Traditionally, Māori were keen observers of the night sky, determining from the stars the time and seasons, and using them to navigate the oceans. Lookouts would watch for the rise of Matariki just before dawn. For Māori, this time signified remembrance, fertility and celebration.
Haere atu rā e koro ki te paepae o Matariki, o Rehua. Haere atu rā.
Farewell old man, go to the threshold of Matariki, of Rehua. Farewell.
In times of old, the sighting of Matariki was greeted with expressions of grief for those who had died since its last appearance. Some said the stars housed the souls of those departed. Rangihuna Pire, in his 70s, remembered how as a child he was taken by his grandparents in midwinter to watch for Matariki at Kaūpokonui, South Taranaki:
The old people might wait up several nights before the stars rose. They would make a small hāngī. When they saw the stars, they would weep and tell Matariki the names of those who had gone since the stars set, then the oven would be uncovered so the scent of the food would rise and strengthen the stars, for they were weak and cold. 1
Matariki atua ka eke mai i te rangi e roa,
E whāngainga iho ki te mata o te tau e roa e.
Divine Matariki come forth from the far-off heaven,
Bestow the first fruits of the year upon us.
The coming season’s crops were planted according to the portents read in the Matariki star cluster. If the stars were clear and bright, it was a sign that a favourable and productive season lay ahead, and planting would begin in September. If the stars appeared hazy and closely bunched together, a cold winter was in store and planting was put off until October.
Matariki has given rise to a number of sayings. ‘Matariki kāinga kore’ (homeless Matariki) refers to the star cluster’s constant travel – disappearing from the sky only once a year, when it pauses to rest in May when the moon wanes. The association of Matariki with crops has given rise to the saying: ‘Matariki ahunga nui’ (Matariki provider of plentiful food). Because it appears in the season when game had been caught and preserved, there is the saying: ‘Ka kitea a Matariki, kua maoka te hinu’ (When Matariki is seen, then game is preserved).
Ngā kai a Matariki, nāna i ao ake ki runga.
The foods of Matariki, by her scooped up.
Matariki happened at the end of harvesting, when food stores were plentiful. The variety of food which had been gathered and preserved ensured an abundant supply for feasting – Matariki was an important time for festivity. Women rejoiced, sang and danced to celebrate the change of season and new beginnings. Often kites (pākau) were flown – they were thought to get close to the stars.