April 24, 2017 Lovejoy Blog: Maui the Heroic Monster

By Rebekah Lovejoy


The Disney animated film Moana is a timely illustration of the impact the heroic personality currently has within our culture. On first glimpse, Moana is the story of an innocent young girl who becomes the grounded leader of her tribe. It could be seen as Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. However, within it another dynamic is at play: a critique of the hero and his motivations. This critique develops through Moana’s observations of, and experiences with, the demi-god Maui.

In the past five thousand years, we have progressed through an arc of the hero, watching the personality of the hero transform in the process. The hero began as a god-led military warrior, encouraged by goddesses like Athena to follow his or her great journey. The path of the hero led through the slaying of dragons, monsters, or cultural tyrants toward progressively conscious human constructs: epic shifts of cultural ethics; solar consciousness that developed rule of law; concepts of humanism, social justice, mindfulness, and individuality. Now, in this post-postmodern age, the hero has taken on the cultural relativism of Joseph Campbell’s heroic map. The hero is an archetypal energy that runs like threads through every human culture, replicated in film, novels, the revolutionary depiction of the communist collective spirit, and the capitalist call to “progress” and “innovation.” The heroic is the goal of most CEOs when they develop their global brands. The heroic is the darling of every Hollywood executive, looking for that great opening weekend. But the reality of the hero is that he requires the monster in order to exist. In the recent film The Lego Batman Movie, the romantic language between Batman and the Joker humorously alludes to this necessity. Batman needs to hate Joker for his own heroic identity to have meaning. Joker cannot stand to exist without the nemesis of Batman to foil. They are symbiotes in an almost erotic pairing.

If we are to address the issues created by strictures of hierarchy, the environmental destruction caused by a limitless call to action and progress, and the assumptions of power jostling and zero sum games, we must shift our conception of how we use active intention. I am using the term “active intention,” in place of the word “masculine,” very specifically because the gender language, while an easy shortcut, no longer serves our human needs. Our current heroic model is what has been identified as the ideal “masculine” position. This outdated image of active intention needs to be shifted toward compassion and communal dynamics, tempered and balanced with nurturing, flexible thinking, fluid gender, and transformational goals. This is reflected already in current trends in leadership coaching and team dynamics. Executives have traded in The Art of War for the Bhagavad Gita, with Krishna’s call for Arjuna to follow a dharmic path. Thus, we need to re-examine the duality of Hero/Monster and try on new models for active engagement and negotiation.

I suggest the metaphor of the shaman, as a gender fluid, transformational leader. The shaman is a leader who activates through ritual and intuitive leap. He would successfully untie the Gordian Knot and reuse the rope rather than cut through the knot with a sword. This is not to say we should throw out the millennia of heroic consciousness. The shaman is informed by the knowledge that he could cut the knot, as Alexander the Great so famously did, but he chooses instead to reintroduce the windings of the labyrinth as a part of the process. The shamanic energy does not dismiss the hard-earned cultural lessons of the heroic era; rather, the heroic becomes a servant to the transformations of the shaman, just as James Hillman describes the ego as the servant of the larger community of personas that is an individual psyche.

The character Moana acts as the shamanic element in the film. While she is attracted to adventure, and called to follow a journey of discovery, her position is not that of the classic hero, but as healer. In the story, she is the daughter of the chief of the village, and her duty is to stay and uphold the culture as it is. But the culture has stagnated. Moana is chosen—at an early age—by the ocean to go on a journey and heal the ancient goddess Te Fiti. Te Fiti holds the energy of vital nature. Her heart has been stolen, and in her injured state she is making all of the islands sick. Moana is mentored by her grandmother, the local healer and creative crazy woman, the storyteller for the tribe. Moana’s grandmother is a woman who holds shamanic energy; she teaches Moana her stories and her way of “seeing through.” Called to sea, Moana goes on an adventure that will heal Te Fiti. She also will free her tribe to return to being the dynamic voyagers that their ancestors once were. Along the way, she meets Maui, a god who is supposed to be the heroic darling of all of the islands. Strong, adventurous, arrogant, and solar, Maui is the cause of Te Fiti’s illness; he is the one who stole her heart. His motivation for stealing the heart was to win favor with humans. The story deconstructs the heroic motivation and begins to show that the supposed boon Maui wished to give the humans was transactional, and primarily for purchase of love and worship, which he egoically craves.

The hero represents a protective, action-focused individual who historically is charged with problem solving through strength, courage, and wile. The emphasis of a hero-driven narrative is on the individual, action, and strength. The problems solved reflect the methods used: slaying beasts, rescuing maidens, saving cities, finding treasure, and winning wars. These are all heroic goals.

By contrast, the emphasis of the shamanic is on retrieval, healing, and transformation. The goal is not to win, but to rebalance, nurture, see into, and connect. The shaman often is moving down into the underworld, or moving through gateways, while the hero often is flying or charging forward toward a conflict. The shaman listens to the inner voice, sees the unseen, and experiences dreams or visions. The hero will shape his own voice, cut through to the solution, out-think his opponent, or master a course of action.

Maui is a demigod who has performed many Promethean acts, including stealing fire, bringing the sun and the winds, creating coconuts (which are a primary staple), and, of course, slaying monsters. Maui is a shape-shifter, which gives him elements of shamanic skill, the potential to act in a transformational way. But in the film, he uses his shape shifting as a part of his strategic collateral, to take what he wants and manipulate for his own egoic ends.

It is with the friendship, and healing encouragement, of Moana that he begins to use his skills in service to balance. Moana does not act in the muse role, as a feminine inspiration to the hero. She is a healer, in active engagement with Maui, being given her own big dreams, and her own soul work. Maui never steps outside of service to the heroic, even as he is confronted and healed. Instead, what the film depicts, as his later transformation, is the heroic in a more integrated aspect, in aid to the shamanic call for healing. The stated emphasis is on the value of the healer, and the tempering of the narcissism of the hero. But the hero is not so transformed that he shifts in his own self and becomes shamanic. In the end he still requires prodding to apologize, and must be treated as the silly “masculine” child, one who cannot take full spectrum responsibility for his own culpability without being coached to it.

Perhaps this final lack of transformation on Maui’s part is an image of how much farther we still need to go culturally to allow both genders to be full spectrum in their choices. Disney’s depiction of this transition, from the hero to the shaman, literalizes the fluid healer energy into the feminine, in the female characters of Moana, her grandmother, and the Goddess Te Fiti. They are gender female, while Maui, the hero, is gender male.

The reality is that this shift, from the heroic to the shamanic, no longer requires an emphasis on gender as a piece of the storytelling. The active and the receptive energies can be found in any individual psyche, and the shift is toward a transformational energy that must be enacted at all levels of society, for all genders. Reincorporating the energies that once were defined as feminine is a part of the work of narrative as we move into an environmentally conscious, compassion driven, communal imperative. Our goals become rebalancing and healing, mending (or even replacing) the heroic top-down power structure, where the goal is to win, to conquer, or to profit.

The monster that the heroic creates must be understood and reintegrated into our self-awareness with loving compassion. In Moana, the heroic ego of Maui steals the heart of the goddess, transforming her into a volcanic raging monster that begins to kill all life. Moana must recognize the monster as the goddess herself, and face her with love and mirroring: presenting her forehead in a gesture of love and returning her heart. Reintegrating through recognition, rather than slaying the monster, reclaims the fierce power and generative energy of the natural world. This is a very different technique than the heroic method Maui uses with the monster Tamatoa, a nemesis of Maui’s, who simply returns to each fight angrier in the next adventure, and occasionally missing a leg. But it is Maui who reveals himself as the real monster. Without his deep hunger for love, a product of his childhood abandonment, he never would have stolen Te Fiti’s heart. This theft, and its result, makes him ultimately the biggest monster in the film. Maui’s monster-like craving for love is brought on by the early removal of parental love, so often stolen from boys in our current human drama.


Rebekah Lovejoy, Ph.D., holds a baccalaureate in Film Studies and Studio Art from the University of California, Santa Barbara and master’s and doctoral degrees in Mythological Studies with Emphasis in Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. She has had a lifelong fascination with the ways in which culture shapes and expresses ontological belief, and has a deep knowledge of Internet technology, human metaphysics, the history of popular culture, and the human creative experience. Following her early training, she worked for nearly a decade architecting content heavy sites for Fortune 500 companies and niche creative clients alike, then spent several years raising a family before undertaking graduate studies. Her dissertation comprises an ethnographic study of individuals raised within the American counterculture. It re-contextualizes the language of mythological studies toward an analysis of human strategies of belief in our post-modern world. Currently, she is a painter, writer, workshop leader, and creative collaborator living in Santa Barbara with her three children. Her work is available on her website, rebekahlovejoy.com.