With the recent popularity of the Percy Jackson middle grade fantasy series, Greek Mythology has also grown in popularity among both preteens and their teachers. Fictional treatments of such iconic figures as Jason, Helen of Troy, Odysseus, and even the god Pan have made the Greek myths familiar to young readers in a way that textbooks can’t.
There’s a reason why these myths continue to fascinate us well over 2,000 years since they were handed down to the Western World. The Greeks told stories filled with passion. Their heroes were capable of doing terrible things, and their gods acted in all-too-human—often lascivious—ways. Western drama as we know it was born in the religious dramas that gave us both comedy and tragedy. These myths greatly influenced all kinds of Greek thinkers—philosophers, mathematicians, rulers, playwrights—who in turn profoundly influenced Western thought in the Renaissance. We’d have no Shakespeare without the Greeks.
So universal do the Greeks seem to us today that it’s easy for us with Western postmodern values to forget how different from ours their cultural attitudes were. They had democracy, but also slaves, and women were treated as property as well. Warfare was glorified. Rulers often identified with a god who had the right to punish people as he saw fit. Once the ruling class ended the matriarchy of its ancestors, brutality was condoned or even praised.
Writing stories based on a culture with such a different ethical point of view from ours can be quite challenging—particularly in stories for young people, which we as teachers and parents require toe the ethical line. Stories with human sacrifice, gods who rape, incest, and other atrocities are generally kept away from pre-teens; in D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, for example, Herakles “swats” his family down instead of tearing them limb from limb. Percy Jackson only goes so far down this road as well—even when Percy slays a monster, it disappears in a cloud of gold dust rather than actually bleed to death.
Are there any novels out there for young readers that aren’t afraid to deal with the darker aspects of Greek myths? One such YA novel I read recently, Night of Pan by first-time novelist Gail Strickland (2014, Curiosity Quills Press) bursts out of the sword-and-sandal approach to Greek mythology with an exclamation point. The main character is not a storied hero, a wisecracking modern teenager, or a god. She’s Thaleia, daughter of a former oracle priestess at Delphi known as the Pythia.
Delphi played an enormous role in both Greek mythology and history. It’s a beautiful place, set on the slopes of Mt. Parnassus, and for thousands of years the priests who ran the oracle grew wealthy from the kings who came from all over to seek information—or help—from the god Apollo. The Pythia sat on a three-legged stool over a gaseous vent, went into a trance, and spoke in tongues while the priests interpreted her babblings to their clients. While the Pythia was recognized as being important to the oracle, it was the priests—all male—who held the power and riches.
CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD
Strickland’s approach is contemporary. Thaleia is a feminist; she has visions and defies the evil priest who rules Delphi and nearly pays for it with her life. She not only survives, but with her newly-found god companion Pan she gains the strength to claim the role of Pythia herself. In so doing she gives one of the most famous prophecies of all time, one which inspires the Greeks to defeat the Persian conqueror Xerxes in the naval battle at Salamis.
But wait, there’s more. The Greek historian Herodotus claimed that, prior to Salamis, Xerxes tried to attack Delphi, and was repulsed by Apollo himself when the god sent an avalanche to repulse the Persians. Strickland cleverly uses this as another way for Thaleia to flex her magical muscles as she calls on Apollo for help, and to the amazement of her community the god responds.
Thus this story straddles too genres—historical fiction and New Age-tinged feminist pagan fantasy. Just when I thought this was a realistic story, here comes Pan with his bag of tricks. Thaleia is a true child of nature, and she experiences Pan not as a scary would-be rapist but as delightful-smelling outdoor kitchen god of sorts. At one point I was convinced they were going to have sex—isn’t that what satyrs do?—but no, Pan just wants to inspire her, like a good contemporary man who wouldn’t touch jailbait.
So Pan is cool, if a bit smell-infused. The other deity Thaleia encounters is Apollo himself, a far more powerful god who ruled the oracle. (Note: at one time the oracle was not ruled by Apollo but by Gaia, the earth goddess. I doubt many contemporary Pagans would have any problem wishing Gaia’s Python had kicked Apollo’s butt instead of falling to one of his arrows). Here Strickland has a problem: does she present the god as sympathetic, despicable, or something in between? After all, his head priest is a violent misogynist. Strickland presents him as a kind of disembodied force of nature—no face, even. Of course the gods could present themselves to mortals any way they liked, but I would have liked if Apollo had appeared with some kind of human aspect to him.
I give Strickland props for creating an appealing main character in Thaleia, and putting her in an intriguing historical setting that shows obvious scholarship on Strickland’s part. At times I found myself a bit confused by events, and at times the marriage of historical and fantasy fiction strains a bit. But overall this tale’s most important function is to remind us that embracing one’s passion can lead to great success, no matter whether you’re a Pythia-in-waiting or a suburban kid about to experience all that wild stuff Pan was famous for.