Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Greek Hero Revisited

© Laurel Bowman, 2002
Department of Greek and Roman Studies, University of Victoria

(preliminary comments - I'm just learning to think about television and film, and there is a lot I don't know. I haven't really dealt at all in this paper with all the questions posed by the medium of television or film. I am also new to the field of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and there is a burgeoning bibliography on the series which I am in no sense in control of; I'm just beginning there too. What I've done in this paper is try to play to my strengths, insofar as I have any, which are, looking at texts, reading for intertextuality, and thinking about mythical patterns. But insofar as I have treated the series in the same way I would a written text I know I've done it an injustice. This is only my first approach.)

Before we ask what influence classical myths, or models, may have on contemporary stories, we need to ask some preliminary questions: do they? Do they really? And how does it matter?

Do we have any reason to think that a classical model has had any direct influence on 21st-century story we're reading? Are the apparent analogies between the ancient story and the modern rendition actual signs of influence, or simply coincidental parallels? If the latter, can such unconscious echoes still tell us something either about the modern story, or its ancient rendition? How does the use of the ancient material illuminate the story currently, or the story formerly, being told?

When Joss Whedon, the creator of the film and television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, set out to write his original script, it was with the conscious intention of subverting an established genre - the teen horror movie. In interviews - this is the kind of information we just can't get about Sophokles - he's said as much. Apparently the idea came to him after watching one too many horror movies where the cute blonde airhead cheerleader takes a shortcut through the alleyway, meets the (horrific fill-in-the-blank) monster, and comes to a quick and sticky end. And he thought, what if the blonde airhead could take care of herself? What if she was a superhero? This conscious decision to subvert the "horror movie" form by taking the stereotypical "victim" of the genre - a small, blonde, fashion-conscious, frivolous "girlie girl" - and make her the hero produced a cult movie and a popular television series now in its sixth year of production.

Whedon subverted the genre twice, not once, with this substitution. He didn't simply make the "hero" female, while leaving her equipped with all the standard male attributes of size, armour, adulthood, and that constellation of behaviours which taken altogether signify to us "acting like a man". (An example of that kind of single shift produced "Xena the Warrior Princess", for several reasons including that one a much less interesting series, at least to me). He made the hero female, yes; but more than that, he also left her with all of the feminine markers which usually, in the horror genre, signify not only "girl" but "victim". She's small (5'2") and slender; she's unusually pretty; she dresses in skimpy outfits; she is not a good student; she usually has a boyfriend and lost her virginity halfway through season 2 (in a legion of teen slasher movies, virginity is the only protection from an ugly death; at least, the victims tend not to have it, while the survivors tend to have hung onto theirs) ; she's self-absorbed and can be easily distracted from the task at hand, particularly by boys; her name, for heaven's sake, is "Buffy". If you saw her in "Friday the Thirteenth Part 21" you'd mark her down as "victim number three on the right". In classical terms, she's not Klytaimnestra or even Deianeira; more than anything she looks like Iole, the mutely sexy one who doesn't even get a speaking part as her world collapses around her, out of her control.

The decision to take such a person and make her the hero of the story has made the series a favourite subject for feminist criticism. Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn't say "see, a woman can act like a man and be a hero", but "see, a woman does not HAVE to act like a man to be a hero". Working out what it means to a woman who is a hero has been the ongoing project of the last five seasons - and into the sixth - of the series. But the genre Joss Whedon began by subverting is in no sense a "classical" genre. So why do I think Buffy the Vampire Slayer has anything to do with classical myth?

I think it does because the question "what is a woman who is a hero?" inevitably raises the question "what is a hero?" And I think it's fair to say that in Western literature that question inevitably resonates with classical models. Even if this were not generally the case, it is certainly so when the "hero" spends his or her time fighting monsters, large fanged lizard-gods, trolls, demons, vampires, and the whole class of supernatural baddies traditionally found littering a classical hero's path. It's true that they are found in other traditions as well - folklore heroes of every culture defeat non-human monsters. Further, many of the monsters of the Buffyverse - as it is popularly called - are drawn quite consciously from Christian, not classical, tradition; for instance vampires and demons. In fact Rupert Giles, my personal hero, until this year Buffy's mentor and the member of the group responsible for identifying the monster-of-the-week (and- more importantly - its vulnerable points), has recourse most often to medieval Christian texts and codices in his research on her behalf. (Though his grasp of the classical languages, not only Greek and Latin but also Hebrew, Sanskrit, Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphics, and Akkadian cuneiform, is truly humbling, and an inspiration to us all. The episode in which he argued in conversational Latin with the forces of darkness was particularly impressive - though a Latinist recently told me it's not THAT impressive; my conversational Latin is perhaps not as swift as it used to be.) And, again, if we ask Joss Whedon what we cannot ask Sophokles, "what is the inspiration for the story lines of your series?", the answer, he says, is the comic books he spent his entire adolescence reading by the hundreds, and not, as I might have hoped, the "Golden Book of Myths for Boys and Girls".

That the series' producers make use at least occasionally of classically-trained advisors cannot be doubted, for reasons I'll come to in a moment. And consciously or not, the series is heavily dependent on classical models in its treatment of the life of its hero. In the remainder of this paper, I will touch briefly on an example of a conscious reference to - and adroit use of - a classical text in the series, and then discuss more generally the classical model of the hero's life which is being reworked in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Tara and Greek script

Tara, "Restless", S4 BtVS (image courtesy of http://www.buffyguide.com)

This image is a still from the last episode of Season 4. This episode was entirely taken up with the dreams of the four lead characters. In this particular scene, Willow, a witch, dreams that she is (according to the script) "painting Greek letters" on the back of her lover Tara (the woman in the picture), as they have a conversation. The inscription itself is only on screen for 12 seconds (usually with the camera in motion.) I don't sight-read Greek that fast, particularly not when it's in motion, all in capital letters with no breaks between the words, and painted on someone's back. Fortunately, I had the episode on tape, so I could rewind, pause it, and satisfy myself that I was right, and the one word I'd thought I'd caught sight of in the second line probably WAS "Aphrodita". On closer examination I realised that the first word had to be "poikilothron", and it dawned on me what the inscription had to be: (transliteration) "poikilothron athanat' Aphrodita, pai Dios doloploke, lissomai se, me m'asaisi med' oniaisi damna, potnia, thumon ..." - ("Ornately throned deathless Aphrodite, wile-weaving daughter of Zeus, I beg you, don't overcome my spirit with pain and care, mistress...") - Sappho 1, the invocation to Aphrodite.

This was impressive for a number of reasons. First, just because it was the very last place I would ever have expected to see Greek at all. Second, because they got it right - there may be an extra iota in the inscription, or that may be a trick of the light; but it's otherwise correct, and the format is correct for an 'inscription' (capitals, no breaks). Third, because that particular inscription was exactly appropriate to the scene on so many levels. As Greek, it establishes the two women, both witches, as adepts in the use of ancient arcana. The poem, as a poem of Sappho, is generally appropriate (or would be popularly believed to be generally appropriate) to the relationship between the two women, who are lovers. It is actually an invocation of a goddess, and the witches have been shown invoking goddesses in magical rituals in other episodes. So far the inscription does nothing more than reinforce the representation of the two women and their relationship which has been established already in the series. But the specific content of this poem is also predictive of events later in the series. In it, the poet asks Aphrodite to come to her, not to overpower her heart with pain, but to assist her. And Aphrodite offers to inspire whomever the poet desires: "If she runs away, soon she shall pursue; ... if she does not love, soon she shall love - even unwilling".

The implications of the poem, that Willow is going to lose the love of someone - presumably Tara - and want her back, are clear enough; and indeed that happened this season (more than a year later). But the reasons for the breakup are also implied in the poem. By the beginning of this season, Willow has become increasingly dependent on the use of magic, and has begun using it to make people - even her friends, and even Tara - do as she wishes. The poem is by a poet - a writer - who wants Aphrodite to make an unwilling woman return her love; and it is being written on her lover's back by a woman who will later use magic against that same no-longer-willing lover.

Taken altogether, what can we make of this? That the producers know someone who can at least find their way to the Loeb Greek-and-English editions, tell them how to make the Greek text look like an inscription, and choose a poem which will be appropriate to a pair of lesbian lovers one of whom is later going to start dominating the other through the use of magic (though perhaps they got lucky with that last bit). This is impressive enough - and I hope their advisor was well paid (and why wasn't it me?). But even more impressive is the fact that the producers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer were willing to put this level of attention to detail, to getting it right, into a scene that was on screen, as I said, for a total of twelve seconds. It is this, more than anything, that convinces me that any other classical reference I may find in the series was placed there with care, and not something that too close attention to detail on my part has caused me to invent.

With this example of careful attention to classical detail in mind, I would like now to turn to a broader example of a use of a classical myth in the series: the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and Demeter and Persephone, in an episode which aired this fall. A demon king of some "hell dimension" - there are several underworlds in Buffy, to allow for as many plot twists as the writers find necessary - is summoned to Sunnydale. It turns out that he has the right to take back with him to the Underworld, as his bride, whoever it was originally summoned him; apparently, Buffy's little sister Dawn. Anya, a reformed vengeance demon who now works with Buffy, says when she hears this "Dawn may have been ill-advised in summoning him, but I've seen some of these underworld child bride deals and, and they never end well. Well, maybe once." Buffy goes to rescue her sister, who is sitting in a throne beside the demon in approved Queen of the Underworld style. All ends well, when it turns out that Dawn was not in fact the demon's summoner, and he releases her. But there are echoes of several classical myths in this episode. Dawn plays Persephone, the child bride, (as Anya noted) to Buffy's Demeter, as the mother-surrogate. Dawn is Eurydice to Buffy's Orpheus; and here the fact that this was the "musical episode" is relevant. The particular attribute of this demon king is that he inspires everyone around him to burst into song and dance about their inmost feelings. When Buffy came to rescue Dawn she sang and danced in front of the demon, and there's a clear implication, at the end of the episode, that Buffy, like Orpheus, entertained the king of the underworld enough that he was willing to let her beloved go.

But finally, Buffy is herself both Orpheus and Eurydice. Because at the end of last season, Buffy died to save the world. At the beginning of this season, she was brought back from death via magic by the witch, Willow, with the help of some of her other friends. But she was unwilling to come, because she was in heaven; something she finally admits to her friends, in song, in this same musical episode. She resents her resurrection, however, and has not really come back to life yet. She's simply been "going through the motions", as she sings herself in the episode, unable to forget the heaven from which she was dragged. So Buffy, as Demeter, saves her daughter-figure Persephone from marriage to the Lord of the Underworld. Buffy, as Orpheus, entertains the Lord of the Underworld through song sufficiently that he lets her beloved go; Buffy, as Eurydice, dies and has to be retrieved from the afterlife; and Buffy, as Eurydice, can't quite come back to life because - again like Orpheus - she keeps looking back, over her shoulder, at the afterlife, the heaven, that she herself has left behind.

Finally, the overall structure of the story of Buffy's life as a hero, as it's been revealed over the last 5 1/2 years of the series, shows strong parallels to the patterns of classical heroic myth, particularly the pattern of the "Hero's Journey", as developed by Joseph Campbell in his mostly-Jungian "Hero with a Thousand Faces" (Pantheon, 1949, and never since out of print so far as I know).

Buffy's story also shows some parallels to Lord Raglan's "Heroic Pattern". The "childhood" part of the pattern - the hero should be the son of a royal virgin and of a king, who is possibly her mother's close relative, but there's something mysterious about the conception and he's also reputed to be the son of a god; at birth an effort is made to kill him, often by his father or grandfather; he's spirited away and raised by foster parents; little is known of his childhood - doesn't fit at all, of course. But this makes sense; "super powers", insofar as Greek heroes had them , were a product of their divine ancestry, but divine ancestry had disruptive implications for their birth 'families', which affected the pattern in predictable ways and so produce a number of the other steps in Raglan's "heroic pattern". (The possible illegitimacy of the child is reflected in the effort to kill him at birth and the fact that he is often raised by foster-parents, for example.) But Buffy's superpowers are not the result - only the equivalent - of divine ancestry. She is raised, like Perseus and Theseus, by a single mother, however; and her powers do descend on her at the end of puberty (16), the same general time as a hero's divine ancestry or heroic quest usually becomes known (think of Theseus again; or Perseus, or Herakles).

Lord Raglan's pattern fits Buffy better after childhood. She goes on a quest, in fact several. The actual model for her quest is not the single exploit of a Perseus, but the nearly never-ending labours of Herakles, thanks to the demands of a serializing medium. She does manage to marry a prince, or at least consummate a relationship with one, or arguably more than one (it depends whom you define as a prince), though so far these things have ended badly; she does die mysteriously in a high place; she does conquer death, and more than once. But on the most generous interpretation of Lord Raglan's 22 stages of the hero's career, Buffy has covered at most six. (Many of the non-childhood stages belong to later life, and Buffy hasn't got there yet, but as they involve finding her kingdom and ruling there, I don't really expect her to.)

The parallels with Campbell's "Hero's Journey", however, are so close that I cannot think they are not deliberate. In fact, I think a case can be made that Buffy's story is predicated not so much on classical myth, as on classical and mythological scholarship; and that a well-thumbed copy of "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" is probably on Joss Whedon's bedside table.

Campbell's "Hero's Journey" has three basic stages: the departure, the initiation, and the return. (It differs from both Jung and Lord Raglan's versions of the "Hero's Journey" in that it includes a "return" phase, which will be important for my argument.) This pattern doesn't fit any one classical hero in its entirety; Campbell appears to have put it together by patching different stages from different hero's lives together, to produce his overarching "monomyth". However, the whole progression fits Buffy pretty well.

In the first stage, the "Departure", the hero is called to become a hero. Usually he resists. Eventually he gives in, and receives some form of aid, perhaps supernatural, perhaps in the form of a mentor. He crosses the first threshold - the first task of the hero - and then falls into the "abyss", a dark night of the soul.

Buffy, when informed that she was the Slayer, the Chosen One, resisted mightily before she accepted her call, both in the original film and again in the series. She eventually accepts her destiny, and receives help in the form of a mentor, Rupert Giles, her Watcher, who trains her to be a Slayer, and does the backup research for her. He also fights alongside her when necessary, as do a small group of friends she collects around her. The "first threshold" task comes when she faces the Master, a vampire overlord who, it's prophesied, will kill her if she faces him. But if she doesn't face him, he will break out of the underworld in which he's currently trapped (a physical underworld, a cavern under Sunnydale) and bring the apocalypse, some form of hell on earth. She accepts her death, and he does in fact kill her. Fortunately a little CPR from her friends restores her to life and she wins the day. Her "abyss" happens before the fight, when she is struggling to accept the fact that she has to die, at the age of 16, to save the world.

In the second stage, the "Initiation", the hero embarks on his quest, meets his "anima", the goddess-figure who inspires him; meets his "shadow", the excluded Other, the dark side of the "anima", whom he must overcome; faces his ultimate challenge, victory over death (usually); is rewarded with some form of apotheosis and ultimate gift. Herakles works well here: the labours are the quest; all the women are the 'dark force', and he never does really overcome them; dies; is apotheosed; and receives the reward of immortality and marriage, finally, to the anima he never quite met in life.

Buffy embarks on the serious business of slaying in season 2, after the death of the Master. She falls in love with her animus, her inspiration, Angel, a vampire, but one with a soul. They are "True Loves". It's all the more appalling, then, that as a result of the consummation of their relationship he loses his soul and becomes "Angelus", the Shadow, the temptation she must overcome. Which, ultimately, she does, by killing him, in one of her two great heroic moments on the series. (He survives, re-ensouled, and starts his own show in L.A.) It's after this event that she falls into a serious "abyss", but recovers and carries on, over the next few years, with her monster-slaying quest. Three years later this culminates in her heroic sacrifice of herself to save the world, by jumping from a high tower to close a portal into a hell-dimension. She is then rewarded with an "apotheosis" - she's allowed to rest at last, and spend her time in heaven, rewarded, like Herakles, for her labours for the world.

So far her story matches the Heroic Journey fairly closely; as closely as Herakles' does, or better. But it's this season that is proving the true test of Joss Whedon's use of the Heroic Journey pattern. Because the third stage of the Hero's Journey - the Return - is often the most difficult; most heroes don't bother with it. (Herakles, once he achieves his apotheosis, does not come back to join the world of mortals again.) And in fact the first part of the Return, like the first part of the Call, is usually met with resistance; the hero doesn't want to come. Buffy, it turns out, did not want to leave heaven. Odysseus doesn't seem to have wanted to leave Calypso, for the first few years. When the hero does leave the Magic Kingdom (whatever it is), to return to the normal world, he is often pursued by the inhabitants, or some other resistance is given to his return. Odysseus met with a storm from Poseidon which destroyed his raft and all his supplies. Buffy was pursued by a demon who followed her and tried to kill her and take her place. The Hero frequently can't return to the normal world without assistance from someone. For Odysseus, it was the Phaeacians. For Buffy, it is another vampire, Spike, who assists her to accept her return to life. The last three stages of the "Return" - "Crossing the Return Threshold", "Mastering the Two Worlds", and the "Freedom to Live" - are the stages in which the hero comes to accept the 'normal' world again, and learns to live both as a hero AND as a human being in the daily round of life. As I said, most heroes don't bother with this stage. Odysseus, who does eventually return to Penelope, does manage it, but is one of the few - and we're told that he heads off again, is a hero once more, in the end.

Buffy, this year, is in the "Return" phase of the Hero's Journey, and is having terrible trouble with it. In previous years, Buffy has gone out and slain monsters in a cheerful, confident and heroic sort of way, which made for entertaining television. But this season she is struggling with the crossing of the return threshold, and treating her friends and family, for whom the audience sympathizes, very badly in the process. Her deep and continuing depression, and her refusal to accept that she has returned at all, that she has duties of any kind, or that 'normal' life is worth living, have made her a poor subject for drama. She is as a result an extremely unsympathetic protagonist. (Those of us who identify with her journey - I for one - want to leap through the screen every week lately to shake her and shout "wake up!")

And it's this, more than anything, that convinces me that her story is modelled on Campbell's Hero's Journey. Because this season's Buffy has been difficult and frustrating for even a dedicated fan to watch; and audience numbers are dropping. Only a firm decision to stick to the model of the hero's journey, even through a protracted "dark night of the soul", can explain an artistic decision that's losing the audience. In a medium ruled by Nielsen ratings, the creative risk taken in deciding to stay with the model nonetheless is truly heroic.

Buffy's story is not, as far as I can tell, based on a specific Greek heroic myth. It is based, instead on a THEORY of Greek heroic myth. If Buffy's life plays out as I expect, it will be the only story so far told which incorporates every element of Campbell's Hero's Journey. Where the Greeks had a rich oral tradition as a basis of their work, the Californian film-maker has a theoretical model. Which one tells the better story likely depends, in the end, more than anything else on the skill of the individual poet.


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