Dr Rangi Matamua (Tūhoe), an Associate Professor at the University of Waikato, lectures on Māori language and culture and has a specialist research interest in Māori astronomy and star lore. In recent years he has been involved in public promotion of knowledge about Matariki, the star cluster traditionally associated with midwinter and the beginning of a new year. Most commonly known in Western culture as the Pleiades or “seven sisters” of Greek myth, this cluster of seven (or nine, or more) stars is visible throughout much of the year but disappears in late autumn and rises again in midwinter.
For those of us who have not grown up with stories of Matariki, it appears that the constellation and associated festivities have become more promoted in mainstream Aotearoa New Zealand society just in the last decade or so. While it is cool to be able to renew a local midwinter celebration, some might note that there’s also a danger of commercialising traditions to the point that the culture behind them is misinterpreted or disregarded. I mean, we haven’t seen “sexy Matariki dressup costumes” in the dollar stores yet, but it’s still possible that whatever is promoted as “Matariki” now has, by being interpreted for a general audience, lost some of its deeper meaning.
Dr Matamua’s book therefore feels timely, as it answers many questions about the culture, history and Mātauranga Māori (indigenous knowledge) associated with Matariki. This is useful for those of us who would like to understand and mark the Matariki season without getting all insensitive-story-stealing-Pākehā about it. Perhaps most importantly, the book is part of Dr Matamua’s stated mission to ensure Māori ownership of knowledge and practices associated with this star lore; “for Māori to stop being written into history and start writing ourselves into history.”
This book reads like a labour of both love and scholarship. Flicking to the back first, I made the rather mundane observation that there’s a short index but a relatively lengthy bibliography and list of citations for each chapter. It became clear as I started reading that while this is not a long book, it is the distilled result of many years of research. Not just the author’s academic research either: the information in this book has been passed down through experts in his family. A 400-page manuscript about Māori star lore was compiled by a father and son in Ruatāhuna between 1898 and 1933, at a time when many customs were ceasing to be practised due to colonisation. The son passed the manuscript on to his grandson, who later passed it on to his own grandson, Rangi Matamua.
Matariki has many names, so the book begins with an overview of how the star cluster is known in different parts of the world and in other ancient myths, showing the connections between traditions in other parts of Polynesia. But even in Māori culture, it is associated with multiple meanings. Experts meticulously observed the stars to inform navigation and harvesting activities, while also upholding spiritual beliefs about the connection that each star had to people on earth. Each star in the Matariki constellation has a role in watching over sources of food, wellbeing and weather.
Matamua points out early on that the practises of astronomy and astrology are blended in Māori star lore. Appropriately, this book weaves technical observations with explanations of cultural practices and various proverbs about Matariki. Artist Te Haunui Tuna has provided beautiful black and white illustrations throughout, which similarly blend the technical and spiritual. These show the place and movement of celestial bodies (eg position of the sun relative to stars; phases of the moon) along with the Atua personalities associated with each – so the sun and each star in the Matariki cluster gets a distinctive face to match their mythological personality.
The book dispels some common misconceptions. For example, that Matariki is not a harvest festival – by the time it has risen, the harvest should be mostly done. Rather, it is a time to gather and feast during the more barren time of year, honouring the deceased and offering sustenance to Matariki in the hope for a prosperous new season. Also that the timing for this observation – as with many of the traditional Māori seasons – cannot be mapped tightly onto a Western calendar that remains static each year regardless of the environmental conditions. Matariki was not even observed at the same time or in the same way throughout Māori communities, which makes sense considering that constellations become visible in different parts of the country at different times.
There is a helpful table projecting the setting and rising of Matariki every year from now to 2050, showing how the period of Matariki varies year to year. Should we ever get to the point of declaring a midwinter public holiday for Matariki, there is no one calendar date it could be attached to; it seems more like Easter, moving every year according to what’s going on in the sky. Rangi Matamua concludes his book with a discussion about the revitalisation of Matariki customs in recent years. He hopes that it can develop as a celebration that, while inclusive and modern, is underpinned by Māori culture, language, traditional practices and beliefs. Judging from this book, his research could provide a valuable resource to help achieve that aim.
Reviewed by Rebecca Gray
Matariki: The star of the year
by Rangi Matamua
Published by Huia Publishers