Matariki from a historical perspective

Photo Credit: photo credit Fred Locklear zAmb0ni
Photo Credit: Fred Locklear zAmb0ni

Historically, te reo Māori was an oral language and Matariki (Māori New Year) was a time when knowledge was shared orally, as in reciting whakapapa (family trees). Matariki was also a time when legends were passed on orally.

One such legend is about Tāne-mahuta — the guardian spirit of the forest and the god of light. He pushed Rangi-nui (Sky Father) and Papa-tū-ā-nuku (Earth Mother) apart, so that he and his brothers had more light and space. One of Tāne-mahuta’s many brothers was Tāwhiri-mātea, the god of wind and storms. Tāwhiri-mātea was angry about his parents being forcibly separated and cried seven tears that became the seven stars of Matariki.

Māori were great storytellers. Matariki occurred when the harvest had been stored, so there was time for traditional knowledge to be passed down through the generations using stories. During Matariki, stories, myths, and legends were told to share common knowledge and also to explain natural phenomena. ‘Tamarereti creates the night sky’ is a story that explains Tamarereti’s Waka, also known as the Milky Way.

Tamarereti was a young warrior who lived near Lake Taupo. A scary taniwha (water monster) lived in the lake, and Tamarereti knew the taniwha would eat him if he went fishing after dark. At the time, the sky was black with no stars but Tamarereti thought he had plenty of daylight to go fishing so he pushed his waka out onto the lake. He caught three fish and was heading to the shore to cook his kai (food), when his waka was becalmed. As he waited for the wind to push him back to shore, he slept. When he awoke he found his waka had drifted to the opposite side of Lake Taupo. He knew he was in big trouble ­­– it was dark, and he was far from his kāinga (village). He was hungry, so he cooked and ate the three fish. As he stood on the edge of the lake, he noticed the lake’s pebbles were reflecting the bright light of his fire, so he collected some of the pebbles and set off to his toi whenua (home), tossing the shiny pebbles into the sky. The pebbles lit his way and their light saved him from the taniwha.

When he got home he slept, but woke to find Rangi-nui had visited him. Tamarereti was terrified that he would be punished for spoiling the perfect blackness of the sky, but Rangi-nui praised him for creating the night sky and tossed Tamarereti’s waka up into the sky as well.

Tamarereti had created the Milky Way — the star formation of Tamarereti’s Waka can be seen especially well at Matariki.

Matariki has always been part of Māori history, but was not widely celebrated. In the last 10 years it has become an integral part of the cultural calendar of Aotearoa, New Zealand. Historically at Matariki, local iwi would have harvested tuna (eels) to smoke or dry from the Kaiwharawhara Stream that runs through the ZEALANDIA valley.

Written by Rosemary Cole. Edited by Audrey Rendle and Judi Miller.

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