Welcome back as we continue our dive into the myths and legends that inspired ‘Percy Jackson and the Olympians.’ This week we continue where we left off, at the start of Episode Three, which picks up shortly after Percy Jackson learns that he is the half-mortal son of the Greek god, Poseidon.
As a child of Poseidon, Percy in in varied company. His siblings include giants, nymphs, gods, animals and of course other demigods, one of whom we actually talked about last week – Theseus, the original slayer of the Minotaur. Sadly, not all of Percy’s half-blood siblings were so heroic and one, Procrustes, will be showing up in a later episode. Far less noble than Theseus, Procrustes was a thief and murderer, forcing people to lay on his iron bed, which he would then forcibly fit them too – breaking and stretching bones if they were too small, and cutting off the excess if they were too large. In the book, Percy followed in Theseus’ footsteps once again, using his older half-brother’s method of dealing with… his other older half-brother. He tricked Procrustes into lying on his own bed and treated him just he had treated all his victims.
With such eclectic relatives it may be easy to see why Percy’s fellow campers may be wary of him, but that’s not the only reason. In the novels and TV series, the ‘Big Three’ gods, meaning Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, have all sworn they will not father anymore demigod children, making Percy a forbidden child. What is worse, the symbol of Zeus’ power, the Master Bolt, has been stolen. Poseidon is accused of the theft and he’s drafting his twelve-year-old in to solve his problem. As a result of his claiming, Percy must head off on a dangerous quest to retrieve the bolt before war can break out between the gods.
Before Percy can set out on his quest, tradition dictates that he must obtain a prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi – a creepy old woman living in the attic and spewing green mist. She is a far cry from the Delphic oracles of the past. Once people would travel for days or weeks to visit the Oracle, or (as she was known) the Pythia, and receive her wisdom, and the city of Delphi itself was said to be the centre of the world. According to legend, this site became a prophetic hotspot when the god Apollo slayed a great python and its corpse fell into a great fissure, strange fumes rising from that crevasse. Those who inhaled this smoke would be struck with visions and the god Apollo would inhabit them, speaking words of prophecy which would then be interpreted by Apollo’s priests. There was only ever one Oracle of Delphi at a time and, once she passed away, a new one would be chosen. Unusually she would be chosen from amongst the middle-aged women of Delphi, rather than the young maidens, and those chosen would forsake their previous life for the role of the Oracle. People would lavish the temple and the Pythia with offerings and sacrifices, in the hopes that they would be chosen to receive prophecy.
Percy does not bring any offerings and is far from impressed by the prophecy he receives, understandably so. Though the Oracle does declare that Percy will ‘find what was stolen,’ she also warns that he will be betrayed by a friend. As with many characters in stories about fate, Percy believes he can find a way out of his, but though the destinies of Greek myth may be wrongly interpreted, they are never avoidable. Before he even sets out on his quest, and though he will not know it until much later, Percy has already been betrayed.
Joining Percy on his quest is Grover – a friend Percy believes will never betray him – and Annabeth – a girl Percy believes will never be his friend. Annabeth is the daughter of Athena, a virgin goddess who took no lovers and no spouse. To get around this, children of Athena are born much in the same way that Athena was, from the head of their parent. While Athena sprung fully-formed from the head of Zeus after he split it open to cure a headache, Riordan’s children of Athena are created in a more metaphorical way, born from a thought and gifted to a human Athena cares for. With very different personalities and goals, Percy and Annabeth have clashed since he first arrived at camp, but he chooses her for her skills, ruthlessness and, he believes, ineligibility for the prophecy.
Together, the three of them set off to complete their quest – and naturally run into trouble almost immediately.
First, they encounter the Fury, Mrs Dodds, Percy’s first monster (re-formed after her previous encounter with Percy’s sword) and then someone far more dangerous; Auntie Em. Living alone aside from her many stone statues, keeping her face covered, and terrifying enough that even the Fury refuses to meet her gaze, Auntie Em is, of course, Medusa.
One of the most well-known figures from Greek myth, Medusa is known for her hair made of snakes, and her ability to turn men to stone with a glance. In earlier legends, Medusa was born a gorgon, one of three sisters, all with great wings and snaked hair. In these tales, Medusa was tragically the only one of the three born mortal, and was killed by the hero Perseus. In later versions of the tale, specifically the Roman poet Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, Medusa was once human, a beautiful woman cursed by a god.
In this version of the tale Medusa was a beautiful woman, a priestess of Athena, sworn to remain a virgin. Tragically, her beauty attracted many suitors one of whom was the god Poseidon. The god assaulted Medusa – though some accounts say seduced – within Athena’s temple. Angered at the slight, and the defilement of her temple, Athena cursed Medusa, transforming her into the famous gorgon. It is this version of the tale that is alluded to within ‘Percy Jackson and the Olympians’. Though Medusa makes no mention of being a sworn virginial priestess of the goddess, she does state that she once revered Athena above all else, but that despite her years of devotion the goddess never answered her prayers. Then, she met Poseidon.
Her relationship with Poseidon appears somewhat more complicated – it certainly seems that there was a romantic relationship between the two. Medusa compares herself to Percy’s mother and says of her meeting with Poseidon that he told her that he loved her, but that Athena decided Medusa had embarrassed her and needed to be punished. It is not clear whether this embarrassment comes from Medusa taking a lover, from her faltering in her singular devotion to Athena by caring for a different god, or even just gaining Poseidon’s attention in the first case. Regardless, Medusa’s implied affection for Poseidon clearly died with Athena’s curse. She states that she and Sally Jackson were both preyed on by the same monster, and clearly blames Poseidon for not protecting her from Athena’s wrath. She hates Poseidon so much that when she perceives Percy as being similar to his father she decides that he must die, just as Athena’s daughter must die.
Percy manages to follow in his namesake’s footsteps and beheads Medusa, just as the Perseus of myth did. Interestingly while Percy did not have the winged sandals and cap of invisibility that Perseus had in the myths, both were present during the scene, with Grover wearing the sandals, and Annabeth owning the cap. As in the myths, Medusa’s severed head retains the ability to petrify, and Percy is able to use it to also defeat the Fury Alecto, who still hunts them. Another aspect that has both similarities and differences to the myths is what happened to the head afterwards.
In myth, Perseus is said to have gifted the head of Medusa to Athena, who had aided him in his quest. Athena was pleased with the offering, and it was placed upon her shield (or aegis). Percy also delivers the head to the gods, though this is an act of impertinence, rather than devotion.
Despite attacking Percy and Annabeth, Medusa is clearly painted as a sympathetic villain, yes one who has petrified monsters and heroes alike and attempts to do the same to our three protagonists, but also someone who was herself an innocent victim of unjust gods (though admittedly, we do only get her side of the story).
This symbiosis between god and monster, villain and victim, continues in Episode Four as Percy, Annabeth and Grover encounter Echidna, and her monstrous young Chimera.
Part woman, part serpent (or dragon) Echidna and her lover Typhon (a monstrous, storm-bringing giant) are said to have spawned many monsters, including the many-headed Cerberus and the many-more headed Hydra. As Echidna points out in the show, the distinction between monster and not is vague. Her grandmother is Percy’s great grandmother (and Annabeth’s great-great grandmother) the earth deity Gaea, who birthed Kronos, father of Poseidon and his siblings. Another of Gaea’s children was Ceto, a goddess who presided over the dangers of the sea and who (in some accounts) birthed the monstrous Echidna. Echidna and her children are therefore all, in some way, cousins to the gods and their children.
This is far from the only time that divine blood births monstrous stock – among Percy’s own siblings are included the man-eating cyclops, Polyphemus, the whirlpool creating Charybdis, and Laestrygon – the first king of the cannibalistic Laistrygones.
Even those monsters that are not directly the children of the gods often have them to thank for their existence, or their rampages. Much like Athena creating Medusa, the very Minotaur that almost killed two of Poseidon’s children was created by their father. The story goes that Minos wished to secure the throne of Crete and prayed to Poseidon for a sign of the god’s favour. Poseidon sent a great white bull from the waves. The expectation was that in exchange for Poseidon’s favour once kingship was secured, Minos would sacrifice the bull to Poseidon. Minos, however thought that the bull was the most magnificent creature he had ever seen and chose to keep it, sacrificing a less impressive specimen instead. Poseidon, naturally, took offence at the slight.
In order to take his revenge, Poseidon made Minos’ wife, Pasiphae, fall in love with the bull. Driven by her unnatural feelings, Pasiphae employed the inventor Daedalus to create a life-sized statue of a cow (hollow so that Pasiphae could fit inside) and place it within the field where the bull resided. As a result, Pasiphae fell pregnant, and the minotaur that would cause Theseus and Percy so much trouble was born.
Even when the gods aren’t using monsters as their divine retribution, they are certainly able to act in monstrous ways themselves. Unable to defeat Echidna and her child, Percy, Annabeth, and Grover take shelter in one of Athena’s modern-day temples – St Louis’ Gateway Arch. They are under the impression that monsters should not be able to reach them in this place of sanctuary, but they are wrong. Angered at Percy sending the Medusa head to Olympus (somewhat ironically given how gratefully she received it from Perseus) and at Annabeth for not stopping him, Athena allowed Echidna and the Chimera into her temple, leaving her daughter and friends at their mercy.
During the ensuing confrontation, Perseus manages to trick Annabeth and Grover to safety, staying behind to confront Echidna and the Chimera himself – a risky, desperate plan.
The Chimera is traditionally described as a hybrid creature, made from a lion, a goat and a snake. It is primary shown as having the head and body of a lion, a goat’s head protruding from its back and a snake for a tail – it is also sometimes described as having some draconic elements, which may account for the creature’s apparent ability to breath fire. In the ‘Percy Jackson and the Olympians’ show the creature does not quite match the myths, but is still clearly made up of serpentine, caprine and leonine elements. The Chimera has a body and head similar to that of a lion, but with dark scaled skin and a pointy tail with spines running down its back. Rather than a snake, it has a stinger on the end of its tail and, while it has only the one head, it does have a pair of impressive goat horns and an extendable hood around its neck, similar to that of a king cobra. It also, unfortunately for Percy, has the famed fire-breath of the Chimera – one of the things that makes it so hard to kill in mythology.
The hero who originally killed the Chimera was actually another of Percy’s half-brothers, Bellerophon, who was able to take on the Chimera from the sky with the help of the flying horse Pegasus. Bellerophon struck the Chimera in the mouth with a lead-tipped spear, and the Chimera’s own fire breath was its undoing. Its breath melted the lead, and the Chimera was killed by the molten metal.
Percy unfortunately has neither a Pegasus, nor any way to really kill the creature. His only option is to escape, which he does by taking his cue from the episode title and ‘plunging to his death’.
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