29. "Xena," season four:
Morrigan & Muses

The next installment of the Caesar arc, "A Good Day," looks to be a straightforward bridge between the first bacchic confrontation of Xena and Caesar in this season's "The Deliverer," and its close at the end of the season. It's a story about balance of power, echoing Xena's attempts in "When in Rome" last season. The bacchic elements of the Caesar arc are actually continued on "Hercules," when Caesar attempts to invade Ireland. This Irish arc on "Hercules" introduces another warrior woman companion for Hercules who will, along with the Sumerian pirate Nebula, will take the place Xena probably would have had if she never spun off her own series. Morrigan, a bacchic female warrior who fights with frenzied superhuman speed. Earlier, in "Resurrection," she inherited the role of Justice after killing the druid who embodied it. While it seems strange that a villainess can just inherit her redemption, it actually harkens back to Euripides' "Herakles," in which the redemption that Theseus's friendship offers does not ask to be accepted, but is foisted on Hercules whether he thinks he deserves it or not. As it happens, Morrigan rebels against the role, to her own discomfort, and in "Render Unto Caesar," she finds her own way to Justice when defending her child against its father, Cernunnus, a Celtic figure much like Dionysus and Ares. Morrigan's arc from villainy to goodness mirrors Xena's arc on "Hercules," but there's a key difference: Hercules is skeptical that Morrigan will change, especially when Morrigan is keen on pulling Hercules to her dark side: "Even the best man's got a touch o' evil in him, and it's just waitin' to come out!" We'll see this dark side of Hercules before the series ends, and he'll sprout horns just like Cernunnus!


Cernunnus works his Dionysiac charms on bacchic Morrigan

In this episode we see a glimpse of Caesar's attitude towards history; he has his official scribe killed when he insists on writing the truth about Caesar's failure to conquer the Irish. In reality, Julius Caesar wrote about Cernunnus during his Gaul campaigns against the Celts in France, and here, Cernunnus is presented as an Irish god. Known as "The Horned One," he later inspired the image of the medieval Devil that we're familiar with, and the medieval image of a goat figure presiding over a witches' coven traces its roots back to the bacchic rites of Dionysus and his maenads. Morrigan's relationship to Cernunnus is a Dionysiac one: she invokes him with the cup of red that we see in "Festival of Dionysus. Caesar is working in tandem with Cernunnus, having been called by him to invade Ireland; the episode's title, "Render Unto Caesar," has overtones of the rite of Orpheus, in which the orphic sacrifice is torn apart (i.e. rendered) by maenads. In the title, Caesar takes the place of Dionysus as the one to receive the sacrifice. This story also borrows from the "Rosemary's Baby" arc of "American Gothic," except that the child is innocent, merely a ploy to ensure Morrigan's loyalty to him; Cernunnus is quite willing to toss the child off a cliff, along with its mother. Cernunnus's death is much like Yodoshi's, and when Morrigan kills him, her transition to the figure of Justice is complete, as is her redemption: she's told, "You've fulfilled your destiny, Morrigan. You're truly one of us now!" We'll see Xena reenact this scene in the series finale, when she achieves her redemption.

Last season's episode of "Forgiven," which dealt with the complicated issues of shame and forgiveness in "The Rift" arc is followed up this season with a lighter story based on the movie "Footloose." If that sounds incongruous, it actually makes sense when we consider that "Forgiven" was preceded on "Hercules" by several episodes based on a similar theme of dancing; "...And Fancy Free" features a young woman, Althea, who enters a ballroom dancing contest (based on the film "Strictly Ballroom"). Her story continues during this season, after the sequel to "Forgiven," in "Greece is Burning," also a light comedy, about the fashion industry. Both feature a male actor dressed as a woman, once again using the androgeny theme; they're both comedies, but compatible with the darker stories just as the satyr plays were matched with their respective tragedies. According to Graves, chapter, 152, Althaea is the wife of Dionysus, and the mother to Deianeira. The sequel to "Forgiven," "A Tale of Two Muses," also features dancing, but makes the Dionysiac connection more overt. Tara, the young girl from "Forgiven," now lives in a city, apparently in Persia, where dancing is not allowed. Her boyfriend is a native of the city, and his name, Andros, is another clue we're in Dionysiac territory: Andros was a city that was home to Dionysus's winegrowers who helped the Trojans, and housed a great temple to the wine god01. The Persian location of this story makes sense when we recall Dionysus's opening speech in "The Bacchae":

"Leaving the country of the Phyrgians,
And the Lydians, rich in bright gold, and going
Up to the heights of Persian plains, hard beaten
By the sun, then onward to the high-walled towns
of the Baktrians, the grim hard lands of the Medes,
To opulent Arabia and all
of Asia Minor, where in fine tall-towered
Cities by the salt sea, barbarians and Greeks all mix together, I have come.
After I set everyone in Asia
Dancing and founded my rites there, so that
All mortals would see that I am a god"

"Barbarians" and Greeks certainly mix in this episode, and our next clue we're in Dionysus's domain is Gabrielle's dance fever: she can't stop herself, for, as she explains: "Ever since I heard it's not allowed...ah! I never wanted to dance so badly all my life!" This dance fever is a quality of the bacchae, and in Euripides' play, the most visible sign of Dionysus's influence is the frenzied dancing that all partake in, including ancient, blind Teiresias: "Then you feel just as I do--young! I'll try to dance the dance!" The unyielding town magistrate, Istafan, rails against dancing very much like Penthius in "The Bacchae": "Women leave our houses for bogus revels dashing through the dark shade of mountain forests to honor with their dancing this new god.." A way is found to give the citizens their freedom to dance by inviting Autolycus, disguised as a preacher full of silly blather and righteous-sounding doubletalk that manages to allow exactly what Istafan was trying to prevent: dancing. Autolycus is playing the role of the Stranger from "The Bacchae" here, in very comic terms, and we'll see a similar portrayal a few episodes later on "Hercules" when Dahok himself takes to the streets.

The city's muse is Calliope: it might be wondered why the Muse of Epic Poetry is invoked here, but clearly it's because she's also the mother of Orpheus. The actual muses of the title must be Xena and Gabrielle. They represent not only the dancing maenads of Dionysus, but, hearkening back to "Herakles," Theseus. In "The Greek Myths" (98.u), Graves tells us that Theseus's labor in the Cretan labyrinth actually represented a dance floor with a tiled maze design representing the steps of the Crane dance: "Theseus and his companions danced the Crane, which consists of labyrinthine evolutions, trod with measured steps to the accompaniment of harps...When Theseus and his companions performed the Crane at Cnossus, this was the first occasion on which men and women danced together." Xena performs her dance in the guise of a military exercise, taking everyone through measured steps that seem to match Theseus's careful steps. Gabrielle dances an Irish jig, when she finally takes the stage to relieve her dance fever, and this may also be influenced by ancient Greece: in Aristophanes' play, "The Frogs", Dionysus mentions the Pyrrhic dance of Cinesias--the translator's footnote (using the same edition we referred to earlier in this essay, the one most likely referred to by the writers) reads "The Pyrrhic dance was a lively and quick-step dance. Cinesias was not a dancer, but a dithyrambic poet (i.e. musical theater poet), who declaimed with such gesticulation and movement that one might almost think he was performing this dance." What we're seeing in this episode is possibly a lighthearted glimpse of the dithyramb mentioned on the first page of this essay, that ancient spectacle devoted to the life of Dionysus. It's quite appropriate that bacchic Tara and her mentors are the one to take us through this story!

01The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves, 160, note u


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

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