The maramataka divided the traditional Māori year into 12 lunar months. The word marama means both the moon and the lunar month – a lunar month is the 29 and a half days between successive new moons, and normally straddles two calendar months.
Māori needed a system that matched lunar months with the solar year – a lunar year is around 11 days shorter. Some tribes listed 13 months in their lunar year, indicating that one month was occasionally added to account for the extra period of time. Those tribes which had only 12 months would have used a different system to account for the extra time.
The months were commonly listed numerically: May–June was Te Tahi (the first), June–July was Te Rua (the second), and so on. Each month also had its own name, which sometimes varied between tribes. Tūtakangahau of Maungapōhatu, a member of Ngāi Tūhoe, provided the ethnographer Elsdon Best with these names and descriptions:
Each month was represented by a star or stars. According to one Ngāti Kahungunu authority, ‘without exception, stars were the ariki (controllers, heads) of these months’. 2 For example, for many Māori the year began in May or June with the appearance of Matariki (the Pleiades constellation).
The Māori calendar is sometimes referred to as ‘ten plus two’. Poutū-te-rangi (February–March) is the tenth month, during which the star of the same name (Antares in English) could be seen in the night sky. It was a month of harvest, and another two months would pass before planting began again. These interim two months were considered to be of no significance, which is why some Māori calendars have only 10 months.
The maramataka was revived in 1990 by Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission). Instead of using transliterations of the English names, such as Hānuere for January and Mei for May, they promoted the traditional names cited by Tūtakangāhau. However, lunar months were dropped in favour of calendar months, so that, for example, Pipiri became June.
The new moon determined the start of the lunar month, which lasted 29 and a half days. Rather than referring to the days of the month, Māori spoke of nights, and each night had its own name. Generally, Whiro was the first night of the new moon and Mutuwhenua was the last. Some nights were considered unlucky for planting and fishing, while others were favourable.
There are a number of tribal variations relating to the nights of the moon. The following list has been adapted from the names and observations made by members of Ngāti Kahungunu:
Whiro: an unpleasant day, the new moon appears.
Tirea: the moon is very small.
Hoata: a pleasing day, the moon is still small.
Ōuenuku: get to work! A good night for eeling.
Okoro: a pleasing day in the afternoon, good for eeling at night.
Tamat[e]a-ngana: unpleasant weather, the sea is rough.
Tamatea-kai-ariki: the weather improves.
Huna: bad weather, food products suffer.
Ari-roa: favourable for spearing eels.
Maure: a fine, desirable day.
Māwharu: crayfish are taken on this day.
Ohua: a good day for working.
Hotu: an unpleasant day, the sea is rough.
Atua: an abominable day.
Turu: a day to collect food from the sea.
Rākau-nui: the moon is filled out, produce from the sea is the staple food.
Rākau-matohi: a fine day, the moon now wanes.
Takirau: fine weather during the morning.
Oike: the afternoon is favourable.
Korekore-te-whiwhia: a bad day.
Korekore-te-rawea: a bad day.
Korekore-hahani: a fairly good day.
Tangaroa-ā-mua: a good day for fishing.
Tangaroa-ā-roto: a good day for fishing.
Tangaroa-kiokio: an excellent day for fishing, a misty aspect prevails on land.
Ōtāne: a good day, and a good night for eeling.
Ōrongonui: a desirable day, the īnanga (whitebait) migrate.
Mauri: the morning is fine, the moon has now darkened.
Ōmutu: a bad day.
Mutuwhenua: an exceedingly bad day, the moon has expired. 1
The most important function of the Māori lunar calendar was to regulate planting and harvesting, fishing and hunting. The four seasons − raumati (summer), ngahuru (autumn), kōanga (spring) and takurua (winter) − called forth a series of activities to do with procuring food. These tended to vary among tribes, depending on where they lived, local climate, and the availability of edible plants, birds and seafood.
Māori farmers planted kūmara (sweet potato) on the nights called Ōuenuku, Ari, Rākau-nui, Rākau-ma-tohi, Takirau and Ōrongonui, which were the 4th, 9th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 27th nights of the lunar month. No planting was done during full moon or on Korekore days (the 20th, 21st and 22nd nights). The planting months were in spring: September, October and November.
By the early 2000s there was renewed interest in the maramataka, and it was used by some Māori for planting and fishing. Many fishermen believe that they catch more fish on a day deemed favourable by the calendar. The fishing personality Bill Hohepa printed a version of the calendar that was popular with recreational fisherman.
Weather reports on Māori Television have information from the maramataka, such as tides and when to plant, alongside meteorological highs and lows. In another example where Māori knowledge and science come together, a group of researchers at Massey University in Palmerston North have planted 25 varieties of taewa (potato) according to the Māori lunar calendar, with the dual aim of preserving traditional knowledge and establishing the crop commercially.
Firth, Raymond. Economics of the New Zealand Maori. Wellington: Government Printer, 1972 (originally published 1929).
Matariki, he maramataka Māori, 2004/2005 Aotearoa−Pacific year: a bilingual journal/diary in Māori & English, with Māori fishing and planting guides. Auckland: Matakite, 2004.
Tomoana, P. H. ‘Ko nga tau, ko nga marama, ko nga ra me nga po pai, whai kai, kore kai ranei i runga i a te Maori korero.’ Te Kopara 71 (October 1919).
Tomoana, P. H. Te aroha o Rangi-nuikia Papa-tua-nuku o te tau. Hastings: Hart & Co., 1921.