Matariki: Everything there is to know about it

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The Maori new year festival begins with the first rising of Matariki (the Pleiades star cluster) today.

EYEING THE CROSS

Southern hemisphere skies offer dazzling spectacles for night viewing.

The Pleiades/Matariki cluster.
Royal Astronomical Society of NZ

The Pleiades/Matariki cluster.

The most recognisable constellation (pattern of stars) in the sky is the Southern Cross (Crucis).

Who first depicted them as a cross is unknown, but they are first shown in this fashion on a celestial globe made in 1592. The cross would have been visible on the horizon of Jerusalem during the period in which the crucifixion took place.

Two bright stars on one side of the cross are often referred to as the Pointers, since the imaginary line joining them appears to point towards the constellation.

The brighter one, Alpha Centauri, is the closest star to our Sun.

Nestled against the Southern Cross is a dark cloud-like area, from which stars appear to be absent. Popularly known as the Coal Sack, it is a cloud of gas and dust obscuring the light from the more distant stars of the Milky Way, which silhouettes its outline.

MATARIKI OBSERVANCE (JUNE 6, 2016)

Matariki - Mata Riki (Tiny Eyes) or Mata Ariki (Eyes of God) - is the Maori name for the group of stars also known as the Pleiades star cluster or the Seven Sisters.

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They are a group of young stars glowing in the gas and dust of the nebula from which they formed.

Matariki is the name for the traditional Maori new year. This is marked by the rise of Matariki and the sighting of the next new moon.

The pre-dawn rise of Matariki can be seen in the last few days of May every year and the new year is marked at the sighting of the next new moon which occurs during June.

Traditionally, depending on the visibility of Matariki, the coming season's crop was thought to be determined. The brighter the stars, the warmer the season would be, bringing a more productive crop. 

WAY UP SOUTH

The constellations were named mostly by northern hemisphere observers, meaning that we see these star patterns from an 'upside-down viewpoint', which makes many of them difficult to identify.

An extremely easy constellation to recognise is Scorpius (the scorpion), a long, S-shaped star pattern located in the widest and brightest part of the Milky Way.

A prominent orange-red star, Antares, represents the heart of the scorpion.

One of the largest stars, it is a red supergiant, and a nearby line of three stars represents the head and claw. On the other side of Antares, a line curving downwards is the scorpion's tail.

The Large & Small Magellanic Clouds (LMC and SMC) are easily seen by eye in a dark sky. They are two galaxies like our own, the Milky Way, but are both much smaller. They are also very close by galactic standards: LMC is 160,000 light years and SMC 200,000 light years away, each composed of billions of stars.

MATARIKI - A REPEATING PATTERN

The star cluster called Matariki has always been significant to many cultures all around the world.

In Greek mythology the Pleiades were the seven daughters of the titan Atlas and the sea-nymph Pleione.


A 17,000-year-old painting in the Lascaux caves in France depicts the Matariki star cluster with Tautoru (the belt of Orion) on the top left of this image. (Photograph: REUTERS)

Zeus immortalised the sisters by placing them in the sky, forming the constellation known thereafter as the Pleiades.

The constellation is also known to the Aztecs (who called it Tianquiztli), the Maya (Tzab-ek), the Persians (Parveen/parvin), the Sioux and Cherokee of North America and the Chinese.

In India, this cluster is called the Krittika nakshatra, believed to be the six wives of the star Rishis of the Great Bear.

The Matariki star cluster is mentioned in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, and three times in the Bible, including Amos 5:8 ("Seek him that maketh the seven stars and Orion...").

As the Krittika, it is particularly revered in Hindu mythology as the six mothers of the war god Skanda, who developed six faces, one for each of them.

Some scholars of Islam have suggested that it is also the Star in Najm which is mentioned in the Koran.

Japanese car maker Subaru derives its name from the Matariki cluster, which is represented by six stars within an oval for its corporate logo.

THE SHORTEST DAY

The Earth's axial tilt of 23.5 degrees means that the southern and northern hemispheres each receive the greatest and least amount of sunlight at opposite times of the year as we orbit the Sun, giving us seasonal changes and solstices.

Winter solstice occurs on the shortest day and longest night of the year, when the Sun's maximum position in the sky is at its lowest. This marks the reversal of the gradual lengthening of darkness hours, bringing the return of longer days and an increase in light and warmth.

Interpretation of the event varies throughout the world, but most cultures celebrate a recognition of rebirth, involving festivals and rituals.

Maruaroa o Takurua occurs from June 20–22, and is seen by Maori as the middle of the winter season. It takes place after the rise of Matariki, marking the beginning of the new year, and is said to be the point at which the Sun turns from his northern journey to his winter-bride Hine-Takurua (Sirius) and begins his journey back to his summer-bride, Hine-Raumati.

In Maori myth, Hine-Takurua symbolises the gathering of fish and seafood from the ocean, while the return of the Sun to Hine-Raumati indicates the time for cultivation of the land.

FINDING MATARIKI

✹ First, find Tautoru (the bottom three stars of 'the pot', also called Orion's belt), in the low northeast just before dawn.

✹ To the left of Tautoru, find the orange star, Taumata-kuku (Aldebaran).

✹ Follow an imaginary line from Tautoru, across to Taumata-kuku and keep going until you hit a small, bright cluster of stars. This is Matariki. In good viewing conditions you should be able to make out seven bluish stars.

MAORI ASTRONOMY

To Maori, the southern Milky Way is Te Waka o Tamarereti (the great waka of Tamarereti).

Orion forms the stern, Scorpius is the prow and the Southern Cross and the Pointers are the anchor and rope.

At the time of the Maori new year, the great waka of Tamarereti can be seen in the south and contains all of the important navigational stars.

According to legend, when Tamarereti took his canoe out on to a lake, he found himself far from home as night was falling.

There were no stars at this time and in the darkness he was in danger from the taniwha. So Tamarereti sailed his canoe along the river that emptied into the heavens (to cause rain) and scattered shiny pebbles from the lakeshore into the sky.

The sky god, Ranginui, was pleased by this and placed the waka into the sky as a monument to how the stars were made.

* Special thanks to: Vicki Irons, Education Programmes Officer, Carter Observatory.

 - Stuff

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