Book Review: Matariki: The star of the year, by Rangi Matamua

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_matariki_rangi_matamuaDr 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
ISBN 9781775503255

Book Review: Matariki, Me Haere and Maranga Mai, written by Sharon Holt and illustrated by Deborah Hinde.

These three Te Reo Singalong books are an interesting and educational way for childrencv_matariki to learn Māori, and were an instant hit with our toddler. They follow a similar structure to the children’s book series published by Huia Publishers in the early 2000s, with simple verb conjugation and tense-use, using colourful pictures to make it clear to the reader what the subject of the sentence is. The repetitive sentence structure is an easy way to learn te reo, and the glossary at the back useful for parents when stuck on a particular word.

cv_me_haereMy son was particularly taken with the bold illustrations, especially the vehicles in Me Haere! and the animals in Maranga Mai. Indeed, the art is appealing due to its use of colour. The art is also uncluttered and simple, which is necessary for a book designed to teach children words in another language as it allows them to easily see what the words mean. Matariki isn’t as colourful as the other two by virtue of its subject matter, making it much less appealing for younger children. It will appeal to slightly older children, though, especially during the Matariki period.

Tcv_maranga_maihe singalong CDs are a nice companion to the books, although as the songs aren’t particularly catchy they aren’t essential to enjoying them. The CDs nonetheless allow the books to be promoted as more of a package rather than simply a book, and will probably make them more appealing to parents and early education centres. It also sets the books apart from the Huia series I mentioned above. The best of the three CDs we listened to is certainly that which accompanies Maranga Mai, as it is complete with animal sounds. A compilation CD would be useful as well, to allow parents to play the CDs consecutively without disturbing the children’s learning.

As a minor note, the translations in the back are sentence by sentence rather than word by word. For the purposes of this book and for people learning basic te reo this makes perfect sense. However, in some cases it would be beneficial for a more detailed translation, especially if the books are being aimed at people with minimal knowledge of te reo who intend to use them as a stepping stone to learn more. Te reo Maori is an incredibly nuanced language where one word can mean a number of things depending on the context; for example, the word ‘runga’ is used in Me Haere, and the translation notes that it means ‘by’ in the context of the sentence. Runga when used in conjunction with ma, however, is also used to mean ‘on’. This is perhaps a minor detail when the intended audience are preschoolers, but it would be a shame for future confusion should arise when talking about, for example, whether a cat is ‘on’ or ‘by’ a box.

I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for more books in this series, and if reasonably priced may even become a go-to gift for children’s birthday presents in the future.

Reviewed by Lauren Keenan

written by Sharon Holt and illustrated by Deborah Hinde
Published by the Writing Bug Ltd
ISBN 9780473274238

Me Haere!
written by Sharon Holt and illustrated by Deborah Hinde
Published by the Writing Bug Ltd
ISBN 9780473242459

Maranga Mai!
written by Sharon Holt and illustrated by Deborah Hinde
Published by the Writing Bug Ltd
ISBN 9780473214913