Whoosh! Issue 35 - August 1999

XENA AND ACHILLES
IAXS project #709
By Inga Horwood
Content copyright © 1999 held by author
Edition copyright © 1999 held by Whoosh!
2854 words



The Legendary Hero (02-04)
Achilles the Outsider (05-07)
Xena the Outsider (08-10)
The Achilles' Heel (11-13)
Destroyers of Nations (14-15)
The Wrath of the Hero (16-21)
The Redemption of the Hero (22-25)
Gabrielle and Patroclus (26-28)
Conclusion (29)
Notes
Biography



Xena and Achilles



[01] Given the obvious connection between the Greek hero Herakles and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, it is tempting to try to identify a mythological source for Xena: Warrior Princess. At first sight, this seems unlikely to succeed. There are warlike goddesses -- Athene for example -- and warlike female heroes, such as the Amazon Penthesilea, but there is not one on whose deeds and courage rest the fate of the world. Nevertheless, the more one looks at Xena, the more the echo of another hero -- an unexpected one -- suggests itself: Achilles.


The Legendary Hero

Ouch!  That's my foot AGAIN, you moron!


Joxer's story from IF THE SHOE FITS.


[02] Achilles has been the subject of legend for millennia. He is famous enough for even Joxer to have heard of him. "You'll be Achilles, and I'll be your heel," he tells Xena in IF THE SHOE FITS (80/412). "Magnificent," G.S. Kirk calls the hero. "The god-like Achilles, the swift and insanely proud warrior." [Note 01] He is describing the Achilles of The Iliad, where the hero is referred to as "lion-like," "brilliant," a "sacker of cities", "like a frenzied god of battle, trampling all he killed", and much else besides.

[03] Achilles may really have existed. He was worshipped all over the Greek world. Though Homer's portrait is the definitive one, other writers have added details suggesting the widespread existence of local legends. Through them all, Achilles is the foremost hero of the Trojan War [Note 02]. This is appropriate. His very birth is entangled with its beginnings.

[04] Achilles' parentage already suggests some parallels with Xena's. He was the son of a goddess, Thetis; Xena may just possibly be the child of Ares. Achilles also had a destiny: he could live long and without fame, or die young and reap everlasting glory. He chose the latter. As for Xena -- well, as Xena goes, so goes the world [THE DELIVERER (50/304)]. Quite a destiny.


Achilles the Outsider

[05] Achilles' father, Peleus, was an Argonaut. This links him with the Minyans, a tribe which crewed the Argo (a vessel which has lent its name to Xena's horse, while the first recorded fan of Xena is called Minya!) and which occupied the northerly parts of Greece.

Filmed in teeny-weeny-eyestraino-vision


Achilles killing Penthesilea during the Trojan War.


[06] Achilles is sometimes called "the Minyan" [Note 03] as well, and there are hints in his behavior that he always stood somewhat apart from the Greek host, even before his epic clash with its leaders. Unlike them, he had no personal reason for going to Troy, other than to fulfill his destiny and prove his honor. He indulged in acts of human sacrifice, which were against the normal practice. Homer describes such an occasion, which occurred as Achilles prepared the funeral pyre of his beloved friend Patroclus (whose name is reminiscent of that of Xena's former fiance, Petracles):

... a dozen brave sons of the proud Trojans he hacked to pieces with his bronze... Achilles' mighty heart was erupting now with slaughter -- he loosed the iron rage of fire to consume them all [Note 04].

[07] When, earlier in The Iliad, the Greeks send an embassy with the aim of persuading him to return to the war, Achilles' values are plainly different from those of the man who leads it, Odysseus, the prince of prevaricators, whose ability to lie creatively is plainly admired by his countrymen. Achilles says:

I hate that man like the very Gates of Death who says one thing but hides another in his heart. I will say it outright. That seems best to me. [Note 05]


Xena the Outsider

[08] This suggestion of the outsider in Achilles, of the magnificent barbarian, reminds one of Xena. Her very name echoes it. "Xenos" in Greek means "stranger, foreigner". As a Thracian, she comes from outside the Northern boundaries of Greece itself. Together with the decidedly barbarian Borias, she swept across it like the Hun -- or like Achilles as he led the army which invaded Troy's homelands.

[09] Xena's Thracian origins are interestingly reflected in the events of BEWARE GREEKS BEARING GIFTS (12/112). Thrace itself was allied to the Trojans, not the Greeks, and Xena's sympathies are rather more with the City than with her countrymen. What is more, her relations with the gods throughout the series also reflect this. Hera and Poseidon, who favored the Greeks during the Trojan war, are her enemies. Ares and Aphrodite, who supported the Trojans, view her in a more, if not friendly, complicated way.

[10] Achilles' contempt for liars is intriguingly echoed in MATERNAL INSTINCTS (57/311), where Xena cannot forgive Gabrielle for the lie which saved Hope's life, and in THE BITTER SUITE (58/312). While Xena's savage but unrepented treatment of her partner at the beginning of this episode would not, seemingly, have kept her trapped in Illusia, her earlier lie concerning Ming Tien would. She feels guilty only about this, it seems. Consequently, she must confess this lie and ask forgiveness for it before she is allowed to leave.


The Achilles' Heel

[11] Achilles was famously impervious to weapons, except for a single vulnerable point on his heel. One version of the story has his mother, the goddess Thetis, bearing Peleus seven children, six of whom she burned to death in order that they might become immortal. Peleus came upon her as she attempted the same process with Achilles, and stopped her just before it was completed. His heel was left unaffected, and Thetis fled. So, while his six brothers had become immortal, Achilles had not, and could be killed (as he later was, after an arrow was fired by Paris from the city wall of Troy) by a wound to his heel.

[12] THE FURIES (47/301) tells a somewhat similar story from Xena's infancy, though here it is the father who is caught trying to murder his child, while the mother saves her. The sequel to this part of Achilles' story is also reflected by Xena -- Thetis having fled (as Xena's father was from thence forward absent) Peleus gives the boy to Chiron the Centaur to bring up. Much later, Xena gave her son Solan to the Centaurs [ORPHAN OF WAR (25/201); PAST IMPERFECT (7/7/409)] to raise.

[13] Both Xena and Achilles, it is worth noting, had sons, but while Solan dies young, Neoptolemus survived his father, going on to help lead the final assault against Troy.


Destroyers of Nations

[14] While Achilles' initial reason for going to war is different to Xena's, his exploits have a ring of similarity. He told the Greeks:

Twelve cities of men I've stormed and sacked from shipboard, eleven I claim by land, on the fertile earth of Troy. And from all I dragged off piles of splendid plunder [Note 06].

[15] His contributions to the war ensured the fall of Troy, making him a destroyer of nations, while among his victims was Penthesilea, a Queen of the Amazons. ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE (69-70/401-402) tells us how the younger Xena tried to destroy the Amazon Nations she met on the tundra, and slaughtered their Queen, Cyane.


The Wrath of the Hero

[16] The hero comes to resemble Xena still more closely during the course of the events told in The Iliad, which is the story, as Homer states in his opening line, of Achilles' rage. As befits a hero, the consequences of this rage were dire, for both Achilles and all those around him.

[17] Homer's story begins in the ninth year of the war, with Achilles' withdrawal from the conflict. He had been openly dishonored by his leader, Agamemnon, who had taken from him one of his prize trophies, the girl Briseis. Achilles lurked in his tent while disaster befell the Greek army, then made a fatal mistake when Agamemnon offered him Briseis back together with lavish compensation. Achilles was too proud to accept, bringing unforeseen and terrible consequences down on his head.

[18] After further damage was done to the Greeks, he allowed his beloved friend Patroclus to lead his contingent wearing Achilles' own armor. Gabrielle's putting on Xena's armor so that she can continue the campaign against Talmadeus in THE GREATER GOOD (21/121) is strongly reminiscent of this.

[19] The outcome was tragically inevitable. Though he had been warned not to press his attack up to the walls of Troy, Patrocles was carried away by his success and did so. There he was killed by the Trojan prince Hector, an event to some extent like Gabrielle's capture by Talmadeus after she rides recklessly through his camp. Only at this point did Achilles emerge from his tent, determined on revenge. It is here that he most closely resembles the Xena of "ten years ago" -- the Xena avenging the deaths of her brother and M'Lila, and her own humiliating mutilation on the cross.

[20] Thanks to his mother's help, Achilles obtained new armor, made by the god Hephaestus. (There are suggestions that Xena's chakram is linked with Hephaestus.) He slaughtered his way through the Trojan ranks, wishing he could tear them to pieces and eat them. Homer compares him to:

... inhuman fire raging on through the mountain gorges splinter-dry, setting ablaze big stands of timber, ... like oxen broad in the brow some field hand yokes to crush white barley heaped on a well-laid threshing floor and the grain is husked out fast by the bellowing oxen's hoofs -- so as the great Achilles rampaged on, his sharp-hoofed stallions trampled shields and corpses, axle under his chariot splashed with blood, blood on the handrails sweeping round the car, sprays of blood shooting up from the stallions' hoofs and churning, whirling rims [Note 07]

[21] Achilles' rage was so great that the numbers of those dead threatened to choke the river Xanthus. After the river god bid the hero stop, Achilles attacked him too. When Achilles eventually faced Hector, he struck him down ruthlessly. Ignoring Hector's plea to "give my body to friends to carry home again" [Note 08], Achilles stripped it of its armor, and allowed his fellow Greeks to gore it with their spears. Then, in an action which has become Xena's trademark, he dragged the corpse behind his chariot around the walls of Troy. Even after the end of the battle, he left Hector's body unburied and dragged it regularly around Patroclus' funeral mound, threatening to feed it to the dogs.


The Redemption of the Hero

Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.

Taking Hector's corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king's sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.

When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other's beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:

I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles hand, the killer of my son.
   -- Michael Longley, "Ceasefire", Selected Poems (1998)

[22] At this point it is easy to see Achilles, like the younger Xena, as "often petty and unimaginative, in many ways like a destructive and acquisitive child" [Note 09]. But this is not the point where Homer chooses to end his tale. Achilles has still not freed himself from his rage, nor from the consequences of his error of pride. Homer shows how he redeemed himself in The Iliad's final book, when Priam, Hector's father, came to him and begged for the return of his son's body, and Achilles agreed. His tenderness towards the grief-stricken King is striking:

He rose from his seat, raised the old man by the hand And filled with pity now for his gray head and gray beard, he spoke out winging words, flying straight to the heart: 'Poor man, how much you've borne--pain to break the spirit! What daring brought you down to the ships, all alone, to face the glance of the man who killed your sons, so many fine brave boys? You have a heart of iron [Note 10].

[23] Xena may still be in search of her redemption, though she has periodically, and especially in the earlier seasons, shown remorse and forgiveness [THE RECKONING (06/106), THE GREATER GOOD (21/121)]. Episodes of Season 4, especially BETWEEN THE LINES (83/415) and THE WAY (84/416), suggest she is certain to find it and that her reward is already assured. On the other hand, she signally failed to show forgiveness and remorse in THE BITTER SUITE (58/312), when her best friend was her victim, while both FORGIVEN (60.314) and LOCKED UP AND TIED DOWN (75/407) seem to suggest that she cannot forgive herself.

[24] However, this sort of soul-searching makes Xena a very different sort of hero to Achilles, and indeed the sensibilities of Xena: Warrior Princess are very different from those of The Iliad. Achilles feels neither remorse nor forgiveness. These are irrelevant emotions to a man who is motivated only by a concept of honor rooted firmly in the classical world. In this world, the words "warrior" and "hero" are synonymous, and Achilles' unsurpassed ability to slaughter is unquestioned as his chief heroic quality.

[25] The values of The Iliad and Xena: Warrior Princess differ in another way as well. Homer passed no judgments in the course of his work. The Trojans are never the enemy, but are equally admired warriors, and Hector, unlike Caesar, is never seen as a villain, but rather as a noble and tragically fated hero in his own right. The humans who variously fought to take back Helen or to defend their homes and families are the playthings of the gods, not the masters of their own destiny.


Gabrielle and Patroclus

Lose my staff?  Yeah, right, maybe I'll cut my hair, too.  Sheesh!


Gabrielle has loyalties tested in CRUSADER.


[26] A further shift in emphasis comes with the depiction of the heroes' best friends. Patroclus, mindful of his friend's honor, pleaded with Achilles to abandon his sulk and join the Greek army again in Book 16 of Homer's epic, and Achilles listened to him and made a concession. Gabrielle is Xena's Patroclus in this way, and is frequently shown mitigating her more savage reactions, such as when she prevents Xena killing Najara in CRUSADER (76/408).

[27] However, Gabrielle means far more to her. To some extent she is, it seems, Xena's heel, her vulnerable point [CRUSADER (76/408)]. Xena's love for Gabrielle has given her a complexity and depth, and made her human and approachable in a way which would be irrelevant for a classical hero. Gabrielle is also her light [ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE (69-70/401-402)] and her way [A FAMILY AFFAIR (71/403)]. Xena's redemption has been inextricably linked with Gabrielle's intervention in her life.

[28] Moreover, as Everywoman rather than a demi-god, Gabrielle can be said to have attained the status of hero in her own right, and in some respects hers is a far more contemporary form of heroism.


Conclusion

[29] Was Xena explicitly modeled on Achilles? Probably not; nevertheless, remember Achilles' choice of a short life and everlasting fame. He is still famous. More than three millennia later we remember his name. Who is to say that this memory was not at the backs of the minds of those who brought us Xena: Warrior Princess?


Notes

Note 01:
Kirk, G.S., Homer and the Epic (CUP, 1965), p. 120.
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Note 02:
Xena does not meet Achilles in BEWARE GREEKS BEARING GIFTS (12/112) but that is because he has been dead for a year by that time.
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Note 03:
Graves, Robert, The White Goddess (Faber, 1961), p. 52.
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Note 04:
Homer, The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles, (Penguin, 1991), p. 565.
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Note 05:
The Iliad, p. 262.
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Note 06:
The Iliad, p. 262.
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Note 07:
The Iliad, p. 519.
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Note 08:
The Iliad, p. 552.
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Note 09:
Kirk, p. 120.
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Note 10:
The Iliad, p.605.
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Bibliography

Finley, M. I. The World of Odysseus (Penguin, 1979).

Grant, Michael, Myths of the Greeks and Romans, (New American Library, 1961).

Graves, Robert, The White Goddess, (Faber, 1961).

Homer, The Iliad, (Penguin, 1991).

Kerenyi, C., The Heroes of the Greeks (Thames and Hudson, 1974).

Kirk, G.S., Homer and the Epic (CUP, 1965).

Logue, Christopher, War Music, (Jonathan Cape, 1981).



Biography

Inga Horwood Inga Horwood
A woman of mystery.
Favorite episode: IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE (24/124)
Favorite line: Gabrielle: "There is only one way to end this cycle of hatred and that is though love and forgiveness." CALLISTO (22/122)
First episode seen: SINS OF THE PAST (01/101)
Least favorite episode: KEY TO THE KINGDOM (78/410)

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