Polytheistic Elements in Disney’s Moana (2016)

Written by Dyami Millarson

The film Moana opens detailing an ancient history concerning the interaction between Gods, a hero called Maui and human beings. To my delight, I noticed immediately that folk religious elements were incorporated in this film. It was very significant to me that Gods were mentioned in the opening scenes – talking about Gods is a mark of polytheism. Upon hearing the narrator mention the Gods as she recounts her ethnic history, I recognised that this was one of those rare movies that openly embraced polytheism.

The atmosphere, I should say polytheist atmosphere, of the film was set in the opening scenes. The Gods are mentioned but few times throughout the film. It is a subtle but skillful display of polytheism. I was initially afraid it would make polytheism look ridiculous, but I was happily surprised this was not the case because it turned out that the film is very culturally sensitive as well as spiritually or religiously sensitive. So it offers a very sympathetic view of polytheism and it does so very subtly and skillfully. I commend the makers for this because I know it must have been no easy task to offer such a reasonable perspective and I can feel how much skill and work was required for this.

Interestingly, on Hawaii there is a noble family called the House of Moana and their family name is exactly the same word as the title of the film. Moana means sea in the Polynesian languages. The sea is very central in this movie as well as in Polynesian culture and religion. The religious connotation or significance of the word moana is very clear in the Hawaiian language because Ku-hai-moana is the most renowned Hawaiian Shark God and moana also means the act of worship. Moana is the name of the female protagonist in the film and she has an unusual attraction to the sea as the sea is calling her. This special connection with the sea strengthens her role as a representative of her polytheist sea-oriented culture and its virtues. Moana is a tribal chief’s daughter and her people lives on an island in Polynesia – it is obvious from the figures seen in the woodwork that this is a Polynesian culture. Moana has a resolute mind and the opening scenes reveal she is different from the other children. Her tribe lives permanently on that island, but she discovers that her tribe used to be a seafaring people – a forgotten glorious past.

Inspired by her people’s history with the sea, she sets off on a journey. She meets Maui who is a folk hero and an immortal (?) Divine Being – some say he is a God, some say he is a Demigod. At around 3/4 of the film, Maui opens up to Moana and reveals his personal past and his relationship with the Gods (according to Disney’s own interpretation of Maui). This made a deep impression on me because it attributed such an important role to the Gods. What was so absolutely essential about this to me is that while polytheism was accepted as cultural fact in a very natural manner, the Gods were recognised as caring family figures with whom you can have a kind of parent-child relationship – the Gods raise and nurture us in their own mysterious ways. Maui had clearly felt their support when he needed it most, and this was signicifant because not only the film reveals something about Maui, but also its subtle sympathies for folk religion when Maui reveals that he was raised by the Gods (according to Disney). This movie is in my view not just a tribute to Polynesian culture and religion but to polytheism in general. It is touching that Moana gives a subtle recognition of polytheism – something many folk religionists always seek in modern times because they are also human beings who desire respect for their ancient human traditional knowledge that does not need to be neglected. For most of history, humanity has lived in nature and countless human peoples have practised folk religion in nature and have been polytheist and animist really since time immemorial.

Moana was directed by John Musker and Ron Clements. The former began reading Polynesian folk stories in 2011 and learned about the hero Maui. Both Musker and Clements went on research trips to the Polynesian islands of Fiji, Samoa and Taihiti in 2012 with the intention to meet Polynesian people and learn about their culture. This is deeply inspiring to Ken Ho and me because we also hope to visit different (local) peoples in the future and learn about their cultures directly from them and make an effort to promote these cultures with the aim of contributing to the preservation of these cultures. Ken Ho and I have met many Frisian people in 2016 for our ongoing language project in Frisia and we have learned a lot about the Frisian language, history and culture from them directly. When Ken Ho comes back to Frisia, we hope to learn even more and to write about it so that what we have learned is not forgotten. Ken Ho and I see ourselves as students of Frisia. To return to the story of Musker and Clements, it took more than 5 years to produce Moana. The directors made the prudent decision to recruit experts from Polynesia in order to form the Oceanic Story Trust which did consulting work on the cultural sensitivity and accuracy of the film. With so much attention for culture, it is, therefore, no coincidence that one can feel the empathetic attitude of the film towards (folk) religion and culture. For this reason alone, I would call the film a unique cultural masterpiece.

Disney, while producing Moana, did not only pay attention to culture and religion, but also to language. Therefore, it is imperative also to note the linguistic aspects taken into account in the production of the film besides the cultural and folk religious aspects – and that is great because this blog is dedicated to language, culture and religion. I noticed the lyrics were not only in English, for they were also in two Polynesian languages: Samoan and Tokelauan. The latter is an endangered language with only about 4200 speakers, the former is a language spoken by about 510,000 people. Tokelauan is distantly related to Samoan. An announcement was made at a press conference in Papeete, the capital of the pacific island of Tahiti which is part of French Polynesia, on the 25th of October in 2016 that Moana would become the first animation film to be fully dubbed in Tahitian, which is a Polynesian language that is closely related to the Maori language spoken in New Zealand. Disney has thereby made its own symbolic contribution to the promotion and preservation of an indigenous minority language spoken by only 68,000 people. Tahitian is spoken only by a minority of the 178,000 ethnic Tahitians. Based on these data, 62% of this Polynesian people do not speak the ancestral language while only 38% speak it. Since it was announced that Moana would be dubbed in Tahitian, this is the third time in history that Disney has decided to make a special dubbing to honour the culture that inspired the film. It is illustrious that Disney shows so much dedication to an indigenous people and pays special attention to the fine details of their language, culture and religion.

I noticed that Maui’s character had sentient tattoos – tattoos that could move on their own as they came to life. The tattoos themselves – not their sentient nature – immediately grabbed my attention because they reminded me of moko, the ethnic tattoos of the Maori that I had seen in New Zealand. The Maori are the Polynesian culture I am most familiar with because I have lived in New Zealand for a year. What I know from experience about Polynesian culture comes from my unforgettable exposure to Maori culture in New Zealand. Maori culture has left a deep impression on me. I will never forget particular things pertaining to the Maori such as their wardance called the haka, the sound of their Polynesian language, the way they work wood and greenstone and of course their traditional tattoos. What has been a particularly impressive and fascinating aspect of Maori culture to me is the haka. You can feel the adrenaline going through your body and it can be quite intimidating to watch the performance of the haka. Originally the haka was a dance meant to intimidate enemies in wartime. However, the haka is also performed for other purposes such as marriages, funerals and honouring special guests or great achievements. Watch this YouTube video of the haka performed for the Maori king and watch this YouTube video of the haka performed at a wedding. The haka has been popularised worldwide by the New Zealand sports teams performing the haka before international matches. What may come as a surprising fact is that the English word tattoo has Polynesian origins since it is derived from the Polynesian word tatau, which shows just how important tattoos are for Polynesian culture. As tatau originally means to write, one may say that tattoos are cultural writings on the skin to express cultural identity. With this in mind, Maui’s cultural background could be recognised from his tattoos.

I missed concepts like mana and tapu in the film. I was actually hoping that these concepts would be mentioned or touched upon, but I realise that you cannot have everything. Although it may be too much to wish for, I would still like a new film to explore these concepts. Perhaps a sequel to Moana could potentially do this. Mana and tapu are the quintessence of Polynesian culture and religion (and Maori culture and religion that I am so familiar with). It is best to treat these concepts together because they are interrelated. I will definitely dedicate an entire article to the fascinating topic of mana and tapu in the future – although I cannot say when exactly. A surprising fact is taboo comes from Polynesian just like tattoo and was introduced into the English language by the British explorer James Cook, popularly known as the discoverer of New Zealand, since 1777 during his visit to Tonga where he came into contact with a local Polynesian people. The concept of taboo is important in Polynesian culture. It is called tapu or tabu, which can be defined as ‘the sacred which is not to be violated or polluted’ or as ‘religious restriction or prohibition’. Religious restriction (tapu) can traditionally be placed on objects and living beings. When something is tapu, there is basically an invisible exclamation signboard saying: Prohibited! That may be a good way to remember tapu. Rituals or ceremonies could be performed to remove tapu. When something was free from religious prohibition, it was noa. In other words, the opposite of tapu is noa.

Mana is an important philosphical concept in Polynesian culture (and I have noticed it is important in Maori traditional culture). Objects and living beings can possess mana, and while they can possess it, they can also bestow or give it – the act which passes mana on from one entity to another. Mana is a force that exists in the universe. It is immanent, sacred and impersonal. In Germanic culture, fate also has these qualities. An excellent work on fate in Germanic culture is Roy Bauschatz’ The Well and the Tree. The universe is conceived of by the Polynesian peoples (and Germanic peoples) as being inhabitated by souls or spirits, which is a basic principle of animism. These souls or spirits possess more or less mana and they can pass it on to other entities. So souls or spirits are carriers of mana. In Germanic culture, there are spirits that act as vessels which carry fate or luck. These are called hamingjur in the Old Norse language. Hamingjur are closely associated with a person’s luck and hence the person’s welfare.

I have noticed that we can talk about having mana and I cannot but notice that in the Frisian, Dutch and English language we can talk about having luck. It is an idiomatic expression in Frisian, Dutch and English. It ought to be realised that luck is a concept closely associated with fate which is a force immanent in the universe. Luck affects our actions. We want to avoid bad luck and obtain good luck. Fate or luck can also be influenced by performing rituals or ceremonies and by avoiding conditions or circumstances that are considered bad luck. It is the same with mana which is influenced by performing rituals or ceremonies and by avoiding conditions or circumstances that are considered tapu. This has, I believe, led to the practice of a complex set of rituals which people may perceive as magic or occult. The negative connotations of those words has hindered us from performing more investigation and achieving more development in the area of recording, analysing and studying human traditional knowledge. It is fascinating to look into the rituals or ceremonies aimed at influencing fate or mana and recording them properly for humanity, posterity and human history. Magic or occult was persecuted in the past, but practices or customs perceived as magic or occult are human heritage while they have existed since time immemorial and deserve to be studied as human heritage so we can achieve a clearer picture of religion, culture and language.

In human beings, mana is traditionally obtained through birth and warfare. Respect and worship is given to those who possess (more) mana. Having mana makes an entity (e.g. a place or person) sacred and thus holiness is defined by mana, which demonstrates just how essential the concept of mana is. Based on striking parallels with Germanic culture, I feel mana is a concept that resonates on a deeper level with the essence of ancient Germanic culture and religion in its traditional conception of fate as described by Bauschatz in his extremely insightful and inspiring work The Well and the Tree. Luck, destiny or fate (whichever word you use to describe this impersonal sacred force existing immanently in the universe) can, in Germanic culture, be obtained especially through birth and warfare. These are particularly defining events for a person’s luck, destiny or fate.

In conclusion, tapu and mana constitute a philosophy that is to be lived. Behaviours, habits and customs are affected by them. Polynesian religion – and as I have seen with Maori religion – is a religion of practice and custom, and this is not unlike Germanic religion that I have studied for years. Religion is our actions.

30 comments

  1. I love how much care you took to not just praise a Disney-Movie without knowing the story behind it but to dig deeper and to draw such a vivid picture of the subject. Wonderful!
    All the best
    Laureen

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    • Thank you so much for this comment. I infused it with my knowledge about Frisian language and culture as well. I hope to study Polynesian languages and cultures more thoroughly in the future, because there are many interesting parallels with Frisian languages and cultures. After all, the speakers of Frisian languages are coast-dwelling, island-dwelling and sea-faring peoples just like the Polynesians.
      All the best to you too!
      – Dyami Millarson

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for commenting, I really enjoyed writing this when I was in Hong Kong in 2017, I felt inspired due to the wealth of new cultural experiences at the time.
      – Dyami

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great analysis! This is one of my favourite Disney movies to date, and I look forward to seeing more representation of other cultures in the future. I feel like we’re finally seeing some progress with this film Giant and its influence is leaking into the rest of the industry (slowly but surely)

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  3. There’s actually a 1926 documentary film called “Moana” by Robert J. Flaherty (the same guy who made Nanook of the North). It’s about a Samoan man and his life in his community, encompassing such practices as fishing, tattooing, weddings, dancing etc.

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  4. If you’re interested in a world full of Gods you may be interested in John Michael Greer’s website: https://www.ecosophia.net/

    He’s an archdruid. He regularly discusses aspects of the occult (NOT Harry Potter-type magic at all), polytheism, and the clash between the modern industrialized world and the unseen world that wraps around us.

    He’s also a linguist as that’s the only way he can read obscure texts from the middle ages!

    I read him faithfully. His erudite commenters are well-worth reading as well; essay-length posts on philosophy show up often.

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