Rick Riordan’s ‘Percy Jackson and the Olympians’ is perhaps the most well known modern book series inspired by Greek myth. Originally comprising of six books and starting with ‘Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief’, the series has sold over 180 million copies worldwide and been translated into thirty-seven languages. It has inspired a Broadway musical, two films, and now, finally, a Disney Plus TV series. Drawing heavily from the books, but also from aspects of Greek myth unexplored in the original series, the Disney show brings to life a wonderful world of myth and magic, of humans and gods.
In the first episode we are introduced to the titular character, Percy Jackson, played by Walker Scobell, who is, in own words, ‘a troubled kid’. As well as the normal challenges a pre-teen may face – including dyslexia, ADHD, bullies and a dirtbag stepfather – Percy has other worries. Throughout his life he has caught glimpses of things that he can’t explain – things that no one else can see. Flying horses and armoured rhinos that disappear from sight or transform into rubbish-trucks when he takes a second look. When he is attacked by yet another of these impossible creatures on a school trip, Percy learns that he is a ‘half-blood,’ a child with one human parent and one godly one.
In this, Percy is just like the heroes of Greek myth, almost all of them were said to have a godly parent, or at least ancestor. Heracles (better known by the Roman, Hercules) was, of course, the half-human son of the lightning god Zeus and the human princess Alcmene. Tragic hero of the Trojan war, Achilles was the son of the sea-goddess, Thetis. The famously lost Odysseus was said to be descended from the line of Zeus on his father’s side and Hermes on his mother’s. Even Percy’s own namesake, Perseus was the child of a god. As explained by Percy’s mortal mother, Sally, the original Perseus was the son of Zeus and the mortal woman Danae. He and his mother were placed into a chest and cast away to sea, as Danae’s father was fearful of a prophecy stating he would be killed by Danae’s son.
One thing the series doesn’t explain is how Danae became pregnant – in mythology, the gods did not always take on human form when approaching humans who had caught their interest and Zeus entered Danae’s chamber as a shower of golden rain, impregnating her that way. Luckily, Sally’s own experiences with an unnamed godly lover were more traditional, a romantic meeting on a beach in Montauk.
With the knowledge that he’s a half-blood, Percy discovers that the strange things he has been seeing all his life have been real. He has been catching glimpses of the magical world through the Mist, a veil which hides the supernatural realities of myths and monster from mortal eyes. To mortals, a Pegasus may appear as a normal horse, a mechanical rhino as a truck, and a deadly Chimera as a small Pomeranian.
Greek mythology does feature references to a ‘mist’ used for concealment. In ‘The Iliad’, the goddess Athena removes ‘the mist’ (or veil, depending on the translation) from the hero Diomedes’ eyes so that he is able to distinguish between mortals and the hidden gods. In ‘The Odyssey’, Athena is said to have drawn a thick mist around the hero Odysseus, hiding him from view as he travels through the land of the hostile Phaeacians. Given that this mist allows Odysseus to walk into the palace and right up to the queen without anyone wondering what a cloud of fog is doing in there, we can assume that this mist is more akin to invisibility, rather than a literal smokescreen. As well as turning mythical creatures mundane, the Mist in ‘Percy Jackson and the Olympians’ seems to have this same ability to make something unseen. On a school trip, Percy is attacked by his teacher, Mrs Dodds, who turns out to be the Fury, Alecto, in disguise. Rather than seeing Percy attacked by a normal schoolteacher (instead of a bat-winged monster) the crowd around him seems to see nothing wrong at all.
After Percy is attacked and discovers his godly heritage, Percy’s mother Sally decides that the normal world is no longer safe for him. She explains that after a certain age, monsters are drawn to half-bloods and will try to kill them. In order to keep Percy alive, he must go to Camp Half-Blood, a safe place where the children of the gods can live and train. Percy and Sally are joined on their journey to camp by Percy’s best friend Grover (played by Aryan Simhadri), who is revealed to be a satyr and, like Mrs Dodds, has been keeping his inhuman aspects hidden beneath the mist.
Grover had deliberately befriended Percy as his part of his role to help young half-bloods make their way safely to camp and prepare them for the world of the gods. Satyrs are nature spirits most popularly described as having the upper body of a man and the lower body of a goat, although some earlier depictions show them with a horse’s tail and ears. They are associated with the nature god Pan, and companions to the god of wine, Dionysus – as such they are often seen a raucous and lustful, famous for their drunken and rapacious behaviour.
You may wonder why such creatures would be entrusted with the protection and guidance of the gods’ children, but there is precedent. As a child, the god Dionysus himself was entrusted to the care of a Satyr, Silenus. The wisest of the satyrs, Silenus was responsible for raising and tutoring the young Dionysus, and after the god grew to adulthood, became his loyal companion. Silenus was not quite able to escape all of a satyr’s vices, he had a reputation for drunkenness, occasionally wandering off in a drunken haze (an unfortunate habit which led to the tragedy of king Midas). Luckily, the Satyrs depicted by Riordan are not so keen on debauchery, and instead the series focuses more on Satyrs in their function as nature spirits, they are described as primarily vegetarian and dedicated to protecting the planet and the wild from the harm done by humans. Unluckily, neither Riordan’s nor the satyrs of myth are renowned for their fighting prowess and on their way to camp Percy, his mother, and Grover encounter trouble –trouble in the form of the dreaded Minotaur.
The Minotaur, of course, is the part-human, part-bull monster of Minos’ Labyrinth. In Greek myth, the Minotaur never left its labyrinth, instead feeding on unarmed sacrifices of young Athenian men and women, sent into the maze to die. Eventually, the hero Theseus managed to kill the creature, either with a sword he had smuggled inside, or with his bare hands depending on the myth. The Minotaur is typically depicted with the head of a bull and the body of a man, though its body may also include some bovine features such as a tail or fur. The show leans into the more bestial elements of the monster, portraying it as huge, muscular, and intimidating. When running on all fours, it’s human elements are almost invisible, and it could pass for a normal (albeit giant bull), It is only when it stands that it appears more humanoid. During the fight, Sally attempts to distract the Minotaur and lead it away from Percy, and seemingly pays for this sacrifice with her life. Enraged, Percy attacks the Minotaur. Perhaps inspired by the differing myths of Theseus using either his sword or bare hands to defeat the creature, Percy manages to kill the Minotaur using both. First, by attacking with his sword damaging the creature’s horn and, once he’s disarmed, with his bare hands, breaking the damaged horn free and using it to fatally stab the monster. Injured and exhausted, the first episode of ‘Percy Jackson and the Olympians’ ends with Percy passing out on the borders of the camp he and his mother tried so hard to reach.
Picking up immediately where Episode One left off, Episode Two sees Percy waking in Camp. He immediately sets off to find his father. If he was hoping for a quick family reunion, Percy is destined for disappointment. With the exception of the camp director Dionysus, (now known as Mr D), there are no gods to be found. His fellow half-bloods are trained by each other and by the centaur Chiron, who famously taught some of the most well-known heroes, Hercules, Jason, and Achilles notable amongst their number.
Not only are the gods not in camp, but Percy learns that many half-bloods do not even know who their godly parent is. A god must officially claim their child for the child to be recognised, and this may take days, weeks, or months – if it happens at all. Once a child is claimed, they are moved into their parent’s cabin – the camp being divided into twelve cabins, each dedicated to and housing the children of a god or goddess.
There were in fact many, many more than twelve gods and goddesses worshipped throughout Ancient Greece. The twelve cabins, however, refer to the twelve Olympian gods of Greek myth who (as the name suggests) resided on Mount Olympus. This number consisted of: Zeus, Poseidon, Demeter, Apollo, Athena, Hera, Hermes, Artemis, Dionysus, Hephaestus, Aphrodite, and Ares. Not counted amongst this number and having no cabins in camp are Hestia and Hades, who were still seen as significant deities. As an unclaimed child, Percy doesn’t have a cabin to call his own. He and the other unclaimed children are given residency in the cabin of Hermes, alongside the god’s claimed children.
Riordan chose Hermes to fulfil this role due to his position as a god of travellers as he was invoked to protect those on the road, and to ensure that they would receive hospitality on their travels. Though Hermes is an understandable choice, there are other deities who could conceivably be justifiable in serving the same role due to their domains. As a goddess of family, Hera may seem a natural choice, however many myths detail her cruelty towards the mistresses and illegitimate children of her husband. Some famous examples include when she sent serpents to kill the infant Heracles, or when she attempted to prevent Leto from birthing Apollo and Artemis. She was also more likely to be invoked in her position as a goddess of marriage, and childbirth.
Alternatively (and ironically) another suitable option would be Zeus. Part of Zeus’ role was as the patron of Xenia, the Greek code of guest hospitality which characterises the responsibilities of a host to a guest, and a guest to a host. On the host’s part, this involved providing the guest with shelter, food, drink an opportunity to bathe and often an exchange of gifts. This hospitality must be offered to those who needed it – even strangers – and the host was expected not to question the guest until after they were settled and refreshed. In response, of course, the guest was expected to be courteous, share tales of their adventures, and not harm the host. They were also expected to reciprocate in kind if the host ever found themselves at the guest’s home. As the patron of Xenia, Zeus was said to punish those who failed to uphold the code and would sometimes take human form, request shelter as a test. Those who upheld the law of Xenia were rewarded, those who did not swiftly punished. In Camp Half-Blood, Zeus would fail his own test, his cabin stands empty while Percy is relegated to a sleeping mat on the floor of Hermes’ cabin.
As a new member of Hermes’ cabin, Percy meets Luke, another half-blood and a recognised child of Hermes. While showing him around camp, Luke introduces Percy to the concept of ‘glory’, or Kleos. Kleos is intrinsically linked to the heroes of Greek myth, in particular as seen in the ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’. Kleos is achieved through great deeds, particularly in battle, not only through the heroes actions, but their reputation. Kleos is connected to the words ‘to hear,’ and as such it traditionally related not only to the hero’s personal accomplishments but to what others said about them. By acquiring Kleos, heroes could achieve a form of immortality by living on in the tales and songs that told of their exploits. As such, many heroes were willing to die in battle to achieve this – Achilles, for example, was willing to die in the Trojan War providing he received honour, rather than returning home to live a long ignoble life. In ‘Percy Jackson and the Olympians’, Percy decides to acquire Kleos, not for immortality or general acclaim, but because he feels that by gaining Kleos he will become much harder for his father to ignore, making it more likely he will be claimed.
Whether or not the deities motivations align with Percy’s own, his plan does succeed. After defeating three combatants – half-blood children of the war god, Ares – during a game of capture the flag, Percy gets his wish. The episode ends with Percy being claimed by his father, a blue, glowing trident appearing above his head as Chiron loudly declares him a child of Poseidon, ‘Earthshaker, Stormbringer.’ More concerningly, Chiron also states that Percy is his father’s ‘only hope to prevent the outbreak of war.’ Days after arriving at Camp Half-Blood, Percy is told that his father has needs him to undergo a dangerous quest, a quest to track down and retrieve Zeus’ Master Bolt – a magical weapon that Percy is himself is suspected of stealing.
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