The purpose of this paper is to consider the implications of the retelling of the Sack of Troy within Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts (hereafter BGBG), an episode of the cult classic television series Xena: Warrior Princess (hereafter XWP). The essay aims to address why the creators of XWP adapted the mythos the way that they did within the episode and the broader implications that this adaptation has within XWP as a series.

To best understand the context of this episode and its cultural implications, a basic introduction to Xena as a character and the structure of XWP as a whole is necessary. Xena was exiled from her home village of Amphipolis after she organized a fight against a warlord and her brother Lyceus died. She then went on to become a warlord herself and was known as the “Warrior Princess” and “Destroyer of Nations”. She is first introduced in the parent show of XWP, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys as an antagonist, before she renounces her ways and stays with Hercules for a few episodes as she earns her redemption.

The first episode of XWP starts with Xena encountering a hungry child whose parents she had killed while her army destroyed their village. She gives him food before burying her armor and preparing to kill herself,[1] unable to live with the things that she has done. Nevertheless, she does not end up killing herself, but instead rescues several young women who are being kidnapped by men who serve another warlord that Xena knows. One of the women was Gabrielle, a woman bored with her life and reluctant to enter an arranged marriage. When Xena leaves the village, Gabrielle follows her, and by the end of the episode Gabrielle is accepted as Xena’s traveling companion.[2] Gabrielle develops into Xena’s closest friend and is established as her soulmate.

XWP was and remains popular due to its portrayal of an alternate history, filling in gaps and giving voice to people who have been marginalized, and giving them a place in the stories that have been passed down to us through the ages. Jones explains this well in her essay “Histories, Fictions, and Xena”:

That history obliterates and forgets, that it presents partisan and incomplete accounts of the past as the totalizing “reality” of the past, is hardly news to the legions of history’s silenced exiles, who glimpse themselves in the history books only in the margins and as absences. XWP fans (most of whom are women, many lesbian or bisexual) can and do identify them-selves among history’s lost tribes—the colonized, the terrorized, the outcast, the dispossessed—whose emergence from the shadows in postmodernity has been, in part at least, responsible for history’s disarticulation. [3]

One can never fully know the truth of the past, but by allowing for explorations of past cultures –  explorations that raise the voices of minoritized and marginalized peoples – one learns perhaps not as much about history as about oneself and one’s place in the world. XWP uses its own creative interpretations of the past to comment on the present and by doing so opens a way to understanding the present through this fantastic presentation of the past.

XWP includes not only mythology from the Greek tradition, but also calls upon Norse mythology, Abrahamic monotheism, as well as Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Roman, Egyptian and Celtic traditions, among others. Despite the fact that the show takes its events and cultural connections from such a wide sphere of cultural connections, XWP nevertheless remains rooted in the Greek tradition.

In any television show, the first season lays the ground work for the rest of the show, and thus the majority of Xena’s first interactions take place in Greece and call upon Greek myths. Greek myth is a priority within the Xenaverse as the origin of Xena and Gabrielle’s characterizations, and in order to move into the broader mythologies touched upon by XWP it was necessary for the series to orient itself in a Greek context.

The first episode of XWP shows both Xena and Gabrielle separately outsmart a blind cyclops[4] who tries to block their respective passages. Many examples such as this are scattered throughout the series as a nod to the mythic tradition, but BGBG in particular stands out in its adaptation of a major epic so early in its run on the air. BGBG takes place at the midpoint of the first season of XWP and thus the themes and structure of the series are still in flux, though both Xena and Gabrielle’s characters are well established. BGBG opens with Helen waking up from a dream where she is about to be murdered by an unknown warrior. Paris tries to console her, but she nevertheless sends her personal guard to find Xena, an old friend of hers. Said guard later dies in front of Xena as he gives her Helen’s message.

Xena and Gabrielle fight their way past Greeks to enter the gates of Troy, and are let in by a young soldier who happens to be Perdicas, Gabrielle’s ex-fiancé. Meanwhile, in the Greek camp, Menelaos meets with a Trojan traitor who is helping him to invade Troy. Xena explains to Perdicas that she is there to fight on the side of the Trojans and goes to search for Helen before Perdicas has a chance to escort her to Deiphobus, who is described as the head of Troy’s security forces and Paris’s only brother.

The show depicts Helen as someone forced to marry Menelaos, and Helen says that she had run away with Paris out of love. Nevertheless, Helen asks for Xena’s help in returning to Menelaos to end the war, but Xena refuses and insists that Helen giving herself up will not affect the fighting and that “at least Paris loves you”[5] to which Helen replies that “Paris may have loved me once – but, now he is consumed with victory. We’re barely more than strangers.”[6] Helen later attempts to leave without Xena’s help, but Xena stops her before noticing that Deiphobus was leaving through a secret exit from the city. Xena follows him and discovers that Deiphobus is the traitor, and goes to report this to Helen and Paris.

Unfortunately, Deiphobus has beaten her back to Troy, and told Paris that he had brokered a deal with Menelaos, and the Greeks were retreating. Xena is put in prison and the Trojan horse is brought into the city. The Trojans put on a giant party, and in the morning the Greeks all come out of the horse and let the other Greeks in, thus beginning their takeover of Troy. Meanwhile, Xena has broken out of prison, and helps everyone take shelter in the temple of Aphrodite. Paris and Helen have a moment in which she tells him “You wanted to own me. If we survive – I’m not going to stay with you. I want my own life”.[7] Just after Helen makes this declaration, Deiphobus sneaks in to the temple, kills Paris and kidnaps Helen for himself.

The Greeks break in to the temple just as Xena realizes that Helen has been taken, and Xena activates the smokescreen she had been creating to distract the Greeks. Those who had been taking shelter in the temple escape and hide themselves in the wooden horse, which the Greeks are taking out of Troy as a memento for Menelaos. Xena then returns to the city, rescues Helen, and ties up Deiphobus so that he will be found by Menelaos. Helen states that “the only person who can make me happy is me”[8] and when Xena asks Helen what she will do next Helen’s response is “I don’t know, but for the first time, it is my decision.”[9] The episode ends with Xena and Gabrielle leaving together and Helen and Perdicas going off to a city that is a few days’ distance away, Helen refusing to be announced ahead of time as she would “rather be treated like a normal person for a change.”[10]

BGBG’s depiction of the sack of Troy contains three major divergences from its portrayal during antiquity that most affect this retelling of the sack of Troy, and specifically the characterization of Helen. Firstly, the only characters from the mythic tradition that appear within the show are Helen, Paris, Deiphobus, and Menelaos.  Secondly, Helen was in love with Paris and went to Troy willingly, having been forced to marry Menelaos against her will. Thirdly, Helen takes the initiative after ten years of war to send a messenger to Xena in order that she may help stop the war by taking Helen back to Menelaos and later forges her own way at the end of the episode instead of staying and going back to Sparta with Menelaos.

The absences of Achilles and Hector are the most glaring character omissions of BGBG. One explanation is that since the episode has a run time of only forty-five minutes as opposed to the twenty-four books of the Iliad, by removing the protagonists of the epic, showrunners were able to focus on the development of the characters that they did keep in the episode. By removing the original protagonists, XWP is able to center Xena, Gabrielle, and Helen as autonomous protagonists without the interference of the original figures.

Similarly, the omission of Odysseus allows for more character growth and enables XWP to have a later episode in season two titled Ulysses, which is a retelling of the Odyssey. Ulysses states during the episode that he participated in the Trojan war, but the show presents no explanation for why he did not appear in BGBG.[11] Nevertheless, the omission does create an issue since the Odyssey describes the Trojan horse as one “which Odysseus led up to Troy/ As a trap, filled with men who would/ Destroy great Ilion.”[12] BGBG glosses over this by never explicitly stating whose idea it was to create the wooden horse.

The major changes to the remaining characters due to the absence of various protagonists and antagonists of the Iliad also bear consideration. According to Apollodorus, Paris was killed by Philoctetes and after his death Helen’s hand was given to Deiphobus.[13] BGBG changes this so that Deiphobus is the one who kills Paris and takes Helen for himself. This betrayal fits neatly into the arc of the episode, and provides Xena with the opportunity to rescue Helen and for Helen to thus assert her own independence. As a show, XWP always strove toward showing the prowess of women, which is shown via BGBG in that Xena saves many of the Trojan citizens and is the one who ultimately ends the Trojan war.

The narrative of the Iliad treats both Achilles and Hector as protagonists. The Homeric singer weaves both of them in and out of the narrative, showing the strengths and weaknesses, their capacity for compassion and for malice in equal measure. By taking them out of the equation BGBG allows the focus to be on the protagonists of XWP, at the cost of much of the richness contained within the Iliad. As an example, consider the relationship between Helen and Hector within the Iliad. He was very much the only friend that Helen had in Troy, and treated her no different than if she were his sister-in-law under perfectly normal circumstances, rather than a spoil of war. When Priam successfully ransoms Hector’s body from Achilles in scroll twenty-four Helen laments:

I weep for you and for myself as well,

given this fate, this grief. In all wide Troy

no one is left who will befriend me, none;

they all shudder at me.[14]

This touching moment is underscored by the fact that much of Helen’s distress comes from the fact that she feels unwelcome in Troy, and does not want to be there without Hector to keep her company.

A similarity exists between the Iliadic Helen who feels unwelcome and (presumably) wants to leave Troy because of it and the Helen of BGBG who is sick of the role she has played in the war. That said, BGBG’s Helen is willing to go back to Menelaos for the sake of stopping the war, but what she actually wants is to be free of both Paris and Menelaos, and forge her own path, something that is never offered to the Helen of antiquity.

The Helen of the Odyssey is particularly self-deprecating in regard to how she speaks of her time in Troy, saying that “for my sake, shameless thing that I was,/ The Greeks came to Troy with war in their hearts.”[15] She also gives her account of when Odysseus came in to the city just before the end of the war. He had disguised himself as a beggar, and Helen alone was able to recognize him, and once she had been sworn to secrecy she was told of the plan. In contrast to BGBG where Deiphobus was the traitor, the Odyssey’s Helen was forewarned of the attack, and did nothing when Odysseus killed many of the Trojans before returning to the Greek camp to reveal what he had learned:

The other women in Troy wailed aloud,

But I was glad inside, for my heart had turned

Homeward, and I rued the infatuation

Aphrodite gave me when she led me away

From my native land, leaving my dear child,

My bridal chamber, and my husband,

A man who lacked nothing in wisdom or looks.[16]

The Helen of the Odyssey is understandably biased toward Sparta, since at this point in her narrative she has been returned to Greece and lived with Menelaos as her husband again for ten years. The mention of leaving her child Hermione grounds this Helen as a mother and her description of Menelaos does the same for her position as a dutiful wife. In contrast, no mention of Hermione exists within BGBG, and Helen is portrayed as a woman who had been forced to marry a man that she greatly dislikes. She yearns for her own independence, and the episode ends with a Helen who has found that independence.

These changes in Helen are essential to the XWP series as a whole. The Helen of BGBG continues the tradition of strong women in Xena. She also breaks barriers in terms of popular culture, in part because she is portrayed by Galyn Görg, a mixed-race woman of color. Helen of Troy is known through the millennia as “The face that launched a thousand ships” and by having her played by a mixed-race woman of color XWP sent out a strong statement of what beauty is in a multi-cultural world, and encouraged audiences to think critically about how one defines what is and isn’t beautiful.

XWP and Xena in particular became “the head of the class of the new female warrior who has become a staple of popular culture in the mid-1990s.”[17] XWP contributed to changing the landscape of popular media and of how society views history. By removing the male heroes and instead giving Helen and Xena agency in the narrative instead, powerful women are prioritized over the traditional narrative of the male. XWP attracted a cult following in no small part because of its strong female roles, thus creating a community centered around powerful women. BGBG participated in the creation of this community by showing the range of interpersonal relationships within the show.

BGBG implies that Xena and Helen have a past with one another, but the episode never touches upon what that past consists of. Whatever the case may be, Helen neither feels comfortable nor trusts those that reside with her in Troy, which is why she calls upon Xena. Helen admits that while she loved Paris, in the ten years that have passed “Troy has become a city of – misery and death”[18] and she no longer feels that she can stay. The emotion of this Helen is not unlike that of the above-quoted lament by the Helen of the Iliad over the body of Hector.

Another key way in which BGBG calls back to the Iliad is that when the Greeks invade, many Trojans hide from them in the temple of Aphrodite, because she was the goddess who started everything by bringing Helen to Troy in the first place. This scene explores the theme of agency since by seeking refuge there, in a sacred religious space, the Trojans should be protected. Nonetheless, the Greeks proceed with the attack, just as when Priam is killed on the altar of Zeus by Neoptolemos.[19] This attack on tradition and way of life is identical in that the Greeks are infringing on the values of their own community and identities. While the Trojans are not members of their community, they worship the same gods and so to do harm at a blessed temple is sacrilege.

The storytelling/mythmaking process has always involved adapting stories to one’s particular cultural context, and many of the most famous myths passed down to contemporary society are themselves adaptations of earlier stories.[20] By adapting the mythos of Troy, XWP is participating in a continuous and living mythical tradition. The retelling of the sack of Troy within BGBG is altered to suit the tone of the series and still bring thematic values of the original mythos to contemporary popular culture. The broader implications that this adaptation has within XWP as a series include that BGBG further grounds the series in the Greek tradition, and that the episode reimagines the myth in a pro-feminist context.

Written for CLAS 167B: Classical Myths Told and Retold, April 23rd 2018

Notes:


[1] What Xena was planning to do after burying her armor is never explicitly stated, but this interpretation is implied.

[2] Lefler, “Sins of the Past.”

[3]Gwenllian-Jones, “Histories, Fictions, and Xena,” 405.

[4] Whom Xena herself had blinded, echoing Odysseus’s blinding of Polyphemus in the Odyssey.

[5] Scott, “Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts,” min. 13:36.

[6] Scott, 13:47.

[7] Scott, 34:57.

[8] Scott, 41:44.

[9] Scott, 41:54.

[10] Scott, 42:22.

[11] “Ulysses.”

[12] Homer, Odyssey, trans. Lombardo, p. 121, scroll 8, lines 534-536

[13] Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, trans. Hard, p. 155, book III

[14] Homer, The Iliad, trans. Fitzgerald, p. 587, scroll 24, lines 924-927

[15] Homer, Odyssey, trans. Lombardo, p. 48, scroll 4, lines 150-151

[16] Homer, Odyssey, trans. Lombardo, p. 51, scroll 4, lines 277-283

[17] Kennedy, “Love Is the Battlefield: The Making and the Unmaking of the Just Warrior in Xena, Warrior Princess,” 40.

[18] Scott, “Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts,” min 13:40.

[19] Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, 157.

[20] Such as the Aeneid or the Oresteia.

 

Bibliography

Apollodorus. The Library of Greek Mythology. Translated by Robin Hard. Oxford World Classics, Oxford University Press, 1997.

“Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts.” Legendary Journeys. Accessed April 11, 2018. http://hercules-xena.wikia.com/wiki/Beware_Greeks_Bearing_Gifts.

Early, Frances H., and Kathleen Kennedy. Athena’s Daughters: Television’s New Women Warriors. 1st ed. The Television Series. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2003.

“Gabrielle.” Legendary Journeys. Accessed April 11, 2018. http://hercules-xena.wikia.com/wiki/Gabrielle.

Gwenllian-Jones, Sara. “Histories, Fictions, and Xena: Warrior Princess.” Television & New Media 1, no. 4 (November 2000): 403–18. https://doi.org/10.1177/152747640000100403.

Homer. Odyssey. Translated by Stanley Lombardo. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 2000.

———. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.

Kennedy, Kathleen. “Love Is the Battlefield: The Making and the Unmaking of the Just Warrior in Xena, Warrior Princess.” In Athena’s Daughters: Television’s New Women Warriors, 40–52. Syracuse University Press, 2003.

Lefler, Doug. “Sins of the Past.” Xena: Warrior Princess, September 4, 1995. Hulu.

Morreale, Joanne. “Xena: Warrior Princess as Feminist Camp.” The Journal of Popular Culture 32, no. 2 (September 1998): 79–86. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0022-3840.1998.00079.x.

Scott, T.J. “Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts.” Xena: Warrior Princess, January 15, 1996. Hulu.

“Ulysses.” Legendary Journeys. Accessed April 21, 2018. http://hercules-xena.wikia.com/wiki/Ulysses.

“Xena.” Legendary Journeys. Accessed April 11, 2018. http://hercules-xena.wikia.com/wiki/Xena.

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