Once a year in the midst of winter, the nine stars of Matariki cast their glow on our whenua. It’s commonly known as the Māori new year, but for Māori, it means more than just the turning of a calendar.
For many Māori throughout Aotearoa, the appearance of the star cluster Matariki in mid-winter skies signifies the beginning of the Māori new year. In te ao Māori the arrival of Matariki signals a time for people to gather together, honour the dead, celebrate the present and plan for the future.
“It’s also about health and wellbeing, not just from a human perspective but the health and wellbeing of our entire world,” says Dr Pauline Harris (Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Rakaipaaka, Ngāti Kahungunu), who is a senior lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington and chairperson of the Society for Māori Astronomy Research and Traditions.
“Humans have become too human-centric and are ignoring the fact that we are part of this larger world and we need to acknowledge the health and wellbeing of all other species on the planet.”
Astronomy has long been woven into the fabric of te ao Māori. Māori used the stars to navigate ocean voyages, planted and harvested crops based on lunar cycles, and even knew when fish were spawning or travelling based upon the phases of the moon. Traditional knowledge has long been recorded and handed down from generation to generation as part of Māori oral traditions. This knowledge sits at the heart of many regional ecological calendar systems that have guided Māori from season to season over time.
The rising of Matariki in the morning sky is observed in the month of Pipiri (around June and July). Māori wait until the lunar phase of Tangaroa, the last quarter phase of the moon, to celebrate its rising with a ceremony known as “whāngai i te hau tapu”. Traditionally, this ceremony has three parts: the viewing, remembering the dead, and feeding the stars.
The Spinoff spoke to Dr Harris about what makes Matariki important and how it guides te ao Māori.
So what exactly is Matariki?
Also known as Pleiades or M45, Matariki is the reo Māori name for a cluster of stars visible in our night sky at a specific time of the year. In June every year, Matariki reappears in the dawn sky, signalling that the start of the Māori new year is near. Because Māori traditionally followed a lunar-stellar calendar, a particular moon phase after the rising of Matariki signalled the time for the exact start of the new year. Unlike the Gregorian calendar, the dates of Matariki change every year.
Do all Māori acknowledge Matariki as the signifier of the Māori new year?
While Matariki is widely accepted as the marker of the Māori new year, many Māori also acknowledge Puanga (Rigel) as the most important signifier. Puanga is a prominent star in the sky and more easily seen in many regions. The far north, Taranaki and the South Island are all regions that honour Puanga as their new year star.
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How many stars are there in Matariki?
According to leading Māori astronomer Professor Rangi Mātāmua (Ngāi Tūhoe), who has been researching Matariki for over 30 years, Matariki has nine visible stars. The nine visible stars are Matariki, Tupuārangi, Waipuna-ā-Rangi, Waitī, Tupuānuku, Ururangi, Waitā, Pōhutukawa and Hiwa-i-te-Rangi. Each star holds a certain significance over our wellbeing and environment, as seen from the Māori view of the world.
What is the significance of Matariki for te ao Māori?
Matariki is a time to celebrate new life, to remember those who have passed on, and to plan for the future.
Matariki is also a time to spend with whānau and friends, to enjoy kai, waiata, games and haka. Māori would also traditionally look to Matariki for help with their harvesting. When Matariki disappeared in April or May, it was time to preserve crops for the winter season. When it reappeared in June/July, Māori would read the stars to predict the upcoming season. Clear and bright stars promised a warm and abundant winter while hazy stars warned of a bleak cold season.
Matariki is also a good time to assess the impact we are having on our world and to consider how we can ensure the health and wellbeing of not just ourselves but the world as a whole. It’s a time to reconnect with whānau but also a time to reconnect with the natural environment.
How is Matariki celebrated?
There are many different ways people celebrate Matariki in modern times. From champagne breakfasts and banquet dinners, through to playing board games with family, many Māori have their own takes on how best to acknowledge Matariki. However, according to Mātāmua, there are three main parts to celebrating Matariki.
The most common way of determining the Māori new year is the time after Matariki is first seen in the morning sky in June and when the last quarter phase of the moon known as Tangaroa occurs. The Tangaroa moon phase occurs in the three or four days leading to a new moon, which is on different dates each year. The appearance of Matariki was carefully observed by tohunga and the brightness of the different stars in the cluster, along with their movement and clarity, would determine the prosperity of the upcoming season.
The second part relates to remembering those who have passed on, especially in the period since the previous rising of Matariki. The names of those who had died since the last rising were called out in the presence of the star cluster. Many Māori believe Matariki cares for those who die throughout the year and when it rises again, the spirits of those passed become stars in the sky. Māori would mourn at this moment and their tears and wailing would send their loved ones into the heavens to become stars.
The third part of Matariki is around feeding the stars of Matariki. Because many of the different stars in Matariki are associated with food, and its role is to care for the dead and bring forth the bounty of the year, Māori give thanks to the cluster by offering kai. Before the rising of Matariki, food is harvested from the gardens, forests, rivers and ocean and is cooked in an earth oven. This oven is then uncovered and the steam of the food rises into the sky to feed Matariki. This is known as the whāngai i te hautapu ceremony, commonly called hautapu, and this practice was guided by tohunga who conducted karakia throughout. Once the ceremony was complete, a period of celebration, song, dance and feasting followed. People came together to enjoy the company of friends and family.
How can I celebrate Matariki?
Every year, there are many events that take place around the country honouring Matariki. These include lectures, dinners, balls and a host of different celebrations. Many groups and individuals rise early in the morning and head outside to view Matariki before sunrise, offering their thoughts, words and karakia to the stars. Some still call out the names of the dead, some still read the stars and try to predict the bounty of the new season, and some still cook food for Matariki and offer this in the ceremony.
Today there are many different ways to acknowledge the Māori new year and observe the rising of Matariki. Holding a discussion with whānau and implementing something for your own household is the best way to celebrate Matariki. Whether it is having a dinner with whānau, asking them to come home to be together to wānanga, to discuss family matters or how everybody is doing, or to use it as a time of reflection, are all ways to honour the occasion. Looking towards the future and how you’re progressing into the future is a really important aspect, especially when discussing health and wellbeing, whether that be mental wellbeing or physical wellbeing. Those who want to acknowledge Matariki through ceremonies can find resources online, such as this handbook put together by Mātāmua and Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.
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