This is high summer season in most parts of the Northern hemisphere. And the last few weeks have seen unprecedented high temperatures in otherwise temperate regions. A time when it is difficult to imagine that one half of the world is in the throes of winter! And that some parts are heralding in a New Year in July!
Indeed the Maori people of New Zealand heralded in their new year last week, by waking up, amidst freeing polar winds, to gaze at the stars of Matariki before the crack of dawn. Behind this age-old ritual lies a rich legacy of lore and legend.
Matariki is the Maori name for a cluster of stars that is visible in their night sky at a particular time of year, usually in June-July. Better known as The Pleiades (as the ancient Greeks called them), these are part of what astronomers call an open star cluster, a group of stars all born around the same time. Telescopes have identified more than 800 stars in the region, though most humans can spot only about six or seven on a clear, dark night. Many cultures around the world refer to this cluster as the Seven Sisters and every culture has myths and ancient stories related to these stars.
The Maori call this cluster Matariki. Matariki is an abbreviation of Ngā Mata o te Ariki Tāwhirimātea (The eyes of the god Tāwhirimātea). According to legend, Tāwhirimātea, the god of wind, was so angry when his siblings separated their parents Ranginui the sky father, and Papatuanuku the earth mother, that he tore out his eyes and threw them into the heavens. This was the creation of Matariki.
Like several indigenous cultures, the Maori follow the lunar calender. According to this, the appearance of Matariki brings the old lunar year to a close and marks the beginning of the New Year.
Traditionally, the rising of the Matariki star cluster was a marker of transition, and a time for families to be together to mourn and honour those who had passed away in the previous year. They believed that loved ones who leave the earth, transform into stars and shine down on them from the heavens.
One of the popular legends has it that the star Matariki is the mother (whaea) who is surrounded by her six daughters: Tupu-ā-nuku, Tupu-ā-rangi, Waipuna-ā-Rangi, Waitī and Waitā, and Ururangi. Matariki and her daughters journey across the sky each year to visit their Earth mother.
During this visit each of the stars helps Earth mother to prepare for the year to come, using their unique qualities or gifts for her different environments.
Tupu-ā-nuku the eldest daughter spends her time tending to plants on earth making sure that they have everything to make them grow big and strong so that they can produce food, medicine and clothing.
The Maori believe that when we see her shining we are reminded that we all have our own special time and place, and to spend time growing our food, as well as that of our friends
Tupu-ā-rangi loves to sing. Earth mother takes her to the forests to sing for all the creatures that live there. Her beautiful voice fill the world with joy; it revives the forests and its inhabitants who, in turn, share their songs which she learns.
She reminds us of the importance of sharing our gifts with others, and appreciating those shared with us.
Waipuna-ā-Rangi accompanies her grandmother to the waters—the oceans, lakes and rivers. She prepares the children of the Sea God to feed the people. Earth mother teaches her how the water that spills down from the sky collects together to provide water for the people, animals and plants. She also watches how water is evaporated by the heat of the sun into clouds that cloak the sky, so that it may rain once again.
Waitī and Waitā are Matariki’s twins. They work as a team and care for the smallest of creatures—the ants and bees and all the insects that work tirelessly to keep the wheels of nature turning.
Ururangi is swift, and loves to race all her sisters to reach her grandmother Earth first, and settle in her lap to hear her favourite stories. The love and hugs that they share bring warmth and cheer in the cold dark winter.
And what about Matariki? She does what all good mothers do—she watches over and helps all her children on earth to do their best.
Other legends believe that nine stars are visible and each has a deep significance as seen from the Maori point of view.
Matariki is the star that signifies reflection, hope, our connection to the environment and the gathering of people. Matariki is also connected to the health and wellbeing of people.
Waitī is connected with all fresh water bodies and the food sources that are sustained by those waters.
Waitā is associated with the ocean, and food sources within it.
Waipuna-ā-Rangi is connected with the rain.
Tupuānuku is the star connected with everything that grows within the soil to be harvested or gathered for food.
Tupuārangi is connected with everything that grows up in the trees: fruits, berries and birds.
Ururangi is the star connected with the winds.
Pōhutukawa is the star connected to those that have passed on.
Hiwa-i-te-Rangi is the star connected with granting our wishes, and realising our aspirations for the coming year.
What beautiful connections between the firmament and all the elements of earth!
Traditionally, the sighting of the Matariki had great significance. The elders of the community would try to read what the stars foretold. They believed that when Matariki disappeared in April/May, it was time to preserve the crops for the coming winter season. When it reappeared in June/July they looked for signs. If the stars were hazy, it foretold a bleak winter and poor crops, but if they appeared to be crisp and bright it promised a warm and abundant winter.
This was the time of the year when the summer crops had been harvested and people had some leisure time. Matariki was celebrated with festivities that included the lighting of fires, the making of offerings and rituals to say farewell to those who had passed away, honouring the ancestors, and celebrate life with food, song and games. It was like saying hello and goodbye at the same time. It was, above all, a time for family (whanau) and friends to get together and cherish the bonds that sustain us all.
Matariki–A time of renewal, and a celebration of all that makes life possible, and meaningful.