When is Matariki?

Melotte 22, Subaru, the Hen and the Chicks, the Pleiades and many other names have been given to these beautiful stars.

Matariki – Te Tau Hou is observed by the cycle of the Moon, which does not align with the months of the Gregorian Calendar, hence the date for Matariki changes every year. Here is a great website which gives you precise details about the timing of the various Moon phases.

The established view in New Zealand accounts for the New Year being the sighting of the heliacal rising of Matariki just after the New Moon – Whiro.

when is matariki?

In 2020, the New Moon occurs on the winter solstice,
Sunday 21 June.

When a celestial object, which has been absent from the sky for a period less than a year, rises and is visible just briefly before sunrise, the phenomenon is called heliacal rising. For instance, the heliacal rising of the Pleiades heralded the start of the ancient Greek sailing season. The heliacal rising of Sirius marked the beginning of the year for ancient Egyptians, Mayans were observing the heliacal rising of Venus for their calendar and there are other examples in the Ethnoastronomy literature. (Schaefer, 1987) Heliacal rising is a phenomenon that occurs annually, which makes it convenient for keeping a calendar by it. The name comes from “Helios”, which is the ancient Greek name of the Sun.

Since the count of the month for Māori begins with Whiro – the New Moon, most tribes observe the New Year just after the occurrence of the New Moon, combined with the sighting of the heliacal rising of Matariki during Pipiri (approximately June).

Whiro is accounted as Te Tahi o Pipiri, which means the first of Pipiri. As with all oral traditions is difficult to piece together what people were observing 300 hundred years ago and from time to time other interpretations surface, such is the observance of the New Year by the sighting of the heliacal rising of Matariki around the Last Quarter – (or Tangaroa) Moon.


Watch the video below to see all phases of the Moon throughout 2020.

Did you know?

THE PLEIADES ARE NOT VISIBLE IN THE MORNING SKY WITH THE NAKED EYE, BEFORE JUNE 15, AS OBSERVED FROM AOTEAROA.

Why do pleiades DISAPPEAR from the sky for two months a year?

The cluster is part of the zodiacal constellation of Taurus which lay near the path of the Sun, the ecliptic (and the Moon). In angular measurements, they are one degree from the ecliptic, which is the width of your pinky at arms-length.

12 zodiacal constellations form the zodiacal band. As the Earth orbits around the Sun, our vantage point changes every day by about one degree, and each zodiacal constellation is hidden by the blaze of the Sun for about two months a year. For the same reason, the Pleiades disappear from our evening night sky in mid April, setting in the west just after sunset and reappear in the morning sky in mid, June rising just before the Sun.

From April to June the constellation of Taurus is visually behind the Sun.

Have a look at the video below to see how our vantage point for looking at stars changes continuously.

Other cultures have lunar calendars and calculate their New Year according to the phases of the Moon: Chinese, Muslims, Jewish, Indian and Christian which is why Easter, Ramadan, Chinese New Year and Diwali all fall at different dates each year.

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. In places where the temperatures are mild, measuring time by the cycle of the Moon was a convenient custom. Where temperatures are extreme, people needed to know when it was the middle of wintertime so they could provision their food. Survival made them find a different calendar, which is the solar calendar.

ABOUT CALENDARS

The Moon orbits the Earth and every time it appears as having the same shape we say a synodic month went by. This is approximatelly 29.53 days. By convention and tradition the New Moon phase is considered the beginning of a new orbit – as the Moon renews.

The Earth orbits the Sun and every time it completes an orbit we say a year has passed. It’s approximately 365.25 days. The New Year celebrates the beginning of a new Earth rotation.

In reality, just like with a month, a year is a convention for measuring the rotation of a celestial body the Moon for the month and the Earth for the year. 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.

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.

Matariki is a lunar AND a local observance

In Europe, the New Year is celebrated a few days after the winter solstice with a festival of lights. It breaks the darkness and freeze of winter with joy and sparkle and is measured with a solar calendar, the only calendar that can predict when is the middle of winter. The New Year has nothing to do with the Moon in Europe as the Moon is not a reliable predictor of seasons.

Here in New Zealand, Matariki is a lunar and a local observance, which is why its exact timing would vary with location as well as between years. Compared to Europe when each winter people can 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. Sometimes Northland is referred to as “winterless North”, the only seasonal differences across the country is the severity of the winter.

Parallels

There’s an interesting parallel between Māori New Year and the way Ramadan is calculated. 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, they have to see the cluster or the Moon before declaring the season started. What happens if it’s cloudy then, you might ask? They would come back the next day.

 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 the Ramadan.

There is also an interesting parallel between the month of mischief attributed to the Matariki season and the Saturnalia, ancient Roman celebrations that were replaced by Christmas, where people also had a break from norms.

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.

New Zealand in winter, photo Tyler Lastovich 

Clear skies,
so you can always see the stars and always remember that we are made of the same stars dust as they are!

Check out here how to find Matariki

Check out here the science of the Pleiades.

References

Kraan-Korteweg, Renée C. & Ofer Lahav. Galaxies Behind The Milky WayScientific America. October 1998.

Mataamua, Rangi, Matariki : the star of the year, Wellington, New Zealand : Huia, 2017

NASA Moon Phase and Libration 2020 https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/4768