydice's voice is lost. Orpheus then goes back to the government building, to the city morgue, where another bureaucrat agrees to give him Eurydice's body: "Death is cheap here, right?"

Sin Trade
Xena searches for Gabrielle (left); Orpheus searches for Eurydice (right)


The opening scenes of "Adventures in the Sin Trade" parallel this action: Xena finds Hades inspecting a battlefield full of dead; he's very much the bureaucrat, ticking off the corpses' destinations in the afterlife. When asked if Gabrielle is among them, he says he doesn't handle Amazon souls; for that, she'll have to go to the Land of the Dead. Xena travels to Siberia (Rob Tapert confirmed this episode is set there in his dvd commentary on "Paradise Found"), where she rediscovers her shamanic training by the Northern Amazons there, whom she nearly destroyed ten years previously. Travelling to the Spirit World, she finds the Amazons she killed, still in limbo, thanks to Xena's old mentor, Alti, an evil shamaness who's feeding off their souls (the "belly of souls" motif again). Xena prepares to take the shamanic journey to the volcano where the Amazons pass through to the other side and reunite with Gabrielle. A side note here: it's been wondered by fans what Xena had planned had she actually gone ahead and found Gabrielle. Would she stay in the afterlife? The answer is obvious if we refer to Mircea Eliade's book, "Shamanism": she would have done what any shaman would do, and escorted Gabrielle's soul back to the land of the living, which is the shaman's primary task as healer, and which Orpheus, as a Greek shaman, attempted to do with Eurydice. Xena decides not to pursue her, but first, to undo the wrong she did and help release the trapped Amazons to continue their journey to the Land of the Dead: again, the task of the shaman according to Siberian tradition is to escort lost souls of the deceased to the next world. This is Xena's first Orphic test: she doesn't look back and indulge her fear, but rather, stays on the course Gabrielle would want her to. Xena continues to hear Gabrielle calling her name, another sign we are in the story of Orpheus, not to mention, "Black Orpheus." Xena's quest ends when she does battle with Alti, who uses all sorts of mental trickery to get Xena off her game, but stumbles when she reveals that Gabrielle in fact did not die: Xena manages to avoid the fate of Orpheus, passing the final test of not looking back, and defeats Alti.

We find another Orphic reference in the name of the Amazons' Queen. Rob Tapert has said that when they made "Amazon High" back during season three (assuming they weren't working on the concept as far back as season one, which may have been the case), they agreed that "Cyane" was a title for the Amazon Queen, going all the way back to their earliest tradition. Since "Amazon High" was about the founding of the Amazons, they used that opportunity to illustrate the rules that would govern future Amazon episodes, and sure enough, we see Cyane queens of the Northern Amazons all the way until the last Amazon episode in season six. The reason for this probably lies in both Graves and Eliade. In chapter 132, note s, we're told about the sacred chasm of Cyane, down which Hades took Persephone to the Underworld. We've already seen how this was probably referenced in "Mortal Beloved," when Xena wept like Cyane by the lake entrance to Hades after her love descended to his fate in the afterlife. In Eliade we learn why Cyane is an appropriate name for an Amazon queen: water nymphs (such as Cyane) were numerous and ancient; they probably predated Greek myth, from matriarchal times. They were uncontrollable creatures of the water and wood, and their influence, for better or worse, was often on children. They would occasionally steal them, but they would also raise them to be heroes. As Eliade put it:

"Nearly all the Greek heroes were brought up either by nymphs or centaurs--that is, by superhuman beings who shared in nature's powers and could direct them."01


So there we have it: if nymphs and centaurs are comparable roles, then Cyane is the female equivalent of Cheiron the Centaur, who tutored Hercules. Since "Adventures in the Sin Trade" involves a potential war exploiting the rivalry between Centaurs and Amazons (a rivalry first shown in season one's "Hooves & Harlots), we have a stronger sense that the equation of Centaurs/Amazons=men/women. This is on top of the suggestion that the Centaur/Amazon romance of Ephiny the Amazon and her Centaur husband portrays an interracial relationship outside the tolerance of society.02

Throughout this episode we see flashbacks to Xena's betrayal of the Northern Amazons. She insinuates herself into their tribe as a potential recruit of great power, only to use their own strengths against them. She finds their hidden circle within the forest and annihilates their leadership. This scene reminds us of King Penthius's plot in "The Bacchae": his wish to dress as them and spy on their ways to learn how to defeat them. When his mother discovers his spying, she calls out to her maenadic sisters: ""Maenads! Make a circle and take hold Of the trunk - let's capture this tree-climbing beast And stop him from revealing to anyone the secret dances of the god.'" This scene is inverted for this episode, with the secret council of the Northern Amazons breached by the spying Xena; they are unable to capture the tree-climbing Xena, who learned her skills from them, and the forest imagery of "The Bacchae" is employed in gruesome fashion to depict the slaughter of the tribal leaders.


Dragon Inn
The original clothes-swapping scene with Brigitte Lin in "Dragon Inn," which ends with a familiar-looking costume.


In one scene early in part two, we see Xena battle Cyane, the Amazons' leader, with Cyane symbolically defeating her by stealing her clothes and putting them on. This is actually taken from a Hong Kong film, in a flirtatious clothing swap between Brigitte Lin and Maggie Cheung. The clothing swap is more humorous here because Lin's character is disguised as a man03

The title of this episode is taken from Dylan Thomas's novella, "Adventures in the Skin Trade", about a young writer who learns to embrace his Dionysiac self, and meets an actress who induces a shamanic trance in him, turning London into a jungle of satyrs and nymphs. The key word here is "skin," and the "skin trade" occurs in "The Bacchae" when King Penthius trades his royal robes for the women's maenadic dress. But this skin metaphor goes further in this episode: part one ends with with the surviving members of the Northern Amazons taking on Alti's soldier, a beserker on horse. The beserker has remarkable abilities to leap on his horse and spin around that's strongly influenced by Hong Kong acrobatics, and the fact he eludes Xena's blows means there's some kind of magic at work. Actually, on this show, there's a rule against portraying magic or magicians, so anything that seems magical is actually religious in nature. In this case, the beserker's magic comes from shamanism, but not the Siberian kind; it might seem odd that a show about Siberia would even have a beserker, which we commonly think of as Nordic. The beserker, then, seems kind of slapped onto the story, as if this episode was constructed by pulling villains out of a book of nasty creatures. That's not actually the case: if we consult Eliade again, we'll find the relevance:

"Among the ancient Germans the predator-warriors were called beserker, literally 'warriors in the body-covering [sekr] of a bear.' They were also known as ulfhedhnar, 'wolf-skin men.'"04


This connection of the bear-skin wearing beserkers with the wolf-skin men connects to Eliade's book on shamanism, particularly the chapter on "Techniques of Ecstasy among the Ancient Germans." There we find a wealth of connections that appear on the show, connecting the Amazons with the Valkyries of the Ring cycle, not to mention the Norse cycle on "Hercules." The Valkyries were also werewolves, according to Eliade, and in the sixth season we'll find out that evil Xena joined the Valkyries of Odin after decimating the Northern Amazons. As Lucy Lawless pointed out on her dvd commentary for this episode, Rob Tapert's interest in depicting the origins and migrations of religious custom lies behind not only this episode, but the series as a whole.

Beserker horse
The Gorgon mask of the Beserker horse


There's more Greek myth here than just "The Bacchae," however. The trading of the wolfskin plays a key role in Euripides' "Rhesos": a notable translation of it05 mentions the Beserker in connection with Orpheus in its footnotes. The Beserker's horse on "Adventures in the Sin Trade" may even reflect this play, this passage in particular:

"The horses' foreheads have Gorgon faces tied to them,
like the ones you see on Athena's breastplate,
but brass instead of gold."


Later, another quote in this translation describes the Gorgon's face on Athena's shield:

"On her silver breastplate, the golden Gorgon head glares, gaping eyes, flat nose, sharp fangs, tongue protruding."


The play demonstrates that Athena's mask is an accurate reflection of the goddess herself: deceptive and cruelly efficient in the horrors of war. The trading of supernatural horses is another element in the story, and the young Northern Amazons make a point of capturing the Berserker's possessed horse for their own use.

The relationship of Xena to Otere has its roots in Xena's relationship with Hercules. I mentioned before the connection in Euripides' play, "Herakles": Theseus comes to Hercules' rescue by offering unconditional friendship. There's a scene in Theseus's childhood when he first confronts Hercules:

"One day Heracles, dining at Troezen with Pittheus, removed his lion-skin and threw it over a stool. When the palace children came in, they screamed and fled, all except seven-year-old Theseus, who ran to snatch an axe from the woodpile, and returned boldly, prepared to attack a real lion."06


Young Otere
Young Otere defying Xena in battle


This is dramatized on the show when young Otere's village is being attacked by Xena, and comes face to face with her: the young child picks up a pitchfork and boldly aims it at the warrior princess. This is no mere coincidence: the story of young Theseus is told on "Young Hercules," and on "Hercules" as well, in "Centaur Mentor Journey."07 It's clear the producers were aware of it; they used it differently each time, and this time, it's in keeping with the skin motif: the lion-skin of Hercules. This tells us a great deal about 16 year-old Otere's point of view when she meets Xena again. Instead of regarding her as a monster, she admires Xena and wants to inherit her power, and this is from the story of Theseus as well. Just after his encounter with Hercules' lion-skin, Theseus devotes his life to becoming like Hercules. He visited the temple of Delphi at age sixteen, cutting his hair short (like Otere's), to prevent his enemies from grabbing his hair during combat, and travelled the country armed with a club--just like Otere! The story of his birth was hidden to him, and he was told the whole truth of it and given his sword and sandals when he came of age, just as Otere is given the truth about her youth by Xena. Xena must prevent Otere from admiring the kind of person she was by being honest about what she was, but Otere is eventually able to forgive and accept her, just as Theseus was able to embrace Hercules after his terrible crime. If we compare the costumes of the other Theseus characters, along with Hercules, we'll see that Otere's furs are a rustic imitation of Hercules. As an Amazon, she's a warrior like he is, and when the time comes for Xena to appoint a new shamaness, she doesn't pick Otere, but Yakut instead, Otere's impetuous companion who is much more suited to the ecstatic experience. Otere is more deliberate, a champion of her people like Theseus or Hercules, rather than a maenad like Yakut or Anokin, or Xena for that matter.

Otere & Hercules
Clockwise from top left: Hercules & young Hercules, "Regrets, I've Had a Few; Otere & Yakut; Hercules & young Theseus in "Centaur Mentor Journey;" Xena & Otere.


As one of the three "Xena movies," this has several motifs that will be repeated. One of the most important of the series is Xena's identification with girls in their mid-teens, which is around the age that she began her fall from grace. She seeks to prevent them from making the same mistake, but, as she grows from immature, reckless youth to evil warlord, to her first attempts at redemption, her ability to make a difference in their lives often ends in tragedy. Her affect on Otere was tragic, until she was able to make amends, but her bloody encounter with the Northern Amazons began with her relationship with Anokin. She was an apprentice to Alti, practically offered as a gift to Xena, with the awareness that Anokin would spark an emotional bond with Xena that would work to Alti's advantage. Anokin's first appearance is bacchic: she displays her throat in the throes of ecstasy, the signature of the bacchic trance, according to E.R. Dodds' "Greeks and the Irrational" (Xena displays this behavior as well when she begins her shamanic trance at the episode's beginning). Almost as soon as she's introduced, however, we see Xena mourning her death, and learning shaman techniques to win her back. She's unsuccessful, since Anokin regards her as an evil influence, now that the afterlife has given her a clear perspective. Xena vows to seek revenge on the dead after this rebuke, with Alti's help, with the final result of Xena's obliterating the Northern Amazons, supplying Alti with souls to power her religious magic. This gives us a better idea why Xena was so reluctant to pursue Gabrielle to the Land of the Dead, triggering her memory of how such a pursuit nearly destroyed the Northern Amazon Nation.

Anokin
Anokin


So who is this Anokin? Her name tells us part of the story: there can be no doubt it's taken from A.V. Anokhin, one of the most prominent and best known Russian researchers of the Altai mountain region (mentioned prominently in Eliade). He founded the Local Studies museum, and later on, his name was used for the A. V. Anokhin National Muesum of the Altai Republic, which houses an amazing discovery made not long before "Xena" premiered, in 1993: an Amazon Princess of the Altais was found frozen in her burial site made 2,500 years ago. She was probably a shamaness, and the local tribes felt her burial site had great power; they believed it was wrong for scientists to dig her up and move her to a museum. Despite this, she was removed and transported by helicopter; while in transit, the helicopter crashed, killing everyone, but the mummy was still intact. The princess, it was believed, wished to stay buried, and the use of A.V. Anokhin's name for this character is a good indicator that Anokin represents the motif of the restless soul resulting from improper burial. We'll learn the rest of Anokin's history when we look at "Kindred Spirits."


Otere & Bride 2
Otere & Xena (left); Moon, center; Moon & mentor (right)


This episode continues the pattern of the young band of warriors led by a mentor that we first saw on "Hercules," which drew its inspiration from "The Bride With White Hair, part II." The lone female of the band, Moon, inspired several characters on the show, as well as its spin-off, "Young Hercules," but the one character that Moon most resembles is Sheeri Rappaport, who plays Otere. We'll meet these Northern Amazons again in season five, but Otere will not be among them (due to other commitments by the actress). When I asked the author of "Them Bones, Them Bones," Steve Sears, about his original plans to explain her absence, he could not remember (it was deleted from the early draft by other writers, probably considered unnecessary exposition in a busy episode), but if we look at the original movie, we'll see that Moon's fate did not end well: she was poisoned by the Bride's white hair, and unable to fight without risking death. It's a story of a tragic love kept secret, and if circumstances had been different, it's quite possible it might have taken this form with Otere's arc. As it happened, Yakut, her successor, died tragically later on in season five, and we can recall the fate of the lone female in the "Young Hercules" pilot, also based on Moon. Either way, the destiny of the Northern Amazons, and Xena, was already written.



01Patterns of Comparative Religion, by Mircea Eliade, p.204-5
02The comparison of Centaurs' treatment to racial strife is also seen on "Centaur Mentor Journey"
03Cyane's Amazon Queen outfit seems to be modelled after Lin's outfit; Lin's character dies in quicksand, Like Callisto in "Return of Callisto." There are numerous other images from this film, and others, used on the show besides just the action sequences. In "Three Swordsmen" we can see an Alti-like shamanic villain, and a young boy resembling Otere.
04"Zalmoxis, the Vanishing God", Mircea Eliade, p.6
05Rhesos, by Euripides, translated by Richard Emil Braun
06The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves, ch. 95, note g.
07 It should also be no coincidence that "Centaur Mentor Journey" has a mentor figure in Cheiron, just as "Adventures in the Sin Trade" has one in Cyane.
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