Whoosh! Issue 33 - June 1999

IAXS project #689
By Lori C. Patton
Content copyright © 1999 held by author
Edition copyright © 1999 held by Whoosh!
7247 words

Author's Note: Watching Xena religiously has helped to keep me relatively sane over the past four years while I have been working towards my Ph.D. in Religion and Personality at Vanderbilt. This paper started life as a term paper on the first season episode TIES THAT BIND (20/120) for a course on Freud and religion in 1996. It was radically condensed and reorganized last Fall (with the help of this fine, on-line publication) in order to be included in a panel on "Women and Religion in Popular Culture" at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion on November 21, 1998. Prof. Sheila Briggs did not present her paper on "Xena Crucified: Christology and Post-Colonial Theory" until two days later, so I had the unexpected pleasure of delivering the first Xena research paper at the A.A.R. Since I was writing for Xenite and non-Xenite members of the academy, please forgive those portions that seem to be preaching to the converted, or belaboring the obvious.

Introduction (01-05)
A Trojan Horse Opera (06-13)
The Iliad and Theodicy (14-19)
Xena, the Bezerker (20-29)
If You Killed Your Friends and Family, Who Would Bring You Casseroles? (30-31)
Humanizing the Enemy (32-38)
Working Out Your Own Salvation (39-41)

Working Out Your Own Salvation With Xena: Warrior Princess
Or, The Renewing of Ego Ideals in Syndication


Xena eats too many wild mushrooms again.

One of the many mystical experiences of Xena, Warrior Princess [DESTINY].

"... work out your own salvation with fear and trembling". --Philippians 2:12

[1] Each week in syndicated television, the opening credits of Xena: Warrior Princess (XWP) assert that she is the hero the world has been crying out for and conclude with the promise that "Her courage will change the world". It is my contention that the popularity of XWP arises in part from the widespread need for a mythic hero, a savior figure who might show the way out of the morass of dissociation and rage left over from "the betrayal of what's right" in one's family or combat experience. For many of those who follow the adventures of the ex-warlord and her poet companion each week, and who write prolifically about them on the Internet, XWP picks up where family, religion, or therapy may have left off in the formation of a coherent, meaningful universe.

[2] Many viewers seem to recognize that Xena's true courage lies not in facing down computer-generated monsters and cartoon villains, but in facing up to her brutal past and present choices. Viewers see that her courage lies in choosing to trust, to hope, and to fight the good fight to the end. Her courage is the courage to Be, to live [Note 01]. By idealizing Xena and Gabrielle and identifying with their humanity, their strength and courage, and their commitment to "fighting the good fight", viewers report profound changes in their own experience of the world and their place in it. They "see themselves and their lives validated around the national campfire" for the first time and hear themselves being called to live responsibly and creatively, and not to take out their pain on the rest of the world [Note 02]. As Xena and Gabrielle rewrite and subvert many of the most powerful myths and symbols of the Western Classical and Judeo-Christian traditions, fans feel empowered to rewrite their own stories, to re-parent themselves, or even to re-imagine their God(s).

[3] Therapeutically, I suggest that XWP is the rough equivalent of a Swiss army knife and a roll of duct tape. If you are lucky and your world has come already equipped with functional, useable ego ideals, then the XWP phenomenon might strike you as just more junk to clutter up a kitchen drawer. If, however, you have always had to improvise (to "make bricks without straw"), then XWP might be just what you have been needing. With it and the raw materials of your life, you can build a world (MACGYVER-style).

[4] Theologically, the series might be compared to a large batch of legumes. If you have found yourself subsisting too far down on the theological food chain, slowly starving to death on a diet of cereals, then ingesting this narrative along with your own religious tradition can radically improve your condition, allowing you to survive, or even thrive [Note 03]. If, on the other hand, your religious tradition is already handing you something like "a meat and three side dishes", then XWP might seem like uninteresting fare. In other words, if you yourself have no use for Xena and Gabrielle, therapeutically or theologically, I hope this paper might begin to explain why many other people do find them extremely useful in working towards a more abundant life.

[5] Although most of the analyses of XWP I have read rely heavily upon Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, I find Freud's concept of the hero myth as "the first ego ideal" and his theory about ambivalence and projection in warfare more useful for the purposes of this paper. I also make extensive use of Jonathan Shay's comparison of "the wrath of Achilles" to the berserker rage and emotional deadness experienced by traumatized Vietnam combat veterans.

A Trojan Horse Opera

Cost cuts ran amok and thus only the head was built.


[6] For all its deadpan humor, for all its sound-effect- enhanced, Hong-Kong-martial-arts-film-style, gravity-defying fight sequences, and for all its cheerful, cheeky portrayals of ancient Greece in terms of 1990's pop culture, Xena: Warrior Princess is more than just good, campy fun, or "BAYWATCH B.C.E." [Note 04]. While much of the popular media seems to take one look at Xena's leather tennis dress and mark the show down as a reassuringly banal monument to the status quo, beneath the surface is something startlingly different: the radical notion that the female characters are simply HUMAN, and that women are front and center in every stage of human history and tradition [Note 05]. This radical notion is promulgated through a revision of the hero myth, a myth in which women now see themselves mirrored and affirmed as active, creative moral agents, rather than as merely the prize or seductive instigator of conflict, as they are in Freud's discussion of the hero myth as ego ideal [Note 06].

[7] No tradition seems to be immune or inviolate on XWP, and questions of historical, geographical, or mythological "consistency" are not permitted to get in the way of the story. From opposing Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac [ALTARED STATES (19/119)] to expediting Mary and Joseph's flight into Egypt [A SOLSTICE CAROL (33/209)], from rewriting The Iliad [ULYSSES (43/219)] to recasting Indiana Jones [THE XENA SCROLLS (34/210)], from giving up godhood to undergoing crucifixion and resurrection from the dead, Xena and Gabrielle have "been there and done that" with a difference. In the process, they have smuggled some subversive material right into the heart of many of the most familiar and powerful stories from Western mythology and literature.

[8] Xena has battled Titans, freed Prometheus, restored Death to the world, brokered a peace treaty between Centaurs and Amazons, repeatedly declined the reward of godhood, restored Hades to power in the Underworld (and transferred her dead lover Marcus from Tartarus to the Elysian Fields), out-sung the Sirens, out-fought the Banshees, pulled the sword from the stone, and compelled the Furies to rescind their judgment against her [Note 07]. She has appropriated the Trojan Horse in order to save lives, helped Helen of Troy embark on a life of independence, enabled Odysseus to string his bow, taught medical ethics and surgical techniques to Hippocrates, allied with Boadicea to rout Julius Caesar, learned about the Tao from Lao Ma (better known to us by her pen name, "Lao Tzu"), saved Cleopatra from assassination by her brother Ptolemy, and single-handedly held off the elite Persian cavalry following the battle of Marathon, giving the Athenian army time to muster a defense [Note 08].

[9] Meanwhile, Gabrielle out-barded Homer (and gave him much- needed coaching in storytelling technique, as well as some family therapy), became an Amazon princess (and, later, queen), taught a war-mad general the value of peace, repeatedly saved Xena's life and/or soul, and generally became Xena's anchor to goodness, love, and sanity [Note 09].

[10] Together, our two heroes have found an infant among the bulrushes and convinced a king to adopt, rather than kill, the child who was destined to succeed him. They have returned the stolen Ark of the Covenant to Xena's Israelite friends and fought to prevent a deluded patriarch from sacrificing his young son to prove his faith in his "One True God". They have saved a young David from being executed by the Philistines and taught him how to defeat Goliath. They have both been strung up on Roman crosses at one time or another (and will eventually "die" by that means, nailed up side by side. Gabrielle, it turns out, gave Mary, Joseph, and their baby the means to catch that caravan to Egypt. Moreover, Xena has died and been resurrected several days later [Note 10].

[11] There is a great deal more, but you get the idea. Laid out in rapid succession like this, it may sound like a case of mythic overkill. But received over a number of years, in weekly (or, now, daily) doses, the effect of identifying with these heroes and participating in their struggles and triumphs can be exhilarating--transformative, even. Like a good dose of nitrous oxide in the dentist's chair, the mythic reworking fortifies the viewer, enabling her to sit still for story-lines that are certain to hit a nerve, to stir up painful awareness, but which also hold out the possibility of getting to the root of some of that pain. Put another way, the "Power" and the "Passion" give the viewer courage to face the "Danger" of opening old, unhealed wounds.

[12] Furthermore, since a constant bombardment of shame (being told that one is less than human) pretty much precludes guilt ("If I am no good, how can I even ask whether my actions are good or bad?"), the simple fact that Xena and Gabrielle are never portrayed as being anywhere other than center-stage in human history and tradition may be what makes it possible for Xena to exercise such powerful influence as an ethical ego ideal in the minds of her fans. As one viewer puts it, women of all demographics share "the need to see women portrayed as human beings with lives and ambitions and needs of their own. That Xena and Gabrielle are seen as people with a right to work out their own destiny is a rare thing on television..." [Note 11].

[13] Or, in the words of another:

This is a world that our society is trying to envision: one where we can be powerful, where we are accountable for how we use this power, and where gender and sexuality do not limit or threaten us. Contained within this humble hour of television are ideals that our society is striving for, struggling with, but not daring to abandon. Xena is about something, and that something is relevant. It is our myth. Let us listen to it. [Note 12]

The Iliad and Theodicy


The Iliad by Homer, a monument of world civilization.

[14] At the core of the Xena myth is a story with which many fans are all too familiar: losing yourself in an abyss of pain and chaos. It is a story about existing in a world in which there is no longer any justice or goodness, nor any faith in divine or human intervention to redress the wrongs - a story about what can happen when trust is too often betrayed, love is dead, and all feeling is reduced to rage or fear.

[15] This is a story familiar to psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, whose 1995 book, Achilles In Vietnam: Combat Trauma And The Undoing Of Character, uses The Iliad to understand and treat post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans. According to Shay, how one's gods are constructed has a great deal to do with how one reacts to war and, by extension, to other deeply traumatic experiences. In at least two respects, he suggests, Homer's ancient polytheists may have had an advantage over those raised in Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheism when it came to resisting the destruction of character in combat. The first advantage deals with the grief and guilt the warrior feels when the special, beloved comrade dies in his or her place, whether or not this loss leads to a sense of divine betrayal. Basically, it is the theodicy question: how can a good and powerful God allow such evil? The second advantage deals with the matter of dehumanizing the enemy and, therefore, losing one's own humanity along the way.

[16] In an ethical universe, a universe run by a just, loving, and all-powerful God, Shay notes, "the 'person I was willing to die for' is not supposed to die". Nevertheless, he or she does. Mortal soldiers discover that they differ from the immortals in that they cannot save, protect, or resurrect the comrades they have come to value more than themselves. Homer's gods are shown as having the power to save a mortal's life, when they choose to do so. "God as viewed by Christians, Jews, and Moslems also has the power to save, protect, and resurrect, -- and when He does not, He violates the covenant many thought had been passed down to them in religious instruction". Where Homer's heroes may have hoped for, but not counted on, a god's aid, the unintended outcome for one who does expect something better from the deity is a "devastating sense of spiritual abandonment and meaninglessness" [Note 13].

[17] This, coming on top of detachment from moral and social restraints by prior betrayal of "what's right" by those in positions of authority - detachment which has narrowed the moral universe to that special comrade, now unfairly dead in one's place - leads to the berserk state, which Shay places at the heart of Vietnam combat veterans' most severe psychological and psycho-physiological injuries. The effects of this state, as Shay has observed them, are not short-lived: "I believe that once a person has entered the berserk state, he or she is changed forever". If the soldier survives the war, this state imparts emotional deadness and vulnerability to explosive rage, as well as a permanent physical hyper-arousal - "hallmarks of post traumatic stress disorder in combat veterans" [Note 14].

[18] The other respect in which Homer's heroes may have had an advantage, Shay suggests, is in honoring the enemy, "an essential step in recovery from combat PTSD" [Note 15]. In a sub-section entitled, "Religious Roots of the Enemy as Vermin: Biblical Anti-Epic in I Samuel 17", he compares the fight between David and Goliath unfavorably with the single combats Homer describes between Paris and Menelaos, and between Hektor and Aias. Where Homer understands that there is no honor to be gained in fighting against an enemy who is seen as without honor, as less than human, Goliath (in Shay's reading) is consistently reduced to the status of an animal, like the lion or the bear which the shepherd kills with his sling. Linked with modern habits of nationalism and racism, the idea (based on selective quotes from religious texts) that God's enemies should be exterminated has a devastating effect on the character of the soldier [Note 16]. Whether or not the war is won, the soldier loses. As long as the humanity of the other is denied, the warrior cannot recover his or her own humanity.

[19] While other things are obviously needed as well, the veteran's self-respect never fully recovers so long as he is unable to see the enemy as worthy. In the words of one of our patients, a war against sub-human vermin "has no honor". This is true even in victory; in defeat, the dishonoring absence of human themis linking enemy to enemy makes life unendurable [Note 17].

Xena, the Bezerker

Argo soon learned the word 'decibel' was a bad thing.

Xena, taking a village (TIES THAT BIND)

[20] It seems to me that there are at least three aspects of Shay's work on Homer, the gods, the berserk state in warriors, and post traumatic stress disorder which have a bearing on the Xena: Warrior Princess phenomenon. Because of these points of relevance, I would argue that Xena represents an attempt, in some sense, to respond to the undoing of character, which shows up in combat trauma, and in other forms of PTSD, as well.

[21] In the first place, Xena herself seems to be clearly portrayed as a character in recovery, after having been a berserk warrior for many years. During this time she was known as a merciless conqueror, the "Destroyer of Nations").

[22] In the second place, Xena stands with one foot in each of the two cosmogonies - the Classical Greek pantheon and modern American monotheism - to which Shay directs our attention. Thus, it holds out the possibility, at least, of doing in the medium of popular entertainment what Shay is doing with Achilles In Vietnam: inviting traumatized survivors to revisit their all-too-familiar stories from a different perspective, with a different world-view and, therefore, the possibility of arriving at different conclusions about the religious meaning of their sufferings.

[23] In the third place, Shay stresses the importance of storytelling in recovery from combat trauma. In his section on "Healing and Tragedy", Shay describes "how narrative heals personality changes, how narrative enables the survivor to rebuild the ruins of character". The ancient Greeks, he asserts, revered Homer, the singer of tales, as a doctor of the soul whose healing art was to tell the stories of the war with the truth that allows old soldiers to finally mourn and begin to heal [Note 18]. With Xena, the soul doctor is usually 'in' - whether through the narratives of the episodes, or through Gabrielle's pivotal role as the singer of Xena's truth, or through the 2000 or more pieces of Xena fan fiction currently available on the Internet [Note 19]. On the series, Xena herself is almost a textbook example of the too-often betrayed and bereaved berserker, but she is one who is rebuilding the ruins of her character with the aid of Gabrielle, her bard and beloved comrade. However poeticized, mythologized, or humorized, there is a truth in the stories told that helps many people put together some of the scattered pieces of their own lives.

[24] In order to draw a complex and believable portrait of Xena on her road to recovery, XWP has had to deal with the question of how she became the berserker in the first place, a process closely resembling Shay's model. Rather than any one loss or betrayal, her transformation into an adrenaline-addicted murderer has many layers, many traumatic experiences, and many points at which she admits she might have been able to choose a different path, to turn her life around sooner.

[25] Xena's father was a warrior who apparently abandoned the family when she was seven. Only at the start of the third season did Xena finally learn that her father had been dead all this time. He had come home from the temple of Ares late one night determined to kill the child Xena, telling her mother he would kill her too if she interfered, and while he was sharpening his knife in preparation for the slaughter, Xena's mother picked up an ax and . . . stopped him. This family secret of domestic violence was only revealed by her mother more than twenty years later, after Xena had been driven mad by the Furies as punishment for not avenging her father's murder [THE FURIES (47/301)].

[26] As a teenager, when the warlord Cortese tried to ravage her hometown of Amphipolis, it was Xena who argued for armed resistance, rather than fleeing into the hills, and Xena who led the fight to repel Cortese. Her beloved younger brother, Lyceus, fought as her lieutenant and was killed in the battle.

[27] The loss of this brother, who was also a comrade and her command responsibility, pushed her (temporarily, at least) over the edge. She became obsessed with defending her home and ensuring that no one would ever dare to attack him or her again. Instead of disbanding her militia after the battle, she set about conquering all the surrounding towns to form a "buffer zone". That accomplished, she next turned to piracy, raiding and pillaging distant towns that either gave aid and comfort to Cortese or had been the ancestral enemies of Amphipolis.

[28] By this time, she had become known as "the Warrior Princess", a warlord to be feared, and had herself become the very sort of abuser she was trying to defend against. She became a case study in how the traumatized adult, who as a powerless child simply wanted the abuse to stop, now responds with overwhelming force to any perceived threat, unable to recognize that she is no longer hopelessly overmatched, that she does not HAVE to "annihilate, or be annihilated."

[29] After capturing a young Julius Caesar and seeing in him a kindred spirit, Xena suggested an alliance - that they conquer the world together. Caesar played along, and then betrayed her, taking her loot to finance his own military campaigns and crucifying her and her followers as a warning to anyone who might oppose him. Rescued from the cross by M'Lila, another former captive, who had taught her martial arts and become a true friend, and with her broken legs freshly set by M'Lila's healer, Xena seemed about to renounce revenge in favor of M'Lila's more humane and compassionate outlook, when the Roman troops rushed in and M'Lila died defending her. Then, Xena really went berserk, cut loose from all human ties and all ethical restraints [DESTINY (36/212)].

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