Music vs Myth: You’re Welcome
Updated: Aug 28, 2021
This week, we’re not taking a look at a film or a book – we’re looking at a song. More specifically, ‘You’re Welcome’, from Disney’s Moana. Sung by Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson and having reached multi-platinum status, the song introduces one of the most significant heroes from Polynesian legend – Maui.
With hundreds of legends across the pacific, particularly in Hawaii, New Zealand, and Tahiti, Maui is credited with a plethora of achievements, from pulling up the sky to growing the first coconut. The song, in which Maui introduces himself to the film’s main character, Moana, lists his many accomplishments, where he often used trickery, guile, and sheer strength to reach his desired outcomes. Like many Trickster deities and heroes, Maui could often be just as cruel as he was helpful, and while many legends have him benefitting humans, his reasons were not always altruistic in doing so.
That said, let’s take a look at some of the great acts that Disney’s Maui clams to have achieved, and how well these line up with Polynesian myths.
“Hey, what has two thumbs and pulled up the sky When you were waddling yay high?”
There are many myths across the Pacific islands regarding the sky and earth once being much closer together, so the people had to crouch or crawl because there was no place to stand. In some legends the children of the earth and sky got tired of being so cramped, and pushed their mother and father apart. In other legends a serpent lifted the sky up on its back.
Of course, this song is specifically focused on the accomplishments of Maui, so its is the legends about him raising the sky that the song is referencing. According to myth, either out of altruism or to impress a girl, Maui decided to lift up the sky.
He undertook a journey to find a Kahuna (priest) who could give him the knowledge and ability to fulfil this task. He was gifted with a magical tattoo which would assist him. Once he had been tattooed, Maui then tracked down an old woman who gave him water in a special gourd. Combined, these gave him the strength to lift the sky. He is thought to have climbed to the highest peak of the volcano Haleakalā where he threw the sky into the air. It is thought that the sky is still afraid to come down, for fear of Maui.
“When the nights got cold, who stole you fire from down below? You're looking at him, yo!”
It is said that, at one point in history, the knowledge of how to make a fire was lost. Maui grew determined to change this. While there are some legends of Maui descending to the underworld – or ‘down below’ – to steal fire from his ancestors, in the most popular version Maui learns the secret of fire making from the birds. More specifically, from the Hawaiian moorhen, or the `alae `ula.
In his searching, Maui saw a pillar of smoke in the distance. Following it, he found a doused fire and a Hawaiian moorhen attempting to hide the evidence of their fire. Grabbing the bird by the throat, Maui demanded the secret of creating fire. The moorhen was reluctant to give up their knowledge, and tried several times to trick Maui, giving him incorrect information, such as telling him to use plants that were too moist to catch fire. Maui however kept hold of the bird, and upon realising that he had been deceived, forced the bird to tell the truth.
Once Maui had the secret of fire, he pressed the flame against the head of the moorhen. Both in punishment for lying to him and for keeping the secret of fire-making hidden. This is the reason that the Hawaiian moorhen has a red mark on its forehead, and the reason that its name,`alae `ula means burnt forehead.
“Oh, also I lasso'd the sun To stretch your days and bring you fun”
While Maui certainly is said to have lassoed the sun, it was not necessarily to ‘bring fun’. In one legend, Maui was angered on his mother’s behalf, as she was upset by her inability to get her work done during the short hours of the day. In order to please her, he wove a long rope (in some legends out of coconut fibres, in others out of his sister’s hair) and climbed to the islands highest peak. The same peak that he is said to have climbed to lift the sky – Haleakalā.
Once there, he hid inside the crater of the volcano, waiting for the sun to rise and so he could catch him. While Maui did manage to catch the sun, he was not entirely successful, only grabbing one of the sun’s rays, instead of his body. A fierce battle occurred between the two and eventually the sun conceded, promising to travel more slowly across the sky.
According to some versions of the myth, Maui did not intend to capture the sun, but instead to kill him! In these versions, Maui captured and destroyed the sun’s rays one after the other until the sun swore to be slower, if only Maui would let him live. Maui, of course, agreed.
“Also, I harnessed the breeze To fill your sails and shake your trees”
Again, while there are legends of Maui capturing the winds, his motivations may not have been quite as altruistic as the song suggests.
According to a New Zealand myth, Maui sought the winds, capturing them one by one and keeping them trapped in a cave where he could command them. the only exception to this, was the west wind, which Maui was unable to find. It was said that when the west wind was calm, it was because Maui was out searching for it, and the west wind was frightened and hiding. Maui was able to ride on the winds he did manage to trap, as well as use them to set hurricanes on people who had displeased him.
“So, what can I say except you're welcome? For the islands I pulled from the sea”
While Maui may be associated with a magical fishhook (made from his own grandmother’s jawbone, if some legends are to be believed) it is said that he, sadly, wasn’t a particularly good fisher. At least, not at first. Maui’s older brothers would reject his company, going fishing on their own as Maui would always bring bad luck to their fishing voyages and rarely caught anything besides.
One day, Maui grew tired of his brother’s teasing and begged to be brought along with them. This time, however, Maui bought his magic fishhook, named Manaiakalani along with him. This time, when Maui threw his fishhook into the water, he hooked something so big that he struggled to pull it up. Instructing his brothers to keep paddling, and not look back, Maui began to heave. As his brothers paddled, Maui pulled up a string of islands, one after the other. These were the eight islands of Hawaii. One of his brothers grew curious about the battle behind him and turned around, causing the line to snap. Maui was furious, claiming that if his brother had not turned, Maui would have pulled up a great land.
Another version of this myth can be found in Maori legend. In this version Maui pulled up a giant fish, which became the North Island of New Zealand, named Te Ika-a-Māui (or the fish of Maui). The Southern Island of New Zealand was thought to have been made from Maui’s canoe, and so named Te Waka-a-Māui (The canoe of Maui).
“I killed an eel, I buried its guts Sprouted a tree, now you've got coconuts”
In one version of this myth, Maui’s mother, Hina was visiting the stream when she was approached by a large eel, named Kuna Loa. Kuna Loa had fallen for Hina’s beauty and wanted her to come and live with him. When Hina rejected him, Kuna Loa grew angry. He continued to harass her, and eventually diverted the stream so that it would flood Hina’s home.
Hearing his mother’s calls for help, Maui appeared, saving his mother and chasing the eel away. But Kuna Loa was not to be deterred. Realising that the eel would continue to harass Hina, Maui killed him, cutting his body into pieces and burying his head near the sea. A palm tree grew from the severed head, and the first coconuts came into existence.
An alternate version of the myth from Samoa also involves a beautiful woman and an eel. In this legend, a young woman named Sina was so beautiful that tales of her looks were told across the Pacific. Hearing this, the king of Fiji transformed himself into a young eel, that he might judge her beauty for himself. Sina found the eel and raised it as a pet, but as the eel grew larger she became frightened of it, especially as it began to follow her. Attempting to flee, Sina found that the eel appeared wherever she went.
Eventually, the eel confessed that it had once been a man, and no longer had the strength to transform back into a human. As the eel was dying, he begged Sina to bury his head near her home. Sina agreed, and from the skull, a palm tree grew. The three marks on the top of a coconut are said to be the eyes and mouth of the eel.
While the song, being just under three minutes long, obviously glosses over many elements of these legends, the references made are all to genuine Maui myths. While the song focusses on the accomplishments of Maui – leaving out some of the more morally grey aspects of some legends – it does not do so completely, with Maui using the song to initially distract, steal from and abandon the protagonist. All the while being completely charismatic, and charming.
While he song ‘You’re Welcome’ is by no means a comprehensive guide to Maui mythology, it does introduce a bold and exciting mythical figure, in a bold and exciting way, while at the same time giving a brief overview of some of the legends that made Maui so famous.