Te Waka O Tama Rereti

Te Waka O Tama Rereti is visible in the sky of November.

Te Waka O Tama Rereti is a seasonal asterism.

As they settled onto the shores of Aotearoa, Māori imagined different names for the combinations of the stars according to when they are observed. In the Northern Hemisphere’s lore we talk about constellations, which are the same throughout the year; Māori talk about instances of the sky. Sky-bound people, Māori described the sky at different times of the year and then ciphered these images in stories, in their oral traditions.

Matariki is another Māori seasonal asterism, and is the name linked to the observance of the Pleiades in the morning sky around the Winter Solstice.

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. 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 about 100 million years old. Throughout the year, the Pleiades is the prow of Te Waka o Takitimu, in November, when is visible again in the evening sky, the Pleiades cluster is not Matariki but the feathers of the waka o Tama Rereti. 

The story of Tama Rereti:

(rewritten from a resource compiled by Tony Fisher for the SMART Trust in 2008)

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 walk around outside 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 hungry yet very little was left in his food store so he decided it was time to go out 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.

But 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 something. 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 last 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 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 back 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.

Photo Tim Marshall on Unsplash.

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 let 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 appears in the sky in November in Aotearoa. Some say it appears just after Orongo, the time of the great rain.

If you want to see the canoe of Tama Rereti, start when the Sun has set. Scorpius is Tauihu, the prow, floating low on the western horizon.  Due south sits Te Punga, the anchor (the Southern Cross), with its rope, Te Taura, which is represented by the Pointers (Beta and Alpha Centauri). The latter is actually a multiple star system that holds our closest solar neighbour, the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, at 4.25 light years from Earth. 

Te Waka o Tama Rereti – photo John Drummond

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 Small and Large Magellanic Clouds (SMC and LMC), 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. A source of X-rays and the most luminous close star at 310 light years from the Sun, Canopus is used for navigation by all spacecraft that employ star tracker devices, which determine the orientation (or attitude) of the spacecraft with respect to that star. Te Taurapa, or the stern of the waka is in the Eastern Sky, formed by Orion. 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 the feathers that adorn the canoe flaunting above the ripples left behind by the wake of the waka.


* 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.

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