Whoosh! Issue 49 - October 2000


Page 2

Xena and Gabrielle 'take a moment'.

While at taverns and inns, Xena and Gabrielle are rarely disturbed.

[17] In the relevant fiction commented upon in this essay, Xena and Gabrielle, who do not own any property and also do not sell their labor, are physically impervious to sexist bashing, and do not seem to be very much concerned with a land grant to cultivate after some hypothetical future retirement. What we have is a nonsensical recycling of almost all the characters of Classical Greek mythology. Everyone is there, from Hercules and Iolaus to Zeus and Ares. They are perversely re-employed and, at the same time, remaining recognizable, without rhyme or reason. In Marxist terms, they comprise a superstructure without a basis.

[18] Before I allow the non-Marxist readers to bash Ye Olde Marxist model, it is necessary to acknowledge that the astonishment provoked by XWP is exactly of the same kind that the Ancient Greeks already experienced before their old mythology, in its proper "Classical" form. There is no question of the Greeks questioning the veracity of their mythology. In fact, they acknowledged it as a fiction from the earliest time. We have it from no less than Herodotus who, when discussing the relative antiquity of the Greeks' religious beliefs as compared with those of the Egyptians, stated that:

"it was only—if I may so put it—the day before yesterday that the Greeks came to know the origin and form of the various gods, and whether or not all of them had already existed; for Homer and Hesiod are the poets who composed our theogonies and described the gods for us, giving them all the appropriate titles, offices, and powers, and they lived, as I believe, not more than four hundred years ago" [Note 15]

[19] In other words, Herodotus acknowledged that since the mythological narratives were above all literary, a product of inspiration, and not of a revelation, one could not ever be absolutely sure about their veracity. Being poets above all, Homer and Hesiod were guided by the rules of their trade. They were compelled to create entertaining fictions, not exact narratives. But how can there exist a religion that bases it theology on narratives that can be indifferently true or false?

[20] Here we have the hub of the question: what were the eccentric, bizarre traits of Classical Greek mythology, as compared to most others? Most mythologies, in fact, are little more than a kind of almanac or gazetteer that contains the names of the deities, their attributes—i.e., the things and actions that form their proper sphere of activity—and little more. Most mythologies fall easily in the category, coined by 19th century French ethnologist Mauss, of being a system of classification. According to Mauss, mythologies divide the physical word into concepts and categories, forming therefore a system of affinities and opposition with which a "savage science" could begin to develop. Greek mythology could have this role, in its origins, but it is so removed from the said origins, that to ascertain its function as a system of classification in the historical societies where it flourished would be a complete misnomer.

[21] Greek mythology is above all a collection of tales about the lives of the gods and demigods. It is of uncertain origin, handed from the Mycenaean civilization. The names of most of the Olympians were already present in the famous Linear B tablets containing orders for collecting and redistribution of goods, including offerings for sacrifice, in the pattern of a palatial, centralized natural economy in the Egyptian mold. These narratives are most intriguing in the religious sense, for their near-absolute uselessness in the organizing of actual religious life.

[22] It was Edward Gibbon who first remarked upon the non-problematic fashion through which, Christian fanaticism notwithstanding, Classical mythology (as a collection of tales) survived the final demise of Paganism. Gibbon remarks aptly that, when the Christian emperor Theodosius the Great proscribed paganism in the end of the 4th century CE, he did so by means of

"[involving] in the same guilt the general practice of immolation, which essentially constituted the religion of the Pagans. As the temples had been erected for the purpose of sacrifice, it was the duty of a benevolent prince to remove from his subjects the dangerous temptation of offending against the laws which he had enacted" [Note 16]

[23] In other words, raze the temples, prevent the proper rituals from being performed, and paganism will be no more. Not a problem, since paganism consists not in a belief in the existence of the gods themselves, but in the punctilious observance of a set of rituals that are not addressed to any divine being in particular. All they need do is keep "the Deity" appeased, and that alone will grant the self-reproduction of society. The observances of paganism in no way required belief in the existence of the gods as such, but only to belief in the efficacy of the various time-honored rituals as a means for the maintenance of a proper balance of the universe. As Gibbon aptly remarked, the last pagans, while pleading for tolerance of these ancient rites, made skepticism to supply an apology for the practice of superstition [Note 17].

[24] To believe in the actual existence of Zeus, Apollo, et al, as well-defined individual beings, existing in concrete form in time and space, with individual biographies and family connections, was not a mandatory requirement of proper pagan devotion. One can say that, for the average votary from Pericles' Athens, or from the Antonines' Rome, Zeus, and Apollo "existed" in exactly the same manner as Xena and Gabrielle "exist" for us.

[25] What we call "paganism" combined two very different things: a collection of literary narratives, in which one could believe or not in various degrees, and a collection of mandatory rituals whose effectiveness was proved by custom and by its own antiquity. That sacrifices to the gods have been performed since time immemorial proves that the deities are pleased with such sacrifices. What precise deities does not matter.

[26] There is a surprising passage in Xenophon's Memorabilia (IV, 3) where Socrates enlightens one Euthydemos about what we should know about the gods. We should not try to find the gods visible, as they hide from us, in the same manner as the sun does not allow men to stare at it. We should honor the gods, not because of what they are, but because of what they do:

"Especially He who coordinates and holds together the universe, wherein all things are fair and good, and presents them ever unimpaired and sound and ageless for our use...The winds are themselves invisible, yet their deeds are manifest to us, and we perceive their approach...You know that to the inquiry 'How am I to please the gods?', the Delphic god replies 'Follow the custom of the state' and everywhere, I suppose, it is the custom to propitiate the gods with sacrifices according to their power"[Note 18]


Socrates about to drink his hemlock.

[27] In its primitive form, the Greek religion should be very similar to the early Roman religion: a collection of time-honored rituals, sponsored by the state through various priestly corporate bodies. They, in turn, perpetuated the honor of deities that were nothing more than names that enumerated the various fields of human activity, the various states of mind, the various human virtues (Fides, Concordia, Fortuna, Termus), etc. The Romans kept these rituals, and observed them punctiliously until late antiquity. The Greek mythology, as a collection of literary narratives, was adopted as a hallmark of a civilized way of life, namely, the Hellenic way. Since Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, Mars, et al, were originally nothing but totems, it was easy to attach them to the stories and attributes of their notional Greek counterparts: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Ares, and so on.

[28] Long before the Romans, the Classical Greeks knew that the proper names of the gods could be translated. They formulated that the essences of the gods, wherein the gods themselves were considered mere powers, potencies, and not individual beings, resided in their attributes and not in their biographies. That is the only way through which one could, for instance, equate Osiris, the Egyptian god of mummification and of the Underworld, with Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. To "know" the gods does not mean to know their history (in the sense that to be Christian requires a modicum of knowledge about the life of Christ), but simply to acknowledge the necessity of propitiating them through sacrifice [Note 19].

[29] Because the gods had no fixed biographies, the myths about them were not a theology, but rather fundamentally fashionable literature. In the act of worship, the pagan votary did not worship any given god, he or she worshipped "the gods", or better, merely worshipped. The rift between Pagan ritual and Pagan mythology was complete in that the myths did not explain the rituals, in the sense that the rituals were not allegories, and did not enact the myths. They had a value of their own, and the rituals regulating sacrifice, expiation, purification, etc., were taken as valuable in themselves, and did not need to be explained by the myth. The rituals were established mostly without any intellectual consideration, because of their antiquity. "Antiquity is rank" as the military like to say.

[30] In their religion, the pagans had two choices. They could follow the ritual, or at least do not disturb it [Note 20], and believe in the mythology as a whole, or they could pay no attention to the mythology and still believe that the ritual, being addressed to "the Deity", was still valuable as such [Note 21]. The ritual in itself was supposedly immutable, and could only be changed in time of the gravest crisis. Such a crisis occurred when the Roman Senate consulted the Sibylline Books in order to decide for or against the performing of a human sacrifice, or the introduction of the cult of the Asiatic goddess Cybele in Rome. The mythology, however, as a mere collection of literary narratives, could be safely left in the hands of the poets. Just think of what would be the reaction of any Christian church if one proposed, say, to treat the narratives of some writing hack about Christ's childhood, Elijah's life, or whatever, as inspired and worth of being included in the Bible!

[31] Because one did not know who or what one was worshiping, with the exception of a particular devotion to some latter-day deities, such as Mithras, Isis, etc., and because one did not need to know precisely what one was worshiping, they could take all liberties with mythological narrative, by means of all kinds of accretions and adaptations—in a word, spin-offs. One god more, one hero more—who cares? Herodotus and Livy could have accepted the histories of Xena's adventures, provided they were told in acceptable poetical form, tragic, epic, dythrambic, etc., as a valid tradition—better, as a hitherto unknown tradition—and have them tucked into the mythological canon. After all, Gabrielle was forever scribbling her companion's adventures on scrolls in order to preserve them for posterity, and also studied in the Athens Academy of Performing Bards. For a Hellene of old, the only unacceptable feature of this myth would be the use of the barbaric (namely, Celtic) word "bard", in place of rhapsod.

[32] Therefore, we have a mythology faintly tied to the practices of sacrifice, divination, and public feasting. This formed the essence of Ancient Paganism, devoid of any previous totemic function [Note 22] and whose main purpose consisted in being studied at schools and to provide the basis of practically all-fictional narratives. This body of fictional and literary productions formed the core of the learned upbringing of the slave owning class. It provided the raw material of all fictions intended to a wider audience, such as Athenian tragedy [Note 23] and also of the visual arts. As concerns manifest function, it is too little. As concerns social visibility, it is too much. The most outstanding fact is that these narratives remain interesting mythology only, an exception that Greek mythology partakes with Norse mythology and perhaps Hindu. For most mythologies, in fact, given their classificatory functions, are simply impossible to be understood by the non-specialist [Note 24].

[33] Classical Mythology was almost opposed to the rituals, as the latter concerned the organization of civic life of the Ancient polity and the forging of ideal bonds between the members of the civic corpus. The mythological narratives, on the other hand, were tales of the gods and heroes, which were the most unlikely civic subjects. There is a famous passage in Aristotle's Politics, where the philosopher justifies the practice of exiling from the polis any citizens who held outstanding personal power, by giving a mythological example:

"Mythology tells us that the Argonauts left Heracles behind for a similar reason; the ship Argo would not take him because he feared that he would have been too much for the rest of the crew." [Note 25]

My contact is here somewhere...

Named after Jason's famed boat, Argo was Xena's loyal mount.
From THE GREATER GOOD (22/122)

[34] No civic community can function properly when there is one in its midst who is much more powerful (because of his riches, his personal influence, etc.) than the other citizens. That is exactly what the gods and heroes are: beings that are incompatible with and averse to any kind of civic life, given their vast powers and supernatural strength.

[35] The myth apparently did not tell the polis citizens what their values were, and did not justify their way of living, which reinforces the idea that Classical mythology had no ideological function whatsoever. But, if we accept this view, we are plunged in the realm of a postmodern masquerade at its highest form. We shall have to accept the myth as fiction devoid of any meaning, function, or particular subject whatsoever, traveling across time and civilizations, forever reformed (or better, deformed), recycled, transformed, forever unfolding, full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing.

[36] Already in the time of the Pre-Socratic philosophers, absolutely no one, at least nobody with a modicum of culture, took mythology seriously as a historical narrative about something that had "really happened" in the sense of the famous Leopold Von Ranke's dictum (Wie es eigentlich gewesen). The mythological narratives happened in a time before time, in a time essentially different from ours, devoid of any concrete reality whatsoever. It was a time of words, "a time of myth and legend", where the coherence was that of the internal coherence, the consistency that the writer—epic poet, tragic playwright, or the like—wanted to give to his characters.

[37] Already in Herodotus, the mythological narratives were relegated to a type of limbo. He narrated the history of the struggles between Europe (i.e., Greece) and Asia, treated the old narratives about Europa's and Helen's abductions as, at best, banal tales about woman-stealing that were amplified in their telling. Herodotus got rid of such tales before going to speak about the actual history of the wars between the Lydians and Persians on one side, and the Greeks on the other. That was his true subject of research:

"Croesus of Lydia, son of Alyattes, was king of all the peoples to the West of River Halys ... He was the first foreigner as far as we know to enter in direct contact with the Greeks...." [Note 26]

[38] All serious Greek historians were doing the same. Diodorus and Plutarch treated the myth as history only in proof of the degrading of taste in the Roman epoch, when history had ceased to have interest as a preparation to civic life and had become entertainment. As Paul Veyne wrote:

"[The Fable's] essence is [in its ability] to suscitate an oniric temporality, placed 'before' our history and devoid of density (it would be absurd to ask if Atalanta existed before or after Antiope or Evadne); this time without consistency is situated at an incommensurable distance from ours, because their units of measure are not the same; we feel, obscurely, that we are torn apart not by time, but by a change in being and truth; we feel a longing for this cosmos, akin to ours, but secretly so different and as unattainable as the stars. This strangeness is even greater if the place where a myth is supposed to take place really exists, when Pelion and Pindos are mountains that our eyes can see; in what century of dreams could our Pelion be haunted by centaurs, and what ghost of a mountain it needed to be, in order to participate in this different temporality?" [Note 27]

[39] It was a very sensitive decision of the Xenastaff to film XWP in New Zealand, and not only because of the cheaper production costs. The eerie landscape of New Zealand, covered as it is by misty clouds, provides the sense of unreality necessary to a mythological narrative. It would be nonsense to film XWP, say, in modern Greece, given the fact that a mythological narrative does not become more "true" because of being filmed in its notional whereabouts. A mythological narrative is, by its own nature, untrue [Note 28], and exactly because of it, it has to be supplied with supposedly physical surroundings that match it. A landscape has not to be historically or geographically true, but must be emotionally true to the narrative [Note 29]. In a particular sense, XWP is as "classical" as, say, French Classical theatre, for it conforms to the 3-unities rule adopted by Corneille and Racine. Unity of place: the modern New Zealand landscape, with its melding of introduced eucalyptus and pine forests, ferns undergrowth, snowy peaks and bright green pasture land. Unity of time: a time removed from actual historical time. Unity of action: all adventures referring to the development of Xena and Gabrielle's relationship [Note 30].

[40] Therefore, we have a collection of tales in whose actual truth absolutely nobody has believed, telling about things and people that have never existed, types who were never born, and things that "couldn't even manage beginning to exist" (in the expression of Lucian of Samostate). Nonetheless, these narratives, since Classical Antiquity, were supposed to have a deep and profound meaning! How come?

[41] There is a famous passage in Trotsky's Literature and Revolution that puts the problem into a nutshell. Trotsky's views, following Lenin's, wanted the Soviet organs of state to emulate the teaching and the transmission of bourgeois art and literature. In doing so, Trotsky had to meet the opposition of the dogmatic Commissar of Culture, Lunacharsky, and his Prolekult followers, who believed that all of previous works of culture were but so many products of defunct ruling classes' ideologies, being therefore unable to inspire any future proletarian achievement. To prole-cultists, for example, The Divine Comedy should be viewed only as a historical document produced by a Florentine petit bourgeois from the Late Middle Ages, something that Trotsky vehemently opposed.

This cover was scrapped in favor of the photo favorite 'football in 
the groin'.

Leon Trotsky graced the cover of Time Magazine

"If I say that the importance of The Divine Comedy lies in the fact that it gives me an understanding of the state of mind of certain classes in a given epoch, this means that I transform it in to a mere historical document, for, as a work of art, [The Divine Comedy] may act on me in a depressing way, fostering pessimism and despondency in me, or, on the contrary, it may rouse, inspire, encourage me..." [Note 31]

[42] A view that seems very un-Marxist! If there is something in The Divine Comedy that can "inspire" readers, regardless of time, place, epoch, and therefore irrespective of class and prevailing mode of production, than a literary work can be a form of consciousness unrelated to social being and existing all by itself. But, as Marx had already written something very similar, we are left with the conclusion that Marx (and Trotsky) were not Marxists...

[43] Trotsky, naturally, proposed that there were feelings and moods that remained the same in all class societies, for example, fear of death, sexual arousal, etc., and that we could appreciate Dante in that he wrote about these and other real life feelings with powerful expression. But how can there exist, for a Marxist, something like a supraclass "power of expression"? Many writers acclaimed in their age for their "powers of expression" are forgotten today, and authors unpopular in their age are unearthed by future generations [Note 32]. There remains something to be explained: of course, both the Iliad and a XENA episode talk about fear of death, sexual arousal, etc. All XENA fans know the famous lines of the episode opening:

"The power, the passion, the danger ... her courage will change the world"

[44] This is a line that could be applied to Achilles, Odysseus, or any Greek hero whatsoever. But why should some Hollywood screenwriter re-employ precisely the form, styling, and narratives of the Archaic Greek epic in order to talk about such things like power, passion, and courage? Why not a gangster story? Perhaps because it is a hero story?

'A must see!' --Cyclops Press

The Trojan War and its aftermath has been fodder for popular entertainment.

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