Xena: Warrior Princess -- Modern Myth In Action
By Amanda and Shay
Mythology is not dead. It lives and breathes around us in the things we see, hear and read in our everyday lives. One of these modern mythological figures can be found in the campy, syndicated television series of Xena: Warrior Princess. Many will laugh at the idea of Xena as a mythological figure or a heroic personality, but to those of us who are considered to be "Hardcore Nutballs"(1), Xena and her companion Gabrielle(2) are our heroes.
This paper intends to define the television show Xena: Warrior Princess and its fandom as a viable mythology, discuss Xena's Heroic Journey, analyze some of the symbolism used in the show, and relate what the Warrior Princess represents to the authors.
How does a mere television show fit the definition of a hero? Joseph Campbell's functions of mythology can be applied to the story-line and fandom of Xena: Warrior Princess to answer that question.
"The first and most distinctive…is that of eliciting and supporting a sense of awe before the mystery of being."(3)
Xena: Warrior Princess (X:WP) creates a sense of wonder and awe by drawing from several ancient mythologies, modernizing them, and placing them in situations that we (20th century people) can understand and sympathize with. The gods represent common, modernized metaphors, rather than archaic symbols.
For example, Aphrodite(4), traditionally depicted as a beautiful, luminous woman, is portrayed as a selfish, ditzy blonde surfer chick. We, the viewer, are able to watch "Aphrodite" whine, pout and connive her way with the hapless male, and we identify with it, because the metaphor is modern. Another example of X:WP upholding our sense of wonder and awe is the spectacular stunts. People and gods on Xena can perform miraculous feats of physicality, from an all-out sword fight between Ares(5), the god of war and Xena, a mere "mortal" to Xena's gravity defying flips and leaps.
"The second function of mythology is to render a cosmology, an image of the universe that will support and be supported by this sense of awe."(6)
In X:WP, the cosmology of the "Xenaverse"(1) (7) is really in two parts. First of all, there is the "canon"(8) of the individual episodes, that tell the original tales of Xena and Gabrielle. Then, there is the "fan fiction"(9) that continues their journeys, sometimes to conclusions that the canon, for whatever reason, cannot. On the series, the "sense of awe" is continually supported by the varied scripts that involve awesome stunts, clever gods and humans and excellent story-telling. In "fan fiction", we, the viewer, are allowed to add to the tales of the Warrior Princess and her bard, creating an even larger database of stories that describe the wonders of Xena's world. As Cupid(10) would say, "Awe-some, dude!"
"A third function of mythology is to support the current social order, to integrate the individual with his group."(11)
On Xena, women are portrayed as strong, independent thinkers. They are Warriors, Bards, Queens, Shamans, Homemakers, anything that they wish to be. X:WP also shows us that we do not have to be "as pure as the driven snow" to be good, or to perform good deeds. We learn that no matter how much evil we have committed, there's always a chance to do good. X:WP teaches that love is the strongest force between two people, and that loving someone is never wrong.
"The fourth function of mythology is to initiate the individual into the realities of his own psyche, guiding him toward his own spiritual enrichment and realization."(12)
Part of the story of Xena: Warrior Princess is one of a journey, a journey from darkness into light and a journey from childhood into adulthood. When we, the viewers, watch that pilgrimage, we are vicariously participating in the journey. We, the viewers, can also interpret what we see to help us identify ourselves. We can look at the show, and see two strong women who are the best of friends and who love each other beyond all others and go, "Wow, I hope I have friends like that." Or, we can look at the show, and two strong women who are in love with each other and say, "That's me up there! Maybe I'm not alone after all." One could even watch the show, see the character of Joxer(13), a bumbling warrior-wannabe, and give a cheer for the "every-man". Everyone who watches the show, and enjoys it, sees something of themselves portrayed.
The motif of the heroic journey plays an important part in the myth of Xena: Warrior Princess, particularly in regard to Xena herself, but also to some degree, Gabrielle the Bard. Xena does not start as a traditional hero, but is actually a "bad guy" on the show, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. It is partially because of Hercules(14) that Xena starts on the path to becoming a hero, but most of the hard work is done by Xena, with the occasional supporting push by her faithful friend/sidekick/lover(15) Gabrielle. Otto Rank's "Motif of the Hero of Mythical Tradition"(16) is used here to illustrate.
Xena's birth is somewhat surrounded in mystery, as her father, Atreus, was away at war during the time that Cyrene, her mother, was impregnated. In the episode "The Furies"(17), it is postulated that her biological father is indeed, not Atreus, but Ares, god of war.
This is one of those things we don't yet know. Currently, all that is known about Cyrene is that she is an innkeeper.
This refers back to #1, discussing the possibility of a god being Xena's father. If Ares isn't Xena's biological father, and Atreus is, then her father was a Warlord, which seems to equate to royalty in the Xenaverse(1).
It wasn't exactly at birth, but Atreus, under the goad of Ares, attempted to kill Xena when she was a child. Cyrene intervened, and killed her husband instead.
This doesn't really happen for Xena, other than that she is saved by her mother, and raised, along with her brothers, by just her mother.
This is true for Xena. All we know of Xena's younger years is that she led her home village of Amphipolis in a successful uprising against a powerful warlord by the name of Cortese, and that this action is what set her on the road to becoming a warlord herself.
Xena, upon defeating Cortese, gathers the army of Amphipolian youth around her and sets off to conquer Greece, one bit at a time.
Xena, now a powerful, fearsome, evil warlord, confronts, Hercules. Hercules soundly defeats her, not once, but twice, which gives her pause to consider her path.
Xena returns to a village that she once conquered, and meets an orphaned child, to whom she gives her food. Then she proceeds to bury her armor, sword and chakram(18).
Just as she's about to walk away, she hears the sound of a confrontation not far off
And she sneaks over to spy upon some attackers -- slavers -- who are about to take all of the women of the village of Poteidaia hostage. Among those villagers is a girl, who stands up to the slavers, causing one of them to attempt to physically punish her. Xena interferes, rescues the villagers, and defeats the slavers.
Xena acquires a traveling companion, Gabrielle, the brave village girl, and begins to understand the benefits of being a "hero".
The rest of Otto Rank's list doesn't really as yet apply to the myth of Xena, because we haven't gotten that far in the story. But one can easily imagine Xena going out in a blaze of glory, defending a village from the depredations of an evil warlord, a blood-crazed god or even saving the life of her friend, Gabrielle.
Symbolism also plays as an instrumental part in displaying Xena’s heroic journey. Of the immense amount of symbolism that permeates throughout the show, we will explain the symbolism of the chakram and color usage in the show.
The chakram or war quoit is the weapon prized and skillfully maneuvered by Xena. This weapon from India, was traditionally thrown much like it is in the series. However, it was not meant to boomerang off of barriers as it does in X:WP. When thrown this object flew in a straight path, undeterred by gust of wind. The aerobie, or modern chakram, is distinguished by the Guinness Book of World records "as the world’s farthest thrown object – 1,257 feet."(19) Proving that is was meant to fly for long straight distances. Of the Indian gods, Vishnu, preserver of life on Earth carried this weapon. This may give the connotation that Xena preserved life on Earth (or Greece), as we see her use the chakram to save lives every week.
Colors have also played a direct role in the Xena series. The purple, white and gold of Xena’s trademark symbolize "the courageous, the brave, the defender, the fearless, and the bold."(20) These connotations have been created by the way of history and mythology through the ages. Many times Xena has been said to be "'born of the purple,' and the white and the gold."(21) Although, according to the series, Xena was not born of royal blood, but was actually given the name "Warrior Princess" by her army. These strong colors match the character of the powerful and bold Warrior princess and give the show a unique characteristic different than any other.
When examining the feasibility of Xena: Warrior Princess as a modern myth, one must determine whether or not the show and its stories have the same impact on people as a traditional myth does. To address this, both of the authors offer their respective views on what X:WP means to them.
For one of us, X:WP created women heroes who are strong and independent and who don't need men to rescue them, because they can rescue themselves, thank-you-very-much. Also the relationship depicted between the two main characters of Xena and Gabrielle can be interpreted as one of the first ever positive lesbian romances on television, providing a role-model for young gay women. However, the biggest impact of X:WP has been the fandom and fan-related activities that have engendered and encouraged the Xena myth to flourish and grow.
The online fandom started the ball rolling with the Netforum located on the original X:WP website(22), and then the creation of such mailing lists as "Xenaverse" and "Chakram" caused a virtual explosion of Xena-related websites and mailing lists. This enthusiasm was part of the force behind the first fan-run "Xenafest"(23) and then, the first "official" Xena Convention(24). People gathered from all over just to meet the star of Xena: Warrior Princess, Lucy Lawless.
This kind of community, both online and in real life, that has developed around the show, is quite awe-inspiring. Most amazing is the diversity of peoples within the community. Men, women, and children are drawn to the Xena Collective, the "Xenaverse"(2), because of something almost nameless about the show.
Xena: Warrior Princess can also give a sense of true friendship between the characters of Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship, without the imposition of lesbianism. The two share a deep bond. They are many times described a "soul mates." However, this love does not have to be seen as romantic or physical. The nature of Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship differs among viewers, but no matter how one perceives it, Xena and Gabrielle are excellent archetype of what true friendship means.
In addition, I also believe that X:WP sets an example of women’s independence from man. Lucy Lawless has pointed out many times that "Women are finally beginning to achieve some kind of equality,"(25) with the help of the strong character of Xena. Renee O’Connor also believes that "the series’ appeal is largely due to Xena’s being 'a formidable woman who’s not dependent on a man. She a reluctant hero, and she’s sexy, but she’s strong.' "(26)
Xena: Warrior Princess may just be a campy television show meant to entertain, but because of, or maybe in spite of, its classical references, it has become the basis for a modern myth. It is also modern myth because of its ability to touch each individual differently. Different factors of the plot of X:WP relate to each viewer.
(1) Hardcore Nutballs, or HCNBs is a term coined by Lucy Lawless during an online chat to affectionately describe her loving fans.
(2) Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor, actresses
(3) "The Masks of God" by Joseph Campbell
(4) Alexandra Tydings, actress
(5) Kevin Smith, actor
(6) "The Masks of God" by Joseph Campbell
(7) Definition No. 1: The world, pantheon and scripted story-line of the series, Xena: Warrior Princess. Definition No. 2: The show, and its fandom, in combination. Coined by online fans in between November and December of 1995.
(8) In this case, I mean the original story-line presented to us by the writers of Xena: Warrior Princess.
(9) Poetry, short fiction and novels written by fans of the show, for fans of the show. Shadowfen's Xena: Warrior Princess Fan Fiction Index is an excellent source for stories.
(10) Karl Urban, actor
(11) "The Masks of God" by Joseph Campbell
(12) "The Masks of God" by Joseph Campbell
(13) Ted Raimi, actor
(14) Kevin Sorbo, actor
(15) Some fans believe in, and support what is known as the "lesbian subtext" of the series.
(16) Handout from class.
(17) Season 3, Episode 1
(18) A weapon of undetermined power. The chakram originates in India, as a weapon used by the Sikhs, but on Xena: Warrior Princess, it appears to symbolize her power as a woman.
(22) Official MCA/Universal Xena Website
(23) The first Xenafest was held in a private home on September 6, 1995. (from "The Encyclopedia Xenaica")
(24) Creation Entertainment
(25) Tom's Xena Page
(26) "TV Guide" June 27-July 3 1998
The authors would like to recognize and thank all of the tireless webmasters in the Xenaverse for their hard work and dedication to their love of the series. Special thanks to Kym Taborn and the staff of Whoosh magazine for providing an overflowing well of information.