Origin of the celestial bodies
According to Māori myth, Ranginui played a pivotal role in the birth of the sun, moon, planets, stars and constellations – collectively called Te Whānau Mārama (the family of light). One version told by Hāmiora Pio of Ngāti Awa is that Tangotango (blackness of the heavenly night) and Wainui (the ocean) – two children of Ranginui and Papatūānuku – produced offspring: Te Rā (the sun), Te Marama (the moon), Ngā Whetū (the stars) and Te Hinātore (moonlight). The god Tāne took these offspring and placed them in their abodes in the sky.
A Ngāti Kahungunu version of this tradition says that Kewa, also a child of Ranginui and Papatūānuku, went to the peak of Te Maunganui (the great mountain), where he fetched te whānau mārama (the children of light) from the celestial guardian Te Āhuru. Kewa carried the astronomical bodies in sacred baskets, planting them in the heavens. The basket holding the sun was named Rauru-rangi, the basket carrying the moon was Te Kauhanga, and the basket containing the stars was Te Ikaroa (the Milky Way). Some stars such as Atutahi (Canopus) were put in baskets which hung to one side of Te Ikaroa.
Te Rā was the main deity of the heavens. During winter he was known as Te Rā-tūoi (the lean sun) and during summer Te Rā-kura (the red sun). Midday was Te Poupoutanga-o-te-rā (the post of the sun) or Te Pou-tū-a-tamanui-te-rā (the standing post of the sun). Dawn and sunset were called Te Tamanui-te-rā-kā (the burning sun). The flight of the sun across the sky was described as Te Manu-i-te-rā (the bird of the sun).
Māori mythology says that after the world’s creation the sun moved across the sky so rapidly that night and day were very short; there was not enough time for people to perform daily tasks or get sufficient sleep. The demigod Māui devised a plan to slow the sun. He and his brothers made several strong ropes and journeyed to where the sun rises from the underworld. They built a low wall to hide behind, and laid out their ropes as nooses. When the sun appeared the brothers leapt out from their hiding place, threw the ropes over the sun, and ensnared it. Their quarry securely held, Māui leapt up and beat the sun until it cried for mercy. Today Māori believe that the rays of the sun are the remnants of the ropes used to slow its path.
Rona – the woman on the moon
One night a woman named Rona went to fetch water in her gourd. As she walked, the moon went behind a cloud, causing her to stumble in the dark. In her anger she cursed the moon. To counter, the moon came down to Earth to grab her. She grasped a tree, but was pulled up together with her gourd and the tree. They can all be seen on the surface of the full moon.
Marama, ahoroa, māhina and atarau are common names for the moon. The moon has important symbolic meaning for Māori and is strongly associated with women and the menstrual cycle, as in many cultures. The moon as Hineteiwaiwa is associated with fertility and the cycle of life. The terms Hina-te-ao (female light) and Hina-te-pō (female dark) and Hina-keha (pale moon) and Hinauri (dark moon) refer to the waxing and waning moon. Its cycle was likened to the opening and closing of a portal through which departed spirits returned to the origin of life. The moon was also used as a guide for planting and fishing.
Several hundred Māori star names survive from the time before Europeans arrived in New Zealand. Unfortunately, apart from the more prominent stars – Takurua (Sirius), Tautoru (Orion’s Belt), Ruawāhia (Arcturus), Matariki (the Pleiades), Whānui (Vega), Puanga (Rigel), Rehua (Antares), Atuatahi, Atutahi, Autahi (Canopus ) – we no longer know with any certainty which stars many of the names refer to.
However, we do know that different tribes celebrated the rising of certain stars to mark the seasons. Tribes in different parts of the country also identified what we now called the Māori New Year by the dawn rising of one or more of Matariki, Puanga, Takurua and/or Atutahi.