Māui, Polynesian culture hero: a nineteenth century tradition from Ruapuke Island
The appearance of the culture hero is an important moment in the development of a distinctively human society following on from the initial stages of creation. These heroes are best known for introducing culture to humanity; they are “the source of uniquely human institutions.” The hero wrests key elements of human life, such as fire, from the world’s creative powers, and in so doing ensures that such things become accessible to ordinary people, thus setting the stage for the emergence of human civilisation. The heroes themselves are not human, but rather part of an intermediate generation linking the spiritual powers that formed the universe and human beings. These heroes are often depicted as demi-gods, being part human and part god. While they assist humanity by providing the building blocks of culture, they are themselves not confined by cultural norms or the boundaries of time and space. Some culture heroes reveal a particularly mischievous aspect to their behaviour: they become the trickster, the hero’s alter ego. The trickster plays a more subversive role of clown or buffoon, a restless being who typically indulges in lots of eating and sex; the antithesis of the hero. Such hero-tricksters have the power to transform themselves into various shapes, often appearing as animals.
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