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Epic Heroes on Screen$

Antony Augoustakis and Stacie Raucci

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781474424516

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9781474424516.001.0001

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The Changing Faces of Heroism in Atlantis (2013–15)

The Changing Faces of Heroism in Atlantis (2013–15)

(p.125) 8 The Changing Faces of Heroism in Atlantis (2013–15)
Epic Heroes on Screen

Amanda Potter

Edinburgh University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the BBC series Atlantis, a fantasy-adventure series set in ancient Greece. In addition to the male heroes Jason, Hercules, and Pythagoras, the series creates female models of heroism in its presentation of the mythological figures Medea, Ariadne, and Medusa. The series shows the complexities of heroism by letting its heroes change and grow over time. Through such a non-static depiction of heroism, viewers are able to relate to the characters in the series, something they have grown accustomed to do with other television stories. The series also shows the effect on heroes in a sustained narrative.

Keywords:   Atlantis, mythological, Jason, Hercules, Pythagoras, Medea, Ariadne, Medusa, TV series


The short-lived BBC television series Atlantis presents us with a range of characters who go on their own heroic journeys. The rather bland but brave and honorable protagonist Jason (Jack Donnelly) must confront his dark side; the unheroic, greedy, drunken Hercules (Mark Addy) becomes a tragic hero; and the clumsy but likable Pythagoras (Robert Emms) uses his brains to help his friends. By the end of the second and final series female characters Ariadne (Aiyisha Hart), Medea (Amy Manson), and Medusa (Jemima Rooper) also display different aspects of heroism, moving respectively from princess to warrior, assassin to helper maiden, and victim to monster to self-sacrificing heroine. For modern readers and viewers, characters from Greek mythology can seem uninteresting and irrelevant today. Particularly Perseus, Jason, Theseus, and Bellerophon can all become interchangeable as young men who slay monsters and go on quests, with few people remembering (or caring) who did what, and there are almost no heroic women characters for female viewers to relate to (Atalanta is the notable exception). By creating male characters with their own specific peculiarities and flaws, and female characters with heroic potential, the producers of Atlantis present us with heroes that we can relate to, even though they are grounded in the ancient world. Modern viewers are also versed in the tradition of the bildungsroman, and are familiar with television story arcs where protagonists change and grow as individuals. By presenting us with characters who change over time and learn from their heroic journeys the Atlantis writers aim to sustain the interest of viewers, so that they continue to watch to the end of the series.

(p.126) Atlantis was a family-oriented fantasy adventure series set in ancient Greece, which aired on BBC1 from 2013 to 2015 on Saturday evenings in the family drama viewing slot initially established by the return of Doctor Who in 2005, previously filled by Robin Hood (2006–9) and Merlin (2008–12). Atlantis was conceived by writing team Julian Murphy and Johnny Capps, to follow their previous popular series Merlin, which had concluded after five seasons. Like Merlin, which foregrounded the friendship between the young Arthur, played by attractive young actor Bradley James, and the young Merlin (Colin Morgan), Atlantis featured another good-looking actor, Jack Donnelly, as hero Jason, supported by his friends Hercules and Pythagoras. Julian Murphy says that the team play “fast and loose with history” (Series 1: “Behind the Scenes”) mixing contexts that are centuries apart chronologically. For example, Atlantis is a Minoan city where convicts are trained to be bull-leapers (Episode 1.3: “A Boy of No Consequence”), as portrayed in the famous bull-leaping fresco from Knossos,1 as well as being forced to fight in Roman-style gladiatorial games (Episode 2.11: “Kin”). Atlantis also makes alterations to the mythic stories, so that neither the Minotaur nor Medusa is simply a monster to be killed, as in the versions of the myths in, for example, Ovid and Apollodorus,2 but both become sympathetic characters, the Minotaur turning out to be a man who was cursed, and Medusa choosing her own death to help others.

It was expected by the production team, and the actors, who had signed five-year contracts, that Atlantis would run to multiple seasons. Viewing figures were initially high at the start of season one (5.8 million viewers watched the pilot episode on BBC1), but ratings dipped for season two when the show was aired at the same time as The X Factor, and the series was cancelled halfway through the airing of season two because, according to the BBC, in order to “keep increasing the range of BBC One drama we have to make difficult decisions to bring new shows through.”3 Therefore only two thirteen-episode series were made, and the second series ends with Jason about to sail away to find the Golden Fleece. Sadly for viewers and fans of the series he never gets to make his heroic voyage onscreen.

Jason: An Ancient Hero from the Twenty- First Century

Although series co-creator Julian Murphy says that “Atlantis is largely about our three central guys” (Series 1: “Behind the Scenes”) it is Jason who is set up as the primary hero, with two sidekicks, (p.127) Hercules and Pythagoras. Murphy says that “our Jason is a mixture of a number of Greek heroes like Perseus and Theseus and Jason himself” (Series 1: “Behind the Scenes”). This allows the production team to pick several of the best-known stories from Greek mythology, so that Jason can slay the Minotaur and Medusa, before planning to embark on a journey to find the Golden Fleece. Assigning the deeds of one mythic hero to another is nothing new in film and television, providing greater scope for a protagonist. For example, Perseus rides on Pegasus in Clash of the Titans (1981), when we would expect the steed to be Bellerophon, and Xena intervenes in many mythic stories in Xena: Warrior Princess (1995–2001).4 Donnelly was a relatively unknown young actor when he was cast as Jason. Initially Donnelly as Jason is an attractive but rather bland matinee idol, often filmed without his shirt when other cast members go fully clothed, rather than a more complex modern or ancient Greek hero.

In the pilot episode, “The Earth Bull,” a twenty-first-century Jason is at sea, looking for evidence of what happened to his father, who disappeared when his submarine went down. Jason’s own submersible malfunctions, and Jason wakes on a beach, naked except for the leather necklace with a bronze bull-horn pendant that had been a gift from his father. He finds clothes on the beach, and walks up to a city, blending in well as he looks like any other inhabitant. He runs along the walls of the city as if he had been born there, and when he is struck in the shoulder by an arrow pulls it out, and dodges more arrows, again as if this were a natural occurrence for him. He can jump like a gymnast but has no idea how he learned to do this. He is clearly no ordinary twenty-first-century British young man. Harbored by Pythagoras, the resident of the house he stumbles into, Jason finds out he is in Atlantis. Sent to the temple of Poseidon by Pythagoras, Jason is told by the Oracle (Juliet Stevenson) that he was born in Atlantis, and it was his destiny to be drawn to Atlantis to help its people.

By making Jason a twenty-first-century character the production team have created a protagonist that viewers of Atlantis can relate to. One of my 12-year-old students wrote an assignment on Atlantis, and found that Jason was more “relatable” to younger viewers as he was from a “broken home,” growing up without his mother and losing his father early. The “fish out of water” comedy is played out in some episodes, such as “Hunger Pangs” (Episode 1.11), where Jason eats meat from an altar to Hecate and becomes a werewolf. Jason never specifically tells his friends from Atlantis that he is from the future and Hercules exclaims “I will never cease to be amazed by (p.128) your ignorance and stupidity” (“Hunger Pangs”). Jason’s origins also mean that he is party to knowledge that his friends do not have, such as the fate of Medusa, but he only shares this with the Oracle.

From the beginning of the series Jason is portrayed as a man with a strong sense of honor. Donnelly finds Jason to be a character “with very good morals” and “very strict ideas on how he sees the world, but it is almost black and white in the way he sees good and bad,” although “I think that changes for him as it goes on” (Series 1: “Behind the Scenes”). In “The Earth Bull” (Episode 1.1) when Pythagoras draws a black stone and so must be sacrificed to the Minotaur, Jason steals from the house to take his friend’s place. This is both in recompense for Pythagoras taking Jason in and saving his life when he was running from the guards on his arrival in Atlantis, and because Jason believes he is “meant to kill the Minotaur.” This show of guest-friendship to Pythagoras and belief in destiny mark Jason out as a hero in the mode of the ancient Greek heroes. However, at a screening of this episode at the Petrie Museum in Bloomsbury in 2015 some of the viewers found Jason to be a more modern hero; he was “self-sacrificing and respectful” and “did the right thing but was empathetic” unlike the “self-centred” ancient heroes. Jason’s honorable actions, and his predilection for seeing the best in people, often puts him and his friends in danger, but they do not chastise him for this, as this is a key aspect of his heroic character; as Hercules says, “you see the best in people, it’s your faith that makes you who you are” (Episode 2.6: “The Grey Sisters”). He picks a fight with Prince Heptarian to prevent him from hitting a “defenceless old man” (Episode 1.3: “A Boy of No Consequence”) and trusts his rival for Ariadne’s hand, Prince Telemon, even though Pythagoras is suspicious, and Telemon turns out to be working with Pasiphae (Episode 2.3: “Telemon”). Jason also trusts Medea, Pasiphae’s niece and protégée, who becomes a temporary ally in defeating an undead army, but she then stabs Ariadne with an enchanted knife (Episode 2.5: “The Day of the Dead”). Even after this he is unable to kill Medea in cold blood, so he knocks her out to take her blood to save Ariadne’s life (Episode 2.6: “The Grey Sisters”).

Although Jason is initially unable to hold a sword, and is easily disarmed, he uses a sword to kill the Minotaur, and his fighting prowess grows with every episode, so that he can deflect an arrow with his sword (Episode 1.9: “Pandora’s Box”), and single-handedly fights and kills a group of Scythians (Episode 1.10: “The Price of Hope”), a feat Pythagoras finds “truly amazing.” Pythagoras has already remarked that Jason is “different,” “special” and “runs like the wind” (p.129) (Episode 1.4: “Twist of Fate”). Pasiphae perceives that Jason is “a born bull leaper” (Episode 1.3: “A Boy of No Consequence”), satyrs will not harm him (Episode 1.2: “A Girl by Any Other Name”), and he can look at the cursed and snaky-headed Medusa without being turned to stone (Episode 1.10: “The Price of Hope”). He learns from Medea that his powers come from being “touched by the gods” (Episode 2.6: “The Grey Sisters”). As a hero with links to the gods and with special abilities, Jason is a hero in the mold of the ancient Greek heroes, such as Theseus, son of Poseidon, and Heracles, son of Zeus. Also like an ancient hero Jason believes and trusts the Oracle. He tells her that he did not feel that he belonged in his former home, and so the transition from the modern world to the ancient one takes place almost seamlessly.

The Oracle is concerned that Jason’s “heart will blacken” and “he will be consumed by hatred” if he ever “learns the truth” that the evil queen Pasiphae (Sarah Parish) is his mother (Episode 2.2: “A New Dawn Part 2”). This prophecy appears to be coming true when Jason goes to kill Pasiphae in revenge for causing the murder of the Oracle, using the severed head of Medusa, and Pasiphae reveals that she, like Jason, is “immune to the Gorgon’s gaze,” as she is his mother (Episode 2.9: “The Gorgon’s Gaze”). Jason displays his dark side, killing soldiers even if they are unarmed, so that Ariadne finds him changed from a man who would not kill in cold blood to “a cold-hearted killer,” and Hercules calls him a “stark raving lunatic” who is “lost to us forever.” This behavior could be compared to the murderous madness of Achilles following the death of Patroclus, or the goddess-induced madness of Heracles and Ajax. In his darkness Jason turns to Medea for comfort, temporarily preferring the witch of Colchis over Ariadne.

It is Jason’s father, Aeson, who finally turns his son back “towards the light” (Episode 2.11: “Kin”), and Jason marries Ariadne in the forest, choosing her and the light over Medea and the darkness (Episode 2.12: “The Queen Must Die Part 1”). At the end of the series Jason tells Ariadne that Medea has returned to Colchis and he will never see her again, but the new Oracle, Cassandra, sees that Jason must go to Colchis and obtain the Golden Fleece with the help of Medea if Pasiphae is ever to be defeated (Episode 2.13: “The Queen Must Die Part 2”). Jason’s strong bond to Medea has not really been severed, and viewers who know the stories of Ariadne and Medea will perhaps think that there is still time for Ariadne to be abandoned on Naxos, as the mythical Ariadne was abandoned by Theseus, before Medea and Jason reunite on Colchis.

(p.130) Hercules the Unheroic

Julian Murphy describes the Hercules in Atlantis as “unlike most Herculeses; he’s a drunkard and a boaster and he’s making up his own myths, he hasn’t actually done anything heroic, he’d just like people to think he had” (Series 1: “Behind the Scenes”).5 Hercules is played by an established actor from Yorkshire, Mark Addy, and he is given top billing. According to Murphy the production team had wanted Addy to play Hercules, as “he fitted the sort of Falstaff that Howard (Overman, joint series creator) had written” (Series 1: “Behind the Scenes”), and unlike Donnelly and Emms he was offered the part without an audition. Addy has had a wide-ranging career as a supporting actor in film and television series, and his persona as a bluff Yorkshireman, from parts such as Dave in The Full Monty (1997), is translated into a comic Hercules who loves food, is often drunk, and almost lost his house through gambling debts. Addy’s Hercules acts as a comic foil to Jason, and as Addy says of his character “there’s a lot of fun to be had at his expense” (Series 1: “Behind the Scenes”). It is not surprising that Circe changes him into a pig, of all animals, who drinks all the wine and eats all the food (Episode 1.6: “The Song of the Sirens”).6

From the beginning, Hercules is presented to us as an unheroic character, with all the vices of the mythical character, without the bravery, which makes him an interesting comic character. Jason describes Hercules as “a lazy no-good womanizing drunk” (Episode 1.3: “A Boy of No Consequence”), and to Hercules himself happiness is “gold in your purse, a flagon of wine in one hand and a beautiful woman in the other” (Episode 1.2: “A Girl by Any Other Name”) (Figure 8.1). Hercules as a womanizer fond of wine is not dissimilar from the Heracles we meet in Greek tragedy: in Euripides’ Alcestis, he extols the benefits of wine to combat gloominess (785–800), and in Sophocles’ Women of Trachis, Deianeira speaks of the many women that Heracles has had (460) before he brought home his newest conquest, Iole. While Hercules’ actions in the Women of Trachis end in tragedy, his drinking and gambling, and above all greediness, provide comic situations in Atlantis. Here he wakes up in a goat pen kissing a goat after a night in the tavern, bets all his money on a beetle race, and is detected trying to steal the food left in the dish of a blind man.

Wherever Hercules’ legendary feats are mentioned they are immediately undercut, causing the viewer to question Hercules as a hero.7 When he first meets Jason in “The Earth Bull” (Episode 1.1) Hercules is interested that Jason has heard of him (“The Hercules?” asks (p.131)

The Changing Faces of Heroism in Atlantis (2013–15)

Figure 8.1 Jason (Jack Donnelly), Pythagoras (Robert Emms), and Hercules (Mark Addy) at the market in Atlantis Episode 1.3: “A Boy of No Consequence” (2013).

Jason), but Pythagoras immediately pokes fun, saying that Hercules is only famous for “getting fat,” setting up their relationship as that of “kind of an odd couple,” as Addy describes it (Series 1: “Behind the Scenes”), with a lot of banter between them. When Hercules speaks of his own feats of the past, such as “even as a baby I strangled a snake with my bare hands” (Episode 1.6: “The Song of the Sirens”) and “the time when I wrestled the Nemean lion” (Episode 1.13: “Touched by the Gods Part 2”), we are not meant to believe him, as we have seen that he is more likely to take the credit for the heroic deeds of others than enact them himself. Hercules shows himself to be a coward by “running in the other direction” when Jason searches for and kills the Minotaur (Episode 1.1: “The Earth Bull”). However, Hercules is quite happy to take the glory that rightfully belongs to Jason, saying that “we” killed the Minotaur “together,” and he tells his friends that their fame will allow them to grow rich and “live like hogs.” Even when he does show that he has his heroic trait of strength, by bending prison bars (Episode 1.13: “Touched by the Gods Part 2”), this is undercut, as all his friends can escape through the bars without needing this; it is only the portly Hercules who cannot get through them.

Although Addy finds Hercules to be “a coward” he also says that his character has “moments of bravery and moments of bravado” (Series 1: “Behind the Scenes”). Hercules stands up for Jason when (p.132) they are brought before King Minos (Episode 1.3: “A Boy of No Consequence”). Hercules, who runs from trouble, as “it’s never too late to turn and flee like cowards” (Episode 2.1: “A New Dawn Part 1”), who wants to earn money wherever possible, and whose ethos is that “no good has ever come from being honest” (Episode 1.2: “A Girl by Any Other Name”), might seem to be the antithesis of the honorable Jason. However, by the end of series two, Hercules has tried to give his life for Medusa, the woman he loves, and has become Jason’s trusted henchman. It is Hercules in whom the Oracle confides about Jason’s parentage, entrusting Hercules to keep this secret and “protect Jason at all costs” (Episode 2.2: “A New Dawn Part 2”). It is Hercules whom Jason eventually entrusts with killing Pasiphae, something a son cannot do, and it is also Hercules who presides over Jason and Ariadne’s wedding. Hercules follows Jason because he “is the real thing” (Episode 2.1: “A New Dawn Part 1”), the hero that Hercules wants to be. Hercules, then, is not just the comic buffoon that he originally appears to be, in his aspiration for heroism. Another of my young students who enjoyed the series found that the Hercules in Atlantis is less “stereotypical” and has more “depth” than other versions of the Hercules character that he has come across.

Hercules and Medusa as Tragic Lovers

There is much discussion of Hercules’ womanizing in Atlantis (conquests include Maia the baker’s daughter and Sophia, a servant at the palace), but he is quickly converted to a one-woman man when he meets Medusa, and his love for her makes him a sympathetic rather than simply a comedic character. On first meeting her he describes Medusa as “a vision of beauty the like of which I have never seen” (Episode 1.2: “A Girl By Any Other Name”), for whom he immediately risks his own life, much to Pythagoras’ surprise. It is only when Medusa is in peril that the greedy Hercules finds himself uncharacteristically with no appetite for food. Despite their mutual affection, Hercules and Medusa’s relationship does not run smoothly, and he puts her life in jeopardy through his own self-doubt. He goes to Circe to use witchcraft to “capture the heart of the woman I love” as he does not believe that Medusa loves him (Episode 1.6: “The Song of the Sirens”). Circe’s witchcraft turns Hercules into a pig and causes Medusa to fall into a sickness that medicine cannot heal. On learning of Hercules’ actions Pythagoras reports that Medusa has said “a pig was too good for you,” but Hercules’ loyalty and belief in Medusa soon lead to their reconciliation, and they are both portrayed as (p.133) being happy together. Hercules is even honest with Medusa about his past: “I have been known to drink and gamble, there were debts, there were women, many of both, it’s all in the past. All the women I’ve known, I have never felt this way before.” However, Jason, along with viewers with any knowledge of the story of Medusa from Greek mythology, know that she and Hercules are not destined to live happily ever after.

Hercules retrieves Pandora’s box for Kyros, a merchant who has taken Medusa hostage. On her release, Medusa inadvertently opens the box and becomes the Gorgon with snakes for hair, whose gaze turns living creatures to stone. Hercules tries to give his life so that she can be cured, but both Jason and Medusa stop him from doing this, as Medusa “would rather stay cursed” than allow Hercules to sacrifice himself for her (Episode 1.10: “The Price of Hope”). Medusa is left alone in a cave, a blameless victim cursed for no action of her own, like Medusa in Ovid, who is cursed for being raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple (Metamorphoses 4.798–9). She waits for a cure to be found, but it is Pasiphae, and not Hercules, who offers this, in exchange for her causing someone’s death. Medusa agrees, not knowing the victim will be the Oracle. Although Medusa is happy to be with Hercules again, she cannot live with the guilt of what she has done, so that although one curse is lifted she feels that she is still “cursed” and “damned” for killing the Oracle. Medusa conceives a plot whereby she is returned to her former state as a Gorgon using Pandora’s box, so that Jason can use her severed head as a weapon to defeat Pasiphae’s army. She therefore becomes a willing sacrificial heroine rather than a monster, in offering up her life to save others (Episode 2.9: “The Gorgon’s Gaze”).

Pythagoras, “The Triangle Guy”

On first meeting Pythagoras, Jason identifies him as “the triangle guy” (Episode 1.1: “The Earth Bull”), and his interest in triangles is a source of jokes, so that, as Hercules says, “most men dream about women, you dream about triangles” (Episode 1.10: “The Price of Hope”). Julian Murphy thinks that “our Pythagoras is perhaps quite like Pythagoras … very clever, very honest [with a] brilliant mind” (Series 1: “Behind the Scenes”). There is very little known about Pythagoras the intellectual thinker, who lived in the sixth century bc and who is credited with discoveries in geometry, music, astronomy, and religion, best known today for the theory of triangles that still bears his name.8 None of his writings survive, there are (p.134) few contemporary accounts of his life or his work, and in the later tradition he has become a legendary character, as the son of Apollo, with a golden thigh, and the ability to perform miracles using his supernatural powers over animals and the elements.9 It might seem a strange choice to put the historical though mysterious character of Pythagoras together with the mythical character of Hercules and with Jason, the twenty-first-century character who is an amalgamation of mythic heroes. Julian Murphy states that “In our fantasy world we can put whoever we like … taking characters who are separated by 1000 years in real time and join them up” (Series 1: “Behind the Scenes”). In the series Emms’ gawky but clever Pythagoras, as much as Addy’s fat and greedy Hercules, serves as a suitable foil to Donnelly’s Jason, displaying a different kind of heroism that comes from intelligence rather than speed and strength.

In Atlantis Pythagoras is seen from the beginning as more honorable and less cowardly than Hercules; he wants to harbor Jason while Hercules would send him away, and he accepts the black stone that means he will be sacrificed to the Minotaur, when Hercules would have left Atlantis to avoid this fate. Pythagoras is relied upon by both Hercules and Jason to come up with a logical and intelligent solution to problems. As Robert Emma states, he is the “brains of the group, problem solver, a loyal friend” (Series 1: “Behind the Scenes”). His knowledge of plants and medicine is used throughout the series to help heal wounds and illnesses and his research results in solutions to problems, such as how to cure Jason of lycanthropy (Episode 1.11: “Hunger Pangs”). He knows who should be brought in to help them, when help is needed, whether this is from the fields of religion or science, including Eunapius, leader of the cult of the Mysteries of Eleusis, who provides details of the route to be taken to Hades, or inventor Daedalus, who helps to decipher the ancient script on Pandora’s box. Pythagoras is also often the first to see through people who are pretending to be something that they are not, such as Prince Telemon and the priest Melas, who are both secretly working for Pasiphae.

Pythagoras can appear dispassionate, countering Jason’s optimism with probability, marveling at the invention of the brazen bull that is to be used to execute Ariadne: “a truly remarkable piece of craftsmanship” (Episode 1.12: “Touched by the Gods Part 1”); and he would have Jason kill an unarmed man when “logic” and “reason dictates it” (Episode 2.1: “A New Dawn Part 1”). He can also be relied upon to do the right thing, however difficult this might be. We learn that he killed his drunken father to protect his mother from being beaten, (p.135) and it is he whom Medusa first approaches with her plan to sacrifice herself. Pythagoras confides in Hercules that the reason he follows Jason is that “You and Jason are the only real family I have. I love you, both of you. For a rational man it leaves me utterly bewildered but there it is. I do it for love” (Episode 2.1: “A New Dawn Part 1”). Pythagoras shows emotion when he sees no solution for his friends, breaking down in tears when Jason and Hercules are to be executed (Episode 2.8: “The Madness of Hercules”). As a man of science, it might seem surprising that Pythagoras is actually the emotional heart of the series, and “the kindest man” that Jason has “ever known” (Episode 1.8: “The Furies”).

At the end of series two the love stories of Jason and Hercules have come to their different conclusions. Meanwhile, Pythagoras’ love story with Icarus, son of Daedalus, is only just beginning. It is Hercules who first notices a change in Pythagoras, and that it is caused by his feelings for Icarus; “I remember it well the first time you feel like that about someone,” Hercules says to his friend (Episode 2.12: “The Queen Must Die Part 1”). Pythagoras is devastated when he realizes that Icarus has betrayed him by working with Pasiphae’s men, and finds it difficult to forgive him. However, when Icarus uses the wings created by his father to drop bombs on the soldiers loyal to Pasiphae, then falls to the ground, he is found by Pythagoras, and they kiss for the first time. Pythagoras, then, ends the series embarking on a relationship with another mythic male character. In an otherwise heteronormative series Pythagoras shows us that heroes can sometimes get the man, rather than getting the girl.

Helper Maidens and Heroines

Medusa is a kind character, preventing Hercules from being captured by the Maenads, and willing to lie to a dying old man about the fate of his daughter, who will not leave the cult of Dionysus, to save the man from pain. She later becomes a pawn in the game to control Atlantis, and although her final act of self-sacrifice can be interpreted as a selfless one, she is a sacrificial heroine rather than an action heroine. As a princess Ariadne inhabits the court of King Minos, and is initially confined to the world of the palace, where she also has little opportunity to be an action heroine. In “The Earth Bull” (Episode 1.1), Ariadne is drawn to the newcomer Jason, and as a helper maiden, which is her traditional role in the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, she gives him the thread that he can use to navigate his way out of the Labyrinth.10 She helps him again by bringing the (p.136) silver needed by his friends to cure his lycanthropy. At court, at first she silently watches Jason’s progress with interest, but she believes that she is bound by her duty to her city to marry a prince of royal blood. After watching Jason defeat her fiancé Heptarian in the games, Ariadne finds the courage to defy the wishes of her father and stepmother, but she does this by stealth, using the disapproval of the gods as a reason for not going ahead with the marriage. She shows more courage at the end of the first series when she takes a wounded Jason into her bedroom. As she tends to his wounds she tells him “I would gladly risk my life for you” (Episode 1.12: “Touched By the Gods Part 1”). Unwilling to give up Jason as the intruder who stole into the palace to kill Pasiphae, Ariadne is condemned to die in the bronze bull for treason. She is freed by Jason and his friends, and although she is returned to the palace by Pasiphae’s men she first manages to stab one of the soldiers, hinting at the change in Ariadne from helper maiden to action heroine that will occur in the second series.

Aiyisha Hart finds that in the second season, “Ariadne becomes much stronger. She turns into a woman as opposed to a teenage character who’s being quite defiant. She becomes more of a mature woman fighting her corner” (Series 2: “Behind the Scenes”). The series begins with Minos dead and Ariadne the queen of an Atlantis that is facing an attack from the banished Pasiphae’s army. Ariadne has become more ruthless, and gives orders to her captain that a man suspected of helping a thief who has stolen the Palladium “must be made to talk,” even if this requires torture (Episode 2.1: “A New Dawn Part 1”). However, she shows that she still has compassion, returning the Colchean dead to their people for burial, and allowing the deserters to leave the city rather than having them executed, conscious that she must not become a “tyrant” like Pasiphae. Although she continues to turn to Jason for help, she is steadfast in her resolve that she cannot marry him. As queen, “I must sacrifice everything I hold dearest. We cannot be together because you are not of royal blood. If I marry you the nobles will turn against me. Everything I do must be to protect Atlantis” (Episode 2.2: “A New Dawn Part 2”). To this end she agrees to marry Prince Telemon, until it is revealed that he is working with Pasiphae, when they are ambushed on the way to their wedding. For the first time we see that Ariadne is skilled with a bow and arrow, which she uses to kill Colchean soldiers, including one who would have killed Jason (Episode 2.4: “The Marriage of True Minds”). After she is saved from the illness caused by Medea’s poisoned blade, Ariadne finally decides that she can no longer “deny” her love for Jason, and asks him to marry her (Episode 2.6: “The (p.137) Grey Sisters”). She is finally convinced that she is not “weakened” by her choice to marry Jason but is rather “stronger with you at my side” (Episode 2.7: “A Fate Worse than Death”). The viewer is, however, left to wonder whether it is the appearance of a potential rival, Medea, that has caused this change of heart, and Jason hesitates before giving an answer.

When Jason is arrested erroneously for the Oracle’s death Ariadne will not publicly assist him. She has learned that to maintain her position as queen she must not be seen to show favoritism. Her face is a blank mask as Jason is to be taken for execution, but secretly she has him freed. When she in turn is captured by Pasiphae she will not hand over control of Atlantis, and will not be broken even when strung up and subjected to torture. In pain, she can still say to Pasiphae “there is only one true queen of Atlantis and it is not you” (Episode 2.9: “The Gorgon’s Gaze”). After she marries Jason in the forest it is a new, stronger Ariadne who ends the series. On learning that he must go to Colchis, where he will see Medea again, Ariadne tells him “I will go with you.” Jason protests that “it is too dangerous, I have to go alone,” but Ariadne is clear, and her words are the closing words of the series: “then who is to protect you from yourself? If Pasiphae is to be defeated we’ll do it together” (Episode 2.13: “The Queen Must Die, Part 2”). Ariadne has finally grown into her role as partner to Jason rather than helper maiden. She has displayed skills in politics and combat, and is not willing to lose her husband to Medea or her throne to Pasiphae without a fight.

Up until Ariadne’s transformation, Pasiphae is the most powerful, active female character in Atlantis, but she is the villain of the series rather than a hero (the archer Atalanta and gladiatrix Areto are both also strong women and positive characters, but each only appears for a single episode). However, the ambivalent Medea, Pasiphae’s niece and protégée, is worth consideration as another potential female hero. Medea, like Jason, has special abilities, though while his are strength and speed, hers are the powers of witchcraft.11 Amy Manson describes her character as “a Lone Ranger, a bit of a loner” with “magical powers” (Series 2: “Behind the Scenes”). She first appears at the beginning of the second series as a thief sent by Pasiphae to steal the Palladium and to cause the soldiers faithful to Ariadne to turn away from her cause. This Palladium, which in Atlantis is a small statue, has been borrowed from the Trojan War stories, in which Odysseus and Diomedes steal the Palladium, a wooden statue of Pallas Athena, which protected the city of Troy.12 Medea is seen to be as ruthless as Pasiphae, but with less concern for the gods, so that (p.138) when Telemon is left in the desert with a flask of water after being stabbed by Pasiphae, who will not kill a prince of royal blood, Medea throws a knife at it to ensure that Telemon does not survive (Episode 2.4: “The Marriage of True Minds”).

Jason and Medea are thrown together in a cave full of undead warriors, and Medea uses her magic to save Jason from being killed, and then to mend his broken leg (Episode 2.5: “The Day of the Dead”). She tells him that she is loyal to Pasiphae because she was the only one who had ever shown kindness to the young witch, who has been “shunned” all her life. When Jason is unable to kill Medea after she betrays him by stabbing Ariadne, he tells Medea that this is because he is not as “cold-blooded” as her, but Medea suggests another reason: “You feel it as I do. We are both touched by the gods. I sense something in you, as you sense it in me. You can’t deny it” (Episode 2.6: “The Grey Sisters”). When Pasiphae reveals to Medea that Jason is her (Pasiphae’s) son, Medea continually tries to dissuade Pasiphae from killing him, and when Pasiphae finally tells Jason about his parentage, Medea encourages Jason to “embrace who you really are” (Episode 2.9: “The Gorgon’s Gaze”). As Jason appears to be turning to his dark side he has dreams of Medea, and after he is hurt fighting Pasiphae’s soldiers Medea heals him and they spend the night together in the forest (Episode 2.10: “The Dying of the Light”). When Jason is captured and forced to fight in the arena, this time it is Medea watching rather than Ariadne. Medea realizes that Pasiphae will kill Jason, and so Medea uses her magic to help him escape, choosing Jason over his mother (Episode 2.11: “Kin”). Pasiphae realizes this and forbids Medea to see Jason again, saying that otherwise she will kill her niece: “You love him. You thought you could turn him but it is he who has turned you” (Episode 2.12: “The Queen Must Die Part 1”). Medea escapes and goes to Jason, helping him to capture Pasiphae, as she “cannot” become like Pasiphae. Jason recognizes Medea for the helper maiden that she has become: “it seems you are always coming to my aid.” Medea resolves to return to Colchis, and before revealing that he has married Ariadne Jason tells Medea “There’s a part of me that doesn’t want you to go.” We do not see Medea again, but Jason is destined to meet her in Colchis, where she will resume her role as helper maiden, and perhaps even as hero. Initially an ambivalent character, Medea has displayed her heroic potential, with supernatural powers to support this.

The series ends having created lots of possibilities for the future. After losing Medusa, Hercules has turned from buffoon to tragic hero, (p.139) like the Heracles who is driven mad and kills his wife and children. Jason has become a more interesting character having experienced his dark side, and Pythagoras has been given the opportunity for love, having spent the first two series helping his friends through the ups and downs of their relationships. Perhaps the most possibilities are provided for the female characters, with Medea and Ariadne both having found their skills, and also both caught in a love triangle with Jason. There is an expectation set that Atalanta will return, as one of the Argonauts, and another female hero.13 When she appears briefly in the first series, saving Jason and his friends from the Scythians, she tells Jason that Artemis told her to protect Jason from harm as “our paths are destined to cross again in the future” (Episode 1.10: “The Price of Hope”).


Although the series was short-lived, it provides a good example of the potential for television to transform heroes and monsters from Greek mythology. Unfortunately, the storylines and the potential for heroics suggested in the first two series will not be developed, or at least not for television. Fan fiction writers have picked up where the story left off, and so the heroes from Atlantis are continuing to have adventures, albeit online rather than onscreen.14


(1) On the bull-leaper fresco and other artifacts linked to bull sports see for example Higgins (1967: 35 and 95) and Fitton (1995: 131–2).

(2) Ovid, Metamorphoses, 8.166–82 and 4.770–804, Apollodorus, Library 1.7–10 and 2.38–46.

(4) Examples include: “Prometheus” (Episode 1.8), where Xena and Hercules both help to free Prometheus; “Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts” (Episode 1.12), where Xena helps Helen of Troy to escape; “Ulysses” (Episode 2.19), where Xena helps Ulysses to avoid the Sirens and string his bow.

(5) For a summary of the different facets of the character of Heracles/Hercules in antiquity, see Stafford (2012).

(6) The character of Circe also changes sailors into pigs in the Odyssey, but the animal seems more apt for Hercules.

(7) A questioning approach is also taken in Brett Ratner’s Hercules (2014), where we learn that Hercules has a team to support him; see further Chiu in this volume, as well as Blanshard and Stafford.

(p.140) (8) For a discussion of the accounts of the life and work of Pythagoras, see Riedweg (2005).

(9) Porphyry quoted in Riedweg (2005: 2–6).

(10) On Ariadne as helper maiden, see Griffiths (2006: 35).

(11) On Medea and witchcraft in the ancient sources, see Griffiths (2006: 41–7).

(12) Little Iliad Fr. 1.

(13) In Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, Atalanta is refused her request to join the crew of the Argo as Jason is afraid her presence might cause some of the men to fall in love with her, leading to conflict (1.769–73), but she is included as one of the Argonauts in Apollodorus, Library 1.9.16.

(14) As of April 2017, there are 360 Atlantis stories posted to archiveofourown.org and 225 posted to fanfiction.net, and new stories continue to be created.