Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Renaissance of Ancient Maori New Year

Here's an interesting article from the New Zealand Herald that describes the traditional Maori New Year marked by the rising of Matariki, the constellation known in the West as the Pleiades. The ancient celebration has now become popular again as a cultural festival in New Zealand.

Rawiri Taonui: Matariki - A time for New Zealanders to shine as one

5:00AM Thursday June 12, 2008
By Rawiri Taonui

This month heralds the beginning of Maori New Year festivities with the dawn rising of Matariki (the Pleiades). An increasingly popular celebration among New Zealanders, the renaissance of Matariki reflects our journey as a nation.

Humans have always marvelled about the significance of the heavenly bodies. Many cultures held particular regard for a small glittering star cluster in the northern sky. The Greeks named them the Pleiades, the seven daughters of the gods Atlas and Pleione. The English called them the Seven Sisters, others the Jewel Box. To the Japanese they were Subaru.

Polynesians know the constellation by the cognates Matali'i (Samoa), Matari'i (Tahiti), Makali'i (Hawaii) and Matariki (Rarotonga and New Zealand) through star lore that stretched far back into the pre-European Pacific.

Centuries before Christopher Columbus sailed tentatively into the unknown, the Austronesian-speaking ancestors of the Polynesians, navigating by the sun, moon, planets and stars, settled hundreds of islands across the Pacific and Indian oceans - Madagascar, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, the Marianas, Caroline and Kiribati islands, the Solomons, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, Hawaii, Marquesas, Tuamotus, Rarotonga, Easter Island and New Zealand.

The ancestors of the Maori adapted that knowledge to the New Zealand environment, instituting 12 or 13 month lunar calendars. The pantheon of lore was as elegant and exquisite as Greek mythology.

Each month and every day and night of the waxing and waning moon was named. Prominent stars, such as Whitikaupeka or Pekehawini (Spica), Whakaahu (Castor and Pollux), Te Kakau (Regulus) and Poutu te rangi (Altair), the bloom and fruiting of plants and the migratory behaviour of birds, whales, fish, eels and whitebait, heralded different months. Stars like Takurua (Sirius) and Rehua (Antares) marked whole seasons. Grand constellations adorned the sky as canoes, store houses, mythological heroes, giant sharks, whales, carvings, ancestors, baskets of knowledge and birds.

Tribes differently marked the New Year when Matariki or other stars, such as Puanga (Rigel), Tautoru (Orion) or Takurua (Sirius) were first seen, or on the day of the first new moon after they had risen.

Matariki means the "eyes of god" (mata-ariki) or "little eyes" (mata-riki). One tradition says the "eyes" are the storms of Tawhirimatea, the god of the winds. Others believe Matariki is a mother and her six daughters who assist the sun, weakened by winter, on its daily journey across the skies.

Another account says the god, Tanenui-a-rangi, created the constellation when he shattered a heavenly orb containing all the knowledge in the universe.

Matariki delineated the seasonal cycles. The aphorisms "Ka puta a Matariki, ka rere a Whanui" (When Matariki rises, Vega has flown) and "Matariki nana i ao ake" (Matariki has risen), instruct that the autumn harvest and food gathering governed by the star Vega is now replaced by Matariki, who rules the new cycle, beginning with preparing the earth for the spring planting of kumara.

"Nga kai a Matariki" (the foods of Matariki) and "Ka kitea a Matariki, kua maoka te hinu" (When Matariki is seen, game is preserved) referred to the collecting and storing of food for the winter period. "Matariki ahunga nui" (Matariki heaped up) refers to the "heaping up" of furrowed ground to protect seed kumara from frost.

Matariki marked the winter solstice and shortest day and portended the year ahead. If the stars were clear, a productive season lay ahead, with planting in September. If hazy, winter would be cold and the planting would begin in October.

Matariki also signified a time of remembrance, learning and festivity. Tribes would remember those who had died, celebrate past successes, conduct learning sessions and plan the year ahead. Much of this lore was lost under the yoke of colonisation, which banned tohunga (priesthood), imposed Western schooling that looked at stars in books rather than in the skies and replaced the Maori calendar with the more scientific but ultimately less reliable Georgian version.

Matariki celebrations dwindled, with very few tribes continuing them past 1900. The last traditional festival occurred around 1940. The current Maori renaissance has spurred a revival of Matariki celebrations.

There have been some adaptations to traditional lore. The focus is singularly on Matariki, whereas pre-European tribes acknowledged different stars.

Resurrected calendars are based on Gregorian weeks and months with Maori names. There are attempts to ascribe a single date for the rising of Matariki, when the traditional practice was that the new year began from when stars were first sighted on whatever day of what we now call June and from the first new moon after that.

But Matariki is positive; its rising emblematic of the rebirth of Maori identity and the dawning of a new age.

More Pakeha and immigrants are also embracing Matariki. When celebrations were first organised in Hastings in 2000, about 500 people attended. In 2003, 15,000 turned out. This year's celebrations will be the largest ever, with scores of observances in pre-schools, schools, museums, art galleries and libraries throughout the country.

The small constellation of glittering jewels reflects our journey as one nation, two peoples and many cultures - a time for New Zealanders to shine as one.

Dr Rawiri Taonui is head of the School of Maori and Indigenous Studies and kaiarahi (joint Maori adviser) at the College of Arts, University of Canterbury.