Māori believed the appearance of Matariki in the morning sky in mid-winter marked Te Mātahi o te Tau, the beginning of the Māori New Year. Tohunga kōkōrangi, astronomy experts, would watch for the rise of Matariki just before dawn, and carefully study the appearance of each star.
Matariki has given rise to a number of whakataukī (proverbs). ‘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 has been caught and preserved, there is the saying: ‘Ka kitea a Matariki, kua maoka te hinu’ (When Matariki is seen, then game is preserved).
These observations were used to predict aspects of the coming year, such as the weather and the likelihood of a good harvest.
The Matariki period was a time for remembrance, fertility and celebration. Three things were particularly important:
Remembering those who have passed away:
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.
Māori traditionally greeted the first sightings of Matariki with expressions of grief for those who had died since its last appearance. A ceremony called ‘whāngai i te hautapu’ was held at this time to remember the dead. This also involved ‘feeding the stars’ with specially prepared foods.
In 1957 Rangihuna Pire, a kaumātua of Ngā Ruahine, recalled being taken as a child to watch for Matariki at Kaūpokonui in 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
Celebrating the present:
Ngā kai a Matariki, nāna i ao ake ki runga.
The foods of Matariki, by her scooped up.
Once the time of grief was over, the emphasis of Matariki shifted to celebration. Because Matariki happened at the end of harvesting, there was an abundant supply of food for feasting. People rejoiced, sang and danced to celebrate the change of season and new beginnings.
Looking to the future:
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.
Matariki was also a time for planning for the year ahead. If the stars were clear and bright, it signalled a favourable and productive season 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.