Whoosh! Issue 32 - May 1999


IAXS project #670
By fnktl@aurora.alaska.edu
Content copyright © 1999 held by author
Edition copyright © 1999 held by Whoosh!
2044 words

Author's Note: There are no references in this paper because this is information I have garnered while studying and working in my field. I have a degree in Anthropology from the University of Alaska and was an arctic/sub-arctic archeologist for 12 years. In the last few years, in another job context, I have traveled to Siberia about a dozen times. There I attended lectures on shamanism by both shamans and anthropologists. I have attended rituals of these shamans (though neither they nor the rituals were quite as exciting as the ones in Xena), and I have seen the shaman costumes and artifacts in local museums there.

One of my best friends did a documentary on Siberian shamans about four years ago or so and filmed the sacrifice of animals. He lived in a tent with the shaman. In the tent were skulls from bears which had been ritually killed and which were treated as sacred guests - it was pretty heavy duty. We had lots of discussions on this, and this also added to my knowledge of northern shamans.

I know some people posted on the mailing lists that this episode had shaman-related errors. As I state below, I did not find that many inconsistencies, given the constraints of television, which necessitated a shallow/superficial/made-for-TV-excitement look at this fascinating topic.

Introduction (01-02)
The Vision Quest (03-05)
Ritual and Dress (06-07)
Shamans and Xena (08-17)
Alternative Religions (18-19)
A Few Final Comments (20-23)

We Can Fly, We Can Fly, We Can Fly


Xena and Alti battle in the trees in SIN TRADE.


[1] I found ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE (69,70/401,402) to be extraordinary television. The story was fabulous in all senses of the word. The journey of the spiritual quest of many indigenous religions was well represented. The lack of dialogue and reliance on images to tell the story is film-making in its purest form. The actors were good, to very good, to exceptional, which is not always true [grin] of XWP, as we all know. I thought Lucy Lawless was amazing.

[2] The research undertaken by the writing staff was scholarly and valid. They did a great job of recreating on American TV, within the confines of commercial network requirements and restraints, the world of Northern shamans and shamanesses. (I learned something new here: I had never heard the term shamaness, but when I did very minimal looking around on the Internet, I found the term Shamanka, which is how the Russian language feminizes "Shaman". Whoo-hoo!)

The Vision Quest

Tastes just like chicken!

Deer blood and other things make up the ritual drink.

[3] Xena is looking for Gabrielle's soul and is essentially on a form of "vision quest". To achieve the vision, one must leave the body and commune with the spirits. One way to activate this inwardly directed communication is to be both physically and emotionally exhausted. Xena undertakes a far-ranging physical journey and on the way begins to withdraw within herself, divesting herself of the trappings of the modern world, putting on the skins of animals, chanting, and making rhythmic, ritualistic gestures to entice the attention of the spirits.

[4] Xena retaining her sword during this process was, therefore, extremely jarring to me, as it did not fit with her attempt to be one with the natural world. Perhaps this is why she did not draw it immediately while fighting the berserker?)

[5] The camera work at the beginning when Xena is riding around the countryside, confronting Hades, and then starting her vision quest consists of short, zoomed in, detailed pictures, scattered, and isolated shots focused on particular bits of faces, clothing, and body parts. This generates a gut feeling for portraying the disintegration of the person, Xena the Warrior, and her reintegration into Xena the Shaman. We see double visions of her as she spins inward: "My mind has lost its center... turning, turning... it can't hold".

Ritual and Dress

[6] The rituals performed and the powers of the shamaness were correctly portrayed, at least as presented in the writings of the white European males (mostly) who documented the role and duties of the shamans. Alti's costume was absolutely traditional. Like shaman's costumes exhibited in museums, Alti's was dark and somber of tone. It also had leather thongs swinging hoofs, teeth, claws, and shells, which are things that would rattle and clank and bang as the shamaness passed. This would both announce her presence and warn people to behave appropriately around this formidable sacred person.

[7] As Xena searches inwardly to become a shaman, we see that her hair becomes matted, and her standards of personal hygiene drop a few levels. This "wild person" look, a "heaviness" and "otherness" of appearance, is another noteworthy hallmark of the shaman persona. Some texts mention the wild, piercing look of the eyes too. Perhaps this was what they were after with that rather enthusiastically applied mascara. (Either that or Lawless helped Stansfield put hers on.)

Shamans and Xena

Whoa!  Flashback!

Xena has an out-of-body experience.

[8] Some shamans were good, some were bad. Shamans were sort of the priests and priestesses of animism but without the stratified hierarchy and institutionalized structure of industrialized societies' priesthoods.

[9] Shamans communicated with the spirits of all things. They interceded in the great struggles over and between souls - all souls including the souls of animals, people, blades of grass, and trees. Of course, Xena wanted to become a shaman so that she might commune with Gabrielle's soul.

[10] Shamans got their strength from their alliances with souls. All shamans had their animal "familiars", and these souls helped them in their work. Much of their work was as a sort of "soul warrior", fighting to restore or destroy balance to souls. Xena has always been a warrior, and, therefore, this duty was not foreign to her.

[11] When souls were out of balance, people got ill and would hire a shaman to try to battle the spirit (or possibly the other shaman) who had caused the imbalance. This was reflected in the scene where Alti was teasing the spirits out of the fire and sending them to make war on Xena and her band of lost girls.

[12] People also relied upon shamans to find out why hunting was bad. The shaman would travel to talk to the spirits of the animals and ask what the problem was. When hunting rituals were performed correctly, when everyone in the group acted appropriately and respectfully, the animals would give up their souls to people and allow people to capture and devour them. In so doing, the animal would provide a way for the people to continue to live, and the soul of the animal was then free to be reborn.

[13] This shamanistic tie-in with animals was also vividly portrayed in this episode. Xena was dressed in animal skins. She drank animal blood to enter the land of the dead. Later, when Xena had the Amazons erect protections against the influence of Alti, she had them hang animal parts in the trees. She anointed the young women with animal blood and fed the skulls blood also. She was concentrating the power of the animals to help her overcome the power of Alti.

[14] Shamans also used rattles, chants, dances, and gestures to perform their rituals. Lucy's stylized gestures were appropriately evocative of this tradition. Physical exhaustion to induce a trance was shown again when Xena and the Amazons performed their religious dancing until they collapsed.

[15] One of the defining powers of northern shamans is their ability to fly. They regularly go into trances and physically fly to the moon. In Alaska, when the USA landed on the moon, some of the Native elders thought the excitement was extreme. They knew people had been going to the moon since time began. The aerial battle at the end of SIN TRADE (70/402) is, therefore, absolutely appropriate and genuine. In fact, the ability of the shaman to fly is expected and customary in this culture. It is considered the best way to settle the question of who is the most powerful shamaness.

[16] One of the neatest touches, I felt, was having the new shamaness be named "Yakut". Yakutia is one of the Independent Republics of the Federation of Russian States. It is located in the heart of Siberia and is a place where shamanism is still practiced. (Could be a wild coincidence, but would not that be just too odd?)

[17] In Yakutia, horses are sacred but selected ones are sacrificed during important solstice rituals. The camp site where Xena builds the sweat hut has totems shaped just like the ones used in Siberia to tie the horses to during these festivals.

Alternative Religions

[18] Information on shamans is neither conclusive nor extensive, (compared to the information available on Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism, for example), due to post-contact religious suppression by Caucasian invaders. Still, I think the research/writing staff did a great job with recreating extant knowledge and presenting it on commercial TV.

[19] In Season Four, Xena will be observing and participating in several "alternative religions". How appropriate that the first Season Four episode examined tribal religions, the most ancient of them all.

A Few Final Comments

I'm the pretty one!  Say it!

Alti and Xena mix it up, and not for the last time.

[20] I loved that this was sooooo different than what we are used to seeing. There was nothing to remind us of Xena and her world: no Ares, no Argo, no half-naked, familiar Mediterranean Amazons (outside of the sweat lodge), and no Gabrielle. This was like a whole new series, and I enjoyed that tremendously. (Although by SIN 2 [70/402], it was kind of nice to see Xena as Xena again in those flash-forwards.)

[21] Someone complained that the blood showing on Xena's palms was incorrect, since when people are crucified, the nails are placed through the wrists. This is technically correct, however, the Stigmata of the Catholic saints always appeared on the palms. (Who knew?)

[22] People are also saying that this episode proves that Xena lied when she said that she did not kill women. I think other warriors are not included in that protected category. Besides, you can make rules, but soldiers do not always follow them. Having that rule in a time like that, proposed by a ruthless warlord such as Xena, is an amazing concession.

[23] On the loose ends, the "dropping" of the characters of Cyan and the little lost girls, I feel sure we shall be seeing them again. Perhaps Xena is recruiting souls for the XWP "Armageddon", the climatic battle between good and evil and the twilight of the Greek gods.


Kathleen Leitgeb fnktl@aurora.alaska.edu
I was born in New York City but rather inexplicably live in Alaska now. I have a degree in Anthropology from the University of Alaska and have been an arctic and sub-arctic archeologist for most of my professional life. I would like to be a roller coaster test pilot when I grow up.

Favorite episode:Were it not for THE DEBT (52,53/306,307), ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE (69,40/401,402) would be my favorite episodes. I loved THE BITTER SUITE (58/312) and have a soft spot for A COMEDY OF EROS (46/222), BEEN THERE, DONE THAT (48/302) and for sentimental reasons, HERE SHE COMES...MISS AMPHIPOLIS (35/211)
Favorite line: Gabrielle to Xena: "That's not humanly possible" (looking at the sexual practices portrayed on the wall in Aphrodite's temple); and Xena, with a nonchalant glance at the wall, responds, "Sure it is" FINS, FEMMES AND GEMS (64/318)
First episode seen: The show was being watched by other people in my house before I got into it. The episode that hooked me on the show was HERE SHE COMES...MISS AMPHIPOLIS (35/211)
Least favorite episode: KING OF ASSASSINS (54/308) and other Xena-lite ones. Xena normal ones: IN SICKNESS AND IN HELL (72/404). What WERE they thinking?

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