33. "Xena," season five:
Angels & Chakrams


The fifth season of "Xena" opens with "Fallen Angel," a John Milton-inspired vision of Heaven and Hell, both of which provide a setting for a struggle towards redemption among the three dead principals of season four's season-ender. Xena, Gabrielle and Callisto go back and forth between salvation and damnation, and John Milton's "Paradise Lost" seems to provide one source of inspiration for the episode--we've already seen its title used in the initial episode of the Indian arc: "Paradise Found." Milton's portrayal of Satan from a point of view designed to gain our sympathy was revolutionary, and it makes sense to recall his works in the story of Xena. Milton has been in vogue in action movies ever since he was quoted by the villain in the most critically successful "Star Trek" film, "The Wrath of Khan." No doubt that film provided other forms of inspiration as well, and we'll remember that the original name of Xena's planned nemesis was to be Khan. Milton was also heavily influenced by Euripides, prefacing his influential essay on the freedom of the printing press, "Areopagitica," with a quote from Theseus in Euripides' play, "The Suppliants" (which I lead this essay with on page one).

There is a Greek influence in "Fallen Angel," and it comes from Euripides "The Cyclops." As I've pointed out earlier, the cave of the Cyclops has been regarded as a metaphor for the underworld, which here in the Christian (or rather, the pseudo-Christian) afterlife is Hell01. The Cyclops' cave is a trap for those who eat the forbidden food of the giant, and in "Fallen Angel," those who dine on the fruit in Hell are trapped forever; the powerful hunger and thirst of those sent there means it's only inevitable they will succumb to eternal damnation. At first, it's odd that this Christian-like afterlife runs on rules that seem to allow for trickery and traps to determine who goes to Heaven or Hell, instead of a theology of divine grace. This sort of gimmickry should alert us that we are not actually in a mystical Christian afterlife, but rather, one that operates on the rules found in the Greek myths--rules based on more ancient traditions of sacrifice and conquest. While the eating of food as a trap for the unsuspecting sounds like "The Cyclops," this additional element of extreme hunger and thirst driving one to eat the forbidden food should sound familiar to us: it's from the myth of Tantalus. His punishment for feeding Pelops to the Olympians without their knowledge was to be sent to Tartarus, where he would join the Daniaids in perpetual thirst. This unslaked thirst is a motif that appears throughout "Xena" and "Hercules." After Tantalus had been so punished, "Pelops emerged from the magic cauldron clothed in such radiant beauty that Poseidon fell in love with him on the spot."02 Given that this episode follows the shamanic themes of season four, we should expect those to continue, and they do: Xena's journey to Hell to rescue the lost souls of Gabrielle and Callisto is one of the chief missions of the shaman; her trading of her redemption for Callisto's damnation is part of the pattern set by Euripides' "Herakles," in which the gift of friendship is sudden and unconditional. Those are a lot of references to pack into one episode, but it's not very difficult to do when those threads have already been established and are readily available as needed.

The following episode, "Chakram," sounds like it will finally clue us in to the origins of Xena's unusual weapon of choice, and it lives up to that promise. However, the secrets of the chakram are not spelled out, and we can't fully decipher them unless we look at the larger context of this episode, as well as the sources used for the show. It's no wonder, then, that the original viewing audience was left with more questions than answers about this mysterious weapon that seemed to have a mind of its own.

Chakram

The Dark Chakram was a gift from Ares to Xena, but here, we learn that he stole it from Kal, a local war god (as Eli describes him). So, who's Kal? An Indian weapon indicates he's an Indian god, but there's no Indian god by that name, certainly not a war god. Presumably, the episode is set in northeastern Italy, around Mt. Amaro, where Xena and Gabrielle were crucified in "Ides of March." Why would an Indian god be in this region? Perhaps he's Etruscan, which would make sense: after all, the Etruscans were precursors to the Romans who, in this episode, now control this region. But that sort of logic rarely applies in the Xenaverse; for one thing, why would Ares be the successor to an Etruscan god, when Mars was the actual successor? It seems as if all these elements are pulled randomly from unidentified sources, and have nothing to do with the previously established logic of the show--or with anything that happens since. I'll describe in a moment why just the opposite is true; first, let's look at the relationship between Ares and Kal.

Xena and Gabrielle have returned from the dead, thanks to Eli's intervention, and it's quickly discovered that Xena has lost her memory of her evil past. In practical terms, what this means is that she's lost her experience with evil, and therefore, her judgment in combating it (making her vulnerable to Ares' persuasion). Ares is concerned with her new state of purity, and her dangerous alliance with the holy man, Eli. So is Kal, who wants to get his chakram back. Ares confronts him at his decaying temple, a lonely place ever since Ares usurped the power derived from his worshippers. Ares knows the real danger of Xena's purity: she is now qualified to remove the Light Chakram from its place of balance in the Temple of the Chakram nearby. The Light Chakram has the power to kill gods, and Ares fears he will now be usurped by another, as Kal was. His state of mind is anxious and blustering, in stark contrast to Kal, who seems quite calm, despite being confronted by the god that took his powers. As a matter of fact, Kal is unusually confident, given his relative position of weakness. Ares' power to threaten him seems only physical. Despite this, Kal behaves as if he has the upper hand, and for reasons unclear, acts as if time was on his side. Indeed, because he is Time!

One of the patterns of the Xenaverse is that the power to kill gods lies with the vanquished gods and the conquered matriarchy, and in this case, Kal is a Chronos figure ("Chronos" also signifies "Time"). But his mysterious nature is solved when we "follow the chakram" and investigate his Indian roots: in Sanskrit, "Kal" is the root word meaning "Time," and if we consult Mircea Eliade yet again, in his "Images and Symbols," we find this quote:

"Kala, the Sanskrit word for Time, is used in the sense of periods of time and of endless durations as well as that of a certain moment, just as it is in European languages (for instance, "What time is it now?"). The earliest texts of all emphasize the temporal character of all the Universes and of all possible existences: "Time has engendered all that has been and all that will be" (Atharva Veda, XIX, 54, 3). In the Upanishads, Brahman, the Universal Spirit, the absolute Being, is conceived both as transcending Time and as the source and foundation of all that manifests itself in Time: "Lord of what has been and what will be, he is both today and tomorrow" (Kena Upanishad, UV, 13). And Krishna, showing himself to Arjuna as God of the Cosmos, declares: "I am Time, which in its course destroys the world" (Bhagavad-Gita, XI, 32)."


That quote from Krishna solves the puzzle: "Time" is the Destroyer, and the moment that Krishna reveals himself was already dramatized on "Xena," back in the final episode of the Indian arc, "The Way." The speech he gives Xena on the Way of the Warrior is a brief paraphrase of the speech he gives to Prince Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita, after manifesting himself. That quote never appears directly in "Xena, Warrior Princess," but it appears indirectly many times. We all know this quote from another important event: the test of the first atom bomb at Trinity, when its architect, J. Robert Oppenheimer, watched its mushrooming cloud and recalled Krishna's words: "I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds" ("Death" is an alternate translation for "Time" in this quote). That phrase occurs in partial form throughout the series, when Xena is described as the Destroyer of Nations. In "Destiny," we see the moment when young Xena becomes a killing machine, and she announces what she has become: "Tell Hades to prepare himself. A new Xena is born tonight, with a new purpose in life...death!!" Oppenheimer was describing the terrible reality that he and his colleagues now faced, having acquired the power to destroy worlds with nuclear power. That's the situation Xena was once in, and now finds herself in again, after she takes the Light Chakram, and finds herself able to kill the gods. She uses it only to kill Kal--a significant metaphorical moment, because, as Eliade tells us in his book on yoga, the goal of yogic discipline is to destroy Time (i.e., Death), and find eternity in the moment. Xena's experience in India is manifested here, and we'll see it take its full terrifying shape in the series finale. Like Oppenheimer, Xena is horrified by the power of the Light Chakram: "No one deserves that kind of power, Ares; least of all, me." Xena is repeating Iolaus's line to Dahok, which ties the "Rosemary's Baby" arc to the upcoming Twilight of the Gods arc, the second half of that arc which completes the series. Of course, she will eventually wield this power, later this season, and eventually, she will embody this power herself in the series finale.

Oppenheimer's weapon would be used to end World War two, and we'll recall that the first "Xena" episode set in contemporary times was during that war, and involved keeping Ares trapped and unable to back Hitler; the series finale will take us to the atom bomb's ground zero, in Japan. We'll also recall that Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi had produced a western, "The Quick and the Dead," with a female character very similar to Xena (played by Sharon Stone), named Trinity, not to mention, the town of Trinity, South Carolina, where "American Gothic" was set (the wealth of connections between "American Gothic" and Raimi and Tapert's other works should forever lay to rest the myth that they were somehow absentee landlords on their own television series). These are strong indications that the themes of Xena had been in their minds some time before the series began, and they were only awaiting an opportunity to put them to their fullest use. They would do so in "Xena," featuring a character with an explosive impact on the world. In "The Way," she also reveals part of her nature, as Krishna does, when she takes on the physical appearance of Kali. Kal is just another aspect of this nature, and the priest he uses as a guinea pig to snatch the Light Chakram is Brother Kalib; all variations on the same motif.

We find more clues in the production design: Brother Kalib's robe is saffron yellow--we know from Aristophanes' satire of Euripides that the saffron robe is a sign of the androgynous East, and the abstract design on his robes look like an abstract of the Indian swastika; no doubt it was changed given the modern associations of the swastika with Hitler, to avoid confusion, but had it been explicitly used, it would have been quite appropriate to demonstrate that double meaning. We see more clues in Kal's temple and dress: he seems to associate himself exclusively with the image of the eagle, and we might at first think it's a Roman symbol, but it's more likely another Indian reference: Garuda was an Indian deity whose original manifestation was a raging inferno so powerful it reminded the gods of the conflagration that would consume them all at the end of time (we'll see a similar conflagration in the series finale); he later became Krishna's mount, half man, half-eagle, in exchange for the elixir of immortality that he attempted to steal. Kal is likely based on Garuda, with other associations mixed in to adapt him to this story.

The question will be asked: did the episode's writer, Chris Manheim, really intend all these associations? Did she actually do all this research to tie together all these episodes? I am going to guess that she did not--at least, she did not provide the connections I mentioned. We already know that she wrote several biblical episodes based on the information Rob Tapert supplied, and we have this quote from Chris regarding the chakram:

"We were looking in a book on Indian mythology and there was a god who was throwing a chakram, decapitating someone, actually. We asked Rob "Is this where it came from?" I don't know whether Rob credits the Indian mythology or not. An origin story for the chakram has been kicked around, but we've never really found the right slot to put it in. So you won't be seeing it anytime soon."03


The god mentioned above wielding the chakram is Vishnu, and Krishna (along with Rama, whom Xena emulated in "Devi") is his earthly avatar. The quote above indicates that the Indian motif that clearly plays a role since the beginning of the show was likely Rob Tapert's own concept, and not a group effort by the staff. It's one of a number of quotes that indicate not the absence of a unifying concept, but rather, the staff's lack of knowledge regarding the nature of Tapert's unifying concept. After all, it was their job to create stories for the characters, not to design the central concept, which already existed. The quote is from an article dated January 1999, and around that time the script for "Chakram" would already be in the works, since it was shot several months later. I suspect that "Chakram" was not regarded by Chris as an origin story for the chakram, but the concepts that gave rise to it were employed, and it makes sense they were put there by the show's creator. The chakram's "origin story", from the staff's point of view, would involve putting together a plot featuring Xena and Gabrielle that would help drive the arc of whatever part of the season they were focused on; it would not involve designing the conceptual background for the chakram, which I believe was already well in place.



01The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves, 170.3
02The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves, 108.i
03AN INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS MANHEIM, paragraph 145

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