Matariki is the Māori name for the small cluster of stars also known as the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters, in the Taurus constellation. In New Zealand it comes into view low on the north-eastern horizon, appearing in the tail of the Milky Way in the last days of May or in early June, just before dawn. This heralds the Māori New Year.
Various Māori tribes celebrated Matariki at different times. Some held festivities when Matariki was first seen in the dawn sky; others celebrated after the rise of the full moon or at the beginning of the next new moon.
For all tribes, the importance of Matariki has been captured in proverbs and songs, which link it with the bright star Whānui (Vega):
Ka puta Matariki ka rere Whānui.
Ko te tohu tēnā o te tau e!
Matariki re-appears, Whānui starts its flight.
Being the sign of the [new] year!
Matariki is also associated with the winter solstice. It appears when the sun, drifting north on the shortest day in winter, reaches the north-eastern end of the horizon. The sun then turns around and begins its journey south.
Matariki in Greek myth
According to Greek myth, the Pleiades are the seven daughters of Pleione and Atlas – Electra, Maia, Taygete, Alcyone, Celaeno, Asterope and Merope. While wandering through the woods one day, they were spied by Orion, who gave chase. To save them from Orion’s dishonorable intentions, Zeus transformed them into stars and placed them in the sky. A number of ancient temples on the Acropolis in Athens face the direction where the Pleiades rise.
Matariki literally means the ‘eyes of god’ (mata ariki) or ‘little eyes’ (mata riki). Some say that when Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother were separated by their offspring, the god of the winds, Tāwhirimātea, became angry, tearing out his eyes and hurling them into the heavens. Others say Matariki is the mother surrounded by her six daughters, Tupu-ā-nuku, Tupu-ā-rangi, Waitī, Waitā, Waipuna-ā-rangi and Ururangi. One account explains that Matariki and her daughters appear to assist the sun, Te Rā, whose winter journey from the north has left him weakened.
Matariki and Puanga
Some Māori tribes believed that it was the rising of the star Puanga (Rigel in Orion) which heralded the new year, not Matariki. Hence the saying: ‘Puanga kai rau' (Puanga of abundant food). This divergence was explained to the scholar Elsdon Best by a Māori elder: ‘The task of Puanga is to strive with Matariki (the Pleiades) that he may gain possession of the year.’ 1