The Night Sky for November: Te Waka O Tamarereti

The map is oriented for 15 of November at 22:00 (By Alex Conu)

Welcome to… November. It is my favourite month of the year. The name November is a legacy of the Latin language, meaning the ninth. In ancient times it was the ninth month from the beginning of the year (which used to start in March).

November is the time when the star cluster known as the Pleiades is visible again in the evening sky. So what? Well, they heralded, in the old times, the celebration of Halloween.

Halloween is the harbinger of November and the Pleiades are it’s omen. Here is a story of November as I recall it from when I was a child. A month of contrasts, grey, frost, death (of all that it is green) and mud. November was the warning for the winter.

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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, where the sky is darker than dark, and the stars are very bright, in November, we prepare for summer.

November here is called Orongo, which means the time after the great rain. Orongo is spectacular in Aotearoa. And 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 for humans to move around outside at night without tripping into things. Taniwha were the only creatures lurking in the dark. Taniwha are very powerful guardians of nature and it was said they liked to feed at night on anything that moved, 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 feeling very hungry and very little was left in his food store. He then decided that it was about time to go fishing again. It was a lovely mild late 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), then pushed off onto the lake. He hoisted the sail and set off for his favourite fishing spot. Arrived at it, he lowered the sail and started fishing. After a while, when Tama Rereti had caught some nice fish he decided to head back to the village for a late breakfast.

Unfortunately the wind had dropped and he was becalmed. It was a beautiful warm day and Tama Rereti decided to lie down on its waka for a snooze. The gentle rocking of the waka and the sound of the waves lapping against the sides put Tama Rereti soon to sleep.

While he slept, the gentle breeze returned and the canoe with Tama Rereti on board sailed quietly all the way to the north end of the lake. Tama Rereti slept for a long time. When he awoke he saw himself 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’d rather get back home in one piece to his wife and children, to the Ahi-kaa, the sacred fire of his family.

By now he was very hungry. Tama Rereti, a wise man, knew that important decisions cannot be taken on an empty stomach. He had to eat. So he sailed his canoe to a nearby beach, threw over the anchor and paddled ashore with his fish. There, he lit a small cooking fire. He skewered his fish onto a stick and baked them over the flames. When they cooked, he sat on a log eating and contemplating how to get home. 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 on the beach. It was warm and it felt very peaceful. As Tama Rereti gazed into the final dance of the flames of his fire, he noticed that all the pebbles and stones he used in the fireplace stayed luminescent.

Suddenly this gave him an idea. He loaded as many of these shining stones and pebbles into his canoe as it would hold and pushed off into the lake. He kept thinking, “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 luminescent 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, they say.

By the time Tama Rereti had thrown out all the stones and 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 Māori navigators that it was time to start planning their journeys back to Rarohenga. Rarohenga means the rohe (domain) beyond the Sun, Ra, the Māori 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 when the Sun has set. There is the Scorpion as the prow of the canoe. Its stinger is the beautifully-carved wood above the bow of the canoe. A short distance below the stars at the end of the Scorpion’s curving tail, mark the place where the bow meets the water. The curve of the Scorpion’s tail and body sinks into the Milky Way, which at this time of the year surrounds Aotearoa with a glistening ocean of stars. As water waves move along the side of the canoe, bright Rehua (Antares), marks the crest of a wave as the great waka rides at anchor.

From the bow, the anchor’s rope is marked by both Alpha Centauri, the third brightest star in the sky, and Beta Centauri, traditional Pointers of the Southern Cross. The Southern Cross itself is the great stone anchor of the waka. A tall mast goes from the Southern Cross all the way to the star Achernar, the end of the Northern Hemisphere’s river Eridanus. Two southern skies galaxies, the Magellanic Clouds, are the sails of the waka. Atutahi-Canopus, second brightest luminary of the sky, is the chief of all stars and the navigator of the canoe. Orion (up side down in this hemisphere) makes the elaborately carved stern post, which goes all the way from Betelgeuse, a red-giant star, to blue Rigel laying high above the waters, a supergiant star, directly above the line of the three stars, known as Orion’s belt.  From the top of the stern post, a ribbon of flax blows out in the wind, the Hyades cluster.  At its tip is orange Aldebaran. Further left is the Pleiades which at this time of the year are depicting the feathers that adorn the canoe flaunting above the ripples left behind by the wake of the waka.

Matariki is another name that the Māori sometimes give to the Pleiades, but only in the morning of June-July when it marks the Māori new year.

After Orongo (November), when it appears again in the evening sky, the Pleiades cluster is not seen separately as we do in the Northern Hemisphere with our asterisms but as integral part of the waka o Tama Rereti.

Six stars* are visible to the naked eye to the mere mortals and dozens are seen in binoculars. The cluster is 440 light years away and around 70 million years old.

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* Māori related to the number six – there were six processions for a new high chief installation and six districts for the ‘fish of Rongo’, Matamua (2017), Matariki, the star of the year.

In Europe, we know that the Pleiades will be the Pleiades no matter what time of the year we look at them. For Polynesian / Māori navigation they will have different names according to when they are observed. Sky-bound people, Māori learned how the sky looks at different times of the year and at different latitudes, then ciphered these images in stories. For each destination they keep in mind the vision of the sky above the land** they are trying to get to.

One of the greatest modern navigators, Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr explains how as they navigate, Māori bring the vision of their destination closer, almost as if the canoe is standing still and the land is getting closer and closer, and land is coming towards them. If they keep the image of the destination in their mind, everything else should fall into place. Navigators also use the horizon as a compass, split into 32 parts called ‘houses’ they orient north/south. Watching the stars rising and setting they realised that at different latitudes stars (including the Sun) will change houses. 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.
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** Each island has its own Zenith star, Hokulea (Arcturus) for instance is the marker for Hawaii. Aotearoa is the exception as it has an entire asterism, the fishing hook of Maui, which climbs all the way to zenith.

Orongo, the month following the most rain, is indeed a very special time of the year. I always liked how Milky Way wraps around the horizon. I also like how I can see from south to east:

  • 3rd brightest star, Alpha Centauri, which is also our closest neighbour at 4.25 light years away… then
  • 2nd brightest stars of the sky (I call it the Cat Star) Canopus-Atutahi, and
  • 1st – brightest star in the entire sky, Sirius-Takurua, the Egyptian Dog Star.

What an amazing sight! On the opposite side of the sky, the great square of Pegasus is riding the Northern horizon. From New Zealand, not only that this month we can see all three brightest stars of the night sky but we can also look at the most prominent four galaxies with the naked eye: The Milky Way, the Magellanic Clouds and, very low in the north, the spindle of light that is the Andromeda Galaxy, can be easily observed with binoculars in a dark sky and is faintly visible to the eye.

Clear skies!