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Matariki – Te Tau Hou Māori

by  Paul Meredith

Twinkling in the winter sky just before dawn, Matariki (the Pleiades) signals the Māori New Year. For Māori, the appearance of Matariki heralds a time of remembrance, joy and peace. It is a time for communities to come together and celebrate. In the 2000s, it became more common for both Māori and Pākehā to celebrate Matariki. From 2022, a public holiday marking Matariki will be held in June or July each year.


Heralding the new year

Tirohia ake ngā whetu
Me ko Matariki e ārau ana
He tiki mai tahau i ngā mahara e kohi nei
Whakarerea ake e nā te roimata koua riringi
He puna wai kai aku kamo…

I gaze up to the stars
To the assembly of Matariki
Captured are my memories of you who have left me behind
Tears rippling
like springs in my eyes. 1

Matariki is a small cluster of stars also known as the Pleiades, in the Taurus constellation. In New Zealand it comes into view low on the north-eastern horizon, in the tail of the Milky Way, just before dawn in midwinter. This heralds the Māori New Year and the changing of the seasons.

Iwi celebrate Matariki at different times, some when the cluster is first seen in the dawn sky, others after the full moon rises or at the beginning of the next new moon. For some iwi the star cluster includes seven stars, while for others it has nine. 

For all iwi, the importance of Matariki is expressed through proverbs and songs linking it with the bright star Whānui (Vega):

Ka puta Matariki ka rere Whānui.
Ko te tohu tēnā o te tau e!
Matariki reappears, Whānui starts its flight.
Being the sign of the [new] year!

Creation stories

Matariki is an abbreviation of ‘Ngā Mata o te Ariki Tāwhirimātea’ (‘The eyes of the god Tāwhirimātea’). According to Māori tradition, when Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother were separated by their offspring, one of their sons, god of the winds Tāwhirimātea, became angry, tearing out his eyes and hurling them into the heavens. 

Leading Tūhoe astronomer Dr Rangi Matamua says that his tūpuna counted nine stars:

  • Matariki: the star that signifies well-being, reflection, hope and the gathering of people; considered to be a female star which is the guardian of the other stars in the cluster. The name Matariki denotes both this individual star and the whole cluster.
  • Waitī: the star linked with fresh water and food that comes from fresh water.
  • Waitā: the star linked with the ocean and food that comes from it.
  • Tupuānuku: the star linked with food that grows in the ground.
  • Tupuārangi: the star linked with food that comes from the skies: fruits, berries, and birds.
  • Waipunarangi: the star linked with the rain.
  • Ururangi: the star that determines the winds for the year.
  • Pōhutukawa: the star associated with those who have died.
  • Hiwa-i-te-rangi: the star associated with dreams and aspirations for the coming year.

Others say Matariki is the mother surrounded by her six daughters, Tupuānuku, Tupuārangi, Waitī, Waitā, Waipunarangi and Ururangi. In one account Matariki and her daughters appear to assist the sun, Te Rā, whose winter journey from the north has left him weakened.

Matariki and Puanga

Matariki outside New Zealand

The Matariki cluster is of great significance for spiritual, environmental and cultural reasons throughout the Pacific. Many Pacific people use its progress across the skies to track passing time and changing seasons. It is known as Matariki in the Cook Islands; as Mataliki in Tokelau, Niue, Tuvalu, Tonga, ‘Uvea and Futuna; as Matali’i in Samoa; as Matari’i in Tahiti; and as Makali’i in Hawai’i.

The Matariki stars have been the subjects of scientific observations and mythological stories in cultures throughout the world for thousands of years, including in the Middle East, Asia, Australia, Europe and North and South America.

According to Greek myth, the nine brightest stars of Pleiades are Pleione and Atlas and their seven daughters. While wandering through the woods one day, the daughters were spied by Orion, who gave chase. To save them from Orion’s dishonourable 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.

While all iwi celebrate the Māori New Year in June or July, some iwi in Whanganui, Taranaki, the Far North and the South Island refer to this period as Puanga rather than Matariki. In these parts of the country, the Matariki star cluster is hard to see clearly and so iwi place importance on the star Puanga (Rigel), which is the next significant star closest to Matariki, and easier to see in twilight. Ngai Tahu in the South Island call the star Puaka.

There are also regions where the setting of the star Rehua (Antares) in winter denotes the change of seasons.

Calculating Matariki

Traditionally, Māori were keen observers of the night sky, determining time of day and the changes of seasons from the stars and using them to navigate the oceans. Iwi calculated the beginning and ending of Matariki differently, according to variations in their local environment and geography and their observations of the position of the sun, and the moon.

The Māori year is based on the lunar phases (cycles of the moon) and follows a 354-day system. The Western European (Gregorian) calendar, however, is 365.25 days long, based on the movement of the earth around the sun. This means that Matariki occurs on different dates in the Western calendar each year.

Matariki sets in the western sky during the lunar month of Haratua (mid-May to early June). This is a tohu (sign) that the harvest season has come to an end. By this time, people should have completed their preparations for the cold months ahead. Matariki reappears in the skies in the lunar month of Te Tahi o Pipiri (late June or early July). For many iwi the return of the stars marks the beginning of the Māori New Year. The correct time for celebrations of the new year is determined by the position of both the stars and the moon. Therefore, although the stars may be visible in the sky, Matariki festivities should not commence until Tangaroa, the last quarter moon of the first month of the Māori year. This time usually comes a few days after the first rising of Matariki above the horizon.

Footnotes
    • By Mihikitekapua (Tūhoe, Ngāti Ruapani). Reproduced in Apirana Turupa Ngata, Ngā mōteatea: he maramara rere nō ngā waka maha, 4 vols, Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2004–7. Back

Cycles of life and death

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. 

Whakataukī

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.

Footnotes
    • Harry Dansey, ‘Matariki’. Te Ao Hou 61 (December–February 1967/68): 15–16. › Back

Modern Matariki

Matariki celebrations were popular before the arrival of Europeans in New Zealand, and they continued into the 1900s. Gradually they dwindled, with the last elaborate traditional festivals recorded in the 1940s, although some iwi retained regional knowledge. Some new Māori faiths, such as Ringatū, incorporated aspects of traditional Matariki festivities into new customs. 

Revival

At the beginning of the 21st century Māori began to revive the practice of celebrating Matariki as a time of remembrance, joy and peace. Iwi, hapu and whānau once again came together at Matariki to mourn family members, to share kai, wānanga (have discussions) and whakanui (celebrate) within their local community.  Some hold traditional ceremonies at dawn to call out the names of people who have died since the last rising of Matariki, as a form of farewell, and to cook seasonal food. 

Iwi had a significant role in reviving interest in the celebration in the wider community. When Te Rangi Huata organised the first modern public Ngāti Kahungunu Matariki celebrations in Hastings in 2000, about 500 people joined him. Since then his work has grown, with major events each year in Wairoa, Napier, Hastings, Waipukurau and Masterton. These give thanks for the harvest and pray for a bountiful planting season, bringing the whole community together in doing so. In 2021, between 2,500 and 9,000 people attended Ngāti Kahungunu’s major events.

Books by astronomy and mātauranga Māori expert Professor Rangi Matamua (Tūhoe) have helped to reinforce the special place Matariki had for Māori communities in the past, and its connection to Māori understandings of their natural and spiritual world. 

Events organised by local councils and institutions such as the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa), Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (Māori Language Commission) and Te Wānanga o Aotearoa have also focused new attention on Matariki. Kapa haka festivals, star observations, fireworks, hangi, and concerts were held around the country. In 2017 the traditional fireworks night in Wellington, previously held in November to mark Guy Fawkes Day, was shifted to July in order to celebrate Matariki.  

The revival of Matariki also played a part in increasing the popularity of the traditional Māori kites (pākau). Hekenukumai Busby, an expert in traditional navigation, said that the ancestors of Māori, including the Polynesians of ancient history, welcomed Matariki by flying kites.

Public holiday 

In 2020, the government announced its intention to establish a public holiday during Matariki that recognised and celebrated te ao Māori (the Māori world), to be held for the first time in 2022. A Matariki Advisory Group was set up to advise ministers on when and how the new public holiday should be celebrated. The date of the Matariki public holiday will shift each year to align with the Māori lunar calendar. It will be observed on a Friday, usually in late June or early July. The advisory group’s members were drawn from across the country to ensure that the mātauranga (knowledge) of various iwi was represented.


External links and sources

More suggestions and sources


How to cite this page: Paul Meredith, 'Matariki – Te Tau Hou Māori', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/matariki/print (accessed 21 April 2024)

Story by Paul Meredith, published 12 June 2006, reviewed & revised 19 June 2021