Friday, June 15, 2012

Off the Beaten Track: Matariki, the Maori New Year

Our guest today is Kate McWiggins, an expat American enjoying life in small town New Zealand. An escapee from corporate life, she spends her days trying to craft the perfect mystery novel, tending her garden, and expanding her vocabulary of "kiwi" English.

Seven hundred years ago the ancestors of the Maori arrived on the shores of New Zealand from Polynesia. As early mariners, an understanding and knowledge of celestial objects was critical to their survival. They traveled across the Pacific in their mighty carved waka (war canoes) with only the aid of the stars for navigation.

Early Maori banded together in small tribal groups and developed their own unique culture based on Polynesian customs and social structure. In addition to navigation, the heavens were critical in determining time and the change of seasons. Until the arrival of Europeans in the 18th century, Maori had no written language. This fostered a rich tradition of story telling and oral histories to pass on customs, beliefs and myths. Wood carving, weaving and tattoo art were also used to communicate custom and history. The use of Maori tattoo (moko) to convey status was seen from ancient times, a person without a tattoo was considered to be of the lowest social status. As the head was considered the most sacred, facial tattoo adorned all those of high rank.

As Matariki (Pleiades star cluster) rises above New Zealand in the winter sky in early June, it heralds the Maori New Year. In ancient times, a lookout would be posted to watch the predawn sky for the rise of the star cluster on the northeastern horizon. At the rise of Matariki, celebrations began for many tribes, while others would begin to celebrate at the sight of the new moon. In the southern hemisphere, Matariki is aligned with the winter solstice. It arrives when the sun travels north on the shortest day of the year.

The Pleiades figures in the legend of many cultures. In Greek myth, the Pleiades seven stars represent the seven daughters of Pleione and Atlas. Matariki translated from the Maori language means “tiny eyes” or “eyes of the God”. In Maori legend, the father of the sky, Ranginui, was separated from the earth mother, Papatuanuki by their children. This angered Tahirirmatea, the god of the winds, who then tore out his eyes and hurled them into the sky, creating Matariki. Other legends describe Matariki as the Mother surrounded by her six daughters, Tupu-ā-nuku, Tupu-ā-rangi, Waitī, Waitā, Waipuna-ā-rangi and Ururangi.

Traditionally, Matariki was a time for remembrance, to honor those who had died in the last year. The Maori believed that the stars held the souls of the departed. But Matariki was also a time for celebration. Coming at the end of harvest, it allowedfor feasting from the bounty of harvested crops and the gathering of seafood and local birds. Predictions for the coming year were read in the stars of Matariki. The success of the next year’s harvests was tied to the visibility of the star cluster. If the stars were bright, it predicted early warmth for the growing season and bountiful crops.

Matariki celebrations brought families together for feasting, singing, dancing and competitions.  Competition among Maori springs partly from the warrior culture that developed in the 15th century.  Continuing warfare among tribal groups (iwi) evolved into a number of rituals including the Haka, a ritualized war dance. It is likely that the Haka would have performed at Matariki celebrations. Rugby World Cup viewers around the world saw the New Zealand All Blacks team perform the ka-mate Haka prior to each match. The Haka is not solely a war dance; different forms are used in welcome, as a challenge or in celebration of important occasions such as Matariki.

Matariki celebrations began to decline in the 1900’s with some of last festivals held in the 1940’s. However, with the current revival of interest in Maori culture, Matariki is again celebrated among Maori and with public events through museums, schools and cultural organizations.

One of the customs gaining popularity from the revival of Matariki is the flying of traditional Maori kites. Kites were thought to provide a connection between heaven and earth and were part of the ancient festivals. The making of kites was considered a sacred art and only priests or highly respected elders were allowed to create them. The original kites were constructed of wood and bark cloth and decorated with shells, feathers and colored patterns drawn with red and black pigments. The kites of current Matariki festivals are varied and colorful and often display traditional Maori designs. The modern celebration of Matariki continues to grow in popularity, incorporating both ancient and modern customs.


  1. Thanks for sharing this fascinating culture with us today! The sight of those kites during the festival must be quite amazing!

  2. So interesting, Kate! But I have a million questions, like what are the Maoris all about in modern times? Have they adopted mainstream customs and religions, or do they still practice a traditional tribal belief system? Do they retain their own language and alphabet etc? From fiction such as Bone People, I got the impression they're mostly disenfranchised, many living in poverty. Is that still true?

    1. Hi Supriya, the life of modern Maori is a mixed bag. I think the biggest problems occur due to family and tribal (iwi) associations being lost when people move from their traditional rural areas to urban environments. There is a big push to save the Maori language and people who live close to their original home lands tend to preserve their traditions and customs more. Maori were never "conquered" by the British colonials, but signed the Treaty of Waitangi with the British crown...this Treaty is still the basis of law between the New Zealand gov't and Maori, although there are many disputes about it's legitimacy. There is a great deal of poverty among Maori, but also great pride. Regards,Kate

    2. I believe I saw a movie on this, years ago.... something about a fence? Know it? Look forward to hearing more from you on this culture.

  3. I love legends explaining how the constellations were formed. Thanks for sharing!