Moana: Healing the Goddess


“Moana” is, as many have said, an excellent example of Disney animated films at their best: beautiful visuals, catchy tunes, great characters, and a storyline that honors its source material without being slavishly constricted by it. I am no authority on Polynesian mythology (not covered in my program at all, although I have read a bit about it), but I am pretty well up on the underlying universal themes that I saw at work in the story, and I was delighted by how well the scriptwriters wove them together.

The first theme is the one so dear to my own heart: the story of the young woman who defies her community, which is bent on telling her who she is and can be, and ventures away into the wilderness in response to an inner calling. In Moana’s case, the wilderness is the ocean beyond the safety of the reef that protects her island, and the calling is her deeper ancestral identity as a voyager, a sailor capable of reading the stars and currents so well that she always knows where she is and where she is going, even a thousand miles out on the ocean.

The second theme is another one I’ve written about often, of how the land has been destroyed because masculine energies have ignored or deliberately harmed the feminine, and the land can only be restored through a collaboration of mutual respect between the masculine and feminine. In this case, Maui the demigod, a bulging-muscle avatar of maleness (appropriately voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), is both the perpetrator of the original crime and the one appointed to make atonement for the crime.

As part of this atonement, he must help the young maiden who is the heroine, Moana, learn what she needs to learn. This is the third theme. Usually in the heroine journey, the helper she finds in the wilderness is a witch, but in this case it’s a a male figure who is the irascible and impatient holder of wisdom, setting the heroine tests until she proves herself worthy of being taught.

I like this, and not just because it is a sign that we are getting away from gendered roles. As heroines become more like heroes, it makes sense that the wise old man who is the hero’s mentor and the witch who is the heroine’s mentor are starting to merge. But more than that, it says to me that men might be beginning to withdraw their own projections about the witchy aspects of the feminine and own them as part of their own psyches.

Let me explain this in more detail. Jung and many others who followed him talk a lot about how we tend to be hyperaware of traits that we don’t like or deny we have when we see them in others, while being blind to all the ways we have those same traits. For example, for a long time I tried to believe that I was not a ‘controlling’ person, because I did not like this behavior in myself. As a result I was intensely irritated by others who seemed to me to be that type. When a supervisor would try to micromanage me, I would get so furious I often would have to leave the office for a while. This is how projection works: I don’t have this problem, but boy, YOU DO and I hate that about you!

(Envy, by the way, is when we think someone else has a trait we admire but can’t see in ourselves. Projection of our own good traits can also happen.)

When I finally owned up to my  need to control situations (and recognized the underlying anxiety that fueled this need), my irritation at these other people faded. Often I realized they weren’t that controlling after all! Once I owned my own projection, I could take it back into myself and it no longer got in the way of my relationships with others.

A common projection that men put on women is that of the witch or bitch. When a man projects his own self-critical voice (and we’ve all got one of those) onto women, then whenever a woman says anything that isn’t complete loving approval or acceptance, the man may feel attacked and blame her. This includes, all too often, the times a woman says “no.” Women who express opinions and stand up for themselves are used to being called bitches, but usually walk away wondering why the guy can’t handle it. What he can’t handle is his discomfort with his own self-doubt, which has just been triggered by the woman who doesn’t stroke his ego and help him ignore his inner critic.

In heroine stories, the witch never caters to anyone’s ego. She says the truth and doesn’t care if it hurts your feelings; your feelings are not her problem, they are yours. What she has to give you is something else: a lesson in how to know when your feelings are valid and when they aren’t. The witch teaches you discernment, how to know what is of value and what is not, what you need to nurture and what you need to get rid of or refuse or destroy.

Maui is a witchy man. He’s not at all concerned with Moana’s feelings or rights; he tries to steal her boat, he belittles her, and for a long time he refuses to teach her at all. In the heroine stories, the heroine has to prove herself to the witch first before the witch will deign to gift her with knowledge, and Moana has to prove herself to Maui before he will teach her how to sail like a true voyager.  But what I really like about this character is that he owns his own inner witch. Maui does “project” his issues, but only onto his own skin, where they show up as tattoos. He can’t get away from them! In time he learns to listen to them and be guided to do the right thing.

The final theme I saw in this movie was that of the completion of the triad or trinity by the additional of the sacred fourth. Jung said that one of the most important movements of the 20th century was the Catholic Church’s growing veneration of the Virgin Mary, indicating that the Trinity was finally being balanced by a feminine fourth. For nearly two millennia, the Church—and Western society that has been so heavily influenced by Christianity—has focused on the male Father, the male Son, and the androgynous Spirit, but left out the fourth aspect, the female Mother, and so has lacked wholeness.

Christianity’s not alone in this imbalance. Many mythologies talk about the feminine in terms of a triad, the maiden-mother-crone. In my book, I argue that there is a fourth aspect to the feminine, which some name the Queen, some the Goddess, and a few call the Dragon. This is the aspect of the feminine that is NOT determined by relationship to others or to fertility, but stands on its own and represents the highest expression of feminine power.

Moana is the maiden. Her mother provides her with nourishment as she grows and again for her journey. Her grandmother, the crone, helps guide her on her way. What Moana does not understand until the climactic scene is that she is as important to the Goddess as Maui. Maui needs to bow before Her and acknowledge the wrong he did so that the feminine can forgive the masculine and redeem him, but that is not enough.The maiden who will become a mother and a crone is the only one who can return the heart of the feminine and heal the Goddess.

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