Heralding the new year: When the Matariki cluster, only 100 million years old, rises into the sky, Maori welcome winter and the start of a new year. PICTURE: PROF BRIAN BOYLE

While New Year’s often thought of as a European institution, a time of fireworks and parties, Maori have been celebrating Te Tau Hou, the Maori New Year, for centuries. Lucy
Wormald explores the knowledge and stories surrounding Matariki and its place within
te ao Maori

Both the name of the celebration and the star cluster that heralds the New Year, Matariki is
the most significant event in the traditional Maori calendar — for the first time this year, it’s also marked with a public holiday.

When Matariki, known also as The Pleiades, rises mid-winter, it signals the beginning of Te Tau Hou, the Maori New Year.

For Ngai Tahu, and several other iwi, Matariki often can’t be seen above the horizon, so they turn to the star Puaka/Puanga, as the harbinger of the New Year.

Cory Ratahi (Ngati Porou, Ngati Awa) says every tribe in New Zealand has their own subtle differences in the knowledge and language surrounding Matariki and Puaka, but themes of remembrance and looking to the future are the same.

‘‘It’s a time of celebration … we think about the people who have passed in the previous 12
months, and we do one final harvest because we know that winter is coming.’’

For Ratahi, the Matariki origin story he was taught is a common one in te ao Maori.

‘‘Matariki is a shortened version of the phrase Nga Mata o te Ariki Tawhirimatea, or ‘the
eyes of the gods’,’’ he says.

The name comes from a Maori story about the separation of the sky father, Ranginui, and the earth mother, Papatuanuku, and their sons, atua Maori (Maori gods), that lived between the embrace of their parents.

‘‘The story is that one of the atua, Tane-mahuta, he separated the two parents and when that separation happened … [one of the other sons] was very unhappy, a god by the name of Tawhirimatea.

‘‘He’s seen as the god of weather … [and] because he was so distraught at the separation of his parents, he tore out his own eyes, crushed them, and he threw them into the sky, thus creating the Matariki cluster,’’ Ratahi says.

Some iwi also view the Matariki cluster as a family of nine — the most prominent star, also
named Matariki, is seen as the mother while the remaining ‘daughter’ stars represent different realms of the environment.

Otago Museum Maori science engagement coordinator Toni Hoeta says, traditionally, a tohunga (Maori elder) would read the brightness of the stars to find out what the upcoming year would hold in terms of weather, harvest, and hunting.

‘‘They would also have a ceremony … so you would light a fire and gather a food source from each [of the realms] of the stars and cook it in an earth oven, or an umu, and the steam from the earth oven would feed the stars.’’

In modern times, iwi practise the remembrance aspect of the ceremony, lighting a fire and
reciting the names of loved ones that have passed — the steam carrying the names up to the constellation Te Waka o Rangi, a waka of which Matariki forms the bow, Hoeta says.

For iwi that look to Puaka/Puanga instead of Matariki, the stories are similar but will have a
slightly different structure.

‘‘Where I am from in the central North Island, we look to Puanga and, instead of a boat, we
see the shape of a marae and so the same practices happen, we send our loved ones up into the marae … just depending on what you can see from your vantage point.’’

Local astrophysicist Professor Brian Boyle, who says the Matariki cluster is ‘‘quite young’’ at
100-million-years-old and one of the nearest clusters to Earth at 440 light years away, draws parallels between its cultural meaning and astrophysical character.

Matariki has several hundred stars in it — only the brightest are visible, all of which are extremely hot and surrounded by ‘‘a blue haze’’ of light reflected from dust particles, Boyle says.

‘‘Matariki is about renewal and New Year and new harvest … and the star cluster itself is embedded in an area where new stars will form over the course of the next hundreds of millions of years.’’

Hoeta believes the introduction of a public holiday presents an opportunity for Kiwis to
learn about each other.

‘‘Having our own culture from indigenous people and land that we’re on is such a special thing for us to all connect more with each other.

‘‘And that’s the basis of te ao Maori — connection to each other, connection to the land …
so having a public holiday that’s grounded into te ao Maori allows us to connect more as a people.’’

She encourages people to engage with the tikanga (customs) of Matariki and Puaka.

‘‘So learning about why it happens, doing the whakamau mahara (remembrance) … and
being present with your family and friends at that time, and then look to the future.’’