EBH: ‘Percy Jackson and the Olympians’ as Seen from a Traditional Catholic’s Perspective

Welcome, welcome to another guest this week. Sayf Bowlin is a Catholic seminarian and fan of the science fiction / fantasy genre who enjoys the interplay between faith, reason and pop culture. He has graciously sent along his insights on the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series for our conversation.  Thanks for helping me with this subbing gig, Sayf!–Elizabeth

Percy Jackson and the Olympians:

My Two Drachmas: Some thoughts on the Series from a Catholic Perspective

by  Sayf Bowlin, KCHS

When I was in middle school, I read ravenously, so much so that my bus driver used to call me “the Professor.”  One of the subjects which I liked to read was Greek mythology. In my reading, I remember coming across a book in the school library which had an interesting conclusion.  It said that at some point in the history of Greece, the Christians came with their crucifixes and drove the Greek gods away – but they were waiting until the day they could return.  At the time, I thought this was very clever and liked the fact that it took Christianity seriously (so I thought), acknowledging that true worship of God banishes all idolatry (or so I thought).  Another book I saw recently in a book store concluded with the proclamation that the gods “are still with us.”  It would appear that this is the case, at least per Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.

The basic premise of the series is simple:  The gods of ancient Greek myth exist and have existed since the time their stories were first told.  The events of “mythology” all happened and continue to happen in one way or other.  The gods and goddesses can and still do have children with mortals.  Poseidon, the god of the sea, sired Percy Jackson, a demigod hero who trains under Chiron the centaur at Camp Half-Blood because monsters are constantly drawn to the scent of half-bloods and so they need to learn to defend themselves.  Oh, and Kronos, the father of the gods, is re-assembling himself after having been sliced into a thousand pieces by his own scythe and scattered in the depths of Tartarus.  He is planning to throw down Olympus and the gods to establish a new age of the Titans.  All in all, a good story to (re)tell.

Despite a recent motion picture release of a…creative interpretation of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: the Lightning Thief, this series does not seem to be nearly as popular as Harry Potter or Twilight.  I could not help, however, putting pen to paper to express some thoughts on the series.

I picked up the books after watching The Lightning Thief and enjoyed them immensely.  Firstly, they are very well done.  The plot is good (although most characters or events are taken from the ancient myths).  Riordan has done an excellent job of establishing the fictional premise “what if the gods existed today,” and his answer is quite entertaining.  Secondly, although I have not heard any interviews or speculation to confirm this, I laud the fact that Riordan creates a reasonably flawed hero who must deal with real issues.  I think that although his attributing dyslexia to the demigod mind being wired for Ancient Greek and ADHD to innate battle reflexes is a bit hokey, it works in the series and is, if nothing else, encouragement to those children who suffer these things.  Lastly (and for entertainment purposes, most importantly) the books are witty.  Riordan has a great sense of humor, which is especially well-presented in the first-person perspective of Percy as narrator.  For example, the opening line of The Titan’s Curse is “The Friday before winter break, my mom packed me an overnight bag and a few deadly weapons and took me to a new boarding school.”[1] Beyond the chapter titles (almost all of which are great jokes or word plays), an example of one line I especially like comes after Percy, having slain Medusa, is packaging the head to send to Olympus but is warned by his friend Grover, “They’re not going to like that […] They’ll think you’re impertinent,” to which Percy responds, “I am impertinent.”[2]

But just as I now look back with horror on the conclusion to the mythology book from my middle school library, I am concerned about the Percy Jackson books.  Before elucidating my specific concerns, I need to address the matter of the science-fiction/fantasy genre in general, and Percy Jackson’s place in it.

For those of us alive today, the piece of fantasy literature par excellance has been J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  Although not “original” per se, it comes as a masterful culmination of millennia of story-telling.  Its popularity speaks to the fact that something about The Lord of the Rings is really good, really true and really beautiful.  Similarly, The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis, has been an immensely popular series.  Neither of these contain true religion (although Tolkien’s posthumously-published Silmarillion comes close to providing some theology/cosmogeny).  Since The Lord of the Rings and Narnia, there have been numerous fantasy books which have their roots in Tolkien’s and Lewis’.  With the publication of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling, the genre has gained popularity again, with both young and old.  While a fan of the Harry Potter books, I recognize that Rowling includes many pagan practices which are still around today.[3] While religion is not practiced openly (neither paganism nor Christianity) there are also positive or neutral references to Christianity.[4] The Harry Potter books are only a real danger for those who have nothing else to anchor their faith to.

The Percy Jackson books are different.  There are almost no references to Christianity, not even passing cultural references.[5] There are, however, many pagan aspects – after all, the books suppose the reality of the Greek gods.  This follows in a disturbing trend: The Lord of the Rings/Narnia contain next to no worship or religious practices; Harry Potter and the like contain some, but are different enough that they should not be confused with reality by a halfway intelligent reader; Percy Jackson assumes the existence of worshipable deities and the hero makes these acts of worship.[6] Without being an alarmist who thinks that these books signal the progressive damnation of everyone who reads them, I am still concerned that the general trend in fantasy literature, which a hundred years ago was practically innocuous or even laudable, has slowly begun to form the thoughts of readers in the wrong direction.  It is one thing to be amoral or so empty that the reader is left no worse than when he started; it is quite another to direct the reader towards the idea that there are multiple gods.  The following are some of the specific concerns I have.

The most glaring issue with the Percy Jackson books is the premise.  In order to have demigods, there must be some form of adultery or fornication.  Riordan thankfully does not overly stress this point, but it is impossible to avoid because it drives the plot of the series.  The hero would not even exist if Poseidon had not become enamored with Percy’s mother.  Most of the gods are “married,” therefore making their relations adulterous.  While this is standard fare for the Greek myths, this does not make it good in any way.  In fact, bringing the story into a contemporary society which has so many difficulties with marital fidelity and sexual promiscuity is not healthy.

And then there are the gods themselves.  Even the ones who are not constantly fornicating/adulterating are either ill-tempered, selfish, moody or callous.  Not one of them is worthy of imitation as a character – and mortals worship them – but they do so out of fear.  Percy minds himself (sometimes) merely because he does not want to be reduced to a pile of ash.  In fact, the plot of these books is driven by the fact that some demigods are supporting Kronos because their “divine” parents are neglectful of or cruel to them.  There are gods who never once claim their children, much less parent them.  What kind of image of divinity are young readers getting by reading these books?  Certainly nothing that should be associated with the true God.

There is definitely not a developed theology in these books.  From the start, when Percy first arrives at Camp Half-Blood and begins to learn what is really going on in his life, he has an exchange with Chiron (the three-thousand year-old centaur who trained the greatest heroes), about the gods:

“Wait,” I told Chiron.  “You’re telling me there’s such a thing as God.”

“Well, now,” Chiron said.  “God – capital G, God.  That’s a different matter altogether.  We shan’t deal with the metaphysical.”

“Metaphysical?  But you were just talking about – ”

“Ah, gods, plural, as in, great beings that control the forces of nature and human endeavors: the immortal gods of Olympus.  That’s a smaller matter.”

I do not know what Riordan’s intention is, but if he is trying to say that his stories are not supposed to be a commentary on the God, then I can excuse his intention but not what he actually does.  Making an academic (even somewhat accurate) distinction at the beginning of the series does not negate all of the theology which will be absorbed by reading the rest of the story.  Some examples will be helpful:

v Apparently, the gods, although described as unchangeable, can change.[7] This is in direct contradiction to a solid Christian theology.[8]

v The worst line of the entire series in terms of teaching the reader bad theology, is the assertion that gods can “lose faith.”[9]

v Gods can apparently fade out of existence, as evidenced by the “death” of Pan, the Nature god.[10] This is somehow tied with the belief in them by the mortals, which is the exact opposite of the reality.  God keeps us in existence.  If He were to stop thinking of us, we would cease to exist.

v The gods are incapable of saving mortals.  Salvation of mortals is to be found in themselves.[11] This is the most disconcerting part of the series, because readers who ought to be sent looking outside themselves for salvation in a transcendental being are being told to look back at themselves where, left to themselves, they will not find salvation.  And if one does not find salvation, one will find the only alternative: damnation.

It would be easy to write an extensive commentary nit-picking the series.  Both irritating and positive elements abound, such as Hera being described as “Queen of Heaven” (one of the titles of the Blessed Mother) or the fact that the daughter of Athena is generated by the goddess’ thoughts (an accurate description of how, within the Trinity, the Son is begotten by the Father).  Such an analysis would be annoying to both write and read, and so I will refrain.

While I whole-heartedly encourage those interested in this genre who are looking for an entertaining read which will not tax them to read the Percy Jackson stories, I would recommend caution to parents who, unlike the gods, are concerned with the upbringing of their children.  Everything we read will have an effect on us for better or for worse.  It is never “just a book.”

[1] The Titan’s Curse, p. 1

[2] The Lightning Thief, pp. 186-187

[3] even though, in her defense, they are different enough from the real practices that a Christian reader with some maturity should not be led astray by them

[4] for example: Hogwarts has a Christmas and Easter break and Deathly Hallows is full of references, not the least of which are two quotes from scripture on wizard gravestones

[5] in fact, only two times do I recall seeing anything that even acknowledged the existence of Christianity: 1) one of the chapter headings describes Percy getting a Christmas present (without actually celebrating Christmas) and 2) a Televangelist goes to the worst part of the Underworld because of his hypocrisy; cf. the quote from The Titan’s Curse on how it is “winter” break and not “Christmas” break

[6] the most common example is the offering of the best portion of a meal to their parent (Lightning Thief, pp. 104-105 and numerous others)

[7] cf. The Last Olympian, p. 358

[8] “That God is changeless follows upon His infinity and His absolute actuality.  What is changeable is, to that extent, perfectible, and God is absolutely perfect.  What is changeable is finite, for change means loss or gain, increase or diminishment, and God is infinite.  What is changeable is in the state of potentiality (the state of ‘can be’) and in God there is no potentiality at all; God is not in the state of ‘can be’; God IS.  Therefore God is immutable or changeless.  This does not mean that God is in a kind of frozen fixity.  Changelessness in God is sheer perfection.  It means that God is without any lack which a change could fill up, and that God is pure actuality which can suffer no loss by change.”  A Tour of the Summa by Msgr. Paul J. Glenn, p. 11, summarizing St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, I, question 9, article 1

[9] The Battle of the Labyrinth, p. 105

[10] The Battle of the Labyrinth, p. 314

[11] The Battle of the Labyrinth, p. 315


  1. Sayf,
    Thank you for your in depth analysis of the Percy Jackson series. I was also enamored by the Greek myths as a child. They were so vibrant and rich with conflict, bravery and tragedy. The consequences of pride preceding the fall was shown time and again. Be respectful, be humble or watch out!

    I must say that I thought the culmination of the series in the fifth book was something I did not expect. I don’t want to put spoilers here for those who might be interested in reading the series, but haven’t yet. I did think it demonstrated selflessness on the part of Percy and showed an attempt at healing the many rifts that had developed over the years as to why many demigods and minor gods had sided with the Titans in their war to overthrow the Olympians.

    I don’t worry that my son will grow up and be a polytheist. He is at an age where he likes to fantasize that he has special powers, which would make him a special kid. He is special, but not because he is a demi-god.

    Oh, and I have seen interviews with Rick Riordan. His has a son who is dyslexic and has ADHD. The Percy Jackson series came about when his son begged him to tell a story about Greek myths that he hadn’t heard already. Riordan in his storytelling mode decided to weave a modern day story to make his own son feel a little better about himself since his brain was wired a little differently from other kids.

  2. Mariann Foster says

    Thanks for your post. I’ve been reading the Percy Jackson series over the past few weeks and thoroughly enjoying it. I hadn’t thought much about the lack of religion and along with the “worship” of the gods in the books. Thanks for making me think.

  3. I read the first two books, and just stopped. For some reason I didn’t find the characters engaging enough that I cared to read more. I did enjoy the humor and the Greek mythology, though I wasn’t really paying close enough attention in school to get all of it. I had to look up a few things to clarify what was going on.

    I did notice the lack of religion, but just assumed that Riordan didn’t want to go there. Nor did I worry that kids would want to worship the gods after reading the books. It’s Greek mythology after all, and that’s the way it was.

    From that point of view, I think it’s a great way to introduce kids to Greek mythology or to reinforce what they’ve already learned.

    I have to say that, since my girls are adults, I don’t worry as much about the messages from books. But I understand your concern. However, I feel the same about these books as the ones that my girls read when they were younger. I got into the habit of reading whatever they read. It gave us the opportunity to discuss the books – what did they like or not like, and I could share my reaction based on having actually read the book. If there was something I really didn’t like because of religious or moral reasons, books became a great way to start conversations. We still have those kinds of conversations about books and movies.

    I think there is a danger, though, in always trying to reconcile every book with our Christian beliefs. As I said, it’s Greek mythology. When I read Native American legends, I read them to understand more about their culture, their beliefs, without trying to tie them to my own religion. Sometimes there are parallels, sometimes not.

    As for the behavior of the “gods” not being quite what we would want morally, I am reminded of all the stories in the Old Testament where people chose poorly. Again, it’s an opportunity to talk to our kids about what should be done, and what the consequences were. With Percy Jackson, I felt that the intent was to give kids a modern version of Greek mthology and nothing more.

  4. I allowed my son to read these books (he is in fifth grade). But I am reading them with him. I have always discussed with him books that we read together. That way I make sure that the greek mythology is all in fun and more of a tool for him to read some literature that he will be exposed to within a few years through his school curriculum. He can rattle off so many old myths and legends now, but understands firmly it is just make-believe. We have also talked about the lack of morals and poor values some of these gods have and used it to discuss how lucky we are that we don’t live under these gods, but instead THE God.

    I understand your concern, but have to agree that for most people and kids they will keep a firm line betweent the “play” world of Percy and his gods and the “real” world we live in with God. But you are right that Christian references are seen less in less in contemporary science fiction and fantasy literature as a general trend. I guess it is a comentary on our society today, and does make me a little sad.

  5. My apologies for a rushed response, but we’re at that point in the semester that all I should be doing is studying, but I didn’t want to ignore the comments here.

    As succinctly as possible: I stand by my assertion that there is not such thing as “just a book”. Although I can’t remember the details of the incident, I remember being in a pastoral conversation with someone to whom I gave some advice which I immediately retracted, realizing to my horror that it was something which I had heard so many times in television and the movies. If I, a rather intelligent man who takes faith seriously can fall into a trap like this, who else?

    The distinction I apparently failed to make (mea culpa) in my essay was that, like the Harry Potter books, the ones in real danger are the ones who are not anchored in a faith to begin with. Those numbers are increasing. Elizabeth, in asking to post my essay, told me about a Cub Scout in her son’s Pack who was arguing that Zeus is more real than Christ.

    That being said, those of you who are bothering to read the stories with your children are the ones I’m certainly not worried about. Keep up the good work on being a good parent. I really admire it.

    A final distinction before I start cramming for a sexual morality quiz tomorrow: I don’t want to condemn every book that has things in it which are not reconcilable with our faith. I’m just concerned for those who, for whatever reason, can’t make the necessary distinctions. Again, I laud those who do. It’s always a good thing to at least have in the back of our minds how things are incongruous to our faith, even if we don’t shun them because of it.

    My apologies in advance if in my haste I phrased something that would convey a lack of respect to any comments posted here or if I sound defensive, because I don’t feel attacked.

    Thanks for the feedback, though. It’s always helpful.

    in Christ,

    – Sayf

  6. I think you do raise good and valid points Sayf. I always appreciate when people make me question and think about things in a new way. Thanks for making me dig a little deeper. We do need to be aware about what are kids are reading and their peers. There are many out there with out the anchor of faith to guide them. In their cases it is possible for them to be pushed by whatever wind popular culture blows their way. I would assume this has always been so.

    I think you are correct that what it boils down to is parental guidance or guidance from some caring adult guidance figure. It is a sad statement about the kid arguing about Zues being more real than Christ. As a parent I can previde the framework for appropriate guidance for my son so that when he reads books he can make distinctions. Kids without that are potentially more apt to soak up anything that pop culture sends their way.

    I guess the question is what responsibility does the author have? I do not have the answer to this question because it is a very tricky one. I am not aware what his personal beliefs are and am sure the book was written in fun for those purposes. I have very mixed feelings about personal responisiblilty in this regard. Generally I don’t hold authors to task for shaping the thoughts and values of others. (Maybe I should) Of course to ignore the fact that a popular book series can shape and influence the young would be naiive. I still believe that ultimately the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the parents/guardians. But then again, it would deeply sadden me if I had written a series of this sort to have it shape kids in a way I had not intended.

    So I guess what I am saying in a rather poor way is that I agree that we need to be aware of how these sorts of books might impact some young readers. I see it as a rather sad commentary on our society that some kids could be so influenced by a book series because they have no moral or faith grounding coming from their homes.

  7. Laurelkat says

    Thank you, Sayf, for putting words to my vague uneasiness about Percy Jackson. My middle schooler had read all the books, so I took him and my 9-year-old daughter to the highly-anticipated movie. They loved it, and, to my surprise, I loved it (it doesn’t hurt that I’ve had a crush on Pierce Brosnan for 20 years). I enjoyed the characters, the story, the creative adaptation of Greek myths into modern day America (Hollywood as the gates of Hades- genius!). However, I was uneasy with the utter pagan-ness of the whole thing.

    I must mention that I have not read the books, so my comments come from just the movie (though my son has given me a thorough analysis of the creative differences between the movie and the first book). And, yes, my eleven-year-old picked up on the author’s attempt to put God (with a capital G) in a separate box from the gods (lower case) in the book.

    Like Eeyore and Lynn mentioned above, I talk with my kids about the fiction they encounter. In this case, our discussion wasn’t to reconcile with our faith, rather, to contrast it. Sometimes clarity is achieved in light of differences. We talked about some of the concerns both Sayf and Lynn mentioned above among other things. Further, we were able to read in the New Testament where people believed in these false deities (in Acts, the people of Lystra mistaking Paul and Barnabas for Hermes and Zeus; Paul at Areopagus). My approach may have been a bit heavy-handed (my friends thought so), but I’d rather take every opportunity to use fiction to point towards God rather than away from Him.

    I have no idea what the author’s intent was (my inclination is that he simply wanted to spin a good yarn and to make the myths more accessible to a modern adolescent audience, though perhaps I should suspend judgment until I’ve actually read the books), but I agree with Lynn in that it is my responsibility to ground my kids in their faith so that they can read such fiction and not be negatively influenced.

    My two cents don’t add much to the discussion, but I wanted to thank Sayf for his insight and well-presented analysis. I’m glad to know my concerns about the series are justified and that I’m not the only parent having these discussions with my kids.

  8. Fan of Christ says

    Hmmm…all very intersting and points of view. However, I did not see any of these comments stemming from the truthful Word of God, they are all the opinions of humans purposing to choose rightly..I applaud you all for that. But, lets be real..the Word of God clearly tells us to steer clear of the occult, stay away from witchcraft, be removed from wizardry. Does anyone heed this warning as a cautionary wisdom?
    The issue is once you awaken the curious monster of confusion or views that play down a Holy God of Heaven that tells us dont go there…how do you control that thought.
    There is a book, titled “Already Gone”, by Ken Ham…excellent application of the curious questions without solid fountation of teenagers who finally throw their hands up and say, “I dont know what to believe…theres so many opinions”
    Satan has a foot in the door if we dont stop romancing the occult. We have been warned and now the advice in this column is…”Read it with your child so that you can explain it”….careful, be very careful what we approve and allow after the warnings in the Law (GEn, Ex, Deut, Lev, Num)…I hope the caution will win out…its from the God who knew.

  9. @Fan of Christ: Let me begin by saying that I am a Christian, born and raised, graduated from a Quaker university with a degree in Writing and Literature, AND a big fan of the Harry Potter books.

    I was 10 when the first Harry Potter book came out 12 years ago, and after my mother’s approval (she read the first book before letting me read it), I was allowed to read the whole series. And I never once thought that I should be practicing the magic in the books. Maybe sometimes I wished I could say “accio” and not have to walk across the room to get something, but the witches and wizards in the book are inherently magical. You can’t practice witchcraft and wizardry unless you were, to use a word you might be familiar with, predestined to be magical.

    I read these books, as did every friend in my circle of friends at church in high school, and as far as I’m aware, if we reach 11 without a letter from Hogwarts, we dismiss the idea of being magical and just enjoy harry’s journey.

    Speaking of Harry’s journey, the book is all about good triumphing over evil and the power of love. Magic is supernatural, and as Christians, we believe in the supernatural. Dumbledore versus Voldemort is an easy transfer to God versus Satan (remember that one of the meanest families in the book are named Lucius [Lucifer], Narcissa [Obsessed with self] and Draco [dragon]). God ultimately cannot win the war without sacrificing his son to Voldemort’s power, defeating it ultimately with love, self-sacrifice, and a repulsion of evil. Though Dumbledore is the only man Voldemort (flight from/of death in French) fears, Dumbledore ultimately cannot win the fight without Harry, who is like a son to him, giving up himself and dying to save the wizarding world from the reign of Voldemort).

    In these books, magic is a close substitute for the supernatural powers that we all (as Christians) believe in. The characters do not call upon evil forces to be magical; they just ARE magical. The magic is really no different than the magic it takes to pull four children out of war-torn Britain through a wardrobe and place them into the world of Narnia.

  10. *God cannot win without sacrificing his son to Satan’s power. Dumbledore cannot win without sacrificing Harry to Voldemort’s power.

  11. Thank you, Sayf, for your thoughts about the series. I was just a seminarian a few months ago, ordained to the priesthood less than 10 months ago. I pray for your continued studies and perseverance.

    I would like to affirm your comments, both in the essay and follow-up. What I find personally interesting and strangely disturbing is that Riordan treats the myths just like many of the Church Fathers and Mystics treat the life of Christ. In a kind of Ignatian fashion, Riordan allows the reader to dwell into the stories of the gods bit by bit, helping them meditate on every single nuance and tidbit of every story. Many Fathers and mystics do the same thing. As far as I am concerned, Anne Rice in her “Christ is Lord” series does so in a very powerful way.

    It’s an interesting parallel, and I do not know what to do with it. Does this make the Greek Myths “more real”? Do they make Zeus and Hecate come alive in a way that Peter or Paul or even Jesus himself cannot? I really do not know.

    Now, I do not see a group of teens or preteens dump half their lunch into Hestia’s fire, but I do hope that we seminarians and priests (and all Christians and people of good will) can promote a way of life that makes their faith life real, vivid, and worth living.

  12. i don’t think this book should be compared too much with christianity. i mean it’s greek mythology of course it shouldn’t and is not gonna have many referances to christ. but i do think you should explain to your child that this is make believe and souldn’t be taken too seriously. i personally think it is and amazing book and the characters in this book are relateable. i wpuld recommend it to anyone 12-18 though make sure you know their is a line between ‘play’ and ‘real life’.

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