Out I went and nothing prepared me for what I saw that night. On the pitch dark sky of Wairarapa, with luscious hills that hold the horizon in sweet curves that rest the eye, a luminous whirlpool of stars was erupting from the east. Silver river of stars, one of its arms was meandering the eastern horizon in oval arched loops like an octopus’s arm that passed a Southern Cross marking the 12 o’clock position on the celestial time keeper of the south. The galactic arm was thinning down towards the western horizon and righteously so as the further we go from Scorpius and Sagittarius, we are actually looking towards the outskirts of our galaxy, where fewer stars venture. I stood there in silence watching the slow rising of the Galaxy and I realised that it was for the first time in my life when I was truly seeing it with my eyes.
In Maori, tahi, rua, toru means one, two, three. So Atu-tahi – One, Taku-rua – Two, Tau-toru – Three,
or you can count Sirius (1) / Canopus (2) / Alpha Centauri (3) / Arcturus (4) No matter what you prefer, these stars will be there in the evening of May.
Lower down on the path of the Milky Way the two pointers look now as if they are hanging from the Southern Cross. First comes Beta Centauri (the genitive for Centaurus, the name of the constellation) then the famous Alpha Centauri. For Maori they are also known in a different time of the year as the rope of an anchor and I can’t stop but thinking that this is the end of my rope of stars. If I let it go now, I will fall into the center of the galaxy which is slowly and majestically climbing on the Eastern Horizon.
At the fringe of our milky city of stars, on the north-western horizon, the Pleiades, the Shining Ones (Te Tawhiti) are preparing for the journey to the underworld. They are to disappear shortly behind the Sun and will stay there for a while.
And the explanation goes that since people of old did not really have an explanation about space, in trying to figure out where exactly the Pleiades went, they invented a underworld. This is probably one of the reasons why this group of stars is so linked to stories of death, rebirth, and ancestors, and used to mark the beginning of the year in some cultures.
Getting to know the southern sky is for ever a wonderfully strange experience. In any new place that I visit I always feel grateful for landmarks. On Earth, I am looking for trees and buildings and mountains, in the sky I always look for the brightest stars. Here in New Zealand, there are places and times when the light of the individual stars is lost in the haze of the Milky Way as if a blanket of tiny lights is covering the Earth at night.
Closer to the equator, the year is measured with lunisolar calendars. In the middle east the Muslims have a lunar calendar, their new year is marked by the Ramadan which is precisely calculated by the phases of the Moon. In the far east the Chinese have a lunar calendar too and they also use Jupiter to mark the time, which is why the Chinese zodiac is on a twelve years cycle, exactly the time it takes Jupiter to move around the sun once. In India they also have a lunar calendar, vedic astrology is based on the mansions of the moon, also known as nakshatras.
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 domain, the rohe, beyond the Sun, Ra. Maori call that the places they cannot see beyond the curvature of Earth.
For the last few months, here in the New Zealand we have been looking a lot at the stars in our flag. So we will start our journey of the October Night sky pointing at the Southern Cross, or Crux as it is officially named by the international astronomical union. We will follow the Milky Way as usual, looking at what other wonderful things we can see along it. On the way across the sky we will talk about the third brightest, second brightest and the brightest star in the sky and where to find them. We will discover luminous and massive stars along the way. We also look at flags of the world that have stars, moons and Suns and finally wander away with the planets in the morning sky.
Welcome to Aotearoa New Zealand where the sea surrounds us from all directions, the sky is darker than dark and the stars are very bright. The Pacific Ocean is a water-world holding the reflection of the dark night sky which comes down all the way down to the horizon, and the only signposts of the night are the patterns of the stars. We call these ASTERISMS (roughly from ‘aster’ which in Latin means star) and are made of the brightest stars in a constellation.