When the Pleiades star cluster – known as Matariki – appears in the New Zealand sky, it signals the start of a new year.
When the Pleiades star cluster – known to Māori as Matariki – appears in the New Zealand sky, it signals the start of a new year.
For the Māori people of New Zealand, the emergence of Matariki marks the passing of one year and the start of another. It’s a time to remember lost loved ones and celebrate new beginnings, as well as being a period of reflection and regeneration. Happy New Zealand new year!
The ancient wisdom of Matariki
According to the most common Māori legend, when the sky father Ranginui and earth mother Papatūānuku were parted by their children, the god of wind became so enraged he tore out his eyes and hurled them at the heavens to create Matariki. Traditionally, Māori marked the appearance of the stars – and the start of their lunar calendar – by remembering those who had died, sowing seeds for crops and celebrating with feasts and the lighting of ritual fires. Spiritual experts known as tohunga interpreted the stars to predict the weather: clear, bright stars meant a warm, abundant season ahead. In modern New Zealand, Matariki is seen as a time to take stock and face the coming year with renewed vigour. In 2018, the Māori New Year will be celebrated throughout July.
Interested in checking out the star cluster for yourself? You can find out how to locate Matariki in the New Zealand sky here.
Learn about Matariki from an elder
In the North Island’s lush Hawke’s Bay region, Ngāti Kurukuru elder Robert MacDonald operates Waimarama Māori Tours, whose excursions gives an excellent insight into Māori culture and history. Particularly relevant around Matariki is the tour of the Ātea a Rangi Star Compass, a circle of 32 carved pou (poles) that mark the compass points Māori navigators used to chart the position of the sun, moon and stars. Standing on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, MacDonald explains that the Māori who arrived on the shores of Aotearoa were expert navigators and seafarers, intentionally voyaging from all over the Pacific using their compass of whetū (stars). This celestial compass is known as Kāpehu Whetū and with it, voyagers could find their way virtually anywhere.
Waimarama Tours operates year-round, personalising tours depending on the interests of the group. The Ātea a Rangi Star Compass can be accessed through the Waitangi Wetlands on State Highway 2 near Hastings on the North Island east coast
The many celebrations of Matariki
As part of a renewed interest in Matariki, Māori New Year is now celebrated everywhere from country kindergartens to the offices of major corporations. Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, has more than 100 events until July 22, including a dawn karakia (commemoration), exhibitions and performances. The capital, Wellington, celebrates with a spectacular light show on the waterfront on July 6. Or head further south to Dunedin where, from July 6-22, the community of Otago comes together for events involving science, storytelling, films, kites and cultural performances.
Light up the night
There are just 12 International Dark Sky Reserves in the world and one of them is in New Zealand: in the South Island’s Aoraki Mackenzie region. But wait, there’s more: Aotea/Great Barrier Island – about 90km north-east of Auckland in the outer Hauraki Gulf – is only one of four global Dark Sky Sanctuaries. With modest populations (and very little light pollution), the skies above these two areas are bright with stars and planets, with the Milky Way a veritable highway of illumination. Where better to witness the arrival of Matariki and herald a sparkling new year?
Aotea/Great Barrier Island is celebrating its first year of Dark Sky status with a month-long, island-wide Matariki festival. Until July 31, events will include art exhibitions, rocket labs, astronomy talks, stargazing, moon dancing and a twilight ball.