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A celebration of hope and heritage on Matariki


Each of the whetū in the Matariki star cluster has an association with an aspect of wellbeing and the environment (Image rights – Te Wānanga o Aotearoa)

Praneeta Mahajan
Hamilton, June 27, 2024

As the winter skies of New Zealand darken, a special cluster of stars, known as Matariki, emerges, heralding a time of reflection, renewal, and celebration. Matariki, or the Māori New Year, is a time-honoured tradition that has gained significant prominence in recent years, symbolising both cultural heritage and contemporary relevance.

Watch the following video to learn how to find the Matariki Stars.

The Origins of Matariki

Matariki refers to the Pleiades star cluster, which reappears in the Southern Hemisphere’s midwinter sky, typically from late May to early July. For the Māori, Matariki is a time for honouring the past, celebrating the present, and preparing for the future. The rising of Matariki marks the end of the old year and the beginning of a new cycle, coinciding with the winter solstice.

Traditionally, Matariki was a period of thanksgiving for the harvest, a time to honour ancestors, and a moment to share stories and knowledge.

It was also an opportunity to plan for the year ahead, particularly in terms of agriculture. The visibility and brightness of the Matariki stars were believed to predict the bounty of the upcoming harvest; bright stars indicated a plentiful harvest, while dim stars suggested a need for careful resource management.

This celestial guidance helped the Māori to make informed decisions about planting and harvesting, ensuring sustainable use of their resources.

Matariki in Modern Times

In contemporary New Zealand, Matariki has experienced a resurgence as a vibrant cultural festival that unites communities across the country. In 2022, Matariki was officially recognised as a public holiday, reflecting its growing importance in national consciousness and cultural identity.

Modern Matariki celebrations blend traditional practices with new interpretations, making it accessible and meaningful for all New Zealanders. Festivities include star-gazing events, communal feasts, cultural performances, educational workshops, and arts and crafts. These activities not only celebrate Māori culture but also foster a sense of unity and collective identity among diverse populations.

One of the core aspects of Matariki is its emphasis on whānau (family) and community. It encourages people to come together, reflect on the past year, honour those who have passed away, and set goals for the future. This focus on family and community resonates deeply in today’s fast-paced world, offering a chance to slow down and reconnect with loved ones.

Modern Matariki celebrations continue to honour the agricultural heritage, with community gardens, planting ceremonies, and discussions on sustainable farming practices, linking ancient wisdom with contemporary environmental stewardship.

Significance in the Modern World

Matariki’s significance in the modern world extends beyond its cultural roots. It has become a symbol of environmental awareness, sustainability, and connection to the natural world. The traditional Māori knowledge associated with Matariki, such as understanding seasonal cycles and sustainable living, is increasingly relevant in the context of global environmental challenges.

For instance, Matariki promotes the idea of living in harmony with nature, a principle that aligns with contemporary sustainability movements. Celebrations often include activities that emphasise environmental stewardship, such as tree planting, clean-up campaigns, and educational programs about local ecosystems and biodiversity.

Additionally, Matariki provides an opportunity for New Zealanders to engage with Māori language and customs. The celebration includes the use of te reo Māori (the Māori language), traditional songs (waiata), dances (haka), and stories (pūrākau). This cultural immersion helps preserve and revitalise Māori traditions, fostering a deeper appreciation and respect for indigenous culture among all New Zealanders.

Economic and Social Impact

The official recognition of Matariki as a public holiday has also had a positive economic and social impact. It has provided a boost to local economies, particularly in regions that host major Matariki events and festivals. These celebrations attract tourists and promote local businesses, from artisans and performers to hospitality and retail sectors.

Moreover, Matariki serves as an educational platform, enriching the national curriculum. Schools and educational institutions incorporate Matariki into their teaching, allowing students to explore Māori astronomy, mythology, and history. This not only enhances cultural literacy but also encourages young people to value and uphold the diverse heritage of their country.

A Time for Reflection and Renewal

Ultimately, Matariki is a time for reflection and renewal. It offers a moment to pause, acknowledge the hardships and achievements of the past year, and look forward to new beginnings. In a world often characterised by rapid change and uncertainty, Matariki provides a sense of stability and continuity, grounded in ancient wisdom and communal values.

As New Zealanders gaze up at the Matariki stars this winter, they are not just observing a celestial event but participating in a shared tradition that celebrates heritage, fosters unity, and inspires hope for the future. Matariki, with its blend of old and new, traditional and modern, is a testament to the enduring spirit of Aotearoa and its people.

Other Cultures

The Matariki star cluster is known by various names in different cultures around the world. In Greek mythology, it is called the Pleiades, representing the seven daughters of the titan Atlas and the sea-nymph Pleione. These stars are often associated with the myth of Orion, the hunter, who is said to pursue the Pleiades across the night sky.

In Japanese culture, the cluster is known as Subaru, which translates to “unite” or “cluster together.” This name is also famously associated with the car manufacturer Subaru, whose logo features the star cluster.

In Hawaiian tradition, the cluster is called Makaliʻi, meaning “little eyes,” and it is a significant marker for navigation and agriculture. The appearance of Makaliʻi in the night sky signals the beginning of the Makahiki season, a time of peace, harvest, and celebration.

The ancient Egyptians called this star cluster the “Seven Sisters,” and it was connected to the agricultural calendar, marking the beginning of the Nile’s annual flood season which brought fertile soil for farming.

The Aztecs referred to the cluster as Tianquiztli, meaning “marketplace,” and it played a role in their calendar system. Similarly, the Cherokee Native Americans know it as Ani’tsutsa, and it has various agricultural and ceremonial associations.

These diverse interpretations highlight the universal significance of the Matariki star cluster across cultures, serving as a celestial marker for timekeeping, navigation, and cultural rituals.

Stars of Matariki, Te Papa Museum (Image rights – Te Haunui Tuna)

The Stars of Matariki and Their Meanings

The Matariki star cluster is composed of nine stars, each with its own unique significance, reflecting various aspects of life and the environment.

Matariki, the central star, represents reflection, hope, and the gathering of people. Pōhutukawa is associated with those who have passed away, connecting the living with their ancestors.

Tupuānuku and Tupuārangi are linked to food sources, with Tupuānuku representing food grown in the ground, and Tupuārangi symbolising food from the sky, such as birds and fruits.

Waitī and Waitā are connected to freshwater and saltwater bodies, emphasising the importance of water resources.

Waipunarangi represents rainfall, while Ururangi is associated with the winds, both essential elements for agriculture and weather patterns.

Lastly, Hiwa-i-te-Rangi is the star of granting wishes and looking forward to the future.

Together, these stars encapsulate the interconnectedness of the natural world and the cyclical patterns of life, underscoring the holistic worldview of the Māori.

Praneeta Mahajan is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Hamilton.

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