A how-to guide on observing the Matariki star cluster
The days are getting colder and shorter and as we move into takurua (winter), it's time to keep an eye out for the Matariki star cluster appearing near the horizon.
For a season, they have remained hidden behind the center of our solar system. But the path of the ‘ecliptic (the path the sun takes through the sky during one year, an effect of orbiting the sun) has brought them into our sight once more.
For two thousand years, the stars of Matariki have been known by cultures and civilizations around the world. The rising of the Pleiades, as they were known in ancient Greece, signaled the start of the Ancient Greek sailing season using celestial navigation. Matariki is one post of the Golden Gate of the Ecliptic, a virtual gate that the sun and more or less all the planets pass through (due to their orbiting the sun on a similar plane to earth).
Though often thought of as seven stars (‘the Seven Sisters’), close observation will reveal an eighth and a ninth star. There are over a thousand stars in the cluster, up to fourteen visible with the naked eye. They are roughly 400 light-years away from earth, and the radius of the cluster from its core is roughly 8 light-years.
According to the Māori lunar calendar, the maramataka, the heliacal rising of Matariki in June heralds the Māori New Year.
Māori often celebrated Matariki on the first new moon after Matariki rising, because they operated seasonally using the maramataka. The maramataka differs from the solar calendar in that it is moon-centric. Each month is 29.5 days long, giving us a 354 day year. The solar calendar is 365 days long because it is organized around the earth’s orbit of the sun. The discrepancy between the cycle of the moon and the cycle of the sun is the main reason why Matariki can fall on a different date each year.
The maramataka calendar guided decisions for Māori around travel, crop-planting, crop-harvesting, fishing, and hunting activities. Studying maramataka is a special art and science that brings one more in harmony with the natural world and with the demands of living dependent on the cycle of seasons.
Matariki in particular was a time of full storehouses, it was a time to feast and celebrate, as well as a time to remember those who had died in the previous year.
Matariki is an abbreviation of “Nga mata o te ariki Tawhirimatea”; it is told that the god of the winds Tawhirimatea cast his own eyes out in rage when Tane separated his parents, the earth mother, and the sky father. The Maori tradition that Rangi and Papa’s separation flooded the world with light is similar to the cosmic event that brought about the universe, the explosion of a singularity.
The Sun, Moon, planets, and stars have accompanied skywatchers over millennia and this particular star cluster is closely tied to indigenous world-views, astronomy, calendaring, traditional weaving, weather prediction, and agriculture. For Māori each star has a name and represents something different.
As you observe the stars of Matariki, think about their roles in bringing about the Māori New Year:
- Matariki is the star that signifies reflection, hope, our connection to the environment, and the gathering of people.
- Tupu-a-rangi is the star that signifies growth in and of the forest.
- Tupu-a-nuku signifies all that grows within the soil.
- Waiti looks over bodies of fresh water, while Waita looks upon saltwater.
- Waipuna-a-rangi signifies the rain.
- Ururangi is the star of the winds.
- Pohutukawa, the eighth star, represents the dead (interestingly, the souls of the deceased depart Aotearoa through the roots of an old pohutukawa growing on an unlikely cliff by the ocean at Cape Reinga).
- Hiwa-i-te-rangi, the ninth star, is the embodiment of our hopes and aspirations.
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