Virtually every society has what anthropologists call a "culture hero." These are great heroes, often with fantastic powers, who shape the landscape and culture of the people to whom he (usually its a male) is a hero. In some cases these may be "just-so stories," but more frequently they have embedded within them lessons on proper behavior. In the case of a pure culture hero, these are lessons on how to behave. In cases where the culture hero also acts as a trickster, these can just as easily be lessons in how not to behave.
A prime example of a culture hero is Paul Bunyan. In the Disney cartoon telling his exploits, he becomes responsible for carving out the Dakotas, raising Pike's Peak so he can look out over the landscape, building Yellowstone Falls for a shower, and knocking the Aurora Borealis into the sky. His story also chronicles the transition of the far Western frontier into a civilized, mechanized society. Likewise, Pecos Bill painted the Painted Desert, dug the Rio Grande river, and filled the Gulf of Mexico with rains he lassoed in from California.
The great culture hero of the Polynesian peoples is Maui, who roped the sun and gave his people time.
|Illustration of Maui snaring the sun by Arman Manookian, 1927.|