Percy Jackson: a Hellenic hero or a heel? kids speak out

Terence P Ward —  March 3, 2015 — 22 Comments

Rick Riordan Percy JacksonUNITED STATES –Since the publication of Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief in 2005, Percy Jackson and the Olympians has been the leading pop-culture exposure to the Greek gods in the USA. Over the years, the adventures of this fictional son of Poseidon have received a fair amount of attention from Polytheists and others who worship these Gods.This reaction puzzles Riordan, who isn’t shy about saying that he thinks the very idea of modern worship is “strange.” The debate over the religious merits of the book are ongoing.

While adults may enjoy or detest this young adult fiction, the opinions of the young readers, who have made these books “wildly overrated,” are missing. Children, ages 8-15 years, aren’t as likely to write blog posts about books and are more difficult to identify and interview. Nevertheless, their views matter a great deal when considering the impact of books like these.The Wild Hunt asked four young readers about this series. Because of their ages, the minors interviewed for this article are referred to by pseudonyms.

Jacob, an 11-year-old who has read all of Riordan’s Olympian books, as well as those the Kane Chronicles based on Egyptian mythology, had a simple reason for enjoying them: “I like the action. There is non-stop action.” There might be something more going on, though, because since he completed the series, he’s read the Odyssey adaped by author Mary Pope Osborne, and said, “I have research books, too.” His interest in Greek and Roman mythology were stoked by the Percy Jackson series, and the stories have even inspired a desire to learn ancient Greek, which all young demigods in these books can instinctively read.

Since most of the major characters are children of gods, the next question that was natural to ask was what god he’d be the child of, and why. “Hephaestus,” Jacob replied. “He can make automatons, metal stuff, and lasers. I like to make stuff too.”

For those readers who are unfamiliar with the story, the Olympian books present the gods in a decidedly modern context, and depict their personalities in ways that are, at times, either humorous or disrespectful, depending upon one’s point of view.

According to his mother, “Jacob lives in an eclectic Pagan household. In formal terms, he has only been exposed to Wiccan rituals and community. However, both of us are not Wiccan. His religious life is very diverse with close relatives who are Baptists, Methodist, Catholic, Jewish and Atheist. He is exposed to a variety of beliefs. We foster a creative religious environment that will nurture his unique spirit’s journey.”

When asked whether she thinks these books have influenced his attitudes on religion, she said, “He was interested in and aware of Greek and Roman gods before he read these books. He had already heard about these Gods and others from us, in rituals or in religious talk. However, I think the books have fueled a fire that was already burning. They provide a modern context for an ancient concept. After reading the books, Jacob wanted more. I can see the spark in his eyes when he talks about Greek mythology. I am certain the gods are speaking to him and I know he is in good hands.”

son of neptuneThirteen-year-old Thadd lives in a decidedly Hellenic household, and it’s not an understatement to say that he was profoundly impacted by reading about Percy Jackson and his encounters with gods and monsters. In somewhat monosyllabic terms, he spoke of how much he enjoyed the stories, which include a second five-book series, Heroes of Olympus containing both Greek and Roman deities. Thadd thought author Riordan created a “pretty good presentation of the gods” in his works. When asked about what divine parentage he’d have were he a character, he named both Poseidon and Hephaestus without hesitation. Asked why, he answered simply, “They’re my patron gods.”

Thadd’s mother explained further, “He has read every single Percy Jackson, Kane Chronicles, and Heroes of Olympus [book] and is waiting to start the Norse series soon. In fact, it was while reading him Percy Jackson at age 8 that we realized that Poseidon claimed him, and then later while reading the Heroes of Olympus that he also answered Hephaestus’ call. It made religious education so much easier for me.”

She added, “I know coreligionists hate the series, but I have nothing but love for it simply for this fact alone.”

Jacob’s older brother, Ian, who is 14, said of the books, “They are well-written. And they are very intriguing. They catch your attention well.” On imagining having a divine parent, he said, “I would want to be the son of Poseidon, because I like to swim and be in the water. Poseidon is very friendly with ocean animals, and most of my favorite animals are water-based.” And on how these books have altered his view of the world, Ian said, “Mainly, I use to think quests were about fighting. Now I know they are more about knowledge and using your mind. The books don’t make me think more about religion. But I also would hate to be hit by a lightning bolt while I’m flying in airplane.”

To that, Ian’s mom added, “He has read some non-fiction books on mythology. But he’s more interested and focused on pure fantasy entertainment. For him, this is all fiction and sparks his imagination. For Jacob, it’s definitely real.”

Ariel is a 15-year-old girl who had a lot to say about these books, which have no shortage of strong female characters. She said:

Overall, I liked the Percy Jackson books. I read them a few years ago, and I read the entire series in about a month. I had been into Greek mythology before I read the books, so I was excited to see a cool, popular series about the exact stuff I had been liking since I was little. I read the books as a tween, so I pretty much originally appreciated them just as a cool young adult series, but I also saw the intricate connections between the actual mythology and the books. I understood that it wasn’t totally accurate always, but it was done in a humorous way that wasn’t very offensive in my opinion. It was also obviously set in modern times, so the classic characters were written as if they had adapted along with human society. I understand how some people might think it’s disrespectful or something, but I believe that if the gods were living that closely alongside humans as in the books, they would adopt human personality and style while still being gods, much as they were in Percy Jackson. So, I liked the books, and while they weren’t absolutely true to the mythology, they definitely inspired some people to look further into Greek mythology, and portrayed everything in a humorous and easy to understand way that, I think, worked well for its purpose as a fun young adult series.

According to her father, Ariel and a sibling live primarily with their mother, who is Unitarian Universalist, but are exposed to Pagan concepts at his home. His wife is “part of a coven of women,” and as a solo practitioner, he says, “I create what I need in the moment, with the attendance and assistance of my personal Guides and Gods.” They celebrate 8 Pagan sabbats, which draws people from throughout their rural area.

Ariel declined to speculate on which god might claim her as a daughter, if she lived in that fictional universe.

magnus chase

Percy Jackson is not the first pop-culture portrayal of non-Abrahamic deities, nor is it likely to be the last. In fact, book one of Riordan’s new Norse series, titled Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, is due to hit stores October 2015. For those who worship these gods, you may experience both frustration and enjoyment while reading Riordan’s books. However, the true lasting impacts and deeper lessons may only become evident over time. For now, what’s certain is that many children enjoy these books, and some of them actually believe.

Terence P Ward

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Terence P Ward is a moneyworker, journalist, Hellenic polytheist and convinced Friend who lives in the bucolic Hudson Valley with his wife, five cats, and multiple household shrines.
  • Vision_From_Afar

    I know not a lot of polytheists have enjoyed his portrayals, but I’ve personally quite enjoyed them. I’m looking forward to when my kids are old enough to enjoy these books, and I’m personally quite stoked for his take on the Norse.
    Honestly, if you want a pop-culture/modern take that’s utterly disrespectful to the gods, go read the Iron Druid Chronicles. It’s funny at times, but full of Mary-Sue power fantasies and disgusting levels of misogyny, in addition to the absolutely abysmal take on the Gods..

    • Merlyn7

      People have been telling me to read that series of books but I was hesitant because the small excerpt I read made it seem like magical practitioners were nimrods and that the Celtic gods were a terrible mess. Was I right?

      • Vision_From_Afar

        Sort of?
        The main character sexes up one Celtic Goddess and basically calls another a slut, makes fun of Wiccans while acknowledging that “real witches” exist, writes off the entire Norse pantheon as a collective group of assholes (and then portrays them exactly so in later books), and plays fast and loose with any religion he can play with for a giggle…before half the first book is done.
        The first time I read it, I missed a lot of the problems and I laughed (a lot, there’s some genuine humor in there), but when I tried to go back and re-read them…I couldn’t. I dunno if I was more aware, or if something was genuinely demanding I stop.

        • Wolfsbane

          “makes fun of Wiccans while acknowledging that “real witches” exist,”

          How is this any different than the actual Pagan community?

          I’ve met a lot of Pagans who follow a reconstructionist faith who’ve done this. That regard Wiccans as Play-gans who are unwilling to do or incapable of doing actual research in Pagan faiths and just pull crap out of the rectal repository.

          Kind of reminds me of the essays, ‘When is a Celt not a Celt?’ and ‘The pentagram and the Hammer.”

          http://www.cyberwitch.com/wychwood/library/WhenIsACeltNotACelt.htm

          http://www.ravenkindred.com/wicatru.html

    • Wolfsbane

      Oh, great. That’s just what we needed: a Druish princess.

      • Funny. She doesn’t look Druish.

  • dantes

    Generation Harry Potter here.

    But if I were 15 years younger I would probably read these books.

    • Vision_From_Afar

      As a 32 year old Viking, I unashamedly devoured all of Riordan’s books: Age is no excuse! They’re a little better than HP in some things. There’s still the “chosen one” thing, but it works out more intelligently, IMO.

    • MadGastronomer

      Pshaw. I’m 36, and I’ve read them. They’re great fun. Don’t scoff at YA books. It was foolish when people were doing it with HP, and it’s foolish now.

      • dantes

        I’m sure those books are quite alright, but again, as an adult, one has less time to read than as a kid. And when I do read it’s mostly Old Sagas…but one day maybe…

      • I’ve read YA books since the library policies would permit me–the Albuquerque PL in the 60’s had rather quaint ideas of how old one had to be to read YA books that hadn’t been shelved that way. I finally got permission to read any book I selected

  • Frankly I think mythic influence on pop culture is much better PR for our religions and gods than Pagans can do themselves, currently! Unless our deities are being depicted as just plain evil, or as demons (or their worshipers as evil) I don’t think there’s much to object to. I became interested in Paganism via my interest in mythology and still read lots of fantasy with mythic themes. Since mythology is often rather hard to relate to modern life, fantasy is a great way to bridge the gaps. I think respect and piety are important values, but so are humor and imagination.

    • As a child, I went through fairy tales, legends, and mythology like it was air. My earliest image of The Goddess as Crone archetype strongly resembled the Grandmother in The Princess and Curdie.

      I read a lot of historical fiction, and some of it set in Salem. When Sybil Leek’s Diary of a Witch was published, my mother (always interested in the occult) bought it, and I read it after her. I knew that many of the fairy-tale witches were Not Real, but Samantha Stevens was.

      I just knew there had to be people like Sybil Leek here in America today. When in college, I started meeting some–BTW/Gardnerians, for the most part. When Drawing Down the Moon arrived in the post at the research library I worked for, once it was accessioned, I got permission to take it home and read it. Then I got my own copy…

      My son was introduced to the idea of book & movie witches vs. Real Witches early on.

  • I love Percy Jackson and the rest of the demigods in the series. I’m not Hellenic, but the portrayals of the gods are very much in line with their mythological roots, and its good action-adventure fun while having some deeper moments about the nature of duty, the gods, family, and responsibility. The fact that the kids note that the quests often have more to do with intelligently solving problems instead of just ‘thud & blunder’ is also a good selling point to me. It has well written male and female characters, romance, humour, high adventure, and pathos (though forget the movies – the books are about a billion times better).

  • Merlyn7

    I cannot think very dimly of any series that gave us Uma Thurman as Medusa 😉

    Oh man, when I became an argent devotee of Aphrodite I was a tad insufferable about some depictions of her. But then I read the Argonautica and oh look the ancient Greeks characterized her personality as a bit trivial and noted that she was not respected by other goddesses. That actually helped.

    I’ve noticed in the Greek movies of the last ten years the tendency is to make the gods appear as the absolute bane of mankind’s existence when they appear (Clash of the Titans, the Immortals), and that humans are fools for believing in them in films where they do not (300, Troy). It irks a teeny tiny bit because it doesn’t reflect the worthy admiration people can have for deities but I get it: humans are currently deeply in love with our own abilities and the message here is that we need nothing outside of ourselves to succeed. I try not to dwell on it to the point that it gets in the way of what is an opportunity to have a fun time watching a popcorn movie and seeing some of my favorite deities brought to life. My absolute guilty pleasure: Disney’s Hercules.

    • Uuuuuuma. Did you see her as Aphrodite to Oliver Reed’s Haephestus?

    • Don’t get me started about depictions (or lack thereof) of Ereshkigal! I dance with House of Inanna of San Jose. Unfortunately perhaps, after researching Ereshkigal, I had rather dim views of Inanna’s character compared to her twin, possibly similar to the negative depictions of Aphrodite you encountered.

  • My
    son, 6, loved it. It was a great supplement to the myth and other books
    we’ve read. However, as I was reading it aloud to him, I didn’t enjoy
    it. I thought the writing was weak. While it’s not offensive, there’s
    something… dismissive about the tone. There are other YA books that
    are better written and capture the Pagan and Polytheist spirit better.
    If my kids want to read Riordan’s books they can do so, but I won’t be
    reading anymore of them aloud.

    • Bert Ricci

      “dismissive” is a good word. I read and enjoyed a number of the books but ended up having my suspension of irritation worn out. There was a part where spirits of devotees of Mithras were being depicted as both stupid and dumb, along with other winning traits. It was too much. Though in the same book there was a scene with two Roman deities manifesting as Hepburn and Peck from “Roman Holiday” that I still cherish the mental images of. If it gets the kids to dig further, it is good. I was led on by bad Hollywood movies.

  • As a Hellenic Polytheist, I loved the books. The reference to sharing ones’ meals with Hestia was also a nice touch. I was put off by the movie version though, where they make Hades out to be the “Big Bad” with the usual tropes, when the villain in the books is actually one of the Titans! Don’t know how they’ll reconcile that change with the book story line if they plan on continuing the movies. One plus to the movies: Nathan Fillion as Hermes!

    The author himself, while he may find the idea of modern worship “strange,” doesn’t seem to treat the gods in *too* disrespectful a way in his stories IMO. (I could wish for a much better portrayal of Dionysus though.) One has to keep in mind that this is fiction, and YA fiction at that. Percy Jackson is no more a guidebook for Hellenismos than Harry Potter is an instructional manual for Wiccans.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Are the Haloween- and Harry Potter-haters cranked up about this yet?

  • Another thing of note (for those who plan on reading but haven’t yet, spoilers!): The destruction visited upon Manhattan during the Titanomachy by Typhus (and the demigods) looked startlingly similar to what happened during Hurricane Sandy… and predates it by four years. And then a year later, Mount Diablo caught fire… like in the Lost Hero (which predates it, again, by 4 years). I’m a pretty firm believer in science, but when coincidences start piling up….