Matariki: Mythology, Astronomy and Warring Gods of the Maori New Year
The Māori, or the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, use a special word Matariki, which identifies the cluster of stars known to astronomers as the Pleiades, and to mythologists and folklorists as the Seven Sisters. Observed rising in mid-winter, the Pleiades heralded the Māori new year, which was a time of remembrance for those who had died during the previous year. Because crops had just been harvested, and seafood and birds had been collected, the storehouses were full and Matariki was also a time for singing, dancing, feasting and celebrating. Since the 2000s there has been a Matariki revival and in 2021 the celebrations were officially declared a public holiday.
The Māori creation myth incorporates the story of Rangi and Papa who are torn apart by the efforts of their children entrapped in between. In his rage, their son Tāwhirimātea, thew his eyes into the heavens and they became the constellations including the Matariki constellation whose appearance marks the end of winter and the coming of the Māori New Year. (rook76 / Adobe Stock)
Mythological Māori Origins of Matariki
The word Matariki means both: mata ariki “eyes of god” and mata riki “little eyes”. The reference to “god’s eyes” serves as a cosmic conduit into Māori creation mythology in which Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother, were separated by their children. It was a cosmic battle during which Tāwhirimātea the wind god was so angry that he “tore out his eyes” and threw them into the heavens.
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The primal couple, Ranginui and Papatūānuku, are more popularly known as Rangi and Papa, and these two mythical creators of the universe represent the sky-father and earth-mother in an eternal cosmic embrace. According to mythologist B. G. Biggs’ excellent 1966 book Maori Myths and Traditions, the great cosmic-couple generated an all-male brood who were “entrapped in the darkness between the sky and the Earth” until the fiercest of the children, Tūmatauenga, planned to kill his parents.
Historian A. Smith’s 1993 compilation, He Tuhituhinga Tai Hau-a-uru (Songs and Stories of Taranaki), says Tūmatauenga’s brother, Tāne, the god of forests and birds, suggested it was better to push their parents apart than to kill them, but nothing the brothers could muster threatened the loving embrace of their parents (sky and Earth). Finally, Tāne, instead of copying his brother’s failed tactics, using their arms and hands to push, lay on his back and used his much stronger legs to push, and he eventually tore his parents Rangi and Papa apart.
Celebrating Matariki has become more important to New Zealanders in recent years. Māori folklore includes many gods or guardians, including Tangaroa, the guardian of the sea and all its sea creatures. This image was created by Clare Bowes and is kept at Archives New Zealand. (Clare Bowes / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Classic Mythological Archetypes of Māori Folklore
The sons of Ranginui and Papatūanuku had finally won space in which to move for the first time, but Tāwhirimātea, the god of storms and winds, missed his parents so he flew away and joined his father . Enraged at his brothers, he sent winds, storms and hurricanes to the four quarters of the compass, destroying the great forests of his brother Tāne. According to E. R. Tregear’s 1891 University of Michigan Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary, he “fell to the earth and became food for insects.”
Then, Tāwhirimātea attacked his brother Tangaroa, god of the oceans, causing huge waves and whirlpools, and he attacked his brothers Rongo and Haumia-tiketike, the gods of cultivated and uncultivated foods, until finally Tū (human kind) stood fast and the anger of the god of winds and storms subsided, allowing peace to spread across earth. It is said that an unborn child, Rūaumoko, god of earthquakes and volcanoes, remains unborn inside Papatūanuku, causing earthquakes and volcanic events every time it kicks.
Mount Taranaki in New Zealand is a dormant volcano and an emblematic part of the landscape. Rūaumoko, the god of earthquakes and volcanos, is said to be the unborn child of Rangi and Papa. (M / Adobe Stock)
According to M. Orbell’s 1998 The Concise Encyclopedia of Māori Myth and Legend, it was the god Tāne who threw the stars, the moon and the Sun into the sky making the principal creator god Ranginui “look handsome.” But because Ranginui and Papatūanuku still grieve each other, to this day, when Ranginui’s tears (rain) fall on Papatūanuku she almost breaks herself apart trying to embrace her cosmic partner, and her sighs of yearning cause mists to rise from Tāne’s forests.
Many readers will have noticed that this entire creation myth is loaded with classic archetypes of mythology, which Professor Carl Jung descried as “manifestations from the collective unconscious,” universal symbolic patterns and motifs found in world mythology, stories and folklore. For example, the separated gods, the trickster, sons murdering their parents and the sorting of the elements during creation are common themes in mythology. And the story of Rangi and Papa is greatly structured around the great Earth mother and spiritual heavenly father archetypes. The Great Mother pertains to material aspects of universal design and feminine principals of creation, like the Earth, nature and fertility, while the Great Father archetype correlates with the masculine principles of higher consciousness, symbolized by heavenly realms, light and spirit.
Kites have an important role to play in Māori culture and are commonly used to communicate with the dead, connecting heaven and earth. They are flown to signify the start of Matariki, the Māori New Year. (mtphoto19 / Adobe Stock)
Unravelling the Meaning of Māori Myths and Kites at Matariki
Like most myths, an entire hidden layer of astronomical significance lies beneath the story of the warring gods, which is indicated by a special feature of Matariki celebrations: the flying of kites, which according to ancient customs is undertaken because they soar in the skies close to the stars. According to Richard Hall and Ian Cooper, President and Vice President of the Phoenix Astronomical Society respectively, because of “a quirk of New Zealand’s latitude” observers can see both the star Puanga and the Pleiades constellation, Matariki, rising just before the new year and that to some iwi (the largest social units in Māori society), the star Puanga was the harbinger of the Māori New Year, instead of Matariki (the Pleiades).
Answering why iwi used the star Puanga to celebrate the arrival of the new year, Ian Cooper said, “it was first magnitude,” meaning it is among the brightest objects in the night sky. Matariki by comparison is a feint cluster of stars of the sixth magnitude, so it’s far easier to see Puanga in the north sky than it is to see Matariki. What’s more, the scientists explain that as observers travel south, Puanga rises increasingly earlier than Matariki, and at the latitude of the Southland Puanga the star rises “45 minutes before Matariki rises.” Speaking of the local terrain, Cooper pointed out that it is no coincidence that Puanga is celebrated in the Whanganui River valley “because mountains block the view toward Matariki in the north east” but the valley opens up enough for ancient astronomers to more easily show Puanga.
The reappearance of the Matariki star cluster and the star Puanga marked the ending of the Māori calendar in June, and the beginning of a new cycle in the traditional sacred Maramataka, an indigenous word meaning “the moon turning,” representing the Māori lunar calendar in which movements of the Moon were acted upon greatly because the tides affected fishing more than the Sun. Each phase of the Moon was named, and each typical year was marked by the passage of 12 or 13 lunar months, and with the Moon being closely linked with prophecy and fate, under certain lunar conditions ritual consultation of the Maramataka was undertaken.
In recent years, the celebration of Matariki has become increasingly common. The introduction of a public holiday has been a hot topic ever since Rahui Katene, an MP from the Māori party introduced a bill in 2009 which ultimately failed. Prime Minister Jacinda Arden of New Zealand’s Labour Party pledged to make it a public holiday in the 2020 general election and on 3 February 2021 she announced it would be held as a public holiday for the first time on 24 June 2022. “This will be a day to acknowledge our nation's unique, shared identity, and the importance of tikanga Māori. It's going to be something very special, and something uniquely New Zealand,” said Arden in NZ Herald.
Top image: The Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters or Matariki in New Zealand, comprises approximately 3,000 stars, some 400 light-years distant from Earth. Source: Public domain
By Ashley Cowie