A DigitalNZ Story by Zokoroa
Matariki is the Māori name for the cluster of stars, also known as the Pleiades, that herald in the New Year around June-July. An overview of traditional knowledge and contemporary celebrations is given, together with suggestions for activities.
Matariki is the Māori name for the cluster of stars also known as the Pleiades. In Greek mythology the Pleiades were the seven daughters of the titan Atlas and the sea-nymph Pleione. Zeus immortalised the sisters by turning them into doves and then into stars to form the Pleiades in the Taurus constellation. Matariki rises in midwinter and for many Māori, it signals the start of a new year. Beginning in 2022, the occasion is to be marked by a public holiday set annually by the Matariki Advisory Group.
According to traditional Māori knowledge, Ranginui (the sky father) and Papatūānuku (the earth mother) were separated from their eternal embrace by their children. The children (all sons) had lived cramped together in the darkness between their parents and wanted more freedom to be able to move around. One brother, Tūmatūenga (god of war and people), had suggested that they slay their parents. However, Tāne Mahuta (god of the forests) suggested that they separate their parents forever. All the brothers agreed, except for Tawhirimatea (god of weather).
Tāne Mahuta was able to separate their parents by lying on his back and using his legs to push their father Rangi higher into the sky. Angry at his brothers, Tāwhirimātea joined Rangi in the skies and, together, they plotted revenge against them. (See Te Ara article on how the four winds, rain and hail were used.) During the stormy weather, Tūmatauenga stood firm and developed incantations for calm weather.
In pain at the separation of his parents, Tāwhirimātea gouged out his eyes and threw the pieces into the Milky Way galaxy. Matariki has been thought to mean either the ‘eyes of god’ (mata ariki) or ‘little eyes’ (mata riki). However, according to Dr Rangi Mātāmua, there are no stories to support the meaning 'little eyes'. Rather, Matariki is an abbreviation of ‘Ngā Mata o te Ariki’ – The Eyes of the God. In other cultures, the star cluster is also known by other names - the Hawaiian name is “Makali‘i” or eyes of royalty, and in Japan it is “Subaru” meaning gathered together.
The story of Rangi and Papa has been retold in animated videos. See examples below. There is also a Youtube clip by Auckland Libraries: Matariki [Ngā mata o te ariki, o Tāwhirimātea: The eyes of the god, Tāwhirimātea]
The story of Rangi and Papa has also been retold in written stories. The following can be read online:
Traditional accounts and star lore have been captured in Elsdon Best's The astronomical knowledge of the Maori (1922) through interviews with iwi. One of the contributors was astronomer Te Kōkau Himiona Te Pikikōtukua who had begun compiling a 400-page manuscript with his son Rāwiri Te Kōkau in Ruatāhuna from 1898. It was completed by Rāwiri in 1933 and handed down from grandson to grandson, whereby Dr Rangi Mātāmua carried out further research and published the book Matariki, The Star of the Year in 2017. The knowledge of the elders during the nineteenth century from the East Coast of Te Ika-a-Maui (North Island) has also been researched and published in Work of the Gods: Tātai Arorangi - Māori astronomy by Kay Leather and Richard Hall (2004).
Most commonly known in Western culture as the Pleiades or “seven sisters” of Greek myth, this cluster of stars is said to number seven or more stars. One of the popular versions is that the star Matariki is the whaea (mother), surrounded by her six daughters, Tupu-ā-nuku, Tupu-ā-rangi, Waipuna-ā-rangi, Waitī and Waitā, and Ururangi. (See Te Papa website.) Dr. Rangi Mātāmua, however, says there are nine stars - Matariki, Tupu-ā-nuku, Tupu-ā-rangi, Waipuna-ā-rangi, Waitī, Waitā, Ururangi, Pōhutukawa, and Hiwa-i-te-rangi ( seeTe Karere TVNZ interview). Viewing with the naked eye, between 7 and 14 stars of the over 1000 stars within this cluster have been seen.
Te Papa: Matariki: The Māori New Year gives the following information:
At the time of the Māori new year, Te Waka o Tamarereti (the great waka of Tamarereti) can be seen in the south. The waka is called Uruao. Tautoru (Orion's Belt) forms the stern, the tail of Scorpius is the prow, and Māhutonga (the Southern Cross) is the anchor and Te Taura o te Waka o Tamarēreti (the Pointers) are the anchor rope.
Victoria University of Wellington
To find the Matariki star cluster in the night sky, start with the Southern Cross and track east to three bright stars aligned in a row. This constellation is known as Orion's belt or Tautoru. See Youtube video How to find the Matariki star cluster with Martin Langdon from Te Papa's Learning Team.
Puanga is the first star to appear on the horizon, signalling that in three days Matariki would rise. For some iwi, Puanga (Puaka) – Rigel is the star that heralds the New Year as it always rises before Matariki (e.g. Taranaki and Whanganui iwi, and some on the West Coast of the South Island). However, for some iwi, Matariki marks the start of the New Year. For some Māori the first new moon after the rise of Matariki signals the start of the New Year celebrations. The moon (Marama) is seen as the start for all things new and guides the activities for the planting and harvesting of kai on the land and at sea.
The rising of Matariki takes place at pre-dawn during the last quarter of the moon cycle known as the Tangaroa nights of the moon. Unlike the Western world, this can vary from year to year but is always in the cold months from May to July. According to Dr. Rangi Mātāmua, Pleiades sets between May-June when the land sleeps, freezes over and lies idle. The setting of Matariki is known as Mātahi kari pīwai. Then around June to July, Matariki appears on the horizon at the pre-dawn of the day that signals the New Year. The Sun had travelled North and Matariki has gone to guide it back to the East to bring warmer weather. The rising of Matariki is known as Mātahi o te tau. The current year's dates can be viewed on the Ministry for Culture and Heritage's website.
Matariki is a time for Māori to welcome the New Year and give thanks for the many blessings they had, while remembering those that had gone before them. It is usually associated with remembrance, rebirth and regeneration as the seasons move towards warmer months. Tohunga would observe the stars and take meaning from each star's position, movement, colour and brightness to foretell the future. Puanga foretells the fortunes of the coming of the New Year by his appearance and placement when he first rises after the first new moon. Matariki confirms this through her placement and appearance when she appears three days later.
When Matariki rises in the pre-dawn sky, it is a time for people to come together to farewell those departed during the year and to acknowledge the year gone by. The ceremony usually took place on a high vantage point. A small hāngī would be prepared while waiting for Matariki to rise. The first sighting of Matariki was greeted with karakia and then the Tohunga Kōkōrangi would read the tohu. A fire would then be lit and those that had passed the previous year acknowledged with weeping and the reciting of the names of the departed.
As recounted in a Te Papa podcast with Dr. Rangi Mātāmua, the constellation Te Waka o Rangi is a canoe with Matariki at the front and Tautoru (Orion’s belt) at the back. It is captained by Taramainuku who casts his net Te Kupenga a Taramainuku down to earth to gather the souls of the people who died that day. He carries them along behind his waka for eleven months until May when the waka sets on the West Coast with the Sun. He then takes them to the underworld where they remain for a month. When Matariki rises again a month later, Taramainuku releases the souls of the dead into the sky to become stars. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the hāngī would be opened allowing the steam to rise up and give sustenance to those who had become stars. As well as a time of remembrance, Matariki is also a time to start letting go of grief and begin anew.
Matariki is also a time for looking ahead to the coming year. Tohunga looked to Matariki to predict if the next harvest would be abundant. If a star is brighter and clearer that the others stars, the warmer the growing season would be, ensuring a good crop would be harvested from that source. If a star is hazy or missing, there will be negative outcomes for the coming year as represented by that star. To read the stars for what the year ahead will bring, Matariki must be read when the moon is in Tangaroa at the end of its third quarter and into the last quarter.
Matariki celebrations were popular for Māori in pre-European times. The festivals continued into the 1900s but were reported to have waned during the 1940s. (See articles below on 'Matariki - Māori New Year: Modern Matariki" by the Ministry for Culture and History, and "Matariki' published in Te Ao Ho.) However, the beginning of this century has seen a revival in celebrations. The traditions of Matariki and their place in contemporary culture have been explored in various forums - What does it mean to people in today's society?
Cross-cultural involvement has also increasingly taken place.
Over the years, there have been suggestions that Matariki should be marked by a public holiday. However, a bill introduced to Parliament in 2009 failed to get political support. A petition was launched in 2020 after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had said the government was considering more public holidays to help encourage domestic tourism. On 4 February 2021, Arden announced that Matariki would begin to be celebrated as a public holiday on Friday 24 June 2022. The timing of the holiday to change from year to year and fall on a Monday or Friday. The Matariki Advisory Group was established to provide advice on future dates of the public holiday,
Festivals and exhibitions have been held to increase knowledge about the traditional astronomy and spiritual connections that underpins the Māori New Year. The Waikato Museum's Te Whānau Marama: The Heavenly Bodies Exhibition (2016 - 2018) featured a sound and light show. Other museums, public libraries, organisations, schools/kura and local communities have also held a range of activities. Artistic works, music, drama, stories and film have been created in celebration of Matariki.
The following types of activities are held to celebrate Matariki. For further ideas and creative inspiration, see the array of images available on DigitalNZ which are added to each year.
Initiatives include the Society of Māori Astronomy Research and Traditions (SMART), which was formed in 2009 to collect, preserve and revitalise Māori astronomical knowledge that might otherwise be lost. Marsden funding has also enabled research to be carried out for the three-year 'Te Mauria Whiritoi: The sky' study at the University of Waikato.
There is a range of activities that can be explored with students and their families.
Resource suggestions include:
Also see the following suggestions accessible on DigitalNZ: