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.|
Maui and his deeds are known across the Pacific Islands. In Samoa he is called Ti'iti'i, but called Maui amongst the Hawaiians, Maori, Tongans, and Tahitians. The most famous deeds for which he is known are raising the islands upon which the people live, bringing fire, and roping the sun. Each story has its variations, such as which island, or how many brothers Maui has, or who his parents are, but in the broad details they are similar. This might suggest a great antiquity behind them, perhaps dating as far back as the very first Polynesian mariners who left Asia 5000 years ago.
In the Tahitian version, Maui is a great priest who had ascended to a sacred place and was performing his rituals when the sun began to set too quickly. Offended, he grabbed the sun's rays and held it in place until he was done. If one takes the view that such ancient stories may be mythologized exploits of real historical people, it would be tempting to think of the historical Maui as being such a person: a priest or chief who originated practices for telling time and harnessing fire to cook food amongst these ancient mariners. However, one should also be cautioned against reading mythology too materialistically. The importance of their real lessons could be lost if one labours too much to read archaeology into them.
The snaring of the sun belongs to a different figure in Samoan myth, though the circumstances are the same. In their version, a woman became pregnant looking at the sun and bore a child named "Child of the Sun." They were dismayed at how fast the sun moved at this time, so the boy roped it and asked it to go a little slower. In the Maori version, Maui beats the sun with the jawbone of one of his ancestors after he lassos it, until it promises to go more slowly so the people can get their work done.
For a fuller account, let us go to the one recorded by Rev. A.O. Forbes, which is the Hawaiian version:
Maui was the son of Hina-lau-ae and Hina, and they dwelt at a place called Makalia, above Kahakuloa, on West Maui. Now, his mother Hina made kapas. And as she spread them out to dry, the days were so short that she was put to great trouble and labor in hanging them out and taking them in day after day until they were dry. Maui, seeing this, was filled with pity for her, for the days were so short that, no sooner had she got her kapas all spread out to dry, than the Sun went down, and she had to take them in again. So he determined to make the Sun go slower. He first went to Wailohi, in Hamakua, on East Maui, to observe the motions of the Sun. There he saw that it rose toward Hana. He then went up on Haleakala, and saw that the Sun in its course came directly over that mountain. He then went home again, and after a few days went to a place called Paeloko, at Waihee. There he cut down all the cocoanut-trees, and gathered the fibre of the cocoanut husks in great quantity. This he manufactured into strong cord. One Moemoe, seeing this, said tauntingly to him: “Thou wilt never catch the Sun. Thou art an idle nobody.”
Maui answered: “When I conquer my enemy, and my desire is attained, I will be your death.” So he went up Haleakala again, taking his cord with him. And when the Sun arose above where he was stationed, he prepared a noose of the cord and, casting it, snared one of the Sun’s larger beams and broke it off. And thus he snared and broke off, one after another, all the strong rays of the Sun.
Then shouted he exultingly: “Thou art my captive, and now I will kill thee for thy going so swiftly.”
And the Sun said: “Let me live, and thou shalt see me go more slowly hereafter. Behold, hast thou not broken off all my strong legs, and left me only the weak ones?”
So the agreement was made, and Maui permitted the Sun to pursue its course, and from that time on it went more slowly; and that is the reason why the days are longer at one season of the year than at another. It was this that gave the name to that mountain, which should properly be called Alehe-ka-la (sun snarer), and not Haleakala.
When Maui returned from this exploit, he went to find Moemoe, who had reviled him. But that individual was not at home. He went on in his pursuit till he came upon him at a place called Kawaiopilopilo, on the shore to the eastward of the black rock called Kekaa, north of Lahaina. Moemoe dodged him up hill and down, until at last Maui, growing wroth, leaped upon and slew the fugitive. And the dead body was transformed into a long rock, which is there to this day, by the side of the road.
Another exploit of Maui was raising the islands upon which each group of people lives. The Maori version has him catching a giant fish and leaving it in the care of his brothers while he goes to find a priest to perform the proper rituals for turning it into land. His brothers cannot contain their hunger and begin carving up the fish. It writhes in agony and thrashes about, breaking up into the various cliffs, mountains, and valleys of New Zealand's North Island. Maui's canoe, from which he hauled up this great fish, became the South Island. In the Maori language, the North Island is called Te Ika-a-Māui (The Fish of Maui) and an alternate name for the South Island is Te Waka-a-Māui (The Canoe of Maui).
When raising the Hawaiian islands, Maui tricked his brothers into doing the work. Planting his fishhook in the ocean floor, he told his brothers that he had caught a great fish. They paddled as hard as they could, and rather than pulling up a fish, pulled up the islands. Maui's fishhook is very magical and powerful, and there are many stories of how he got it. In the Tongan version, he begged it from the fisherman Tongafusifonua, who challenged Maui to pick it out of his collection of hundreds of identical hooks. Tongafusifonua's wife gave away the secret, and with his new fishhook Maui could raise up the coral islands. In the Hawaiian version, his fishhook is named Manaiakalani.
|A traditional Hawaiian fishhook (designed for catching sharks).|
Collection of the Hawai'i State Museum of Natural and Cultural History.
Photo: Wally Gobetz.
That is how Maui tamed the sun and raised the islands, but there is one more story to tell...