When is Matariki?

Dawn ceremony 27 June 2017 5:30 AM on top of Tangi Te Keo – Mount Victoria Wellington – see you all there!

It is the month of June again and, once more, here in New Zealand, we celebrate the Māori New Year, Matariki. And this year, in 2017, Matariki falls in June. To be more precise, any time after the 24th of June here in Wellington as that is the time when the New Moon occurs.

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 with their own eyes (very cool, aye) before declaring the New Year. Not only that but it’s not just an instance in time, like we have the count down for the New Year every year, but it’s an entire period – between the two new moons where these celebrations were held, the entire life reset and everyone took a break. Makes sense to me.

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 Māori , 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 here is to achieve the goal, to reach the destination. Rules apply to everything, but rules can be altered sometimes, and 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 Māori 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 Māori 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 during this time of the year – around the longest night, the solstice, or maybe there are mountain ridges on the way and so again you can’t really see Matariki. I also can’t help but observing that Puanga/Rigel is a blue giant star, conveniently located near Matariki, and just like the stars of Matariki, has the same blue hue as the starcluster. No matter what marker they use, Māori observe its heliacal rising (before the Sun) the first day after the first new Moon that occurs after the longest night. Again it’s a matter of being flexible.

And yes, you CAN see the cluster in the sky before the longest night. It’s not that at Matariki times is the only time when you can see the Pleiades. Yes you can… in fact, from Wellington, the Pleiades become visible in the dawn sky just after the middle of June. If you’re tall enough… to see beyond the eastern ridge… But the one thing we non-Māori are a bit slow to get is that Matariki is the name they gave to the celebration, and to the stars as they looked like (like an eye) during the celebration. Other times of the year it’s called something else.

I am also arguing here that MATAARIKI (mata-ariki – the eye of the ariki) is A LUNAR CELEBRATION, just like Ramadan and Easter. 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 here as everything evolves by 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 Moon after it’s new (or dead) phase AND Matariki. And in parts of Aotearoa is not even Matariki, is Puanga.  In fact, at this time of the year, we hear the most talks are about Maramataka, the Māori lunar calendar.

I have also heard that the New Year can be marked by either the New Moon or the Full Moon. Most lunar calendars look at the full Moon. Why would then Māori even bring the New Moon into conversation? Because nobody has the subtlety of the Māori culture when it comes to stars and moons. New Moon is the time when the Māori Moon is dead. Their month always starts the first day after the new Moon, Whiro. If you have a lunar calendar why would you not start your New Year in the first days of new month?

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.

Who can say they have been outside and looked at the morning horizon to see when can you really see the Pleiades?

If you have been, 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). So we go back again to the longest night – which seems to be important for this culture too.

matariki eye

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

One of the things I really like about it is that technically, the period of the Māori 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 every other star that also disappears 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 Māori , 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 Māori 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 (one eye, not two, or three, or many). 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 when the general rule is that people don’t generate culture unless it helps them survive? In the old times at least that’s what they did.

What would be the use for distorting the message? Could it be a mistranslation? A good example of another word-play is Rarohenga… which I am told in Māori means the rohe – nga — ‘many domains/lands beyond the sun’ (rohe – domain, nga – many, Ra – Sun), which were the Pacific Islands and Aotearoa, and perhaps not “Hell” as has been implied…

Truth or dare?

I’m also not saying that any of these are the absolute truth. But think about it, try take away the filter of bias. I have only come across this information by talking to various people in my twelve years since I’ve arrived on the shores of Aotearoa. Besides, Māori is an oral culture, there are many versions of the same thing, any oral culture (just like the one in my distant homeland) is distorted more or less as it’s passed through the generations. 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 why I am so passionate to unpromote the Seven Sisters of Matariki and wonder what are they doing among the Māori stories.

Seven sisters of what?

I don’t believe  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, Māori 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 Māori 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 Māori mother and her six daughters who appeared in the dawn sky to herald the New Year (instead of the Eye of the Ariki)? But I cannot find the reference in the really old stories, only recent ones that are there after the contact with the Western civilisation. 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. I find it hard to believe that Māori, who have such good eyesight got stuck in the number 7. Here is a good article on ‘How many pleiades can YOU see?‘ So why seven just like in the Greek legend?

There is more about Matariki and Māori astronomy in the jodcast interview that I took with Toa Waaka, vice chair of the Society for Māori Astronomy, Research and Traditions. 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. Just to make sure, repetition is the mother of learning, after all. 🙂 Māori 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 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 sky lore, asterisms have only one name no matter what time of the year they appear (Biased!!!… It never occurred to me before I came here that same stars could have different names throughout 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 Māori legends imagine asterisms that are only seasonal.

Where to see Matariki

Te-Waka-o-Tama-ReretiMatariki will appear in the dawn twilight. To see it you will need to learn how to count in Māori : First locate Atutahi (Canopus) – in the dawn sky it will be floating low in the southeastern sky. Tahi in Māori means One. Then follow along the Milky Way, you will see blue Takurua (Sirius). Rua means two in Māori . Then on the same line, when they will become parallel with the horizon, the three stars from Orion’s belt, Tautoru. In Māori , 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.

Pleiades_large.jpg

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, remember also the spirits of the tohunga tatai arorangi who are watching from the heavens, to make sure we figure out when Matariki really is.

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

PS

One of the reasons I wrote this blog was due to the many questions from schools wanting to go for dawn ceremonies. Most people confuse Matariki the star cluster with Matariki the celebration. They all think you can see them in the sky in early June, the media is always advertising that you can. I’m wondering why is it that they miss such a significant detail as to making sure they are visible. I thought media out of all people do check their sources … 🙂

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, which might make identities, but are they really worth the life of people just for the sake of blindly following instructions that might not even have been the original wishes of our ancestors?

Clear skies,
so may you can always see the stars and remember that we are made of the same stars dust as they are!