Matariki – the stars and their story


The reappearance of the Matariki stars in our night sky signals the beginning of the Māori New Year. Matariki is a time for us to reflect on the past and celebrate the future.

Matariki is the Māori name for the spectacular star cluster of stars known as M45 or The Pleiades in other parts of the world. There are more than 1000 stars in the star cluster the Pleiades!

A possible explanation for the name Pleiades comes from the Greek, pleos, meaning `full’. The plural is `many’, which is appropriate for a star cluster (Gibson, S., Pleiades Mythology). In Aotearoa, one of the names Māori give the stars is Mataariki, shortened to Matariki. The stars are nga mata o te ariki Tāwhirimātea, the eyes of Tāwhirimātea, god of weather, including thunder and lightning, wind, clouds and storms. 

Matariki has often been referred to the Seven Sisters. This is a Greek interpretation of the star cluster.  While usually we can see 6 stars in the cluster, there are more than that. Dr Rangi Mātāmua has named nine stars: 

The stars are:

Matariki – signifies reflection, hope and our connection to the environment

Pōhutukawa – connects with those who have passed on

Waitī – ties to bodies of fresh water and the food within it

Waitā – ties to the ocean and the food within it

Waipuna-ā-rangi – associated with the rain

Tupuānuku – is for food that grows within the soil

Tupuārangi – is for food that grows up in the trees

Ururangi – is the star associated with the winds

Hiwa-i-te-rangi – the youngest, is the wishing star that also ties into our aspirations for the coming year

Matariki in the night sky

When is the Māori New Year observed?

As Matariki (Te tau hou, new year) is observed by the cycle of the Moon, it is not in sync with the Gregorian Calendar, so the date for Matariki changes every year. Here is a great website which gives you precise details about the timing of the various Moon phases.

The established view accounts for the New Year being the sighting of the heliacal rising of Matariki just after the New Moon – Whiro.

Since the count of the month begins with Whiro – the New Moon, most iwi (tribes) observe the New Year just after the occurrence of the New Moon, combined with the sighting of the heliacal rising of Matariki during Pipiri (approximately June). Whiro is accounted as Te Tahi o Pipiri, which means the first of Pipiri.

As with all oral traditions, it is difficult to piece together what people were observing 300 hundred years ago. From time to time, other interpretations surface, such as the observance of the New Year by the sighting of the heliacal rising of Matariki around the Last Quarter of the Moon (known as Tangaroa).

Did you know?

Other cultures have lunar calendars and calculate their New Year according to the phases of the Moon: Chinese, Muslims, Jewish, Indian and Christians, which is why Easter, Ramadan, Chinese New Year and Diwali all fall at different dates each year.

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