When is Matariki?

It is the month of June again and, once more, here in New Zealand, we celebrate the Maori New Year, Matariki. But is Matariki really falling in June this year?

Actually… no. This year we are supposed to celebrate Matariki from just after the 5th of July until the 3rd of August. At least in Wellington… at least, if we are to listen to what tohunga tatai arorangi say: Matariki occurs after the tohunga can sight the cluster rising in the morning sky before the Sun (heliacal rising – Helios meaning the Sun in Greek) AND after the first NEW Moon occurring after the longest night of the year! The June solstice is, this year, according to timeanddate.com falling on the 21st of June and the next new Moon after that doesn’t show up until the 4th of July. So Matariki (the start of the New Year) in 2016 is NOT occurring in June.

I am writing this also because I have had many questions from schools wanting to go for dawn ceremonies. And I had to say to each and every one of them that in June this year you cannot actually see Matariki in the sky so early, even while a lot of the media are advertising that you can. I’m wondering why is it that they missed such a significant detail?
Is there anyone actually looking at the stars anymore?

And then is the cultural aspect as well. I believe that culture is just a set of instructions handed down from our ancestors that allowed some of us to survive in certain geographical locations. Instructions such as what to eat at what time of the year, when to rest, how to not touch food after handling dead people (tapu), they all had a reason for being, and so when trying to reconstruct a tradition, one must ask the question ‘Why?’, for two reasons: 1. To make sure that the tradition is followed appropriately and honoured for what it really represents — which also means to understand the reason for that tradition in the first place. 2. This very important question (why) also helps humankind move forward and evolve, otherwise wars are held and people die believing in these sometimes obsolete instructions that might make identities, but are they really worth the life of people just for the sake of blindly following instructions that might not even be the original instructions?

Matariki is a lunar AND a local celebration, thus its exact timing may vary with location as well as between years, because the local tohunga tatai arorangi had to see the cluster before declaring the New Year.

Yes but why?

Matariki is a lunar celebration, thus it occurs at different times each year. Just like Easter, Ramadan, and every other lunar celebration, it’s a moving feast, calculated by the phases of the Moon. Most calendars that use the Moon to measure time, also have one yearly marker that helps them to keep a tab on time. For Maori, that marker is the star cluster of Pleiades, M45, which they call, at this time of the year, Matariki. So what is the recipe for the new year here in Aotearoa?

Not everyone does everything in the same way when living in a (literally) fluid environment, like the ocean, as the Polynesians do.  The important thing is to achieve the goal, to reach the destination. Rules apply to everything, but rules can be altered sometimes, it is important to be flexible. You can’t see a certain pair of stars? Maybe there is another visible. Maybe that’s why some Maori tribes celebrate the new year, Te Tau Hou, by observing the heliacal rising of the Pleiades, M 45, (or Matariki as the cluster is called by Maori at this time of year) whereas some other tribes, on the West coast, use the star called Puanga (or Rigel). Why is this necessary? Because on the West coast they can’t see Matariki, it is too low in the sky as observed from that location. (Also it just so happens that Puanga/Rigel is a blue giant star, conveniently located near Matariki, and just like the stars of Matariki, has the same blue hue.)

No matter what marker they use, Maori observe its heliacal rising (before the Sun) just after the first new Moon that occurs after the longest night. And it’s not because you cannot see the cluster itself in the sky before the longest night. Yes you can… in fact, from Wellington Matariki becomes visible in the dawn sky just after the middle of the month. But I am arguing that MATAARIKI is A LUNAR CELEBRATION. It has to be! In the Pacific Ocean, which is half of the world, the Moon dictates the tides. So the Moon is very important in the southern hemisphere as everything evolves from its cycle. Therefore, the celebration of Matariki, Te Tau Hou (the New Year), is not about when you see the star cluster in the morning sky for the first time, but rather when you observe both the new Moon and Matariki. In fact, at this time of the year, you hear the most talks about Maramataka, the Maori lunar calendar.

Logic dictates that it will have to be the new Moon that occurs after people would see the marker in the morning, that is if we are to follow the tradition. Can this be the new Moon occurring on 5th of June?  No, because Matariki is not visible then from Wellington! And why the new Moon and not the full Moon? (Since most calendars look at the full Moon.) Well, the new Moon is also considered by Maori as the time when the Moon is dead. I can imagine that there could be a reason maybe why a dead Moon was chosen over say a full Moon to mark the time of Matariki, since the tradition also says that this is a time for remembering those who passed away.

So when is it?

Wellington has hills to the east so we are NOT looking directly at the ocean, whereas most astronomical tables that specify the timing of the re-apparition of the Pleiades in the sky provide the date when the cluster is visible on the oceanic horizon. Has anyone in Wellington been outside and looked at the horizon to see whether you can really see Pleiades? If you do, then you will agree that it takes a few more days for the cluster to be high enough in the sky to be visible beyond the eastern ridge from here in Wellington. Probably the earliest visible day is very close to the June solstice (the longest night).

matariki eye
MataAriki – The Eye of the Ariki (god/chief)

You can figure out when the next new Moon after the June solstice is by looking at this site.

Technically, the period of the Maori New Year lasts for about a month, from one new Moon to the other.

For some tribes, this was the time in between the years, when everything resets and rules do not apply… a beautiful analogy for the winter break. People would take this time to revisit the year that has passed and think ahead to the year that would follow.

The stars that die

Around 15th of March, the Pleiades disappear from the sky. Where do they go? Maybe to the underworld… In reality, they fall behind the Sun. Once per year, every star that is nearby the path of the ecliptic (the path of the Sun in the sky) seems to disappear behind the Sun. But why do people remember only Matariki / The Pleiades / Halloween (another celebration that links the star cluster and the dead) and not all the other stars that also disappear in this way? Maybe because there is no star cluster like the Pleiades (which in Greek means simply “many”) that is so prominent, beautiful and close to the path of the Sun and Moon.

The Eye of God

Matariki means the Eye of Ariki. Ariki means high chief or ruler in Maori, sometimes the name is translated as the Eye of God, which is a translation I can relate to, since the stars look like one big eye. At other times people translate it as ‘the little eyes’. Personally I don’t believe that is accurate (just to be the devil’s advocate) – 1.  why do you need many eyes when Ra, the Sun God, has this symbol … (remember that Maori call the Sun Tamanui Te Ra) …

and 2. if you really look at it, from here in the southern hemisphere it does really look like an eye. But I am only speculating now, I don’t know the answer to this question… I’m just wondering why would anyone complicate their lives to find so many names?  What would be the use? Could it be a mistranslation? A good example of another word-play is Rarohenga… which I am told in Maori means the rohe – nga — ‘many domains beyond the sun (rohe – domain, nga – many, Ra – Sun) and perhaps not “Hell” as has been implied…

Truth or dare?

I’m also not saying that any of these are the absolute truth. I have only came across this information by talking to various people in my eleven years since I’ve arrived on the shores of Aotearoa. Besides, Maori is an oral culture, there are many versions of the same thing, like in any oral culture (for instance the one in my distant homeland). But I can’t stop wondering… so…This is a challenge. I dare you to try look at the biases and mindsets we take for granted in our lives and of which sometimes we are not even aware!

There is a great book that I highly recommend if you wish to further understand how the brain works, by Richards J. Heuer Jr.. He says that we tend to perceive what we expect to perceive. These patterns of expectations, called ‘mind-sets’ tell people what to look for and what is important, how to interpret what they have seen. Mind-sets tend to be quick to form but resistant to change because learning is mostly done by assimilating new information to existing images from our brain. ‘Unlearning’ can be an exhausting experience: it takes more energy and the brain needs much more information to recognize an unexpected phenomenon than an expected one… which is what I think the Seven Sisters of Matariki are so promoted and heavily included among the Maori stories.

Seven sisters of what?

I also don’t believe, personally,  that there is such thing as the Seven sisters of Matariki. I believe this is a new myth that has been transfused from the stories of Western world. From experience, Maori are very inclusive people, and kind; they never reject new knowledge; instead they stop, listen and have a look at the information first. Could it be that some Maori who embraced Christianity took the stories that came with the missionaries too?

Then again, who am I to argue that there could not have been a Maori mother and her six daughters who appeared in the dawn sky to herald the New Year (instead of the Eye of the God)? Not to mention that with the naked eye, there are 6 stars visible in the sky. If you have really good eyes (really really good eyes), you might be able to see around 8 and some people count up to 14. Here is a good article on ‘How many pleiades can YOU see?‘ So why seven just like the Greek legend?

There is more about Matariki and Maori astronomy in the jodcast interview that I took with Toa Waaka, vice chair of the Society for Maori Astronomy, Research and Traditions this month.

One “tiny” little thing that I would like to add… I have said this many times, and I feel that I need to mention it here once again. Maori only call the cluster Matariki at this time of the year, in the morning. The same stars appear in the asterism of Te Waka O Tama Rereti, present on the November’s night sky and also three months later when they make Te Tawhiti, the shining one. But nobody calls them Matariki at then… at those times the small group of stars is just part of something bigger. This was quite a discovery for me, because in the Western skylore, asterisms have only one name no matter what time of the year they appear (Biased!!!… It never occured to me before I came here that same stars could have different names througout the year!). As I was going to discover later, not only Matariki – The Pleiades are part of shapeshifting stories in the sky but also most other Maori legends imagine constellations that are only seasonal.

Where to see Matariki

Te-Waka-o-Tama-ReretiThe Pleiades/Matariki star cluster will be appearing in the dawn twilight. To see it you will need to learn how to count in Maori: First locate Atutahi – in the dawn sky it will be floating low in the southeastern sky. Tahi in Maori means One. Then follow along the Milky Way, you will see blue Takurua, Sirius. Rua means two in Maori. Then on the same line, when they will become parallel with the horizon, the three stars from Orion’s belt, Tautoru. In Maori, toru means three. Tahi, Rua, Toru. One, two, three. If you join Takurua with Tautoru and extend the line to the north, just passing Taumata Kuku (the Hyades and red Aldebaran, that look like a triangle), and follow just a little bit more to the north, you will find Matariki.

Matariki sky.png

At 444 light years away from Earth, the Matariki stars are hot, young and blue, and with the naked eye you can see six of them; with a pair of binoculars you can see many more.


The best view is with smaller magnification binoculars, as they can fit more stars in the field of view. The Pleiades, or Messier 45, are about 100 million years old, being born just before the dinosaurs went extinct on Earth. The light from the Pleiades as we see it today left the cluster almost at the same time as Galileo was pointing his telescope to the heavens.

Kia Kaha and clear skies… and then since it’s Matariki soon and we are also remembering the dead, let’s not forget the Tohunga Suppression Act from 1907, and pray that the spirits of the tohunga tatai arorangi are watching us from the heavens, to send us hints to help us figure out when Matariki really is.

For the new year that will start soon,  Nga Mihi o Te Tau Hou!