I have come to the Wairarapa to see the remarkable Stonehenge-Aotearoa, a practical open-sky observatory built on a similar scale to the famous Stonehenge in England.
It is not a replica of the ancient monument but a modern interpretation that incorporates ancient Egyptian, Celtic, Aztec and Polynesian astronomy, including Maori star lore based on Matariki.
Looking up at a cloudless Wairarapa sky just before dawn, I'm delighted to see that it is peppered with needle- sharp stars. One cluster stands out just above the northeast horizon. It is Matariki (the Pleiades), in the constellation of Taurus. I can make out seven bright stars, the "seven sisters" - named for the daughters of Atlas and Pleione in Greek mythology - an eye-watering 400 light years away.
Maori tohunga understood that the nga whetu (eternal shining ones) followed a seasonal cycle like the Earth itself. They knew that the rising and setting of the stars marked the progression of seasons, and certain stars, such as Matariki, signalled seasonal foods.
Tohunga looked for the rising of Matariki just before sunrise somewhere between late May and mid-June. This marked the beginning of the Maori New Year (Te Tau Hou), a time of light, life, wellbeing and good harvests. The New Year celebration is enjoying a revival, and from June 21 to July 21, hundreds of Matariki Festival activities are being held to celebrate the rich blessings we enjoy in our land.
Stonehenge-Aotearoa was built in prefabricated carbon- fibre concrete by 150 volunteers under the auspices of the Phoenix Astronomical Society. I meet project manager Richard Hall, an energetic man with the serious mien of a scientist.
"The henge is not just the biggest garden ornament built in New Zealand, its purpose is strictly scientific - to make astronomy accessible to everyone," he says.
Walking out into the centre of the stone circle, I feel I'm intruding on the sacred ground of an ancient civilisation. The sheer physicality of the megaliths is overwhelming. The sculptural form and presence of the structure representing 4000 years of mystery moves me more than I imagined it would. Am I supposed to kneel in obeisance to some deity, bow in respect for our Celtic forefathers or dance a jig in celebration of 40 centuries of shared humanity?
Hall explains the salient features of the henge as we walk: "The structure has 24 upright pillars connected by lintels, forming a 30-metre diameter circle. Six heel stones stand outside the circle to show the position of the sun at the summer and winter solstices and the equinoxes [when day and night are equal]."
Near the centre stands an obelisk, which casts shadows along a tiled area called an analemma. This shows how the sun's position changes through the year relative to the background stars. An elongated figure of eight is laid into the tiles to trace the path of the sun and denotes its position at the same time each day. The stars marked out along the sun's path form the twelve constellations of the zodiac. The obelisk's shadow points to the zodiac sign through which the sun is passing.
From the centre, Hall's voice resonates around the standing stones. His enthusiasm builds as he describes the power of the circle.
"When we have 12 people chanting, the circle's powerful acoustic properties amplify the sound so that it seems like there are 50.
"Rock stars, opera singers and a choir performing a Gregorian chant have visited us. We have had Britain's High Druid and 100 fully gowned people who formed a circle and chanted in eerie, disembodied voices. The stones rang out across the landscape. Cattle came charging up the hill and lined up along the fence. A horse was high-stepping back and forth as if he was on the parade ground. It's no coincidence that most world religions are focused on immortal beings in the heavens above us. The stars are about the only thing that doesn't change in our lifetime."
In Maori genealogy, the stars became people of the sky. They were the offspring of Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatuanuku, the earth mother. According to legend, it was the separation of these first two parents that formed the Wharekura - the house of learning in which we all live.
Te Ra, the rising sun, passes over Stonehenge-Aotearoa's Tane stone at the equinox and then rises over his wife the Hine-Raumati stone, in the southeast on midsummer's day, long after the beautiful face of the goddess Matariki has passed from the sky.
I look forward to returning for the Summer Solstice, which will be celebrated in New Zealand on December 21-22.
With the sun at its zenith, the obelisk will cast a short shadow along the analemma on that day. Modern-day astronomers will rise at dawn in the Age of Aquarius and 5000 people will make the pilgrimage to Stonehenge-Aotearoa. With many of the 600 Phoenix Society members present, I imagine there will be enough cosmic energy and enthusiasm to launch a space probe.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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