Friday, June 5, 2009


I am reproducing this article in full because it is just brilliant. From one of my favorite commentators, published last year.

The dawn rising of Matariki, or the Pleiades, heralds the beginning of Maori New Year festivities, an increasingly popular celebration among New Zealanders, writes Rawiri Taonui.

Humans have marvelled about the significance of the heavenly bodies since time immemorial.

Many cultures held particular regard for a small glittering star cluster in the northern sky.
The Greeks named them the Pleiades, the seven daughters of the gods Atlas and Pleione.
The English called them the Seven Sisters. Others called them the Jewel Box, and to the Japanese they are Subaru.

Polynesians know the Pleiades constellation by the cognates Matali'i (Samoa), Matari'i (Tahiti), Makali'i (Hawaii) and Matariki (Rarotonga and New Zealand) through star lore that stretches far back into the pre-European Pacific.

Centuries before Christopher Columbus sailed tentatively into the unknown, the Austronesian speaking ancestors of the Polynesians, navigating by the sun, moon, planets and stars, settled hundreds of islands across the Pacific and Indian oceans - Madagascar, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, the Marianas, Caroline and Kiribati islands, the Solomons, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, Hawaii, Marquesas, Tuamotus, Rarotonga, Easter Island, Hawaii and New Zealand.

Austronesian tongues were the most widely spoken long before English-speaking colonisation.
The ancestors of the Maori adapted that knowledge to the New Zealand environment, instituting twelve or thirteen month lunar calendars.

The pantheon of lore was as elegant and exquisite as Greek mythology.

Each month and every day and night of the waxing and waning moon was named.
Prominent stars, such as Whitikaupeka or Pekehawini (Spica), Whakaahu (Castor and Pollux), Te Kakau (Regulus) and Poutu te rangi (Altair), and the bloom of particular flowers, fruit and migratory behaviour of birds, whales, fish, eels and whitebait heralded different months.
Stars like Takurua (Sirius) and Rehua (Antares) marked whole seasons.

Grand constellations adorned the sky as canoes, store houses, mythological heroes, giant sharks, whales, carvings, ancestors, baskets of knowledge, the tui, kaka and kea.

Tribes marked the New Year by when Matariki or other stars, such as Puanga (Rigel), Tautoru (Orion) or Takurua (Sirius) were first seen, or on the day of the first new moon after they had risen.

Matariki means the "eyes of god" (mata-ariki) or "little eyes" (mata-riki).

One tradition says the "eyes" are those of the storms of Tawhirimatea, the god of the winds.
Others believe Matariki is a mother and her six daughters assist the sun, weakened by winter, on its daily journey across the skies.

Another account says the god Tanenui-a-rangi created the constellation when he shattered a heavenly orb containing all the knowledge in the universe.

Matariki delineated the seasonal cycles.

The aphorisms "Ka puta a Matariki, ka rere a Whanui" (When Matariki rises, Vega has flown) and "Matariki nana i ao ake" (Matariki has risen), instruct that the autumn harvest and food gathering governed by the star Vega is now replaced by Matariki, which rules the new cycle beginning with preparing the earth for the spring planting of kumara (sweet potato).

"Nga kai a Matariki" (the foods of Matariki) and "Ka kitea a Matariki, kua maoka te hinu" (When Matariki is seen, game is preserved) referred to the collecting and storing of food for the winter period. "Matariki ahunga nui" (Matariki heaped up) refers to the heaping up of furrowed ground to protect seed kumara from frost.

Matariki marked the winter solstice and shortest day and portended the year ahead.

If the stars were clear, a productive season lay ahead and planting would be in September; if they were hazy, winter would be cold and planting would begin in October.

Matariki also signified a time of remembrance, learning and festivity.

Tribes would remember those who had died, celebrate past successes, conduct learning sessions and plan the year ahead.

Much of this lore was lost under the yoke of colonisation which banned tohunga (priesthood), the repositories of that knowledge.

It imposed western schooling that looked at stars in books rather than in the skies, and replaced the Maori calendar with the more scientific but ultimately less reliable Georgian version, which despite annual super leap seconds and one-day adjustments every four years struggles to remain accurate.

Matariki celebrations dwindled, with very few tribes continuing them past 1900.

The last traditional festival occurred around 1940.

The revitalisation of te reo, interest in ancient knowledge and a number of successful migratory voyages in replica canoes, such as the Northland canoe, Te Aurere, from Hawaii to Aotearoa in 1995, has spurred a revival of Matariki celebrations in the new millennium.

There have been some adaptations to traditional lore.

The focus is singularly on Matariki, whereas pre-European tribes acknowledged different stars, such as Punaga (Rigel) or Takurua (Sirius).

Resurrected calendars are based on Gregorian weeks and months with Maori names.

There are attempts to ascribe a single date for the rising of Matariki, when the traditional practice was that the new year began from when stars were first sighted, and from the first new moon after that.

But Matariki is positive. Matariki rising is emblematic of the rebirth of Maori identity, the dawning of a new age.

More Pakeha and immigrants are embracing Matariki - it is safe and refreshingly non-political in an age of treatyisms.

When celebrations were first organised in Hastings in 2000, about 500 people attended. In 2003, 15,000 turned out.

This year's celebrations will be the largest, with scores of observances in pre-schools, schools, museums, art galleries and libraries in all major towns and cities throughout the country.

Some say that Matariki should become a public holiday. Good idea.

The small constellation of glittering jewels reflects our journey as one nation, two peoples and many cultures - a time for New Zealanders to shine as one.

Dr Taonui is head of the School of Maori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Canterbury.

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