“WHAT WOULD XENA DO?” The question became a trademark of the syndicated TV series, Xena: Warrior Princess (1995–2001), highlighting the religious references that saturated Xena’s mystical universe. Through a crafty retelling of religious stories, the show subverted various myths and legends that have historically been created and perpetuated by those in power. Xena re-imagines a world through a feminine lens and draws from prominent spiritual traditions to center the series in an esoteric discourse that challenges the dominant ideology of today’s world religions, creating space for the possibility of a new mystical interpretation of divine truths.
The relationship between Xena and Gabrielle is described in language that’s reminiscent of the mystical texts describing a love of the divine. Xena’s quest is her mystical journey to unite her soul with that of Gabrielle: a union of her own darkness with Gabrielle’s pure light, of yin and yang, of good and evil. Xena finds that the Way of the Warrior is her spiritual path to union with her soulmate, which happens in the final moments of the series. Xena blends various spiritual traditions that expose its heroine to a variety of possible paths to her Truth. The retelling of these myths, and the creation of a lesbian subtext, find Xena as a disciple of the Tao, of Christ and the Virgin, and of an avatar of Krishna, all of which contribute to her spiritual quest.
Xena asserts that there are many paths, but that ultimately humanity is searching for a divine connection to the individual soul. Xena exposes the limitations of religious thought, broaching the possibility that spiritual completion can be realized by two mortals uniting as one; God need not be part of the equation. In this way, the notion of a mystical path has been taken out of the religious realm and brought into a secular arena, entailing unification not with a divine but with a mortal entity.
Set in Ancient Greece—and All That That Implies
The basic premise of the show is pretty straightforward. The show takes place in ancient Greece, where Xena witnessed the destruction of her village and the murder of her brother at a young age; she turns her anger inward by becoming a vengeful warlord and kills thousands of people. The show picks up during her quest for redemption, when “she renounces evil and resolves to spend the rest of her days doing good in order to atone for the misdeeds of her past” (Fillingim, 2009). She meets her sidekick, Gabrielle, and they set off to save the world from its suffering. At first glance, the show reads like an adventure story in which Xena battles evil armed with a hard stare and a sword. However, what brings the show to life is its meta-level awareness of its own dabbling in mythical, religious, and spiritual discourse.
The Xena universe is housed in a prominent oral tradition. By placing Xena in ancient Greece, the show’s creators can ask the kinds of metaphysical questions that Greece’s philosophers asked. The show even offers an explanation for why we haven’t heard of Xena along with Socrates and Plato: she has been written out of the history books by those in power (all men) who decided what to record. Throughout the show, Gabrielle is the bard who records Xena’s adventures in what become known as the “Xena Scrolls.” Thus what the audience is witnessing is a retelling of history, a recreation of our most prominent and indoctrinated myths, including that of Christ. But what the scrolls mostly contain is a log of Gabrielle and Xena’s adventures, including their many mystical experiences of reaching the divine through death and transfiguration.
The “meta” element to which I alluded concerns the way in which the show is aware of its audience, and particularly one segment thereof: the queer community, which is let in on this cryptic knowledge. The esoteric notion of same- sex love is a central subtext of Xena. These undertones give queer viewers a secret language in which to communicate with the Xena universe. The openly gay producer of the show, Liz Friedman, is arguably the catalyst for such content. In an interview, she acknowledged: “That’s one of the best parts of the job, getting to throw in references that I know the fans who are interested in that will pick up on, but don’t necessarily flash any irrevocable red lights” (B, 2003). An example of such innuendo occurs in season two, when the currently dead Xena possesses the body of Autolycus and instructs Gabrielle to “Close your eyes. Close them tightly and think of me.” As Xena leans in to kiss Gabrielle, the scene cuts to show Autolycus and Gabrielle kissing.
Another moment occurs in an episode in which the day keeps repeating itself over and over until Xena discovers the cause. A frustrated Xena lashes out at Gabrielle and her friend Joxer: “It’s not the Fates; it’s not Ares; it’s not something that I ate. No, I have no poison dart marks. I have no Bacchae bites.” A distracted Joxer then points to Xena’s neck and asks, “Is that a hickey?” The characters fall silent as both Xena and Gabrielle look away from the camera sheepishly. The hickey reference was Xena’s way of sneaking in a lesbian innuendo, a secret nod to its growing GLBT audience; and hey, the remark was tossed off during an endlessly repeating day, so no one will remember it, right? Similar innuendos—originally devised as a marketing ploy, perhaps—would eventually become part of the larger theme of redemption and love. As one critic observed: “As the series progressed, the sly jokes and innuendo turned into loving glances and a physical closeness that was increasingly intimate in nature, beyond the kinds of interactions one sees between ‘just friends’” (B, 2003).
Despite the subtext, there is no explicit affirmation of either Xena or Gabrielle’s sexual orientation. In fact, they both had relationships with men, but they always circled back to their eternal bond. Renée O’Connor, the actress who plays Gabrielle, admitted in an interview: “I think Gabrielle is probably searching for her soulmate and that she found it in Xena, actually. Having been through the entire series, she’s probably been searching for the love of her life, which is Xena” (B, 2003). The relationship becomes transgressive because it claims love cannot be defined in binary terms such as homo- and heterosexual. The relationship transcends the restrictive categories of human language, elevating Gabrielle and Xena’s love out of the human and into the divine realm.
Xena’s relationship with the Greek gods is always one of dysfunction, distrust, and disbelief. As the introduction to each episode announces: “In a time of ancient gods, warlords and kings, a land in turmoil cried out for a hero.” Xena forged her own path with a warrior cry and a sword. She didn’t rely on anything or anyone outside of what she knew. Her relation to the Greek pantheon was summarized succinctly by one critic (Fillingim, 2009): “In episodes where the Greek gods play a prominent role, the plot generally shows Xena’s moral, tactical, and intellectual superiority to the gods.” Xena finds herself within a myth culture in which she is not dependent on the gods but entirely self-sufficient, existing in another realm altogether.
But there’s another way in which Xena is influenced by Greek thought. In the Symposium, Plato describes a deep desire for a universal love: “Nor will his vision of the beautiful take the form of a face, or of hands, or of anything that is of the flesh … but subsisting of itself and by itself in an eternal oneness.” In this dialogue with the priestess, Diotima, Plato describes the quest for beauty—which Plato conflates with love—as a means of spiritual ascent: “Starting from the individual beauties, the quest for the universal beauty must find him ever mounting the heavenly ladder.” This knowledge of the divine may be considered a kind of esoteric knowledge that only a few people will acquire. According to Arthur Versluis, “Platonic philosophy is in some way esoteric, because it asserts that true knowledge is attained only by a few philosophers through deep contemplation while most people are deceived by the shadowy illusions of the physical world” (Bailey, 2009). In this scenario, Xena is one of those for whom this esoteric knowledge is not out of reach.
The Symposium does not neglect the purely physical attraction to beautiful boys, which indeed is presented as the first step toward the love of beauty in the abstract, and from there a love of wisdom, virtue, and the Good. Moving to Xena and Gabrielle, it is arguable that their relationship is not defined by sex but by the absence of any sexual category. In this sense Xena represents a universal love that is distinct from sexual love. The show neither labels nor defines the love between the protagonists, taking it to a level of transcendence that subsumes a physical union along with a mystical union of two souls. Reflecting on her former life of killing and revenge, Xena credits Gabrielle with her transformation: “Sure. I was trapped in a cycle of violence and hatred. And no matter how I tried to break free, something always pulled me back—until you. … You talk about trying to find your way, but to me, you are my way.”
Jesus, Mary, and Xena
This divine love between women is not a sexual love but an eroticized love. Briggs (2009) writes, “the death and resurrection of Xena and Gabrielle (homo)eroticize Christ but simultaneously spiritualize, desexualize and occlude any lesbian relationship between them.” The show plays on this eroticism with the footage of the crucifixion.
A similar eroticism can be seen in pictures of Jesus’ crucifixion where he is seen as mother, giving birth to the church, Ecclesia. The sentiment is expressed by the medieval anchoress Julian of Norwich, who wrote in 1395: “This fair lovely word ‘Mother’ it is so sweet and so kind in itself that it may not verily be said of none ne to none but of him and to him that is very Mother of life and of all.” Julian’s expressive words to describe Christ as mother derive from early Christian mystical writings in which Christ was seen as the divine tree of life, the giver of life itself.
This idea of an eroticized or ecstatic Jesus is developed further by Kripal and Hanegraaff (2008): “Western esoteric sources often describe the attainment of an ineffable mystical gnosis in erotic and sexual terms, that is, as a ‘consummation,’ ‘embrace,’ ‘unitive bliss,’ ‘rapture,’ ‘kiss,’ ‘cleaving,’ ‘marriage,’ and so on.” By eroticizing Xena on the cross, the series is not only connecting Xena with the Christian Savior but with an eroticized Christ. What’s more, Gabrielle is also crucified alongside Xena, implying a kind of unity in duality. The double crucifixion symbolizes two bodies dying to unite into oneness, one soul complete and purified in death. It is at the end of the episode that the souls of the heroes are seen to take flight, and, hand in hand, ascend together to heaven. The crucifixion of Xena and Gabrielle is the transcendent representation of the feminine mystical divine.
Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship is further eroticized in the final episode, in which Gabrielle attempts to rescue Xena, who has died yet again. To save Xena, Gabrielle drinks from the Fountain of Strength and kisses Xena in order to restore her by passing along the contents of the fountain. The kiss is reminiscent of the portrayal of Jesus kissing Ecclesia, which in turn is a reference to the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament. The Venerable Bede, an 8th-century monk, interpreted the Song of Songs as an eroticized love poem between the soul and God. If we think of the love between Xena and Gabrielle in this light, then it becomes apparent that what is between them is not a sexual lust, but sensual love that is divine in nature. It is love between two souls, two halves that have sought to become one.
At the start of the fifth season, Gabrielle and Xena find themselves in the spiritual realm, and Gabrielle tries to save Xena’s soul as she raises an army in Hell. With Xena and Gabrielle separated, Xena returns to the dark side, and it is their reunion that saves Heaven and Hell, restoring balance to the world. As Xena and Gabrielle are resurrected by their friends, Xena discovers that she is pregnant with Eve—an immaculate conception of sorts. Xena has become the Virgin Mary. “Her birth brings about the twilight of the Greek gods,” writes Kathleen Kennedy (2007). “But in the modern western world, the name Eve automatically invokes the mother of ‘mankind’ whose disobedience of God leads to the ‘fall of man.’” Xena is savior, mother, and protector of human life. It is through motherhood and love that she saves the world, not divine intervention. Write Kripal and Hanegraaff (2008) of this phenomenon: “In the depths of human sexuality lies hidden the secret of religion, occultism, magical power, spirituality, transcendence, life, God, Being itself. … We are dealing with a metaphysics of sex, itself intimately entwined with the destiny of the soul.” Xena’s spiritual journey brands her as savior, and mother, and all that is left is her final redemption in death.
Her Courage Will Change the World
Xena uses a feminist lens to explore the possibility of a world where the boundary between myth and reality is blurred, and where the esoteric meets the mysticism of divine love. The show relies on the esoteric knowledge of various spiritual traditions—as well as a lesbian subtext—to further its ultimate assertion that one’s mystical path is not toward God but toward the divine love of two souls joining as one. The show takes the audience through Xena’s spiritual journey in tandem with Gabrielle’s. Enlightenment is taken to mean spiritual redemption in which one’s soul is reunited with its other half. This oneness is the universal, divine love.
Xena makes room for the possibility of a mystical experience, a unification with something greater than ourselves, that is unburdened by dogmatic scriptures, the language of binaries, or other worldly limitations. In this way, Xena subverts the particularistic love paradigms represented by both Plato and Christianity, realizing a universal love that is rooted in two human lives but not dependent upon sexual love. This love is not strictly labeled or defined, but clearly it is a type of love that transcends death, a love that is ineffable, that literally does not have a name.
B., Angie. “Xena and Gabrielle: Lesbian Icons.” AfterEllen.com, 2003.
Bailey, Michael. D. “Magic and Mysticism.” Magic, ritual & witchcraft, 4(2), 2009.
Briggs, S. “Elect Xena God: Religion remixed in a (post-)television culture,” Small Screen, Big Picture: Television and Lived Religion, edited by D. H. Winston. Baylor U. Press, 2009.
Colledge, E., & Walsh, J. A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich. Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, no. 35. Toronto, 1978.
Fillingim, David. “By the Gods—Or Not: Religious plurality in Xena: Warrior Princess,” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, 21(3), 2009.
Kennedy, Kathleen. “Xena on the cross,” Feminist Media Studies, 7(3), 2007.
Kripal, J. J., & Hanegraaff, W. J. Hidden Intercourse: Eros and Sexuality in the History of Western Esotericism. Leiden: Brill, 2008.
Marlana “Marly” Solebello is a writer living in Maine with her wife Kerry and their Australian cattle dogs, Sydney and Chaco.