Dennis Ngawhare: Matariki is New Zealand's very own New Year

In the days before the Gregorian calendar, the passing of the stars each year had real meaning to Maori. Now Matariki ...

In the days before the Gregorian calendar, the passing of the stars each year had real meaning to Maori. Now Matariki celebrations are becoming increasingly recognised.

Takiri ko te ata, ka ngau Tawera

When Venus bites the dawn

Ko te tohu o te mate i nunumi ake nei

The Maori New Year Matariki star alignment also known as Pleiades in English.

The Maori New Year Matariki star alignment also known as Pleiades in English.

A sign for the dead who departed

Mo ko Whakaahu, me ko Puanga

Castor and Rigel

Ko ngā whetu nui o te rangi e tautohe nei

Great stars of the nightsky contending against each other.

OPINION: This is part of a waiata (song) composed by Hurungarangi of Taranaki iwi. Hurunga was a famed poetess and the mother of the kaumatua Dave Paora of Puniho Pa.

Although in this waiata, the stars symbolise conflict, the three stars of Tawera (Venus), Whakaahu (Castor) and Puanga (Rigel) were closely aligned with the new year.

For instance Venus had three separate names to reflect the time it rose and set. During the summer when Venus is the first star to rise in the evening it was known as Meremere. As the morning star Venus was called Tawera and Kopu. In the context of the waiata, when Tawera was close to the horizon or the moon it was a dark omen presaging death.

Venus was also an important navigation star that the Aotea and Kurahaupo waka (migration canoes) followed to Aotearoa. Kupe advised the ancient navigators leaving Rarotonga to head south-west with the bow of the waka directed at the right side of the Venus on the western horizon. Professor Rawiri Taonui of Massey University deduced that these instructions were ideal for sailing around October/November. Incidentally the Hokule'a waka from Hawai'i followed those directions in 1985 to sail to Aotearoa New Zealand without the use of modern navigational devices.

* Matariki: Everything there is to know about it 
* Te Papa's four year plan to put Matariki on the calendar for all New Zealanders 
Matariki: 'Something every culture in Aotearoa can embrace'

Whakaahu (Castor) is the second star mentioned in the waiata and is an often overlooked star of the new year in modern times. In the old korero (narratives) it is associated with Matariki (Pleiades), Puanga (Rigel), Tautoru (Orion's Belt). These stars were closely observed when they rose as their appearance foretold the forthcoming growing season for kumara.

If the stars were bright and clear it would be a good season. If the stars seemed distant or hazy then planting was delayed by another month.

Puanga (Rigel) is the primary new year star of Taranaki when it rises in Pipiri (June). In other parts of Aotearoa New Zealand, iwi use Matariki rising to signify the New Year. Although in Taranaki the rising of Matariki is blocked by the maunga (mountains) of the central plateau. 

Although the rising stars were signs, the New Year didn't actually start until the new moon. The Maramataka (lunar calendar) was split up in 12 to 13 months based on the cycle of the moon. Each day of the month had its own name and characteristics, for example some days were better for fishing than others. Wiremu Tawhai wrote a fascinating book called Living by the Moon based on the observations of his iwi Te Whanau-a-Apanui that is a great guide to the Maramataka Maori. 

Although days and months were named, there was no record of the passing years like the Gregorian calendar we use today. Traditionally the passing of time was marked by events and tatai whakapapa (genealogies). Therefore the use of dates to demarcate events prior to the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1769 are literally made up numbers. For example the date of 1350AD as the year when Kurahaupo arrived is a simply a great big guess. This is due to the ethnographer S. Percy Smith who applied an average of 25 years to each generation of whakapapa and then averaged a range of tribal whakapapa to arrive at a date of 1350AD. However without concrete archaeological data to support these dates, and there isn't, those dates have no meaning.

What had meaning was the rising of the stars each year.

When Puanga rose in midwinter it was a time for people to gather and remember those who had died in the past year. Puanga also coincided with the end of harvest, so food was plentiful as recalled in the whakatauki (saying), 'Puanga kai rau: Puanga of plentiful food'. 

Even though the New Year on January 1 is how we celebrate around the world, it is based on the winter solstice of the northern hemisphere. It must be remembered that we had our own new year in in the southern hemisphere. 

In times past Puanga, Matariki, Tautoru and Whakaahu rising over the eastern horizon was a significant time of the year, but for over a hundred years this tikanga slowly faded. The status of Puanga and Matariki were only restored in 2000 when Te Rangi Huata of Hastings organised a Matariki celebration and 500 people attended. Within 17 years this has grown until the Maori New Year is observed all around the country and schools, community groups and Maori celebrate together with a range of activities. So in the interests of another reason to celebrate, and I'm sure we could all use an excuse for a party, happy Puanga Taranaki.

 - Stuff

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