Matariki – Te whetū tapu o te taū

“Māori star lore was, and still remains, a blending together of both astronomy and astrology, and while there is undoubtedly robust science within the Māori study of the night sky, the spiritual component has always been of equal importance” writes Professor Rangi Matamua in his book Matariki – Te whetū tapu o te taū (Matariki – The star of the year).  I picked up this book as a keen amateur astronomer hoping to show Matariki off to people in Christchurch this year, as well as being keenly aware of my ignorance of the significance of Matariki to Māori.

Matariki – Te whetū tapu o te taū
Rangi Matamua
Huia Publishers
2017
ISBN 978-1-7750-325-5

Rangi Matamua (Tūhoe) is an astronomer and professor at the University of Waitkato, a fellow of the Royal Society Te Apārangi and winner of the Prime Minister’s Science Prize.  He is often seen around the country giving talks (I’ve had the privilege of listening to him – well worth the effort to attend), or on his popular facebook page “Living by The Stars with Professor Rangi Matamua”).

In his book Professor Matamua explains the science was necessarily robust for Māori navigators must know in detail the names and positions of many hundreds stars and how to use their rising and setting to guide voyagers of truly epic proportions.  Only a few were taught this in whare kōkōrangi, the Māori astronomical house of learning. That nugget alone is inspiring. I look forward to an opportunity someday to visit such a whare.

The author was given a book by his grandfather, Timi Rāwiri, who had received it from his grandfather, Rāwiru Te Kōkau.  Rāwiru Te Kōkau, with his father Te Kōkau of Ruatāhuna, had written that book in the late 1800s sometime after being interviewed by Elsdon Best whose Astronomical Knowledge of the Māori had been the basis for what little was recorded about Māori star lore.   Rangi Matamua has spent years studying this manuscript and combined further research which led to his writing of Matariki – Te whetū tapu o te taū.

The author explains the translation of Matariki and how it has sometimes been simplified to “little eyes” without explanation, or explanation based on traditions that are from the Cook Islands and not part of Aotearoa Māori understanding.  His ancestors wrote that it was a truncated version of “Ngā Mata o te Ariki Tāwhirimātea”, they eyes of the god Tāwhirimatea.  There are detailed explanations of the various stars and their names in cluster, and their relationship to the time of the year. Each has significance for Māori.  Matariki is both the name of the cluster and of the central brightest star, whose presence and brightness is associated with good fortune and health. 

The central star of the Matariki cluster, the brightest, is also called Matariki. It is actually a 4 star system, but this can’t be seen in this photo.  The main star has a temperature of around 13,000 degrees Celsius and is around 100 million years old.  Light takes over 400 years to reach us, so the light for this picture is as it was a little before the first pakeha (Able Tasman) showed their faces in Aotearoa New Zealand. Photo: John W Pickering

In the book we learn of why Matariki is celebrated when the Matariki cluster rises before the sun in Tangaroa (the last quarter of the phase of the moon), and not a few days later in Whiro (the new moon).  We learn how both the presence and position of each star in the cluster has meaning. It is a time of celebration following the harvest, of reflection on those who have died during the year, of hope and prosperity. The author is careful to acknowledge that there are differences in when and how the New Year is celebrated amongst Māori, and around the meanings attributed to the different stars.  In some cases he applies his scholarship to point to specific interpretations being more likely than others.  

It is not for me to interpret, but simply to recommend the book as one that I hope will find its way into classrooms and bookshelves across the country. In addition to being highly informative, it is my hope that it will influence decision makers to consider how best they may preserve the night sky for the tamariki of generations to come.  Maybe, turning off the street lights in the cities for a few hours before sunrise during Matariki would be a good start – without that many will miss out on seeing it.

Matariki hunga nuiMatariki of many people.

  • Featured Image: Matariki, the star cluster.  Credit Robert Gendler and Wikipedia

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