36. "Xena," season five:
Athena and "Amazon High"


We've already talked about how "Amphipolis Under Siege," which follows the Baby Arc (with "Lyre, Lyre, Hearts on Fire" acting as its satyr play, within the arc), picks up major elements from "Sins of the Past," "Callisto," and "The Price." The city's anthem, heard in the show's pilot welcoming Xena home, is sung again here to defy Athena; The real Solon had poisoned the waters of Cirra, Callisto's hometown, which Athena orders here, and the goddess's protection of Athen's soldiers in "The Price," came in the form of Xena, at a price that was too terrible to pay, so Athena's ruthless help was rejected in favor of Gabrielle's peaceful solution. In "Amphipolis Under Siege," Athena is now the besieger, with Xena working in the infirmary, not just Gabrielle: the water that bound the soldiers with the barbarians is now a destructive power for all--"kaltaka" won't help them now. Athena is the merciless uncompromiser depicted by Euripides in "Rhesos," and she's ready to take on an entire town full of peaceful warriors like Gabrielle was in "The Price": "What will you give them when they're dying of thirst? Love?" she snarls. But there's another element that becomes important here: Xena enlists Ares' help through trickery, and when Xena surrenders her baby to Athena to be destroyed, Ares fulfills his part of the bargain by preventing its death--however, the baby is revealed to be fake. This is another plot point from Aristophanes' "The Thesmophoriazusae." Mnesilochus, who is discovered to be a male spy in the Women's Festival, grabs an infant and rushes to an alter for sanctuary. It turns out the "baby" is actually a wineskin dressed like a baby Dionysus, and Mnesilochus finds himself about to be burned at the stake for impiety. In "Amphipolis Under Siege," the entire town is threatened with Greek fire for their impiety, and the baby Eve is a Dionysiac figure, so it's appropriate her substitute would take inspiration from a wineskin dressed as such. This plot point from "The Thesmophoriazusae" ties this episode in to the Amazon episodes to follow, and with the previous Baby Arc episode: since Ares takes the place of Mnesilochus in this episode by being tricked with a fake baby, we'll see this scene from Aristophanes again in "Kindred Spirits," only this time Mnesilochus will be played by Joxer. Once again we have confirmation of the satyr nature shared by Ares and Joxer.

Xena and Gabrielle leave Greece behind and travel back to Siberia with baby Eve; Gabrielle wishes to hand down to the child her Amazonian rite of caste, which she earned in season one's first Amazon episode, "Hooves & Harlots," on the grounds that she'll have a place in society--Amazon society, that is, which, as we learned in "Hooves & Harlots" is the original society worth belonging to; its legacy was taken by the patriarchal warlords who now occupy Greece. However, Gabrielle soon finds that the traditions of the Amazons are themselves corrupted: they've degenerated into a bloodthirsty tribe based on vengeance and animal sacrifice. The themes encountered in the Indian arc are present here, inspiring the names for Samsara, and the Atma dagger now lost to the tribe. The cannibal enemies of the Amazons are the Varanas, which recalls the Vanara, the monkey tribe from the Ramayana--we've met one of them before, Hanuman from "The Way," and Tara, the king's consort, in "Forgiven" and "A Tale of Two Muses." It also sounds like a rearrangement of Ravana, the dark lord of the Ramayana.

Xena reminds the Northern Amazons of their heritage, having been to India, and having learned the traditions of the Northern Amazons earlier. Much of this episode involves religious themes from Mircea Eliade, and there's even non-religious motifs borrowed from the Romanian author, such as the name of the tribe that attacks the Northern Amazons and kills Amarice and Yakut: the Sammites, which is probably adapted from the Samnites of 5th century b.c. Italy: according to Eliade01 the Samnites are associated with the wolf; they practiced shamanism and were said to live like wolves. This association of wolf and shamanism spread all the way to Central Asia, and in this episode, the Sammites are the modern counterparts of a prehistoric tribe of cannibals shown in flashbacks that recall the man-eating Neanderthals of "Eaters of the Dead," which we know inspired the Nordic arc on "Hercules" and the Ring cycle on season six of "Xena." The look of this episode and its savage gender war anticipates the final Amazon episode in season six, "To Helicon and Back," and the motif of cannibalism goes all the way back to "Sins of the Past," which of course drew upon Euripides' "The Cyclops." The origin of the Amazons is explained by the men of their tribe being eaten by cannibals: symbolically, these men are Ulysses's crew, devoured by the Cyclops, and these women, their mates, are Penelope--but not the Penelope of "The Odyssey," but rather, the Penelope of Robert Graves' "The Greek Myths," which we discussed before, "with a web over her face," who was the matriarchal priestess who presided over the ecstatic rites of Dionysus, having ritual sex with her suitors. Of course, there's no ritual sex in "Amazon High," or "Lifeblood;" the ecstatic ritual here is its Siberian equivalent: shamanism.

This is the latest in a whole line of "Xena" episodes featuring prehistoric missing link cultures. The list includes (in chronological order): the Primords ("Promises"), The Horde ("The Price"), the Varanas ("Amazon High"), Pomirans ("Daughter of Pomira"), the Varanas again ("Lifeblood"), the Djindar ("The Abyss"), and the Neanderthals vs. the Cromags ("Sticks and Stones," season 6, episode 13, unaired). We've already mentioned one source: Michael Crichton's matriarchal Neanderthals from "Eaters of the Dead," but another source is less obvious, and doesn't become clear unless we know about the unaired "Sticks and Stones," which resembles the film "Altered States," when the main character reverts to his prehistoric Cro-Magnon self. We can even think back to "Fins, Femmes & Gems," with Attis the Ape Man versus Gabrielle's Princess Gaea, a comic version of these ancient gender wars.

The prehistoric origins of the Amazons resemble the Northern Amazons stripped of their traditions by Xena in "Adventures in the Sin Trade." Though "Lifeblood" is a season later than that episode, the scenes depicting the origins of the Amazons were actually taken from an unaired spin-off of "Xena," "Amazon High." As mentioned earlier, that was likely conceived very early on in "Xena's" run, and its backstory would be relevant to the backstory of the Amazons in "Xena." It reveals the importance of shamanism to "Xena," especially as outlined by Eliade. In his book on shamanism, Eliade concludes:

"...as we have seen, the shaman, because of his ecstatic experience--which enables him to relive a state inaccessible to the rest of mankind--is regarded, and regards himself, as a privileged being. Furthermore, the myths refer to more intimate relations between the Supreme Beings and shamans; in particular, they tell of a First Shaman, sent to earth by the Supreme Being or his surrogate (the demiurge or the solarized god) to defend human beings against diseases and evil spirits."02


"Amazon High" has a shaman calling forth their "savior," who turns out to be a 20th century teenager girl transported from the future (no doubt influenced by "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"). Whether or not we regard the insertion of this pilot into this fifth season episode as a success artistically, conceptually it makes sense, and on paper, could have worked. As it happens, "Amazon High" was intended as a fish-out-of-water comedy, and the pairing with this very serious episode was awkward in practice. "Amazon High" would eventually be retooled into "Cleopatra 2525;" same concept, but set in the future, not the past--and it's no surprise that they actually considered having Xena guest-star on "Cleopatra 2525;" thematically it's all of one piece.

"Lifeblood" continues the motif of "female sickness" in its "Amazon High" flashbacks. This time, though, "female sickness" is specific to Siberian shamanism, and is key to the fish-out-of-water concept it's based on. If we consult Eliade again, he refers us to Maria Czaplicka, a Polish anthropologist of the early twentieth century who studied Siberian shamanism. In her book, Shamanism in Siberia, she presents her unique theory about the origin of shamanism, one which Mircea Eliade and others disagreed with: that it was the result of "Arctic Hysteria," one in which Yakut women especially were prone. The word for "Arctic Hysteria" in the Siberian Tungus language is "olan."

Lifeblood

Cyane (Selma Blair) and Olan (Monica McSwain) in "Lifeblood/Amazon High"


This word is used as the name of the prehistoric Amazon who befriends the twentieth century teenager, and both of them exhibit some of the symptoms of "Arctic Hysteria," as outline by Czaplicka: involuntary singing, tendency to imitate or repeat others' behavior, and erotic mania." Erotic mania overstates it a bit, since while they dance seductively around the fire, and Cyane, the teenager, has a boyfriend from the cannibal tribe, they're hardly maenads; but these symptoms appear much more strongly in the retooled version of "Amazon High," "Cleopatra 2525." The main character is a stripper and a mimic, a socially undisciplined fish-out-of-water who can't resist quoting songs and tv shows--what these signify is not just an entertaining character, but one who has a destiny, despite her silliness; somehow, her wacky behavior will make her the savior of the tribe. We do know that Cyane is a spiritual bacchae, from her costume: the fawn skin that worshippers of Dionysus wear. This involves another play by Euripides that I'll explore in part two of this essay, "The Two Troys."

Knowing where Olan's name comes from helps confirm our theory about the origin of Xena's name. We'll recall Xena's original conception as an Asian warrior modelled on Brigitte Lin, and how this alternate conception preceded Xena's trilogy on "Hercules," in the episode "March to Freedom." That character will be mirrored in the series finale of "Xena;" her name is Oi-Lan, an apparent variation of the Tungus word, "olan." The pattern is now complete: all three names considered for Xena are associated with Dionysus and his bacchae: Xena, Bekka, and Oi-Lan.

We'll see in the present-day sections of "Lifeblood," that Yakut's ghost can't cross over into the next world until she completes her mission, which she states is the rule for all lives. This is further evidence of continuity between "Adventures in the Sin Trade" and the series finale, "A Friend in Need," and in fact it appears in season one of "Hercules," in "The Vanishing Dead." The motif of horse sacrifice, which Rob Tapert referred to in his "Adventures in the Sin Trade" dvd commentary, is mentioned a great deal in Eliade's works, and I'll address this further in the companion essay on religion, "The Center of the World."



01Zalmoxis, The Vanishing God, by Mircea Eliade, p. 2]
02Shamanism, by Mircea Eliade, p. 505-6

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