What is Matariki?
Matariki is a small group of stars that are used by many Māori tribes (but not all) to mark the end and the beginning of the year. Māori's are not the only people to use these stars as a seasonal marker; these beautiful stars have captivated peoples all over the world, being a major signpost in the sky for many of Earth's older cultures.
In this section we will present information on the astronomical and cultural dimensions of Matariki, also known as the Pleiades or M45, and provide links to other websites about this important annual milestone in Māori culture in New Zealand.
The Star cluster
Matariki is a beautiful and distinct object in the night sky, in which on a clear night seven or more individual stars can be seen with the naked eye. It is an Open Cluster (link) best known as "the Pleiades" or "the Seven Sisters", both names coming from legends of the ancient Greek. It is also known as Messier object M45, and contains more than 3000 stars. The cluster is at a distance of about 400 light years, and is 13 light years across. Matariki is part of the constellation Taurus (or the Bull). Under very clear conditions about 12 stars are visible with the unaided eye, but generally this will be about 9 or less.
The Pleiades are positioned close to the ecliptic and can thus be seen both from northern and southern latitudes most of the year. Therefore this star cluster has been important in many cultures around the world.
In Greek mythology, Atlas and Pleione have seven daughters: Maia (eldest), Electra, Taygete, Alcyone, Celaeno, Sterope (aka Asterope), Merope (youngest). The seven sisters were fancied by the great hunter Orion. He pursued them for seven years, until Zeus saved them by transforming the seven sisters into doves, placing them among the stars. Now, in the sky, Orion continues to pursue them for eternity.
Role of Astronomy
For millennia humans have lived without a calendar as we know it. There was no way to tell one day from another, one could only observe the slow progression of the seasons. The lunar cycle has often been of great importance for providing key times for spiritual and practical activities, but the lunar cycle is at odds with the annual cycle. There is not a whole number of lunar cycles in one annual cycle.
For us in the 21st century it is hard to imagine that it hasn't always be normal to say "today is the 16th of March" or " we will meet on October 13th " and then knowing precisely which day you mean. Natural "clocks" are the day and night cycle, the Moon cycle and the seasons. But especially these last, the seasons, could not be accurately defined. Nature told you a lot, but never precise. There was a need for some accurate reference points throughout the year. This was important for agriculture (readying the land, sowing, caring for the crops and harvesting and animal behaviour for hunting, etc.). There also was a need for the spiritual side, knowing when it was the right time for certain celebrations, offerings, etc.
The visible stars change position slightly from night to night and they move around the sky throughout the year. Astronomers refer to this as the difference between Sidereal and Solar Time. Different constellations are visible at different times of the year. This also depends on where you are on Earth and each local civilisation used their "own" stars and constellations.
Astronomy has provided an important technique called heliacal rising to define a particular time of year. This technique observes when a certain star or constellation is visible for the first time in the year, just before sunrise. Which stars to use depends on the location on Earth, and sometimes people were interested in different parts of the season, but the basic technique has been the same. It is striking that many civilisations throughout the world have applied the same technique, utilising the heliacal rising of celestial bodies, to define a specific time of the year with a precision of a few days. The New Zealand Māori have traditionally used this method to define the start of the New Year. They observed the heliacal rising of Matariki, the open cluster generally known as the Pleiades. Some tribes use Puanga (Rigel) for this purpose.
This animation shows how Matariki rose just before the Sun every morning in the period 5 June until 25 June 2009 as seen from the position Christchurch, New Zealand. This is at astronomical twilight when the Sun is still 18 degrees below the horizon (about 6:20 am Local NZ Time). The Sun is the yellow dot at the bottom right on the solid white line, the ecliptic. You can clearly see how the stars rise a little bit earlier every day with respect to the Sun. Matariki is indicated by the red circle in the first and last frame of the animation and crosses the horizon at about 15 June.
Matariki as the traditional Māori New Year is an example of the celebration of midwinter, as it has been and still is being celebrated in many forms all over the world. It is the celebration that the shortest day has gone and that light returns. It is looking forward to a new year that lies ahead and at the same time a celebration and reflection of and on the past, the ancestors, the relatives that have passed away, etc. But on the southern hemisphere, midwinter or the winter solstice is around 22 June, and not 22 December as on the Northern hemisphere.
Midwinter has probably been the most intense celebration during the year for many cultures. Especially in areas with rugged climates, winter was a time of hardship, with famine, storms and low temperatures. In mythology winter was often related to a struggle of light over darkness, and the winter solstice was welcomed as the point after which the days were getting longer.
Matariki in New Zealand
Matariki, was one of those celestial objects that were very significant for navigation in the Pacific. Naturally such objects had also spiritual and religious meaning. Matariki literally means the Eyes of Rā (Mata a Ariki), Rā being the Sun God. Another translation is ‘little eyes’ (mata riki).
As it happens in the South Pacific, Matariki does have its heliacal rising close to midwinter, and the fact that it is close to the ecliptic and thus rises at almost the same point where the Sun appears a short time later, has undoubtedly added a lot of significance to this event for Māori.
The Māori New Year
The Māori population in New Zealand is made up of many different Iwi with varying traditions. There are differences among those tribes in the actual traditional definition of the start of the New Year around the rising of Matariki (or Puanga / Rigel). Some regarded when Matariki was first seen in the dawn sky as the start of the celebrations while others celebrated after the rising of the first Full Moon and again others just at the beginning of the next New Moon after the rising of Matariki. At the present day, the start of the celebrations for each year are published by the Māori Language Commission. The reason why the Māori New Year falls at a different time every year is because it is a Moon-related event.
Matariki has been revived as a tradition and is becoming more popular not only because it celebrates Māori culture, but also because it can bring all New Zealanders together around general values that are typically celebrated at midwinter. It is a time of contemplation, looking back to the past and valuing one’s own ancestral background, giving thanks for everything accomplished during the past year and looking forward to the new year and the distant summer season with its promises. It is also a time of giving and sharing among whānau and community groups.