The maramataka divided the traditional Māori year into 12 lunar months. The word marama means both the moon and the lunar month – a lunar month is the 29 and a half days between successive new moons, and normally straddles two calendar months.
Māori needed a system that matched lunar months with the solar year – a lunar year is around 11 days shorter. Some tribes listed 13 months in their lunar year, indicating that one month was occasionally added to account for the extra period of time. Those tribes which had only 12 months would have used a different system to account for the extra time.
The months were commonly listed numerically: May–June was Te Tahi (the first), June–July was Te Rua (the second), and so on. Each month also had its own name, which sometimes varied between tribes. Tūtakangahau of Maungapōhatu, a member of Ngāi Tūhoe, provided the ethnographer Elsdon Best with these names and descriptions:
- Pipiri (May–June). All things on earth are contracted because of the cold; likewise man.
- Hongonui (or Hōngongoi, June–July). Man is now extremely cold and kindles fires before which he basks.
- Here-turi-kōkā (July–August). The scorching effect of fire is seen on the knees of man.
- Mahuru (August–September). The earth has now acquired warmth, as have vegetation and trees.
- Whiringa-ā-nuku (September–October). The earth has now become quite warm.
- Whiringa-ā-rangi (October–November). It has now become summer, and the sun has acquired strength.
- Hakihea (November–December). Birds are now sitting in their nests.
- Kohi-tātea (December–January). Fruits are now ripe, and man eats of the new food of the season.
- Hui-tanguru (January–February). The foot of Rūhī (a summer star) now rests upon the earth.
- Poutū-te-rangi (February–March). The crops are now harvested.
- Paenga-whāwhā (March–April). All straw is now stacked at the borders of the plantations.
- Haratua (April–May). Crops are now stored in pits. The tasks of man are finished. 1
Each month was represented by a star or stars. According to one Ngāti Kahungunu authority, ‘without exception, stars were the ariki (controllers, heads) of these months’. 2 For example, for many Māori the year began in May or June with the appearance of Matariki (the Pleiades constellation).
A 10-month year?
The Māori calendar is sometimes referred to as ‘ten plus two’. Poutū-te-rangi (February–March) is the tenth month, during which the star of the same name (Antares in English) could be seen in the night sky. It was a month of harvest, and another two months would pass before planting began again. These interim two months were considered to be of no significance, which is why some Māori calendars have only 10 months.
The maramataka revived
The maramataka was revived in 1990 by Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission). Instead of using transliterations of the English names, such as Hānuere for January and Mei for May, they promoted the traditional names cited by Tūtakangāhau. However, lunar months were dropped in favour of calendar months, so that, for example, Pipiri became June.