Study Guide

The Lightning Thief Symbols, Imagery, Allegory

By Rick Riordan

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Symbols, Imagery, Allegory


Do you remember when Percy first arrives at Camp Half-Blood, and he tells everyone that he doesn't believe in the Greek gods? He mentions gods' names as if they were just names in a phone book. Mr. D tells him, "Young man, names are powerful things. You don't just go around using them for no reason" (5.78). After constantly being corrected and warned not to say certain gods' names out loud, Percy cries, "Look, is there anything we can say without it thundering?" (6.129).

Names seem to be almost like spells in the immortal world – when you say them aloud, it's like performing a certain kind of magic. It's as though the gods are always listening and watching, and when you say their name aloud, you get their attention. Getting their attention is not such a good thing when you are trying to hide from them. Because these gods, creatures, and monsters have been around for thousands of years, their names have thousands of years of meaning tied to them.


Did you happen to notice that there are a lot of games played in this story (both literal and figurative). We know that Mr. D loves playing Pinochle and often gets his booty kicked by Chiron. He is shocked to know that Percy doesn't know how to play. Annabeth is the captain of the Capture-the-Flag team – she and other campers spend weeks strategizing and preparing for games. It's not your typical PE activity. These games are violent and remind us of what it's like to be on a quest. Percy, Grover, and Annabeth play hackey sack with an apple as they wait for a Greyhound bus. Later on, they nearly forget their mission all together when they find themselves in the midst of a free, all-you-can-eat, endless arcade of a casino. All this talk of games makes us think of how Percy often tells us that he feels like a pawn of the gods, manipulated and used by them, as if the lives of mortals were just a game for the gods.

Symbols of Power

Zeus's master bolt is "the symbol of his power, from which all other lightning bolts are patterned," and is very much like a weapon of mass destruction (9.81). Its disappearance causes the main conflict of this story. Every god has a symbol of power, something that represents their unique gifts and abilities. Ares has a shield, Poseidon has a trident, and Hades has a helm of darkness. These objects are more than just decoration – they are the means by which each god rules.

Western Civilization

The gods follow the heart of Western Civilization. But what exactly is "Western Civilization," and why are the gods so keen on it? Let's hear from Chiron to find out:

Come now, Percy. What you call 'Western civilization.' Do you think it's just an abstract concept? No, it's a living force. A collective consciousness that has burned bright for thousands of years. The gods are part of it. You might even say they are the source of it, or at least, they are tied so tightly to it they couldn't possibly fade, not unless all of Western civilization were obliterated. The fire started in Greece. Then, as you well know—or as I hope you know, since you passed my course—the heart of the fire moved to Rome, and so did the gods. Oh, different names, perhaps—Jupiter for Zeus, Venus for Aphrodite, and so on—but the same forces, the same gods […] All you need to do is look at the architecture. People do not forget the gods. Every place they've ruled, for the past three thousand years, you can see them in paintings, in statues, on the most important buildings. And yes, Percy, they are now in your United States. (5.189-191)

Western civilization is "a living force," a "collective consciousness." It sounds to us like Western civilization is a way of life, a belief system. But you tell us what you think.


Percy doesn't have many peaceful nights of sleep in this story. We quickly learn that his dreams are messengers from the gods and from Kronos, or perhaps they are the way his half-god self communicates and taps into the immortal world and into certain prophecies. He first dreams of an eagle and a horse fighting to the death on a beach – the eagle and the horse represent Zeus and Poseidon, respectively. This particular dream symbolizes the war that will take place if Zeus's master bolt is not returned, but, at the time, Percy has no idea that the gods exist or that he is a half-blood. Pay attention to Percy's other dreams. Who does he see in them? Where do they take place? Do people talk to him? Can he talk back? Is his ability to dream a sign of his power or of someone else's power over him?

The Senses

The five senses are very important in this story. Pay attention to moments when the senses are important at Camp Half-Blood or on the quest. Remember what the bonfire at the Camp Half-Blood mess hall smells like? No wonder the gods love to have food sacrificed to them. Consider how good Grover is at smelling and detecting monsters. Percy and Annabeth let their taste buds take over as they are lured into Aunty Em's warehouse, and Percy tastes his mom's chocolate chip cookies when he drinks nectar. Think about how good Grover's ears are – how he can hear the snakes hissing underneath Aunty Em's veil.

Percy is really good at noticing a million things at once. He learns to observe things like centaurs running wild in the Midwestern countryside or where the water pipes might be located in the Tunnel of Love ride. When Percy is underwater, his sense of touch is heightened, and he is able to make anything that he touches completely dry, including his clothes. Swords feel weird in his hand until he meets Riptide for the first time. Having really sharp senses seems to be a key aspect of being a hero and of Ancient Greek life. The immortal world makes the mortal world seem blah.

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