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Religious Themes Through The Whale Rider

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Within the movie Whale Rider, a mythic and sacred story is represented through a girl’s struggle in becoming a leader by breaking tradition. Within this contemporary-fairy tale, Whale Rider also entails a spiritual bond that the main character, Paikea, has with a quasi-mystical creature, represented as a whale. The movie Whale Rider fits in the group of mythological film because it “explains a tale full of life mysteries to make them bearable” (Greene 8). Mythology helps people to learn from their ancestor’s stories.

By hearing mythic stories, people have an idea on how to be more like their ancestors. Since Whale Rider revolves around mythical themes, it can also be viewed as capturing various religions motifs. In particular, religious themes such as sacrificial love, rebirth and resurrection, nature and religion, and spiritual journey are represented. Critics aspire to say that these religious themes give Whale Rider a positive take on religion.

The beginning of Whale Rider begins with Paikea’s life story. Paikea states in the opening of the movie, “In the old days, the land felt a great emptiness that was waiting, waiting to be filled up, waiting for someone to love it, waiting for a leader. And he came on the back of the whale, a man to lead a new people. Our ancestor, Paikea. But now we were waiting for firstborn of the new generation. For the decedent of the Whale Rider, for the boy who would be chief.” The first opening scene shows Paikea’s parents and her twin brother. Due to complications, Paikea’s twin and her mother both die in the hospital.

Paikea’s grandfather, Koro, asks what his son, Pourangani, is going to name the baby. Pourangani turns to Koro and says “Paikea.” When Paikea’s father names her, Koro is angry about her new name. Koro knows Paikea should not be named after her great ancestor. Koro also understands that in Maori culture there has not been a leader named Paikea who is a girl. In Maori legends, first-born boys of a new generation must undergo a series of tests in order to become chief of the community.

The chief is selected when each boy completes these tests, as Paikea did. Koro knows that Paikea cannot perform the tests because she is a girl. Maori culture believes that the chief of the community can only be born a boy. This is the reason Koro is so upset when Paikea is named after her ancestor. “The birth story of Paikea is similarly parallel to the Christ narrative” (Fillingim 8). In Biblical context, Joseph was conferred to name Jesus, Jesus.

“’Do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’” (Matthew 1:21-23).

When Joseph was conferred upon Jesus, which is a name indicating his mission, Pourangani confers upon Paikea’s gender unfitting name that links her to the great ancestor. Being named after her great ancestor, Paikea’s purpose involves claiming her role as being a female leader in the Maori culture. Like Paikea, Jesus was also named the highest name he could be named in order to lead his followers.

Both Paikea and Jesus share a common aspect to their lives: their fathers are distant. Throughout Paikea’s life, her father is absent, especially after she is born. Compared to Jesus’ father, Paikea’s father leaves her to be raised by his parents. In the Bible, Joseph is never around Jesus. Gathered from biblical content, Stewart argues, “There are not many facts recorded about Joseph in the four gospels. He is mentioned only with respect to the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, flight to Egypt, and return to Galilee” (Stewart). Both Jesus and Paikea learn to grow strong without having their fathers in their lives. Due to the absence of their fathers, Paikea and Jesus can be looked at as leading figures.

From a young age, Jesus and Paikea become stronger leaders due to their independence. Being raised by her grandfather, Paikea wants to follow her tradition more by living up to her name. In one of the scenes, Koro takes all of the first-born boys out on a boat. Koro takes off his necklace and throws it into the ocean. As a final test, each of the boys dives into the water to retrieve the necklace. In Maori tradition, this test will give the tribe its new chief. All of the boys are unable to recover the necklace, leaving Koro disappointed. Later in the movie, Paikea goes to the same spot as the necklace and dives in to get it. Returning to the boat, Paikea has the necklace in her hand.

Because Paikea was the only one to retrieve the necklace, through her independence and courage, she pushed herself to compete the boys’ original mission. Like Jesus, Paikea tried to prove that she was a leader. The retrieval of the necklace also makes Paikea special and sacred in a way. By being the only one to complete the test, Paikea begins to stand out amongst the other children in her tribe. In Whale Rider the theme of sacrificial love plays a large role. Sacrificial love can be defined as ending suffering by death to oneself. Self-sacrifice can help a group benefit from the person who sacrifices themself.

In Whale Rider, Paikea displays sacrificial love for her traditions, family, and community. When Paikea sacrifices her life to a whale, she is showing that she is destined to be chief of the tribe. In Maori culture, it is believed that Paikea, the great ancestor, was able to communicate with whales. His story is about survival and attempt to save his brother’s life while communicating and riding whales. Because Paikea is able to communicate and ride the beached whale, Maori culture believes she is similar to her ancestor Paikea. Paikea makes it her duty to protect her tradition, even if chooses to give her life her life to a beached whale.

Sacrificial love is based on the sole purpose of helping others and not oneself. Paikea’s actions are not for a personal gain, but rather for her family and her community. Because her traditions are so sanctified to her, Paikea decides to put belief first, instead of her own welfare. In Biblical context, Jesus’ crucifixion is an example of sacrificial love. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Jesus came to Earth to die for humankind’s sins and used his death as a salvation for others. Jesus tried to show the disciples that they would endure suffering.

His disciples unfortunately did not believe him. “Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Matthew 16:21-22). Sacrificial love is paralleled through Jesus and Paikea. Paikea sacrifices herself for her people and tradition, whereas Jesus chooses to die for his people’s sins.. Both Jesus and Paikea want to die for others rather than themselves. Sacrificial love is a crucial element within the Bible and that is mirrored in the Whale Rider.

Rebirth and Resurrection also play an important role in Whale Rider, particularly when Paikea rides the whale, Taniwha. Paikea drowns and becomes unconscious when she is submerged underwater, which brings her closer to Taniwha. While watching Whale Rider, first viewers of the film might assume that Paikea dies when she goes underwater with Taniwha. When Paikea wakes up in the hospital, viewers then also may assume that she now obtains mystical knowledge from Taniwha. Waking up in the hospital is considered Paikea’s rebirth and resurrection. Paikea was assumed dead, but now comes back to life. In the hospital, Paikea’s grandfather, Koro, recognizes that Paikea is meant to be the right leader of their community.

Through Koro’s confession, he calls Paikea a knowledgeable leader and that he has much to learn from her. Paikea’s awakening exhibits rebirth and resurrection because she can now be considered the tribe’s new leader. In the editorial “Journal of Religion & Film: When Jesus Was a Girl: Polymythic Female Christ Figures in Whale Rider and Steel Magnolias” Paikea is closely related to Jesus. The article says, “Her resurrection scene includes a striking parallel to the revivification of Jesus.” (Fillingim 27). When looked at from a biblical context, Paikea and Jesus are similar because of their resurrections.

It is said by Paul in 1 Corinthians,, “But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (Corinthians 15: 12-14). The Biblical segment relays the importance of Jesus’ resurrection. In the Bible, the Corinthians did not believe in the resurrection of Christ.

Without Jesus’ resurrection, Christianity would have no significance behind it. In Christianity, it is taught that humankind was saved because of Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection. Similar to Christ, Paikea gives the Maori community hope, even if she is a girl. Even though people doubt her, like Jesus, she proves to the Maori community that she is a leader. Paikea awakes to Koro asking for forgiveness because he doubted her. Like Jesus, Paikea was able to show her grandfather that she is her tribe’s leader. Through her resurrection, Paikea can be looked at in a similar way to Jesus.

Both Koro and Paikea are able to understand the harmony they share with their great ancestors. Like Koro and Paikea, the people of the Maori culture can also feel this emotional tie. In Ann Hardy’s article, “Return of the Taniwha,” telepathic communication between the divine and the Maori people is conceived. The article says, “Featuring as it does a post modern take on the metaphysical where a psychologized view of the world exemplified by an individual story of self growth is hybridized with a nostalgic sensibility where people, nature and the divine can exist in a spiritual symbiosis” (Hardy 5).

This quote means, through the relationship of people, nature, and the divine, nostalgia and self-growth can be found. When nostalgia and self-growth are found, a person’s story can be written and showed through their view of the world. Nostalgia and divine heredity help the Maori people tie themselves back to their ancestor Paikea and his teachings. Through divine heredity, Koro and Paikea have a connection with the deities due to their knowledge. Taniwha represents Paikea’s affinity for mystic powers.

This trait is shared between both Paikea and Koro, but because of Koro’s guilt, he is unable to realize what is happening. Maori culture believes that whoever has the telepathic ability with Taniwha will be reincarnated as Taniwha. This understanding can be eluded through Paikea’s rebirth. After Paikea’s resurrection, she has full knowledge and assertiveness to become chief of the Maori people.

Lachy Paterson says that “the traditional Maori worldview possessed physical and spiritual domains which were not separated but fused together with few boundaries between natural and supernatural phenomena” (Patterson 5). Due to Paikea and Koro’s belief, the concept of divine heredity can bring them closer to nature. When they are close to nature, they have a tied relationship with their great ancestors.

Spiritual journey is another theme that can be found within Whale Rider. The movie is clear in its voyages portrayal of the community, Koro, and Paikea. Through the spiritual journey, everyone’s daily lives are affected by tradition and events that culminate in the conflict of present versus ancient morals. Being transformative for the significant symbols and their society highlights spiritual journey. The foretelling isn’t meant to be linear, but viewers are told of obvious hurdles that Paikea must overcome in order to shadow her ancestor’s footsteps. This journey enables Paikea to fulfill her destiny by transcending her difficulties through a key icon. Viewers can denote that Paikea is tenacious and able to overcome her obstacles.

Paikea is somewhat similar to Jesus in this respect because she too faces difficulties and doubts. Multiple times in the Bible Jesus was doubted for his role as a leader. In Matthew 28:17 it says, “And when they saw Him, they fell down and worshiped Him; but some doubted” (Matthew 28: 17). Being similar to Jesus, Paikea has to deal with Koro doubting her. Koro doubts that Paikea is the leader of their community and is similar to the ancestor Paikea.

Through her spiritual journey, Paikea overcomes the inability to be chief through her own understanding of her purpose. Paikea also knows that her grandfather still has yet to learn his spiritual journey’s meaning: to understand that Paikea, a girl, is the new leader. Teaching her community that customary values are the key to living, Paikea continues to persevere even if she has to go against Koro’s demands, which include excluding her from all the tests the first-boy boys have to undergo in order to be chief of the tribe.

By being in harmony with her existence, Paikea is able to complete her spiritual quest, which allows her to affect her community and grandfather positively. Paikea helps her community and Koro by saving the whales and by stepping up to her new role as being chief. Because the community and her grandfather doubted Paikea, she was able to prove them wrong. Paikea is now the first woman leader of the Maori people.

Through the story of Whale Rider, viewers able able to receive a positive take on religion. Critics believe Paikea’s story to be heartfelt and uplifting from a religious point of view. A famous Critic, Bob Berney, presented Whale Rider with high ratings. In Berney’s review he said, “Whale Rider provides a unique look into a society that only a few people know anything about.

That, and the positive pro-family themes in the movie, may also furnish some insights for Christians who have a heart for leading the Maori and other tribes of Polynesian descent to Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life” (Berney). Religious scholars believe Whale Rider to be a beneficial way for people to draw inferences between the Maori culture and Christianity. Through the movie Whale Rider, various religious themes such as having special powers, sacrificial love, rebirth and resurrection, nature and religion, and spiritual journey are represented. Whale Rider is a beneficial movie to anyone who watches it.

Works Cited
Berney, Bob. “Whale Rider Review.” Whale Rider. New Market Films, n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2012. Fillingim, David. “Journal of Religion & Film: When Jesus Was a Girl: Polymythic Female Christ Figures in Whale Rider and Steel Magnolias By David Fillingim.” Journal of Religion & Film: When Jesus Was a Girl: Polymythic Female Christ Figures in Whale Rider and Steel Magnolias By David Fillingim. N.p., 1 Apr. 2010. Web. 03 Dec. 2012. <http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/Vol14no1/JesusGirl.html>. Greene, Liz. The Mythic Journey: The Meaning of Myth As a Guide to Life. N.p.: Simon and Schuster, 2000. Print.

Hardy, Ann. “Return Of The Taniwha: The Re-Spiritualization Of Land And Film In Aotearoa”. British Review Of New Zealand Studies. Vol. 14, pp 84-104, 2003. Paterson, Lachy. “Maori Conversion To The Rule Of Law And Nineteenth Century Imperial Loyalties”. Journal Of Religious History. Vol, 32, 2, June, 2008. Stewart, Don. What Do We Know about Jesus’ Earthly Parents: Joseph and Mary? Pearson and Dwight, 1993. Print. The English Standard Version Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments with Apocrypha. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

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