The Demigod Maui: Modern Day Lessons from Ancient Tales of Oceania

The God Maui in Tonga
The God Maui in Tonga

A couple of weeks ago, my wife comes to me with one of her animated expressions of annoyance. The Disney trailer for Moana had just been released and she was not happy with their version of Maui. Of course I jumped on the Internet and start surfing (a sport invented by Maui, by the way). And the controversy was there, as I imagined it would be.

As a sociocultural anthropologist who studies Maui and his configuration of (time) and (space), I was particularly interested in this depiction by Disney and the ongoing debates, in national and international media, about Mauiʼs body size, facial features, and his portrayal by Oceanians and non-Oceanians. Moreover, I was concerned about Mauiʼs claim, in the Disney trailer, that he was “the greatest demigod in all of the Pacific Islands.” A highly controversial statement that angered some of my brothers and sisters from other parts of Oceania. At the end of my reading, it became clear; Maui did not seem to resonate with some of the members of my community.

Itʼs important to note here that in addition to the trailer which showed this demigod boasting of snaring the sun, fishing up islands, and slaying ferocious monsters, Maui also seized fire from its monopoly by the gods. He surfed and battled monsters simultaneously. Oral histories point to Maui as the one who invented surfing. Maui also originated tattooing and created the first dog in some of the traditions. He was an accomplished agriculturist. In my homeland of Tonga, he was the first person to plant and harvest sweet potatoes, taros, breadfruits, and yams. As a farmer, he was also skilled in cooking his food in an ʻumu, an underground oven. Itʼs likely that he was the inventor of the ʻumu technology in Polynesia. Maui used his trickery to outsmart his oppressors. Hence, the nickname, “Maui, the trickster”. Finally, Maui was a great leader, a liberator and freedom fighter. Maybe as the trailer suggested, he was a braggart, a show off, an obese demigod that behaves more like Disneyʼs Goofy than Hercules. We donʼt know. What we do know is that he always fought for the underdog and liberated the oppressed.

Critiquing these physical stereotypes is an important discussion to have around the issue of representations. But in doing so, it’s easy to overlook one of the grand messages of Maui’s stories, which is, to advocate for justice by transforming society. Mauiʼs feats are actually heliaki, beautiful poetic expressions, of resisting oppression and fighting injustice for the benefit of humanity (Māhina, 1992; 2003).

As a devout student of Moana (Oceanic) oral traditions, a voracious reader of Maui stories, and a direct descendant of Maui who feasted upon the tales of Maui from a young age, there are lessons we can and must learn from Mauiʼs legacy.

Let me explain: In Moana traditions, Maui was the youngest child, the one with the least status. He had older brothers who took pride in taking advantage of him, particularly making fun of his skill as a fisherman. However, despite his status as the youngest, Maui acquired the most potent mana, or supernatural power, from his ancestors. His position gave him insights to sibling rivalries, power relations, and the unfairness of certain cultural rules, particularly the automatic granting of prestige and wealth to the people who did not work for and often abused their power. The dualistic tension between older siblings and younger siblings, between the powered and the less powered, is a central motif in the Maui saga.

In Moana culture, the sun is a symbol for paramount chiefs. The legendary act of snaring and slowing down the sun to give Mauiʼs mother, Hina, time to make tapa cloths and Mauiʼs relatives time to plant and fish, points to Maui freeing society from its oppressive rulers. These rulers oppressed people by giving them little time to complete demanding tasks. The impressive feat of lifting up the sky so that humans could stop crawling and start walking upright denotes Maui liberating the masses from the taxing burdens of the oppressive class. In a similar fashion, the epic task of fishing up islands signifies Maui searching and locating islands for those without lands, exiles, and refugees. Fire, another Oceanic symbol, signifies knowledge and technology. Maui seized fire from the hording hands of the gods and shared it with the rest of humanity. In this way, Maui democratized knowledge and shared technology freely with the world. It can be seen as an ancient version of open-source. Maui was the champion of the underclass, the dispossessed, and the marginalized. Finally, the courageous deed of slaying man-eating monsters symbolizes Maui dismantling monstrous institutions of domination that were devouring humanity. In all the accounts of Maui, he refused to accept his marginalized lot in society. He resisted and fought against all forms of injustices, from ageism to xenophobia. Through his wisdom as a grand-master trickster of Oceania, he transformed society from inequality to equality. Maui is the leader and culture hero who is the embodiment of fairness, justice, and equity. His power is said to emanate from the goddess Hina, who is often described in mythologies as Mauiʼs grandmother, mother, wife, or sister. The feminine is the true source of Mauiʼs mana, the power that he exercised in transforming the impossibility to the possibility.

The specificity of Mauiʼs tale is unique to Oceania, but the generality of his legend is universal to all societies. We find the ethos of Maui in Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Jean-Marie Tjibaou, Darlene Keju, Queen Kapiʻolani, High Chief Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, Queen Salote Tupou III, Queen Liliʻuokalani, Cesar E. Chavez, Harvey Milk, and Rosa Parks. And today we see advocates such as the late Elie Weisel, Malala Yousafzai, Benny Wenda, and Liu Xiaobo. Like Maui and other culture heroes/heroines, it takes more than just one person to accomplish the daunting task of transforming society. Maui depended upon the goddess Hina for power, guidance, and support. We, like Maui, must look to our ancestors for guidance and our allies for support and solidarity. The systems of domination, such as racism, exploitation of the poor, hate crimes, brutalizing of women and men of color, and retaliatory violence, all of which are oppressive forces in our society, call for the rise of a new Maui.

I extend the invitation to all readers. Learn these lessons and recognize our capacity to rise above our biases and violence, use ingenuity and education to make changes that last for generations to come, share knowledge and conquer our inner monsters that hinder us from thriving as a global world. I believe that we will find a certain truth that lies within us. Which is, that we are all Maui.


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