40. "Xena," season six:
The "Coming Home" arc


The "Homecoming" arc is followed by the "Coming Home" arc...only this time, it's modelled on the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts. Three episodes trace his return route with the Golden Fleece, as specified in Graves' "The Greek Myths." In chapter 154, "The Argo returns to Greece," in which the Argonauts travelled through Libya, were washed shore into its deserts and stranded, then sailed through an alternate route past Armenia. We already visited this chapter way back in season two, as the source for Xena's outsinging the Sirens as Orpheus did on the way home, but here, details are borrowed on which to stage a trilogy of stories involving Gabrielle's guilt over her bloodlust in battle.

The first of these, set in Libya, is "Who's Gurkhan," in which Gabrielle's niece, Sarah was sold into slavery overseas, and Gabrielle not only wants to rescue her, but kill Gurkhan to avenge her parents. Just as Xena sought vengeance in the previous arc, now it's Gabrielle's turn to go into the "underworld" to rescue a family member--her name, Sarah, once again recalls Seraphin from "Black Orpheus," and all the names are significant here: Xena's undercover name, Sophia, refers to her Thracian origins (Sophia is the capital of Bulgaria, and the figure of Sophia is also a matriarchal echo in early Christianity); Gurkhan's name I'll deal with in the second part of this essay. The plot of this episode should be familiar to us: we first heard it in season one of "Hercules," in the precursor to Xena's introductory trilogy, "March to Freedom." There, Oi-Lan wished to sell herself into slavery to find her husband in Libya, and that's the course taken here. Xena meets a girl in the harem from the "Land of the Rising Sun." This is the first concrete foreshadowing of Xena's own fate in the series finale, and we can see it's been anticipated since before Xena was on the air! The harem sequence, in the bath, recalls the bathing scene in "March to Freedom," and also anticipates the tea house "harem" of Yodoshi in "A Friend in Need."

The second episode of the "Coming Home" arc is "Legacy," which borrows from the history of Kahina, a female leader of the Berbers01, set in the deserts of Libya.--this would correspond to the Jason story when the Argo is swept into the desert, and are saved from dehydration by the discovery of a spring. Another bathing sequence appears in the beginning, but it's an image not of the harem, but of freedom: they're in a semi-matriarchal society, led by Kahina. The near-beheadings of "Who's Gurkhan" becomes a near-beheading when Gabrielle is buried up to her neck in the sand, a target for polo-players, as punishment for accidentally killing a boy mistaken for a warrior. The guilt Gabrielle feels is intensified when she remembers the killings of the Rift, and in the next episode, this will reawaken the sadness she had long buried for her lost child, Hope. This society led by Kahina almost strikes us as Amazonian, and there seems to be a nod to the play that surely helped inspire the Amazon nation here, Aristophanes' "The Thesmophoriazusae:" when Xena and Gabrielle visit a Roman governor, they disguise themselves as noblewoman and slave (which the dialogue indicates is not the first time they did this). This recalls Mnesilochus's disguise when he tries to infiltrate the Women's Festival, in which he takes along a Thracian slave-woman:

"Here, Thratta, follow me. Look, Thratta, at the cloud of smoke that arises from all these lighted torches. Ah! Beautiful Thesmophrae! Grant me your favors, protect me, both within the temple and on my way back! Come, Thratta, put down the basket and take out the cake, which I wish to offer to the two goddesses. Mighty divinity, oh, Demeter, and thou, Persephone, grant that I may be able to offer you many sacrifices; above all things, grant that I may not be recognized. Would that my young daughter might marry a man as rich as he is foolish and silly, so that she may have nothing to do but amuse herself. But where can a place be found for hearing well? Be off, Thratta, be off; slaves have no right to be present at this gathering."


During this scene, Xena hears herself referred to as "Caesar's Thracian whore;" this could be comparable to Thratta, the Thracian servant of Mnesilochus, and their bickering could be reflecting in Xena and Gabrielle's brief disagreement. In any case, the legacy of the title is reflected in the episode when they learn about how they are regarded by history after their twenty-five year absence: those who've read Gabrielle's scrolls regard Xena highly, those who haven't regard her as a whore. On a personal level, the legacy of the "Rosemary's Baby" arc is grief; neither character has yet discovered how to define themselves in the face of destiny, a challenge they've faced in "Sin of the Past." Here, their legacy is still something they must contend with.

The final installment of the "Coming Home" arc is "The Abyss." It looks like a rather straightforward tale of small relevance: Xena, Gabrielle and Virgil are travelling in a mountainous region where they encounter a cannibalistic tribe very similar to the Horde of "The Price." They're captured, prepared to be eaten, then rescued by Xena. It doesn't seem to have much connection to the rest of the series, except for a moving scene between Xena and Gabrielle, in which she deliriously warns Hope away from Xena: "I understand everything," Xena says. Gabrielle deep down still clings to a pure hope that she can't bring to life; Xena has learned to bridge the gap between unrealized hopes and their fulfillment, but Gabrielle is still trapped in its emotional abyss. It's hard for us, though, to understand how this core psychological moment came to be dramatized in such a way; the juxtaposition of cannibals and silly cave sequences with Gabrielle grieving for her lost child leaves us still wanting to understand everything.

To better understand this episode, we need to look to its sources. The name of Virgil's friend here is Hosep; that's an Armenian variation on Joseph, and it tells us this is part of the voyage of Jason's Argo. In "The Greek Myths," we find this passage:

"Still others maintain that Jason and his companions explored the country about Colchian Aea, advancing as far as Media; that one of them, Armenus, a Thessalian from Lake Boebe, settled in Armenia, and gave his name to the entire country. This view they justify by pointing out that the heroic monuments in honour of Jason, which Armenus erected at the Caspian Gates, are much revered by the barbarians; and that the Armenians still wear the ancient Thessalian dress."02


If we look to Graves' commentary on this summary, we find:

" Armenia, meaning Ar-Minni, 'the high land of Minni'--Minni is summoned by Jeremiah (li.27) to war against Babylon--has no historical connexion with Armenus of Lake Boebe. But Minni is apparently the Minyas whom Josephus mentions (Antiquities i.1.6) when describing Noah's Flood: and the name of the Thessalian Minyas, ancestor of the Minyans, offered a plausible link between Armenia and Thessaly."03


So we have: Jason, barbarians, the connection between Greece and Armenia, Josephus (Hosep), and the Minyans, the maenad daughters of Minyas. These elements are combined with Michael Crichton's "Eaters of the Dead," which we already know was used by Rob Tapert as inspiration on "Hercules" in its Norse arc. Here, it's used a little differently: the story features Vikings, an Arab scholar, and a matriarchal tribe of cannibal Neanderthals. In Crichton's book, the cannibals and Vikings represent savage matriarchy versus savage patriarchy, and the Arab scholar is the most elegant expression of a male-dominated society. In his forward, Crichton criticized interpretive history:

"...the tendency to blur the boundaries of fact and fiction has become widespread in modern society. Fiction is now seamlessly inserted in everything from scholarly histories to television news. Of course, television is understood to be venal, its transgressions shrugged off by most of us. But the attitude of "post-modern" scholars represents a more fundamental challenge. Some in academic life now argue seriously there is no difference between fact and fiction, that all ways of reading text are arbitrary and personal, and that therefore pure invention is as valid as hard research. At best, this attitude evades traditional scholarly discipline; at worst, it is nasty and dangerous. But such academic views were not prevalent twenty years ago, when I sat down to write this novel in the guise of scholarly monograph, and academic fashions may change again--particularly if scholars find themselves chasing down imaginary footnotes, as I have done."


Crichton's interpretation of history seems to stand in marked contrast to Graves' theory of matriarchal roots, and I wonder if he was reacting against it. In any case, "The Abyss" has a comical subtext, in which "Eaters of the Dead" is turned upside down to favor the matriarchy: the cannibals are called Djindar, a Persian-sounding word, perhaps a combination of Armenian "dar," meaning "mountain," and Jindar, a Kurdish name, plus it makes us of think of the Arabian djinn, in effect giving the most savage characters a name from the most elegant of societies depicted in the book. The men in this episode, Virgil and Rubio, are not exactly the type of Viking warriors who gleefully practice suttee, and the women are the ones being eaten; consequently, they are the ones who save the day. The Djindar are single-minded in their gender as well, all men, reinforcing their identification with the male-centric cultures of "Eaters of the Dead."

We've seen a lot of primordial tribes on both shows, and we've always discovered there's more to them than meets the eye. Here, for the first time, there isn't: these cannibals are pure unredeemable savagery. There's a reason for that: these cannibals may look like other primordial tribes on the show, and they may sound like them (we can hear the Pomiran word "Taltaka" uttered by them), but in fact, they derive their unredeemable nature from Euripides' "The Cyclops." They're a horrific image of single-mindedness, and like the Cyclops, they fatten their victims up in a cave before they dine on them. One comical fellow, Rubio, won't eat anything: he's like Silenus in "The Cylcops," who knows how to stay alive, but doesn't have the courage to get himself out of trouble. Earlier, in "Them Bones, Them Bones," I referred to Graves' "The Greek Myths," chapter 170 of "Odysseus's Wanderings," and mentioned that we would encounter it again in this episode. Not far from the Cyclops' cave are the Laestrygonians, which Odysseus and his crew came upon. I'll quote the relevant passage here:

"Odysseus's captains boldly entered the harbour of Telepylus, which, except for a narrow entrance, is ringed by abrupt cliffs, and beached their ships near a cart track that wound up a valley. Odysseus himself, being more cautious, made his ship fast to a rock outside the harbor, after sending three scouts inland to reconnoitre. They followed the track until they found a girl drawing water from a spring. She proved to be a daughter of Antipates, a Laestrygonian chieftain, to whose house she led them. There, however, they were mercilessly set upon by a horde of savages who seized one of them and killed him for the pot; the other two ran off at full speed, but the savages, instead of pursuing them, made for the cliff tops and stone in the ships with a cascade of boulders before they could be launched. Then, descending to the beach, they massacred and devoured the crews at their leisure."


This is generally how the story of "The Abyss" runs, with the additional element of Xena dressing up like one of the cannibals to infiltrate them, a device taken from "Eaters of the Dead." What's out of place is the part about the non-savage girl drawing water, a daughter of the cannibal chieftain, which doesn't appear here. It may have already been lifted out for use in "Daughter of Pomira," which would mean this passage had been singled out long before the sixth season. And why not? A horror film producer would be expected to have circled the Laestrygonian passage for future use right from the very beginning. The rest of this passage may have been set aside for use in a Nordic-related arc, somehow, and that chance arose long after "Hercules" used "Eaters of the Dead." The connection is in the commentary Graves provided for the passage above, in note 4:

"The Laestrygonians ("of a very harsh race") were perhaps Norwegian fiord-dwellers of whose barbarous behaviour the amber merchants were warned on their visits to Bornholm and the Southern Baltic Coast."


"The Abyss" is not set in Norway, or even the north; instead, it borrows from the Nordic arc on "Hercules," and inverts the "Eaters of the Dead" elements that influenced it, bringing its savagery much closer to Xena's home. In "The Price," Gabrielle could bridge the gap between the Greeks and the barbarians by recognizing their common humanity. The abyss in her heart is matched by that unbridgeable one between her and the savages; the chieftain of this tribe has no daughter like Pilee, and Gabrielle herself is now in danger of losing her humanity.



01THE KAHINA, QUEEN OF THE BERBERS
02The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves, 154.l
03The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves, 154.12
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