The Night Sky for November and Te Waka O Tamarereti

Listen to the November jodcast here.

Welcome to… November. It is my favourite month of the year. The name November comes from Latin, meaning the ninth. In ancient times it was the ninth month from the beginning of the year, which used to be in March.

November is the time when the star cluster known as the Pleiades is visible again in the evening sky. In the Northern part of the world November is a month of contrasts. Too dark, too sharp, frost, mud, chernozem – the black earth, dead forest leaves and the river, is all that I remember was left of life in the Novembers of my childhood. And from the clouds to the land, it all felt metallic and heavy…Halloween is the harbinger of November and the Pleiades it’s omen.

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M45 The Pleiades “that’s not dust on the lens” – Terry Hancock

On the other side of the world, in Aotearoa, New Zealand, where the sea surrounds us from all directions, the sky is darker than dark, and the stars are very bright, and in November we prepare for summer. November here is called Orongo, which means the time after the great rain. Orongo is spectacular in Aotearoa. It harbours the most beautiful asterism I have ever seen, the grand canoe of Tama Rereti, te waka o Tama Rereti.


The story of Tama Rereti:

(rewritten from a resource compiled by Tony Fisher for the SMART Trust)

A very long time ago, soon after the first people were placed on the Earth, there were no stars in the sky at night. It was so dark that it was impossible to move around outside at night without tripping into things, and the Taniwha were the only creatures able to move around in the dark. Taniwha are the guardians of nature and they liked to eat anything lurking outside at night, spending their days asleep at the bottom of lakes and in deep rivers.

At this time lived a great warrior named Tama Rereti. His whare (house) was at the south end of the great lake that we call Taupo. One morning, Tama Rereti awoke in his whare and felt very hungry, but when he looked in his food store he found that he had very little left to eat. As he stood in the door of his whare looking out over the rippling waters of the lake he decided to go fishing and catch some fish for his family too. It was a lovely mild spring morning with a light breeze from the south.

Tama Rereti gathered up his fishing lines and baits and put them in his waka (canoe), and pushed off onto the lake. He hoisted the sail and set off for his favourite fishing spot. When he arrived he lowered the sail and started fishing. After a while, Tama Rereti had caught some nice fish so he decided to head back to the village for a late breakfast.

Unfortunately the wind had dropped and he was becalmed. The day was mild and it was a long way back to the village so Tama Rereti decided to lie down in the bottom of the waka for a snooze. It was peaceful in the waka and with the gentle rocking of it and the sound of the waves lapping against the sides, Tama Rereti was soon fast asleep.

While he slept the gentle breeze returned and the canoe with Tama Rereti on board sailed quietly towards the north end of the lake. Tama Rereti slept for a long time. When he awoke he looked over the side of the canoe and to his surprise found that he was at the far end of the lake. There was no way he could make it back home across the lake before dusk. And after dusk the taniwha would come and eat him up. Tama Rereti was a brave warrior. He was not afraid of fighting with the taniwha but he loved his family dearly. All he wanted was to get back home to his wife and children, to the Ahi-kaa, the sacred fire of his family.

By now he was extremely hungry. Tama Rereti was a wise man, and knew that important decisions cannot be taken on an empty stomach. He knew he had to eat. So he sailed his canoe to a nearby pebble beach, threw over the anchor and paddled ashore with his fish where he lit a small cooking fire. He skewered his fish onto a stick and baked them over the flames. When they were cooked he sat on a fallen log and quietly ate the fish while he listened to the sounds of the breeze in the trees, the song of the Tui and the rippling of the little waves as they washed over the pebbles on the beach. It was warm and it felt very peaceful. As Tama Rereti was looking into the dance of the flames he noticed that all the pebbles and the stones he used for the fireplace where shining bright.

Suddenly this gave him an idea. He loaded as many of the shining stones and pebbles into his canoe as it would hold and pushed off into the lake. He asked himself, “What if, instead of going back home through the lake I will sail onto the great river from the sky?” Tama Rereti sailed towards the river and guided his canoe carefully into the entrance just as the sun slipped below the horizon and darkness descended on the Earth. The current of the river was strong and the canoe moved along at a steady pace.

As the waka entered the sky Tama Rereti began to scatter the bright, shining stones and pebbles in all directions as he went along. The wake of the canoe became the Milky Way and the stones and pebbles became its stars. This is the reason why we have stars in the sky.By the time Tama Rereti had thrown out all the pebbles he had sailed right across the sky and was able to see his village in the first light of dawn.

He was very tired so he beached his canoe and tied the anchor rope to a large tree stump. Having secured his canoe Tama Rereti walked slowly to his whare and just as the Sun rose above the hills in the East he clambered through the door and lay down on his sleeping mats exhausted. In just the twinkling of an eye Tama Rereti was sound asleep.

Tama Rereti slept soundly for many hours. When he awoke in the middle of the afternoon he found Ranginui, the god of the sky, sitting outside the whare waiting for him. At first Tama Rereti was afraid that Ranginui would be angry with him for littering the sky with thousands of pebbles. Much to the surprise of Tama Rereti, Ranginui was very pleased with the new appearance of the night sky.

For the first time there was enough light at night to enable people to see what they were doing and allow them to move around safely. Best of all Ranginui was delighted with the beauty of the night sky.

So that people in the future would remember how the stars were placed in the sky and how the sky was made beautiful at night, Ranginui asked Tama Rereti if he would allow his canoe to be permanently anchored among the stars. Together that evening they chose the place in the sky where the wake of the canoe is at its brightest, and there the great canoe of Tama Rereti floats peacefully to this day.

The canoe of Tama Rereti sets sail in November from Aotearoa signaling to Maori navigators that it was time to start planning their journeys back to Rarohenga. Rarohenga means the rohe (domain) beyond the Sun, Ra, the Maori name for places they cannot see beyond the curvature of Earth.

Te Waka o Tama Rereti - photo John Drummond
Te Waka o Tama Rereti – photo John Drummond

If you want to see the canoe of Tama Rereti, start from where the Sun has set. There is the Scorpion which represents the prow of the canoe and  the stinger of it is the beautifully carved wood above the bow of the canoe. A short distance below this is the star at the end of the Scorpion’s curving tail that marks the place where the bow meets the water. The curve of the Scorpion’s tail and body sinks into the waters of the Milky Way, which at this time of the year surrounds Aotearoa like a beautiful glistening river. As water waves move along the side of the canoe, the bright orange star, Antares, marks the crest of a wave as the great waka rides at anchor.

From the bow, the anchor rope is marked by Alpha Centauri, the third brightest star in the sky, and Beta Centauri which are also known as the Pointers of the southern cross. The Southern Cross represents the great stone anchor that that keeps the canoe of Tama Rereti in its place to remind us all how the stars and Milky Way were placed in the night sky so long ago. A tall mast rises from the canoe all the way to the star Achernar, which marks in the Northern World at the end of the river Eridanus. The two beautiful galaxies that we know as the Magellanic clouds are the sails of the waka. Atutahi, also known as Canopus is the second brightest star in the sky and is the chief of all stars as well as the navigator of the canoe. Orion makes the stern post, it is elaborately carved and it goes all the way from Betelgeuse, a red-giant star, to high above the water at Rigel, a bluish supergiant star, directly above the line of three stars.  From the top of the stern post there is a ribbon of flax blowing out in the wind.  At its tip is orange Aldebaran, and the flax is the Hyades cluster. Still further left is the Pleiades which at this time of the year are only making the feathers that adorn the canoe floating on the ripples left behind by the waka o Tama Rereti.

Matariki, the name that the Maori sometimes give to this cluster, is only a memory of winter, as the cluster in only called so in the mornings of July when here in New Zealand it is wintertime, and thus it marks the Maori new year.

After Orongo (November), when it appears again in the evening sky, the Pleiades cluster is part of the waka o Tama Rereti and seen as a whole, decorating as feathers the waters of the milky way. Still six stars are visible to the eye; dozens are seen in binoculars. The cluster is 440 light years away and around 70 million years old.

Polynesian and Maori navigation is different in every aspect from anything I have came across. Intricate and beautiful, it is like nothing I have ever seen.
The horizon is split into 32 parts called ‘houses’ and the navigators watch the stars as they rise from each house. At different latitudes they will rise from a different house. Looking at pairs of stars at zenith to find the direction North-South and also at specific zenith stars they can pinpoint locations with precision. A sky-bound people, they keep in their minds a vision of the sky above the land they are trying to get to. And as they navigate they say that all they do is bring that vision closer, almost as if the canoe is standing still and the land is getting closer and closer, as if the land is coming towards them. And if they keep that image of the place of destination in their mind everything else falls into place. I have to say, even though this sounds exactly like the modern project management concept, I have fallen in love with Polynesian Navigation.

Orongo, the month following the most rain, is indeed a very special time of the year. I always liked how we can see aligned along the Milky Way on the horizon from south to east the third brightest star, Alpha Centauri, which is also our closest neighbour at 4.25 light years away. Then Canopus-Atutahi, the second brightest star in the sky also known here as the Cat Star and Sirius-Takurua, the Dog Star, the brightest star in the entire sky, twinkling like a diamond as the air in the atmosphere disperses its light. What an amazing sight! On the opposite side of the sky, the great square of Pegasus is riding the Northern horizon. Not only we can see the three brightest stars in the sky but at the same time during Orongo in Aotearoa New Zealand, we can also see the most prominent four galaxies of seen from our world with the naked eye: The Milky Way, the Magellanic Clouds and, very low in the north, is the Andromeda Galaxy, easily seen with binoculars in a dark sky and faintly visible to the eye. It appears as a spindle of light.

Clear skies!