Matariki – heralding in a new identity

By Amokura Panoho

Reading time: 10 minutes

On 24 June 2022, Aotearoa New Zealand will officially acknowledge Matariki as an annual holiday. Amokura Panoho explains the symbolism behind this acknowlegement and why it bodes well for Aotearoa/New Zealand nationhood.

Across the world there are many examples where the new year is celebrated at different times to the Gregorian calendar - the global standard calendar that has been in use since the 1500s.

Most commonly known is the Chinese New Year or Spring Festival, normally celebrated when the new moon appears between 21 January and 20 February. There is also Muharram that marks the start of the Islamic New Year, traditionally occuring from late August and throughout September, after the sighting of the new moon. The Jewish New

By Amokura Panoho

Reading time: 10 minutes

On 24 June 2022, Aotearoa New Zealand will officially acknowledge Matariki as an annual holiday. Amokura Panoho explains the symbolism behind this acknowlegement and why it bodes well for Aotearoa/New Zealand nationhood.

Across the world there are many examples where the new year is celebrated at different times to the Gregorian calendar – the global standard calendar that has been in use since the 1500s.

Most commonly known is the Chinese New Year or Spring Festival, normally celebrated when the new moon appears between 21 January and 20 February. There is also Muharram that marks the start of the Islamic New Year, traditionally occuring from late August and throughout September, after the sighting of the new moon. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah which in Hebrew means “head of the year” generally occurs between early September and early October.

In this part of the world pre-colonisation, to mark seasons and time, Māori followed the movement of the moon rather than the sun, developing their own calendar known as a maramataka which means “the moon turning”. Māori also identified the star cluster known in other parts of the world as Pleiades, calling it Matariki.

Matariki is normally visible for eleven months of the year, disappearing in the lunar month of May/June. The stars rise again in the north-eastern skies in late June or early July signalling to Māori that their new year has begun.

Like the other new year ceremonies and their geneses, the name Matariki has its origins in a mixture of pūrākau(myth) and tīkanga (tradition).

In Māori pūrākau, Tāwhirimātea is known as the god of wind and weather, the second eldest of seven sons to Ranginui the sky father, and Papatūānuku the earth mother. While his parents continued their embrace the world was in darkness. The siblings of Tāwhirimātea decided to separate their parents and when this occurred Tāwhirimātea became very upset. Devastated, he went to live with his father, and in his sadness, plucked out and crushed his eyes, throwing them to the sky to spread all over his father’s chest, thus becoming Matariki. The name Matariki is short for Ngā Mata o te Ariki Tāwhirimātea, “the eyes of the god Tāwhirimātea”.

Over centuries, Māori rituals evolved to commemorate and celebrate Matariki, whereby those that passed during the year were acknowledged by releasing their spirits to become stars. It was also a time to reflect, pay homage to the atua (gods) to ensure a bountiful harvest, and to share the fruits of their labour with their whānau. All of these rituals involved kārakia (prayers) and pūrākau. They were rich in metaphors and the symbolism of what was happening in their physical world.

However, as history has demonstrated in Aotearoa/New Zealand over the last 150 plus years, many Māori traditional practices have been devalued, denounced, marginalised and even legislated against (e.g. the Tohunga Suppression Act 1907).

Eldson Best’s book The Astronomical Knowledge of the Māori published in 1922, was until recently the most comprehensive printed record of Māori star lore and cosmology. Unfortunately, authors and ethnographers of the time reinforced the negative stereotyping of Māori knowledge, deeming the contributors as witch doctors. They were in fact Māori tōhunga (specialists) predominantly from the iwi of Ngai Tūhoe. This kind of assimilist attitude essentially meant that by the end of World War II, Māori astronomical knowledge had almost disappeared.

Thankfully, the fifth generation descendant of those tōhunga, Dr Rangiānehu Mātāmua has been able to demonstrate the validity of their knowledge, and in 2017, published the critically acclaimed book Matariki – the star of the year. His research into his ancestors’ records dating back nearly 120 years has helped contribute to what has become a rennaissance of the practices associated with Matariki.

Acknowledging Matariki as an annual event is now normalised across schools, businesses, and communities throughout the country. These events have ranged from gatherings around the preparation of kai (food), fireworks celebrations, to music and movie festivals, where the focus is on bringing families and communities together. This rennaissance has even led to a better understanding about how Māori cultural values can be integrated into wider Aotearoa/New Zealand society.

More importantly, Matariki is helping make the connection around the health and wellbeing – not just of people – but also the environment and ecology of the world. It is a timely reminder that the way humans have treated planet Earth to date cannot continue.

There are nine stars in the Greek tradition of the constellation; seven children and two parents. Māori tradition recognises nine stars as follows:

  1. Matariki (Alcyone) – the mother of the other stars in the constellation. Rehua (Antares) is the father but is not considered part of Matariki.
  2. Pōhutukawa – connects Matariki to the dead and is the star that carries our dead across the year (Sterope/Asterope).
  3. Tupuānuku – is tied to food that grows in the ground (Pleione).
  4. Tupuārangi – is tied to food that comes from above your head such as birds and fruit (Atlas).
  5. Waitī – is tied to food that comes from fresh water (Maia).
  6. Waitā – is tied to food that comes from salt water (Taygeta).
  7. Waipunarangi – is tied to the rain (Electra).
  8. Ururangi – is tied to the winds (Merope).
  9. Hiwaiterangi/Hiwa – is the youngest star in the cluster; the star you send your wishes to (Celaeno).

 

One of the rituals associated with Matariki is called the Hautapu ceremony. This involves the cooking of foods associated with the different constellations and where the steam from the cooked food is then lifted up and fed or gifted towards the night sky.

This year, many social media posts showcased whānau (families) who utilised Matariki as a time to come together to remember and acknowledge their departed loved ones and to talk amongst themselves about their hopes and wishes for the year to come. As this practice becomes more normalised and mainstream it can only be good for Aotearoa/New Zealand society.

While Matariki is becoming widely accepted as the marker of the Māori new year, if you are physically located in the far north, Taranaki or the South Island, then it is Puanga (Rigel) that becomes the more prominent star. As a result, iwi Māori in those regions honour Puanga as their new year star.

Understanding and explaining the differences around how Māori acknowledge, commemorate and celebrate star lore will be the role of the Matariki Advisory Group established by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment.

Early in 2021, the government established the group bringing together recognised experts with deep knowledge and understanding on both Te Ao Māori (Māori world) and mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) associated with Matariki and the Maramataka, to advise them on how to integrate Matariki into Aotearoa/New Zealand society.

Dr Rangiānehu Matamua has been appointed as the Chair, alongside members Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, Rereata Makiha, Victoria Campbell, Dr Pauline Harris, Dr Ruakere Hond and Jack Thatcher.

Their job is to provide advice to Ministers on:

  • A date for a Matariki public holiday over the next 30 years
  • How best to celebrate Matariki
  • What education and community resources are needed to improve understanding and knowledge of Matariki across Aotearoa.

 

So far, the public announcement of the date for Matariki next year has been met with general enthusiasm. With Aotearoa/New Zealand history being brought into the school curriculum, there will be, in decades to come, little debate as to why this national celebration is happening and what it signifies.

Instead, our country will have become a unique and truly independent nation from its British colonial roots. Hopefully, our values will be more aligned and tuned into our relationship with the whenua (land), moana (sea), ngahere (forest), awa (rivers), the sky (rangi) and ngā whetu (the stars). Our future here on Earth depends on it.

 

Sources: 1. Matariki Advisory Group appointed, mbie.govt.nz

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