Story: Matariki – Te Tau Hou Māori

Page 1. Heralding the new year

All images & media in this story
Tirohia ake ngā whetu
Me ko Matariki e ārau ana
He tiki mai tahau i ngā mahara e kohi nei
Whakarerea ake e nā te roimata koua riringi
He puna wai kai aku kamo…

I gaze up to the stars
To the assembly of Matariki
Captured are my memories of you who have left me behind
Tears rippling
like springs in my eyes. 1

Matariki is a small cluster of stars also known as the Pleiades, in the Taurus constellation. In New Zealand it comes into view low on the north-eastern horizon, in the tail of the Milky Way, just before dawn in midwinter. This heralds the Māori New Year and the changing of the seasons.

Iwi celebrate Matariki at different times, some when the cluster is first seen in the dawn sky, others after the full moon rises or at the beginning of the next new moon. For some iwi the star cluster includes seven stars, while for others it has nine. 

For all iwi, the importance of Matariki is expressed through proverbs and songs linking it with the bright star Whānui (Vega):

Ka puta Matariki ka rere Whānui.
Ko te tohu tēnā o te tau e!
Matariki reappears, Whānui starts its flight.
Being the sign of the [new] year!

Creation stories

Matariki is an abbreviation of ‘Ngā Mata o te Ariki Tāwhirimātea’ (‘The eyes of the god Tāwhirimātea’). According to Māori tradition, when Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother were separated by their offspring, one of their sons, god of the winds Tāwhirimātea, became angry, tearing out his eyes and hurling them into the heavens. 

Leading Tūhoe astronomer Dr Rangi Matamua says that his tūpuna counted nine stars:

  • Matariki: the star that signifies well-being, reflection, hope and the gathering of people; considered to be a female star which is the guardian of the other stars in the cluster. The name Matariki denotes both this individual star and the whole cluster.
  • Waitī: the star linked with fresh water and food that comes from fresh water.
  • Waitā: the star linked with the ocean and food that comes from it.
  • Tupuānuku: the star linked with food that grows in the ground.
  • Tupuārangi: the star linked with food that comes from the skies: fruits, berries, and birds.
  • Waipunarangi: the star linked with the rain.
  • Ururangi: the star that determines the winds for the year.
  • Pōhutukawa: the star associated with those who have died.
  • Hiwa-i-te-rangi: the star associated with dreams and aspirations for the coming year.

Others say Matariki is the mother surrounded by her six daughters, Tupuānuku, Tupuārangi, Waitī, Waitā, Waipunarangi and Ururangi. In one account Matariki and her daughters appear to assist the sun, Te Rā, whose winter journey from the north has left him weakened.

Matariki and Puanga

Matariki outside New Zealand

The Matariki cluster is of great significance for spiritual, environmental and cultural reasons throughout the Pacific. Many Pacific people use its progress across the skies to track passing time and changing seasons. It is known as Matariki in the Cook Islands; as Mataliki in Tokelau, Niue, Tuvalu, Tonga, ‘Uvea and Futuna; as Matali’i in Samoa; as Matari’i in Tahiti; and as Makali’i in Hawai’i.

The Matariki stars have been the subjects of scientific observations and mythological stories in cultures throughout the world for thousands of years, including in the Middle East, Asia, Australia, Europe and North and South America.

According to Greek myth, the nine brightest stars of Pleiades are Pleione and Atlas and their seven daughters. While wandering through the woods one day, the daughters were spied by Orion, who gave chase. To save them from Orion’s dishonourable intentions, Zeus transformed them into stars and placed them in the sky. A number of ancient temples on the Acropolis in Athens face the direction where the Pleiades rise.

While all iwi celebrate the Māori New Year in June or July, some iwi in Whanganui, Taranaki, the Far North and the South Island refer to this period as Puanga rather than Matariki. In these parts of the country, the Matariki star cluster is hard to see clearly and so iwi place importance on the star Puanga (Rigel), which is the next significant star closest to Matariki, and easier to see in twilight. Ngai Tahu in the South Island call the star Puaka.

There are also regions where the setting of the star Rehua (Antares) in winter denotes the change of seasons.

Calculating Matariki

Traditionally, Māori were keen observers of the night sky, determining time of day and the changes of seasons from the stars and using them to navigate the oceans. Iwi calculated the beginning and ending of Matariki differently, according to variations in their local environment and geography and their observations of the position of the sun, and the moon.

The Māori year is based on the lunar phases (cycles of the moon) and follows a 354-day system. The Western European (Gregorian) calendar, however, is 365.25 days long, based on the movement of the earth around the sun. This means that Matariki occurs on different dates in the Western calendar each year.

Matariki sets in the western sky during the lunar month of Haratua (mid-May to early June). This is a tohu (sign) that the harvest season has come to an end. By this time, people should have completed their preparations for the cold months ahead. Matariki reappears in the skies in the lunar month of Te Tahi o Pipiri (late June or early July). For many iwi the return of the stars marks the beginning of the Māori New Year. The correct time for celebrations of the new year is determined by the position of both the stars and the moon. Therefore, although the stars may be visible in the sky, Matariki festivities should not commence until Tangaroa, the last quarter moon of the first month of the Māori year. This time usually comes a few days after the first rising of Matariki above the horizon.

Footnotes:
  1. By Mihikitekapua (Tūhoe, Ngāti Ruapani). Reproduced in Apirana Turupa Ngata, Ngā mōteatea: he maramara rere nō ngā waka maha, 4 vols, Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2004–7. Back
How to cite this page:

Paul Meredith, 'Matariki – Te Tau Hou Māori - Heralding the new year', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/matariki-te-tau-hou-maori/page-1 (accessed 9 December 2021)

Story by Paul Meredith, published 12 Jun 2006, reviewed & revised 19 Jun 2021