In ages past, when Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother, were separated by their children, the god of the winds, Tāwhirimātea, became so angry that he tore out his eyes and threw them into the heavens. Those eyes became Matariki. Matariki is a shortened version of Ngā mata o te ariki o Tāwhirimātea, which means ‘the eyes of the god Tāwhirimātea’, but it is sometimes incorrectly translated as ‘little eyes’ (mata riki). For Māori, and many Pacific Islanders, Matariki season heralds the dawn of a new year. It is a time of reflection, happiness and anticipation.
Reflecting on those who have died in the last year was an important part of Matariki traditions, but also the happiness of knowing that crops had been harvested and seafood collected. Equally important was the anticipation of a new year ahead. The Matariki festival is marked by the rise of Matariki (also known as the Pleiades star cluster or The Seven Sisters) and the sighting of the next new moon. This year it fell around July 6, but can vary from region to region and iwi to iwi. Some may begin festivities on the first full moon after the star cluster rises, or on the next new moon.
In the 1940s, Matariki was largely forgotten. It wasn’t until 2001 that the Māori Language Commission began a move to “reclaim Matariki, or Aotearoa Pacific New Year, as an important focus for Māori language regeneration”. Since then it has increased in popularity and is now celebrated throughout New Zealand. Interestingly, the name Matariki is also used for the central star in the cluster, with the other stars named Tupu-ā-nuku, Tupu-ā-rangi, Waitī, Waitā, Waipunā-ā-rangi and Ururangi.
So how many stars are there in Matariki? Some people can count seven and others nine with the naked eye. The most recent count is more than 1000 stars in the cluster! Matariki is about 14 light years across and is just a mere 100 million years old, forming sometime when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth. It is one of the closest star clusters to us – 440 light years away. Twenty-five percent of all the stars are Brown Dwarfs which are actually failed stars – just not big enough for a nuclear reaction to start in their core to make them into proper stars.
You can see Matariki for yourself by going out just before sunrise and looking towards the north-east horizon. Look for the faint cluster of sparkling stars. This will be Matariki. My hope is that this season of Matariki will herald a happier new year for all of us. We can reflect on the last year, filled with the repercussions of Covid-19, and look forward to a new start and brighter times ahead.