The Gods, They Are Not Your Friends.

Nobody ever got it right, until Rick Riordan. Not the comic books that made them superheroes, not the TV shows, and certainly not Disney. Who knew that Riordan could launch a best-selling YA series based on the absolute truth: all the gods are bastards. Complete SOBs.

Riordan’s Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus books give us that old-time religion. Percy and his friends are demi-gods–children with one mortal and one divine parent. Since the Greek/Roman gods were big on recreational sex with attractive mortals but not big on parenting, their children start off with abandonment issues. Add to this that the monsters of mythology don’t stay dead–they “respawn” after a few years or centuries–and there’s nothing they like more than tasty young demi-gods, and survival becomes a real issue for the god’s neglected offspring. The answer is for demi-gods, when they reach a certain age, to go gather in Camp Half-Blood to be trained as heroes (by Charon, centaur-trainer of greats like Jason and Hercules, no less).

We of the modern world would notice all these demi-humans and monsters running around killing each other, if it wasn’t for the Mist–a divinely imposed mass hallucination that makes us forget, dismiss, or explain anything “out of the ordinary.” No need for Men in Black to come flashy-thing us and tell us it was the light of Venus reflecting off of swamp gas or whatever. So we don’t see the “terrorist attacks” and natural disasters around us for what they are–the fallout of hero-monster battles and harbingers of the End of The World.

Because the world is, in fact, doomed but for the victories and sacrifices of our main characters, Percy (son of Neptune), Annabeth (daughter of Athena), and so on. And wonderful–and terrifying, and sometimes heartbreaking–adventures they are too. And here is where Riordan shines; he takes the old myths of the Greek gods, demi-gods, and monsters, and updates them for a modern story, but he doesn’t pretty them up in any way.

So here we see the Zeus who is an arbitrary ruler (and a serial seducer at best) and his homicidally jealous wife Hera, who loves making life miserable and short for her husband’s many children (forget what Disney said–it wasn’t Hades who tried to kill Hercules as an infant). The other gods aren’t a whole lot better, some are worse. With absentee-parents like these it’s a wonder their children survive at all, and don’t think Riordan wasn’t making a pointed social comment here.

The stories are wonderful, and Percy, Annabeth, and their companions are fighting for the highest stakes; they must save mankind–first from domination by the Titans, then from extermination by Gaea and her other monstrous children. But as you read the stories, you realize why, whether it is Absolute Truth or merely another mythology, the Judeo-Christian worldview was a Good Idea that eventually supplanted the old-time pagan religions. Today we can read about these old-time gods but we can’t understand them unless we look at them through the eyes of their demi-god children, who “worship” them–in the sense that they make offerings to them and follow orders–but don’t love them. The old-time gods of the Hellenes (Greeks) demanded respect–but did not inspire adoration.

Why not? Because the Greeks saw the world as arbitrary and unfair, and their gods reflected it; after all, the gods ruled the world, so they were responsible for it. Thus Ares was a bully–he personified military strength, nothing else, and to the victor go the spoils. Aphrodite and her son Eros personified love–which could wreck marriages, destroy alliances, inspire murder, etc. Zeus and Neptune personified the sky (weather) and the sea (also weather), the two forces that brought the Greeks–farmers and sea-going merchants–prosperity or tragedy. If the gods smiled on you, you prospered, if they frowned, you failed, so you’d better worship them with offerings and rituals if you knew what was good for you. But even if you did all that, and kept the few moral laws (mostly civic laws) that they considered important, there was no guarantee of the god’s favor; fate was fickle, leading Solon, one of Athens’ greatest historical figures to declare “Call no man happy who is not dead.”

So for Percy and the gang, happiness is not guaranteed even if they win. The gods don’t have their best interests at heart, and often obstruct their quests. Each book contains the potential for tragedy (heroes die), and therefor for great heroism as they struggle against sometimes hopeless odds. You know that they will win in the end, but you cringe at the cost.

The Percy Jackson and The Heroes of Olympus books are written for the Young Adult market, and certainly Riordan gains strength as a storyteller as the series progresses, but I cannot recommend these books strongly enough.

8 thoughts on “The Gods, They Are Not Your Friends.

  1. kevin hearne in his iron druid books posits gods who are at least as troublesome as riordan’s crew. in the first couple of books it is a running joke that thor in particular is so obnoxious that even the other gods want him dead. in that world coyote is benevolent and reliable compared to most of the other gods. coyote. ’nuff said.

  2. “But as you read the stories, you realize why, whether it is Absolute Truth or merely another mythology, the Judeo-Christian worldview was a Good Idea that eventually supplanted the old-time pagan religions.”

    I’m not really a religious person, so I’m vague on the details, but isn’t the bible, for example, filled with incidents where the Abrahamic god or one of his servants does something dreadful?

    1. I had no intention of discussing theology, but now there you’re getting into the divide between the Old Testament and New Testament and evolving concepts of God. However, even going back to the Old Testament, Hebrew theology was wrestling with the idea that God could be perfect even if the world was imperfect (i.e., apparently unjust). Christianity, the child of Jewish theology, basically supplanted paganism by replacing the capricious old gods with a perfect god who’s primary attribute was love and who wanted to save men rather than judge them. You can argue over whether the Good Word was true, or merely very attractive, but the more optimistic world-view contained in Christianity won in the end.

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