What is it about a story where the hero loses at the last second? It’s especially common in myths about the human quest for immortality. When I was preparing to go to Hawaii, I was thrilled to find just such a tale in Polynesian mythology. The following is a wonderful summary of how the demigod Maui’s attempted to bring immortality to human beings. It comes from Edward Wozniak’s Balladeer’s Blog. There are many versions, but they all end the same way-
Maui’s final adventure involved his failed attempt to gain immortality for humanity… the sun that Lono fished up was swallowed each night by Milu (goddess of the underworld) and traveled across her subterranean realm, lighting it the way it did the Earth during the daylight hours. Each morning the sun emerged from Milu’s vagina and started its journey across the Earth, and so on and so on.
Maui made a wager with Milu that if he could enter through her vagina right after the sun emerged at daybreak and then race his way across her realm, emerging from her mouth before the sun could set in it, then she would let human beings live forever. The wager was accepted and Maui raced with the sun, fighting his way through many perils and menaces in Milu.
Unfortunately, before he could reach the mouth of the land of death the sun was entering through it, bringing daybreak to Milu and waking the goddess herself from her daytime slumber (in many versions the “sunrise” in the land of the dead prompts a bird to sing, waking Milu up). Maui lost the bet, so humans were still doomed to die, and in some versions Milu forced Maui to spend eternity with her in her gloomy kingdom.
Given the nature of human preoccupation with death, why do we create stories like those of Maui, Gilgamesh or Orpheus and Eurydice?
They get our hopes for immortality up only to dash them at the last second. Are they humorous, told with a wry smile? Are they cautionary, meant to keep us from spending time on something that even heroes and demi-gods can’t accomplish?
Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog