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Maramataka – the lunar calendar

by  Paul Meredith

According to the maramataka, or Māori lunar calendar, the winter month of Hereturi-kōkā is so cold that ‘the scorching effect of fire is seen on the knees of man.’ But as the moon continues to wax and wane, the earth warms up and by the summer month of Kohi-tātea, fruit hangs ripe on the trees.

Lunar months

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:

  1. Pipiri (May–June). All things on earth are contracted because of the cold; likewise man.
  2. Hongonui (or Hōngongoi, June–July). Man is now extremely cold and kindles fires before which he basks.
  3. Here-turi-kōkā (July–August). The scorching effect of fire is seen on the knees of man.
  4. Mahuru (August–September). The earth has now acquired warmth, as have vegetation and trees.
  5. Whiringa-ā-nuku (September–October). The earth has now become quite warm.
  6. Whiringa-ā-rangi (October–November). It has now become summer, and the sun has acquired strength.
  7. Hakihea (November–December). Birds are now sitting in their nests.
  8. Kohi-tātea (December–January). Fruits are now ripe, and man eats of the new food of the season.
  9. Hui-tanguru (January–February). The foot of Rūhī (a summer star) now rests upon the earth.
  10. Poutū-te-rangi (February–March). The crops are now harvested.
  11. Paenga-whāwhā (March–April). All straw is now stacked at the borders of the plantations.
  12. Haratua (April–May). Crops are now stored in pits. The tasks of man are finished. 1

The stars

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.

  1. Adapted from Elsdon Best, The Maori division of time. Dominion Museum monograph no. 4. Wellington: Government Printer, 1986, pp. 18–19. › Back
  2. The Maori division of time, p. 20. › Back

Nights of the month

The new moon determined the start of the lunar month, which lasted 29 and a half days. Rather than referring to the days of the month, Māori spoke of nights, and each night had its own name. Generally, Whiro was the first night of the new moon and Mutuwhenua was the last. Some nights were considered unlucky for planting and fishing, while others were favourable.

Names of the nights

There are a number of tribal variations relating to the nights of the moon. The following list has been adapted from the names and observations made by members of Ngāti Kahungunu:

Whiro: an unpleasant day, the new moon appears.
Tirea: the moon is very small.
Hoata: a pleasing day, the moon is still small.
Ōuenuku: get to work! A good night for eeling.
Okoro: a pleasing day in the afternoon, good for eeling at night.
Tamat[e]a-ngana: unpleasant weather, the sea is rough.
Tamatea-kai-ariki: the weather improves.
Huna: bad weather, food products suffer.
Ari-roa: favourable for spearing eels.
Maure: a fine, desirable day.
Māwharu: crayfish are taken on this day.
Ohua: a good day for working.
Hotu: an unpleasant day, the sea is rough.
Atua: an abominable day.
Turu: a day to collect food from the sea.
Rākau-nui: the moon is filled out, produce from the sea is the staple food.
Rākau-matohi: a fine day, the moon now wanes.
Takirau: fine weather during the morning.
Oike: the afternoon is favourable.
Korekore-te-whiwhia: a bad day.
Korekore-te-rawea: a bad day.
Korekore-hahani: a fairly good day.
Tangaroa-ā-mua: a good day for fishing.
Tangaroa-ā-roto: a good day for fishing.
Tangaroa-kiokio: an excellent day for fishing, a misty aspect prevails on land.
Ōtāne: a good day, and a good night for eeling.
Ōrongonui: a desirable day, the īnanga (whitebait) migrate.
Mauri: the morning is fine, the moon has now darkened.
Ōmutu: a bad day.
Mutuwhenua: an exceedingly bad day, the moon has expired. 1

  1. Adapted from Elsdon Best, The Maori division of time. Dominion Museum monograph no. 4. Wellington: Government Printer, 1986, pp. 34–35. › Back

Planting and fishing

A calendar of work

The most important function of the Māori lunar calendar was to regulate planting and harvesting, fishing and hunting. The four seasons − raumati (summer), ngahuru (autumn), kōanga (spring) and takurua (winter) − called forth a series of activities to do with procuring food. These tended to vary among tribes, depending on where they lived, local climate, and the availability of edible plants, birds and seafood.

Time for planting

Māori farmers planted kūmara (sweet potato) on the nights called Ōuenuku, Ari, Rākau-nui, Rākau-ma-tohi, Takirau and Ōrongonui, which were the 4th, 9th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 27th nights of the lunar month. No planting was done during full moon or on Korekore days (the 20th, 21st and 22nd nights). The planting months were in spring: September, October and November.

Modern times

By the early 2000s there was renewed interest in the maramataka, and it was used by some Māori for planting and fishing. Many fishermen believe that they catch more fish on a day deemed favourable by the calendar. The fishing personality Bill Hohepa printed a version of the calendar that was popular with recreational fisherman.

Weather reports on Māori Television have information from the maramataka, such as tides and when to plant, alongside meteorological highs and lows. In another example where Māori knowledge and science come together, a group of researchers at Massey University in Palmerston North have planted 25 varieties of taewa (potato) according to the Māori lunar calendar, with the dual aim of preserving traditional knowledge and establishing the crop commercially.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Paul Meredith, 'Maramataka – the lunar calendar', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 6 August 2021)

Story by Paul Meredith, published 12 Jun 2006