These are my personal observations about the cultural interpretation of the Māori New Year in New Zealand, and the way is marked here. For the timing of the New Year, I chose Dr. Rangi Matamua’s interpretation1 of the occurrence, who gives the ‘Tangaroa Moon’ period for the observance. According to him, Matariki falls in 2019 between 25th of June and 3rd of July. Matariki is the name given to the New Year period as well as one of the names given by Māori to the star cluster Pleiades, which has also other names throughout the year. The star cluster plays an important role in marking the new year as Māori observe its heliacal rising around the winter solstice.
About 12, sometimes 13, New Moons occur from one winter solstice (the time when the Sun is at the lowest position in the sky) to another. The Moon orbits around the Earth and every time it completes an orbit it appears as having the same shape. By convention and tradition the New Moon phase is considered the beginning of a new orbit.
The Earth orbits around the Sun and every time it completes an orbit we say a year has passed. The New Year celebrates the beginning of a new Earth rotation. In reality, just like with the Moon, the New Year is a convention for marking a rotation. Also because our Solar System orbits around our galaxy, the Milky Way, the path of Earth and Moon through space it’s a spiral rather than a closed ellipse. And so is the path of the Sun as in reality the Milky Way is travelling at 600 kilometres per second towards the constellation Hydra2.
These occurrences in space can be seen and felt on Earth. We see the Moon changing shape every month and we can feel our climate changing from winter to spring to summer and autumn as the Earth orbits around the Sun. In winter one of Earth’s poles is tilted away from the Sun thus we receive less light while the other pole is tilted towards the Sun and so is summer in the other hemisphere. We see these changes in the temperate zones, where the Sun sets in winter at 5PM and in summer at 9PM. On Earth we call winter when the Sun is very low in the sky. This position of the Sun in the sky was the easiest to measure since ancient times which made winter solstices important markers of the passage of time for the people who lived at higher latitudes (North or South) from the tropics. For some cultures, the marking of the winter solstice is linked to the New Year, but only for some, for instance the Romans celebrated the New Year at the beginning of March.
In New Zealand, the Māori observe the cyclical changes in the sky too. Sometimes Northland is referred to as “winterless North”, the only seasonal differences across the country is the severity of the winter.
Since I landed in New Zealand in 2005, I heard many stories about Matariki and I was lucky enough to participate in some of the earlier Matariki events, such as the Auckland celebration in 2006, the launch of the Māori Star Compass in Tauranga also in 2006 and then be part of the annual dawn ceremonies in Wellington, where I live. I met amazing people during this time from whom I learned about Māori star lore and processed a lot of the information by making parallels with my own cultural heritage. In my culture, the New Year is celebrated a few days after the winter solstice with a festival of lights, which break the darkness and freeze of winter with joy and sparkle and is measured by a solar calendar. The New Year had nothing to do with the Moon, as the Moon is not a reliable predictor of seasons. Here in New Zealand,
Matariki is a lunar AND a local observance
that is why its exact timing would vary with location as well as between years.
Compared to Europe where I grew up, when each winter we would experience 3 months of snow and freezing cold, in Wellington’s winter a few stray flowers can sometimes be in bloom and there’s definitely green in the trees. It’s colder than usual but not extreme cold. But just like back home, here the New Year is a time to gather together and think of family and ancestors.
There’s an interesting parallel between Māori New Year and the way Ramadan is calculated. I was told that the local tohunga tatai arorangi, these were the wise people who held the knowledge about the sky, had to see the cluster with their own eyes before declaring the New Year. This is precisely what happens at Ramadan too. Also Matariki isn’t just an instance in time, as is the case with our modern New Year, which falls at midnight on the 31st of December, but a period of time, again similar to Ramadan. When I started learning about it, in 2005, the general idea was that the Māori New Year occurred sometimes around the Winter Solstice.
For a few years after 2005 people advertised the Māori New Year to occur around June’s first New Moon to next New Moon, others said it was the Full Moon, but consensus was that these periods varied with the Māori tribe involved. In his book, Dr. Matamua gives the Tangaroa Moon. This is the rough equivalent of the Last Quarter Moon.
Māori is not the only culture to measure time by the Moon, many other cultures do as well: the Indians, the Chinese, the Muslims. Calendars that use the Moon to measure time usually (but not always) have one yearly marker that helps them keep a tab on time by observing the cyclical reappearance of certain stars in the sky. For Māori , these markers include the star cluster of the Pleiades, or M45, which they call at this time of the year Matariki and also Puanga, or Rigel, the blue giant that is the Foot of Orion in the Greek mythology.
So what is the recipe for the new year here in Aotearoa? Living in a (literally) fluid environment, which the ocean is, prompts for flexibility. What I’ve learned from Polynesian navigation is that reaching the destination is the main goal and while rules apply to everything, they can also be altered. 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, whereas some other tribes, on the west coast, use the star Puanga (Rigel). As observed from the west coast the Pleiades star cluster is too low in the sky in the mornings around the winter solstice. Also their eastern horizon is lined with mountain ridges. Puanga/Rigel is a blue giant star that shares the same blue hue as the star cluster and while is visually close to Matariki is higher in the sky than the Pleiades so it is visible at this time of the year in the east just before sunrise.
No matter what marker they use, Matariki or Puanga, Māori observe its heliacal rising (before the Sun) the first day after the agreed phase of the Moon following its reappearance in the morning sky. Matariki is a solar event, as this time of the year rises from the same place as the Sun an hour or so later.
Where to see Matariki
The star cluster Pleiades is very close to the ecliptic. The ecliptic marks the path of the Sun in the sky and also the plane of our solar system. The Pleiades are one degree away from the ecliptic. That’s the size of your pinky if you hold it at arm’s length. Because they are part of the constellation Taurus, the Pleiades are also included in the Zodiacal Band. The Zodiacal Band are the stars located visually behind the paths of the planets and the Sun, and is a band of stars contained within 8 degrees each side of the ecliptic. From Earth, it feels as if the Sun glides on the ecliptic throughout the year. In reality Earth orbits around the Sun so our point of view changes every every day (by one degree). Since is impossible to see the stars that are behind the Sun from Earth as it would mean to look straight through the Sun, we must wait until the Earth changes its position in orbit. When the Sun is between Earth and the Pleiades from Earth it looks as the Pleiades disappear into the Sun.
The stars that die: Around 15th of April, the Pleiades disappear from the sky. Where do they go? Maybe to the underworld… In reality, they fall behind the Sun. Once a 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.
Our ancestors thousand of years ago did not know about celestial mechanics so they imagined many stories about why the Pleiades disappear into the sun to be then “reborn”. Around mid-April the Pleiades are not visible anymore on the western horizon after Sunset. It takes about two and a half months for the Sun to transition through the constellation of Taurus and towards the end of June, the constellation reappears in the morning sky on the eastern horizon.
Once a year we see the same stars at the same time in the same position in the sky. Not the planets, just the stars. The planets follow a different pattern. However in the case of the stars, it takes thousands of year for them to change their true positions in the sky (we call that proper motion). Sometimes it takes tens of thousands of years for proper motion to occur, which is why our sky is similar to the one our ancestors had a few thousand years ago. For the next hundred years at least, the Pleiades will disappear from the evening sky in April.
The Pleiades will reappear in the dawn twilight just after mid-June as seen from Wellington. Māori will call them at this time of the year Matariki.
To see Matariki, let’s count in Māori : First locate Atutahi/Canopus – in the dawn sky it will be floating high in the southeastern sky. Tahi in Māori means One. Then follow along the Milky Way, you will see low on the horizon blue Takurua/Sirius. Rua means two in Māori . Then on the same line, look for the three stars from Orion’s belt, Tautoru. In Māori , toru means three. Tahi, Rua, Toru. One, two, three. Orion’s belt should be parallel to the horizon. If you join Takurua/Sirius with Tautoru/Orion’s Belt 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/the Pleiades.
At approximately 440 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.
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.
The pleiades has more than one name here in New Zealand depending on the season and Matariki is one of them. Matariki is traditionally the name of the cluster when is in the morning sky, as a marker of the New Year.
Yes, you CAN see the Pleiades in the sky before Matariki.
Matariki is not the only time when you can see the Pleiades. From Wellington, the Pleiades become visible in the dawn sky just after middle of June, if you’re tall enough to see beyond the eastern ridge. Then it will rise every day 4 minutes earlier and so throughout the year you will catch plenty of it.
You can figure out the phases of the Moon around June solstice by looking at this site.
Matariki as a SOLAR marker
Matariki means the Eye of the Ariki, Mata Ariki. It looks like an eye and it’s the harbinger of the Sun after the winter solstice.
Ariki means high chief or ruler in Māori , sometimes the name is translated as the Eye of Ra, which is a translation like, since the stars look like one big eye.
Seven sisters of what?
Here is a good article on ‘How many pleiades can YOU see?‘ So why seven just like in the Greek legend? In fact the Greek talked about six and had a story of the Lost Pleiad. Some stories in New Zealand present Matariki as being the seven sisters of Matariki, which is very similar to the Greek legend where the Pleiades were the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione. Here’s another great article about the Greek Pleiades.
How many names?
It’s a common occurrence among cultures to have different stories and different variations of the same story.
The Pleiades are visible from any part of the world that sees the sunlight, which is basically everywhere in the world. There are very many names for the Pleiades across the globe according to each culture, yet older Māori have even different names for the cluster at different times of the year.
Māori call the cluster Matariki when it reappears in the morning sky to herald the Sun. 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 there’s no Matariki then… at those times the small group of stars is just part of some bigger asterism (grouping of stars). This was quite a discovery for me, because in my culture 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.
The cultural aspect of Matariki and the Pleiades is significant all around the world. Through these stories and many others our ancestors were transmitting instructions for survival to their offsprings. 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.
When trying to reconstruct a tradition, one must ask the question ‘Why?’ This is to ensure that the tradition is followed appropriately and honoured for what it really represents. This also means to understand the reason for that tradition in the first place, and asking “why” helps us humankind move forward and evolve. Maybe that instruction is not needed anymore or maybe it needs to be honoured for what it represented at that particular moment in time. If we don’t ask the why we run the risk of having wars over obsolete instructions, which might make identities, but are not worth the life of people who are just blindly following instructions. In the end, the reality is that we are all made of chemical elements that were forged inside stars.
so may you can always see the stars and remember that we are made of the same stars dust as they are!
(1) Mataamua, Rangi, Matariki : the star of the year, Wellington, New Zealand : Huia, 2017
(2) Kraan-Korteweg, Renée C. & Ofer Lahav. Galaxies Behind The Milky Way. Scientific America. October 1998.