In November, in New Zealand, we look at the beautiful asterism of Te Waka O Tamarereti (Tama Rereti). Māori say that he is the one who placed the stars in the sky. Read here the story of Te Waka O Tamarereti.
About the story of Tama Rereti
This is my favourite story about the night sky on a world-scale and my favourite asterism. First of all, it’s huge, stretching about 270 degrees around the horizon. And secondly, is not too obvious, it takes a while to figure it out. You have to work a little bit, unlearn what you knew about constellations and take all of Scorpius, Centaurus, Crux, Carina, Vela, Eridanus, Tucana, Dorado, Canis Major, Orion and Taurus and morph them into this amazing canoe, the canoe of Tama Rereti.
I first heard of it from Master Navigator Jack Thatcher in 2005 at a navigation wananga I attended at Carter Observatory. The asterism is visible for a short period of time just after sunset, in November, as our galaxy surrounds the horizon. New Zealand is famous for its spectacular views of the Milky Way, as the centre of it climbs all the way to zenith in winter but in November Milky Way’s centre lays low. Imagine Earth like a ball that floats in the whirlpool which is our galaxy. This time of the year, the horizon happens to be aligned with the galactic plane, as if we step from the horizon onto the galaxy. This sight is only visible for about two hours each evening after sunset, for about two weeks in November. The bright stars that are seen above the horizon make Te Waka O Tama Rereti. Jack Thatcher says that the stars of Te Waka O Tamarereti are showing the navigators the path to Aotearoa. Only from New Zealand you can see them line up around the horizon.
To my joy, Jack came back to talk about navigation and Te Waka O Tamarereti in November 2006, when I organised MataOra, Wellington’s first Polynesian Navigation Festival at Carter Observatory – at the time still the National Observatory of New Zealand. Then he returned in November 2007 for the next edition of MataOra but the Observatory was closed for refurbishment and our team run it in collaboration with Wellington Museum of City and Sea – now Wellington Museum. In 2009, the International Year of Astronomy, my team and I run the event one more time, independently, with support from UNESCO and Ngati Toa at Takapūwāhia Marae. Along the way, the story of Tamarereti was a constant companion.
Many years later, in 2021, Carter Observatory is renamed Space Place and together with Wellington Museum is part of the great experience of Wellington. I recently had the joy of seeing my 18-years long dream of telling the story of the Pacific and European navigation in a planetarium show. I am the creative producer for the planetarium movie called The Navigators, featuring Jack Thatcher as himself, which we launched in October 2021. The movie was made thanks to a Tuia250 grant and I have been working with an amazing team to make it happen. One of my favourite moments of the movie is at the end, when Jack goes off script explaining where Te Waka O Tamarereti is in the sky. We immediately knew it was the best ending we could have ever wished for. You can see our awesome movie at Space Place in Wellington.
How to find:
If you want to see the canoe of Tama Rereti, start looking when and where the Sun has set.
Te Tauihu, Hekenukumai and Rehua
You will notice a curved and reversed question mark, sinking into the horizon: Scorpius, which is the prow of the canoe: te tauihu.
What we know as the stinger, the star named Shaula, is the beautifully-carved wood above the te tauihu – the bow of the canoe. For contemporary Māori, Shaula is Hekenukumai, according to Jack Thatcher, named in the honour of Sir Heke-nuku-mai-nga-iwi-Puhipi Busby. A short distance below the stars at the end of Scorpion’s curving tail, is the place where the bow meets the water. The curve of the Scorpion’s tail and body is embedded 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.
Uruao, Ranginui and Mahutonga
From te Tauihu – the bow, a little bit to the left and low on the horizon is the Waka’s anchor rope marked by both Uruao – Alpha Centauri, the third brightest star in the sky, and Ranginui – Beta Centauri, traditional Pointers of the Southern Cross – Mahutonga. Mahutonga, the Southern Cross, is the great stone anchor of the waka.
A tall mast goes from Mahutonga all the way to the star Achernar, the end of the Northern Hemisphere’s river Eridanus. Our southern skies galaxies, the Magellanic Clouds, are the sails of the waka.
Kaipatiki and Piawai
To the left, Kaipatiki is the Diamond Cross, and Piawai is the False Cross. A little bit more to the left, Atutahi-Canopus – Mataamua nga Whetu, the second brightest star in the sky is the chief of all stars and the navigator of the canoe.
Takurua, the brightest star in the sky is down on the horizon to the left of these.
Then also to the left of Takurua comes Orion, which with its three belt stars known as Tautoru, which makes the carved stern post or te Taurapa, which goes all the way from Betelgeuse, a red-giant star, to blue Rigel – Puanga.
Laying high above the waters, Puanga is a supergiant blue star, directly above the line of Tautoru. 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 – Taumatakuku. Further left is the Pleiades, which at this time of the year is 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.
For Māori, the Pleiades have different names depending on the time of the year they are visible, and most importantly, where in the sky they are. Most people can see six stars with the naked eye and dozens in binoculars. The cluster is 440 light years away and around 70 million years old. 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. However, now most people talk about the nine stars of Matariki. In reality, there are more than six or nine, there are thousands of them.
In Europe, the Pleiades have only one name no matter what time of the year we look at them. For Māori, they will have different names according to when they are observed and together with other stars, they will make combinations which are known as asterisms. As Europeans are accustomed to constellations, Māori have instances of the sky, which are made of various asterisms. Same asterism can be reused to imagine other asterisms, for instance, Scorpius is Te Tauihu part of Te Waka O Tamarereti in November and Te Matau A Maui in September when by itself drags the Milky Way down from the sky.
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. For instance, each island in the Pacific has its own Zenith star – Hokulea (Arcturus) for example is the marker for Hawaii. Aotearoa is the exception as it has an entire asterism, the fish hook of Maui, which climbs all the way to zenith in winter nights.
Navigating to Aotearoa
Navigator Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr explains how in the process of moving from one island to another, navigators bring the vision of how their destination looks like closer to them, almost as if the canoe is standing still and the land is moving. When they reach their destination, it feels as if everything falls into place. According to Master Navigator Jack Thatcher, Te Waka O Tamarereti is the path that pulls Aotearoa, when the navigator sees the stars from the asterism lining across the horizon then they know that the destination is close.
Bonus content: flying horses and most distant galaxy seen with the naked eye
The only part of the sky that is not Te Waka o Tamarereti is towards north. To the left of the Pleiades, which are part of the zodiacal constellation Taurus is Aries, and to the left of it you can see the hind-legs of the only flying horse that looks like a square: Pegasus.
Andromeda is the furthest galaxy we can see with the naked eye: 2,5 million light years away.