In 2005, Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori — the Māori Language Commission — was spearheading a campaign to elevate Matariki, or Aotearoa Pacific New Year, into an iconic national event in New Zealand (Scoop NZ, press release by the Māori Language Commission, 2005). The initiative was part of a nation wide programme called “Korero Māori” (Speak Māori), which was launched by the Commission with support from the New Zealand Government.
What started in 2001 as a campaign for Matariki to be reclaimed as an important focus for Māori language regeneration, with the help of the Ministry of Education and the National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, today is a fully fledged festival, the Māori New Year.
The press release from 2005 announced presentations at the then-National Observatory of New Zealand, Carter Observatory sponsored by the Māori Affairs Minister Parekura Horomia and the Commision, who considered them to “showcase the traditional concept of Matariki — a time to remember, share, learn and prepare as well as celebrate our unique identity”.
“The kaupapa has great potential to achieve not only language outcomes but also to become a driving catalyst for all New Zealanders to engage and ultimately celebrate in the culture of this country.”
“The rise of Matariki has gained momentum over the past few years as whânau, hapû and iwi as well as various groups acknowledge the sighting and the sense of new beginnings for the year ahead. In our view, Matariki is much more than a festival-type event that welcomes in the New Year — we believe it is a way of thinking and planning leading up to the sighting of the stars followed by the next new moon.”
Mâori Language Commissioner Patu Hôhepa, 2005
Fast forward fifteen years, celebrations are held across the country, schools plant their crops by the phases of the Moon and Laura O’connell Rapira from Action Station has set up a yet another petition urging the government to make Matariki a holiday after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the government’s considering more public holidays to help encourage domestic tourism.(Petition launched to make Matariki a public holiday, Radio NZ, May 2020).
While the Prime Minister is open to a range of options, she also notes that there are pros and cons but says New Zealand should be open about the issue. “I would be interested to hear the view of some small businesses who would be positively affected, and others who would find it hard. So I am still interested in hearing those different views as we look at those options.” (Stuff, Calls for Matariki to be new public holiday, May 2020.)
What are Matariki, the stars that are now at the centre of attention in New Zealand?
Everyone around the world who can see the Sun and the Moon can see these stars. M45, Melotte 22, the Seven Sisters, Pleiades as they are one degree from the ecliptic, the path of the Sun. One degree is your pinky held at arms length. For Māori, they have a few names depending on the season they are observed, in June in the morning marking the Māori New Year they are called Matariki.
They are a fabulous bunch of stars, some of the most spectacular images have been taken about the Pleiades. They are young, hot and blue and dance around their galactic neighbourhood, which includes our solar system.
The Pleiades are visible in the night sky from June until April but because they are on the Zodiacal Band, they dissappear from the night sky for a couple of months a year. The Zodiacal Band is made from stars that are visually 8 degree each side of the ecliptic and is home of the zodiacal constellations. Pleiades are part of Taurus, the Bull.
Many cultures have traditions related to the reappearance of the Pleiades in the night sky, even their culmination (climbing at the highest point in the sky) such as the pagans’ Black Sabbath tradition continued by the All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween. (Plotner T, The Night Sky Companion: A Yearly Guide to Sky-Watching 2009). Their achronycal rising (at nightfall) marked mourning in ancient Europe, as November is when all nature dies. For the Norse tradition they were Freya’s hens and they continue to be chicken and the hens across Hungary and Romania. In Sahara, they predict the dry season when they set with the Sun and the rainy season when they rise with the Sun. (Bernus and ag-Sidiyene,1989. Étoiles et constellations chez les nomades), for other cultures, such as the Greek meant “plenty”.
Jewish astronomers believed that their number was as high as a few hundreds, and Islamic scholars recorded as many as 12 counted with the naked eye. Modern Europe is the least generous with the number and uses ‘a pleiad’ to name something that is a group of usually seven illustrious or brilliant persons or things (Webster Merriam Dictionary).
Sometimes they can be a beautiful woman such as Thurayya in the Middle East, or a lot of beautiful women in North America, or a chocolate. The famous Turkish chocolate Ülker bears the name of the Pleiades alas the name means ‘military ambush’. Not just the Turkish think of them as of a group of men but also some North American tribes: they can be men, brothers and boys, as well as dogs and coyotes. They meant abundance for Andeans and Aztecs who associated them with harvesting and market places and (Aveni A, 1980. Skywatchers).
Indians had them symbolise fire, stubbornness and anger and in Indonesia they mark the beginning of the planting season (Yamani A, 2011. Footsteps of Astronomy in Indonesia).
For the 2020 Māori, Matariki is a time of remembering the dead, getting family time and sharing stories. They observe the Pleiades to understand how the growing season will be. Accoding to ethnographer Eldson Best, who recorded Māori customs at the beginning of the last century, Matariki was among the four stars that were closely observed by the men in connection with the cultivation of the kumara, the sweet potato. Matariki (the Pleiades), Tautoru (three bright stars in Belt of Orion), Puanga (Rigel), and Whakaahu (Castor). If the signs at the rising of these stars predicted a good season, then the seed tubers were planted in September, if not, the planting was postponed for a month (Eldson B, 1929. Maori Agriculture).
Matariki is visible to the naked eye in the pre-dawn sky from mid to late-June each year and it is the heliacal rising of the cluster around the winter solstice combined with a specific phase of the Moon that gives the signal for the Māori New Year. But just as with Ramadan, Easter, Chinese and Indian New Year, the date is a moving target.
Maramataka — A calendar lead by the Moon
Like many other cultures, Maori have a lunar calendar. But is not your usual lunar calendar, as every day in the Maramataka has an instruction that comes with it. This calendar has a name for each phase of the Moon. Matariki — Te Tau Hou (the New Year) is observed by the cycle of the Moon, which does not align with the months in the Gregorian Calendar, hence the date for Matariki changes every year. The established view in New Zealand accounts for the New Year being the sighting of the heliacal rising of Matariki just after the New Moon — Whiro.
From time to time other interpretations surface, such is the observance of the New Year by the sighting of the heliacal rising of Matariki around the Last Quarter — (or Tangaroa) Moon (Mataamua R, Matariki, the star of the year. 2017). There are other stars used by different tribes across New Zealand to substitute the Pleiades as New Year herald in winter, some west coast tribes cannot see the cluster because of the mountain range to the east and they use Rigel, a blue giant star in Orion.
Even though there is no consensus over which phase of the Moon is in use to determine Matariki, even though other stars’s heliacal rising is used to mark the New Year, 20 years after the initiative of the Māori Language Commision, Matariki is now institutionalised across New Zealand as a brilliant example of what can be achieved when there is support from the government. Here in Aotearoa, the New Year is in June.
We are looking forward to the fireworks this year.