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.
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.
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
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 to watch for Matariki in mid-winter 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.
Matariki celebrations were popular before the arrival of Europeans in New Zealand, and they continued into the 1900s. Gradually they dwindled, with one of the last traditional festivals recorded in the 1940s. At the beginning of the 21st century Matariki celebrations were revived. Their increasing popularity has led to some to suggest that Matariki should replace the Queen's birthday as a national holiday.
When Te Rangi Huata organised his first Matariki celebrations in Hastings in 2000, about 500 people joined him. In 2003, 15,000 people came. Te Rangi Huata believes that Matariki is becoming more popular because it celebrates Māori culture and in doing so brings together all New Zealanders: ‘It’s becoming a little like Thanksgiving or Halloween, except it’s a celebration of the Maori culture here in (Aotearoa) New Zealand. It’s New Zealand's Thanksgiving.’ 1
The revival of Matariki has also played a part in the increasing popularity of the traditional Māori kite (pākau). Hekenukumai Busby, an expert in traditional Māori navigation, has said that the ancestors of Māori, including the Polynesians of ancient history, welcomed Matariki by flying kites.
Accordingly, Te Taura Whiri i te reo Māori (Māori Language Commission), in their 2001 booklet on Matariki, suggested that kites could be flown on the first day of the new year. A number of modern Matariki celebrations have involved making and flying kites. In a modern twist, the Hastings festival featured fireworks and hot air balloons, symbolising kites flown from the hilltops by the ancestors.
Hakaraia, Libby. Matariki: the Māori New Year. Auckland: Reed, 2004.
Te Tumu korero. Ngāruawāhia: Turongo House, 1983.
An explanation of Māori star lore, including star charts, star names and mythology.
This pdf booklet (684 KB, 19 pp.), published by Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission), is a bi-lingual resource on Matariki for teachers and students.
This page from a Ministry of Education site provides background information about Matariki, and lists activities and resources.
This article based on information supplied by Harry Dansey appeared in December 1967 in issue no. 61 of the journal Te Ao Hou, a bilingual quarterly published by the Department of Maori Affairs.