Maps of Meaning, discussion – Part 4b, Peterson applied to Moana

I rewatched Moana, and one thing about Maps of Meaning became clear: Peterson is right about the basic narrative and cast of myths and stories. What I still struggle with is the psychological necessity of these stories to capture values and meaning, or why these arcs are the ones that resonate with us. But, I thought it might be interesting to run through the story of Moana, through the lens of Maps of Meaning.


The story opens with its cosmogonic myth. There was nothing but the Great Ocean (chaos) and the goddess Tefiti (The Great Mother). Tefiti is a goddess of life, using the power of The Heart of Tefiti (a green stone), she raised the land birthed life to the land and sea. The demi-God, Maui (the shape-shifting demigod of the wind and sea and master of sailing), steals the Heart of Tefiti in an attempt to gift the power of creation to man, but he is attacked by a lava monster, Teka, and loses the heart and his magical powers.

That is the myth told on the Island of Motunui, by the chief’s mother and village elder. The chief, Tui (Moana’s father, and The Great Father of this story) has abandoned the myth of Tefiti and Maui. He has replaced it with what Peterson would call an ideology: an incomplete myth that does not account for error. Tui believes that the Island (and reef) will provide everything the people need; a Great Mother, with no Terrible Mother to mention. He forbids Moana ― our Great Son and Explorer ― from venturing into the water.

When Moana is a child, not being allowed into the water is little more than an inconvenience and stifling of curiosity. However, a blight starts to take over the Island: the coconuts are infected, the reefs are baron. This change of circumstance turns the Great Father into a Tyrant Father, obsessed with the culture based on the now-outdated ideology of the Island. Moana sees the merit of exploring the ocean ― the chaos, the Mother who is not yet terrible or great ― for fish. She tries to steal a boat designed to go no further than the reef and head for the ocean, but it capsizes and she is returned to land.

Her Grandmother, the Village elder and Chief’s mother, takes Moana to a part of the island she has never seen before: a cave, and hidden within are a number of large ocean-going boats. The people of Motunui were once a sea-faring people. Peterson notes that cultures are semi-permeable, they can take in no ideas and assimilate them. But, those new ideas do not appear in the mythology as a new idea; they become as timeless as the original myth. The Chief’s myth of the Island was less than two-generations old ― the elder was a part of the sea-faring people ― and yet it was as internalised as being as timeless Tefiti or any other myth.

I’ve skipped part of the story, but it’s pertinent: as a toddler, the ocean ― behaving very much as if it were a sentient thing ― chose Moana: it had recover The Heart and given it to Moana as a child, before being disturbed and crashing Moana back to the land. Moana lost the Heart but dismissed the whole thing as a dream. Her grandmother had seen the whole thing, taken The Heart that Moana had lost, and gifted it back to her at the same time she revealed the cave. It’s an important plot point ― because it means Moana now has The Heart and understands her mission to return it to Tefiti, to undo the blight ravaging her land. It is also an important myth-point, as it makes it clear that Moana is chosen; she is the hero, the Explorer, the Great Son; she is tasked with defeating the Terrible Mother ― Taka ― who now guards the Great Mother ― Tefiti. But, she must enlist the help of Maui.

Maui is also a Great Son. Abandoned by his parents, but also once chosen by the Ocean, and once anointed by the Gods and given a magical fish hook, Maui is in the midst of his Great Fall. It’s a sort of Ichiris story: in his hubris, he had decided to steal from the Great Mother and when the Great Mother was powerless the Terrible Mother struck Maui down. He lost his fish hook and was stranded on an island.

Maui sees himself as the demi-God who was the hero of the Cosmogonic story: he thinks he brought day and coconuts and tide and the sky and the wind for sailing etc (he sings about it). Moana reveals the truth: by stealing from Tefiti, he cursed the world. Maui realises his own redemption now rests on returning The Heart to Tefiti.

Part of Maui’s redemption story is a returning of his powers: they go to recover his lost fish hook. Throughout the rest of their journey, Moana becomes an increasingly competent sea-farer; she is learning to control or harness the chaos. Maui becomes less selfish, going from stranding Moana on an island to die to sacrificing his powers and fish hook to save Moana.

Eventually, Moana and Maui come face-to-face with Teka, the Terrible Mother, the lava monster. Teka appears to have no motive, it just tries to kill them both. Moana makes it past Teka to the island where Tefiti is meant to be, and she’s not there; most of the island is missing. She looks across at the battle between Maui and Teka and notices something: a spiral on the chest of Teka; Teka is Tefiti. It’s just that, without The Heart and power of creation, all that is left is destruction.

The following battle between Moana and Teka is a simple one: Moana asks the ocean to clear a path to Teka and sings “Know who you are”. Teka charges at Moana, slows down, and Moana simply places The Heart into her chest. Teka changes form to Tefiti, and Maui gets an opportunity to apologise to Tefiti. Tefiti gives Maui a new fish hook and gives Moana a new boat to return home in.

This final battle might seem like an anticlimax, but it is another point Peterson makes: by knowing and understanding what Teka is, she becomes less scary. Moana’s knowledge is the weapon. (Also, the song and visuals are pretty good and that pastes over the lack of action.)

Moana returns home, the blight has ended. But Moana has also brought home a new mythology and the skills to make it work. The people of Motunui return to being sea-faring people. The world in the safe embrace of a restored Tefiti, the sea-faring people get to explore a new God: Maui, the shape-shifting demigod of the wind and sea and master of sailing. Maui is redeemed.

All this makes for an interesting literary discussion. It’s obviously not practical, as it is a story about a culture coming face to face with the actual Gods of their mythology and in turn becoming a myth themselves. No matter what our myths, we can’t do the same. It’s all symbolism. So, what does validating Peterson’s thesis by applying it to a children’s film actually mean for the function of mythology in our values?

This was a good opportunity for me to raise a few things that I have skipped over in previous summaries: the idea of an ideology being an incomplete mythology, new ideas being absorbed by a culture end up being as timeless as the original myth, the difference between chaos evil and chaotic good is knowledge. But, it still doesn’t address my central criticism of Peterson’s thesis: the simple fact that we can create these myths as an envelope to post values to future generations is evidence we don’t need the myths. It is humans who develop the values, decide which values are useful, and then preserve those values in myths. This is a Devil’s Advocate argument, as I’m not actually convinced, yet, that this is the origin of mythology; but, simply granting that it is true still makes humanity the originator of these stories.

In fact, one could argue (in fact, I am arguing this) that having a myth handed down to you by your ancestors doesn’t work to preserve the values at all. In Moana, the myth of the sea-faring demi God that inspired a sea-faring people was completely dissolved in a generation, and had to be found again: it wasn’t enough for Moana to know that her people once were sea-farers, she had to entirely rediscover the value of exploring the sea. It was re-mythed; created from nothing once again. So, what’s the point?

You might argue that the repeating cast of myths lets a myth and its values resonate with us. This might even be true: a personified chaos, a personified death, a personified creation, a personified culture and hierarchy, and an explorer trying to navigate it all might be a sufficient cast to tell any story. But, it would still be on the listener to decide whether a story is cautionary or inspirational. And we do that by applying the values we have extraneous to the myths; they are not prefaced with ‘this is cautionary’.

Consider this: Jesus is killed by a society that despises him. And yet, his story is not considered cautionary. But we figure that out for ourselves. How can we do that, if the value is wholly in the myth? Or, is Peterson’s thesis not more than a tool for literary analysis where he also ― unrelatedly ― talks about neuro-anatomy and Jung and Freud?

1 thought on “Maps of Meaning, discussion – Part 4b, Peterson applied to Moana”

  1. Interesting, using a fictional story to make his points . . . hmmm. In any case, social evolution requires that knowledge be transmitted from one generation to another. We seem to be primed by evolution to learn from stories (as they attract attention better than “lessons”). The transmission of knowledge for many millennia was the role of “tradition,” what I like to call “the ways we have always done these things.” So, we acquired a “preserve tradition” attitude from this process as those traditions were our connect with the knowledge acquired in the past.

    The ideas we developed about gods were also woven into stories and traditions, as they could have been expected to be, as many though this “knowledge” was important not to lose.

    The reason Jordan Peterson rails against postmodernism is it is founded in a re-examination of common narratives (often referred to as meta-narratives) handed down, both religious and secular, and a rejection of knowledge and attitudes found to be false.

    As usual, some Shakespeare applies: He (not the Lady) doth protest too much, methinks.” Basically, by protesting too much, he is showing his biases.

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