IAXS Project #118
By Ann M. Ciola (
Content © 1996 held by author
WHOOSH! edition © 1996 held by Whoosh!
1161 words


This fascinating essay discusses the varied cultural influences found in the set design of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS.

[1] Martin Bernal, in Black Athena (Vols. 1-2, 1987 and 1991 respectively), proposed that Greece acknowledged its own indebtedness to the ancient cultures of Egypt and Phoenicia. Due to an academic tradition in the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, largely fueled by racism and anti-Semitism, Greece's indebtedness to any culture but herself was disputed. It had sprung full blown, a product of the Aegean, much as the goddess Athena emerged from Zeus's forehead.

[2] XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS presents a Greece that is clearly not homogenous in population nor solely white in culture. These subtle but influential clues of other cultures are accomplished not only through the use of a diverse selection of actors, both leading and supportive, including punk rockers, modern day tattooed individuals, Maoris, blacks, and other ethnicities, but also by prop and set design. In exercising their creativity and sense of fun, the New Zealand production team is presenting a Greece that is not culturally homogenous, nor wholly white, but may be more appropriate to this newer vision of the ancient world. It is not likely that there is a direct connection between Bernal's work and the visual effects of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, but these similarities demonstrate that individuals may have similar concerns, and that ideas are discussed on a global level, with any and all applications.

[3] This viewpoint of the ancient world is strengthened by archeological evidence, chiefly by the presence of trade goods from different civilizations. Greece herself had colonies much later than the base chronological time of the Pre-Mycenaean, probably the 8th to the 6th centuries, B.C.E. When HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEY in MUMMY DEAREST (HTLJ #41) showed an Egyptian princess seeking his help, it is not as impossible as it sounds.

[4] Naucratis, in the northern Delta in Egypt was a Greek colony. Trade with Egypt was important, because of its grain. Parts of Sicily were colonized, also for grain production, and there were other trading colonies as well.

[5] Some instances of trade show up in XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS. There are a few instances of cowries, especially in SINS OF THE PAST (#01) where Gabrielle is wearing it as a hair ornament, with a thong. In REMEMBER NOTHING (#26), the sword Xena uses in the alternate time line has a cowrie shell in its hilt. These examples of cowrie shells, which had to have come from Africa, establish the sense of actively trading with the continent.

[6] At first glance, the choice of African, Oceanic and pre-Columbian motifs may seem to be unconscious on the part of Rob Gillies, set designer for both HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEY, and XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS. In a television documentary aired in New Zealand in November 1995, Gillies stated that he often thumbed through books for inspiration, freely adapting the found material. His tastes were extremely eclectic, and a good deal of the material used was non-European. He borrowed substantially from Africa, occasionally from Oceania, and there was even a pre-Columbian reference in THE GIANT KILLER (#27). The stairway at King Saul's palace could be any number of pre-Columbian stairways, with the eagle serpents rendered in a Chinese style.

[7] The very first African object I identified was in HOOVES AND HARLOTS (#10). In the scene where Xena is attacked by centaurs with arrows, she grabs and defends herself with what appears to be either a kigango, a kind of plank-like funeral sculpture representing a chief, or another funeral sculpture, to decorate a tomb, from the island of Madagascar. It is an interesting adaption because a kigango could also demarcate territory, as it could be a boundary marker for land. Here it could indicate centaur territory. At the opening of the episode, we are shown the Amazon totems indicating "Do Not Enter." These themselves seem to resemble North American Indian dreamcatchers.

[8] There are other examples of African art. The spoonbill type bird that is in the bedchamber of the Queen in BEWARE OF GREEKS BEARING GIFTS(#12) is a loose adaption of a Benin brass ornament that was used for the roof of the royal palace.

[9] My absolute favorite adaption is the staff depicted in THE BLACK WOLF (#11), which is an example of Oceanic art. The staff that the sergeant places in the middle of the dungeon, in order to mark the allocated time for the betrayal of the Black Wolf, is loosely based on a yipwon, from the upper Korewori River, in Sepik, Papua New Guinea. A yipwon is a long, plank-like carving in the shape of a man, containing a number of hooks, used for suspension. There is a large curved head. The central area, that would represent the "belly-button" on a person, is surrounded by a series of half circular shapes, with the points touching. This is much like the central jewel on the Black Wolf staff that is tied in and set with curved "points" above and below. An illustration of a yipwon can be seen in Nicholas Thomas's book, "Oceanic Art", published by Thames and Hudson, 1995, on page 44.

[10] References to Maori art are limited to modern day adaptations of facial tattoos painted on some of the extras. Modern day adaptions of actual tattoos can be seen in the recent New Zealand movie, ONCE WERE WARRIORS, where they are used by gang members.

[11] There are other influences that are just popular culture. Hades's castle is clearly a takeoff on the Wicked Witch of the West's in the classic WIZARD OF OZ. Some props become cliches; the same Chinese style dogs have been used in more than one temple scene.

[12] Some influences are infrequently used. Greek art is hardly used; but the polychrome or colored wooden statue of Demeter in FISTFUL OF DINARS (#14) is not only a nice image, but it is also accurate. Wooden statues from the ancient world have hardly survived because wood is so fragile. Art historians know that Greek statues carved from marble were often brightly colored, because there are examples that have survived. It is only the action of time that has bleached the color from Greek marbles.

[13] These are only some of the more significant influences in the Xenaverse. Students in an art history survey course could easily be assigned identifying artworks in XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS.

[14] In conclusion I would like to add that what Robert Tapert, the executive producer of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS calls "eye-candy" is what initially attracted me. The widely different sources that make up the visual effects of both television shows demonstrate not only the cultural diversity of the pre-Mycenaean Mediterranean world, but the global consciousness of our own.

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