Monday, June 29, 2009

Matariki


(Updated, with poems.)

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys looking at the night sky, you’ll know how thrilling it is to spot the stars known to my heritage as the Pleiades, or seven sisters, a cluster of tiny sparkling stars hanging together in an otherwise dark portion of the night sky, quite visible low on the horizon during our summer holidays, if I was allowed to stay up long enough (and those blacker than black night skies in August, away from the lights of the city, were a magical thing unto themselves).


This is the cluster known to Māori as Matariki, and I’ve been aware of its significance and the month-long festivities attached to it for a few years, but it wasn’t until last winter, when I attended with my oldest child one of the star labs organised by Rangimoana Taylor at our national museum, Te Papa, that I grasped something approaching the full, living sense of the occasion.

I like the fact that it was through Joseph’s passion for the subject, his very natural childlike thirst for mythology, that I came to this discovery. And we sat there equally and joyfully awed as Mr Taylor and one of his colleagues explained the cultural history of these celestial events, the heavenly correspondences between the constellations above and the human labours below. Some time after the arrival of winter had been announced by the star that bears its name - Takurua, or Sirius - the first appearance of Tau-toru (‘the three’) would signal to fowlers that the time had come to set their snares. One of these snares, the waka kererū, even looked like that group of stars, the three in a line - known to my European eyes as Orion’s belt - with Puanga, or Rigel, above, standing for the berry of the miro tree that makes the kererū drunk and such easy prey.

(As our host explained, you’d get the birds used to the berry juice in the vessel for a few days, and when enough of them showed up, you added the strings that would serve as nooses.)

Later the cluster that I grew up calling the Hyades, and that at these latitudes looks like the blade of a matamata-kāheru, or pointed spade, indicated that it was time to tend to your plants, again projecting in the night sky the very tool that was needed by day down below.


By contrast the final piece of the picture, the pre-dawn appearance of Matariki in the North-Eastern sky, didn't remind people of essential work that had to be done, except perhaps retrospectively, for by this time the meat had better be cured and sealed in its gourds, the pātakas had better be full, or else you’d starve. But if the enduring symbolic import of Matariki is any indication, the period of celebrations and instruction that it ushered in fulfilled no less vital a role for the community.

In my culture we're likely to have had something similar, and it too might well have coincided with the appearance of the Pleiades in our skies, but it's by now an unrecoverable past, buried under layers of other rites that have acted as screen memories. The mid-winter festival co-opted first by the Romans, then by the Christians and finally by Coca-Cola, has long since ceased to convey the simultaneous sense of remembrance, continuation and renewal that it must have had in times past. We have been, besides, and for quite some time, a far less cohesive and more diverse and complex culture; it was literacy that relieved us from having to transmit knowledge in mythical or poetic form, while commerce, technology and the division of labour made the catching, growing and storing of food a far less communal experience.

The same transformations naturally have occurred in Aotearoa, and the Matariki revival doesn't gloss over nor conceal the observable fact that some of the connections have been severed and many of the daily and seasonal practices of sustenance largely abandoned, if only by a matter of a handful of generations. Māori people live in the same society and in the same economy as everybody else, and these leave little space for Mennonite-like attempts to preserve and crystallise the past, if you even wanted to go there. But I would argue that Matariki is not in fact a traditionalist, conservative, or even a predominantly past-oriented celebration, and it is most emphatically not culturally exclusive. It seeks to recognise the knowledge base accumulated by Māori before the arrival of the Europeans, yes, and to acknowledge and perpetuate its own history, and the many forms and regional variations in which it has been practised over time. But even as it affirms the value and relevance of the indigenous culture, it strives to integrate those of the newcomers, principally by means of the sharing of food, stories and waiatas. As Taylor explained, and I paraphrase from memory, 'people come to my house and they bring their own food and it becomes our food, and they share with me their stories, be they from Greece or China or India, and they become our stories, because they are here'. This sense of place and how it gets permeated by the culture of its inhabitants is to my mind the essence of Matariki, and what makes it uniquely inclusive and open to reinvention.

Keri got in touch during the last week to share what Matariki means for her whānau, and I think it speaks precisely to those characteristics:

We are a bastardised kind of tribe (I'm talking personal, whanau rather than iwi here) so we grab all reasons to festivate - thus, Hogmanay, AND Lunar New Year, AND Matariki-

different food for each, but commonalities-

*always fire (bonfires, fireworks, the small fires with food on top you offer to wan star groups)
*always food - the delicacies of the season (hey! Note our cunning! We get different sets of deliciosity!)
*always family & friends - and chance people, who happen by
*always rememberance of the dead (and lights, as well as fire for that)
*always singing, however drunken ("Shall auld acquaintance be forgot") or hymnlike ('Pipiri te whetu/te marama i te raki") or just plain lusty ("And I upped and I showed 'er the way arr harrr!")

This is all stuff one could work with, no? And in fact every year it seems that a little more noise is made to adopt Matariki as a national holiday, either to replace Queen's Birthday or add a new festivity, a suggestion that most recently our beloved Prime Minister shrugged off, jesting that if it's a day off in winter that we're after, we might as well mark his own birthday, in early August. (Not that he's an idiot or anything.) I think it's significant however that the Matariki revival of the last decade has been spearheaded by the Māori Language Commission, for it is a logical next step: using te reo, the language, to tell stories.

Here's one. According to one reading of the Māori firmament, the appearance of Matariki completes a picture spanning a large portion of the night sky: Te Ra o Tainui, 'the sail of Tainui', a vessel in which Orion is the keel, Matariki the bow, the Hyades the sail proper, the Southern Cross the anchor, and from which is cast - but aren't we mixing stories at this point? - Te Matau a Maui, the fish hook, known elsewhere as the tail of Scorpius, with which Maui caught the North Island of New Zealand, and that in certain times of the year looks like it's doing that very thing, pulling the land out of the sea.

There is a lot of poetry in that image, but also a store of knowledge of how to navigate by the stars, the same stars that, woven into different narratives, were used to mark the passage of time and the changing of the seasons: factual, empirical knowledge that sustained and defined a people, wrapped into complex mythologies that facilitated its cultural transmission. It is difficult to imagine a time in history when the ability to make sense of and think narratively about our world would have been more relevant than it is now. Matariki can be our key to just that.

***

By way of update. Regular readers who venture into the comments section will know that this blog is much enriched by, if not in fact a thin excuse for, the weekly contributions of a poet in residence, Harvest Bird. I shall update soon the Compendium of her works to date, but this week she was joined by Keri and both poems really need to be included in the post - they are beautiful and moving and of course capture the spirit of the occasion much better than I could.



So then, from Harvest Bird


At Seven Sisters I changed
(I think) to Edmonton Green.
To the north of North London.

There was a low-rise mall, with
market traders. You could walk
(I think) to Enfield Lock.

It wasn't a long visit, but I forced
some decisions.

They may not have been the best,
but they were mine.



From Keri h


A long time ago, before I was adolescent, I met an old lady who fed the stars.
I knew of her - she was lame with arthitis; her two sons had died
at El Alamein
and her daughter had
'gone up north for a while'
and never come back-
she was never Taua- just Mrs' Looney'
and while she knew us beach-wild mongrels
she only liked one of my younger sisters
-who was winsome and blond (and scared)


when I came out that frosty night
-I saw a tiny spark fire up on Raumoa and it
might be just my shady shaky eyes again-
and I hated that idea, so-
and there she was, old Mrs Who
wobbling around her stick and trying
to get the fire to really go

I got cracklekelp, and sticks
and huffed, and all the while
she dirged in the background-
o! run the soundtrack of that past
reciting of truly ancient words
-again? Please-

and eventually
my breath & the sea sufficed
to cook and send
whatever she had put in that accurate kete, sizzled and fried and went to smoke to feed those stars
who otherwise would have died-

and as she staggered back down that strange historic hill she howled-

"Only you! No-one really else!

She would not take my hand.
She would not hold my shoulder.


***


Thanking Keri also for her contribution to the post proper, here are some links for some of the best online resources for Matariki that I came across:

Firstly, the Starlabs at Te Papa, naturally. You'll find the programme here.

Two videos on Matariki (the second and third on the list), one featuring Rangimoana Taylor

The beautiful Matariki page on the Korero Māori
website

The Matariki Festival page for 2009, including information on how to spot it.

The Matariki page on the Māori Language Commission website

The
Māori Astronomy page curated by the Phoenix Astronomical Society

The Matariki page at Te Ara

Whai Ngata's Matariki collection at NZ on Screen (hat-tip to Kowhai, from her post on Matariki at Wellingtonista). I'd go straight to the excerpts from Ngati.

Kerer
ū and Māori

Māori
star and constellation names


(Also, to those who might have noticed the lack of macrons - they didn't work on one of my browsers so it seemed risky to adopt them. Does anybody have any advice about compatibility? Update this was solved by Alan - thank you Alan! - unless you find that they don't work on your browser, in which case please let me know.)


14 comments:

Alan said...

Responding only to the last paragraph... I usually find that the HTML entities work just fine in most browsers these days:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macron#Technical_notes

Giovanni said...

Ah... Curse my ineptitude. I shall try that.

objectdart said...

matariki also marks the beginning of the worst weather here in nzl. it's always after its arrival that the winds really pick up, and the cold spring rains aren't too far away.

i've personally always had affinity because it is the shoulder of taurus, one of only two constellations i know...

Giovanni said...

By nice symmetry, you can also see it very well in our 'other' New Year. At midnight on December 31st it presents at about, oh, I'd say 20 degrees of altitude above the north eastern horizon.

Emma said...

I love Matariki. I was talking about it with Karl the other day, and we agreed that it involves all our favourite things about Christmas, without all the bullshit.

After fluffing about a couple of years, we've solidified our own traditions. I always make a point of putting a bunch of stuff in the foodbank donation box at the supermarket, and this year we had friends over for a pot-luck dinner and I mulled several litres of wine.

Several years ago I ran Matariki as a shared writing event on our writing boards, with some reservations about co-opting Maori traditions I might not properly understand. We did fire, shared food, and remembrance of the dead. I highlighted the way the same group of stars has significance in so many different cultures, so it was more inclusive.

This was all started for me by a visit to Stonehenge Aotearoa a few years back, and that lecture on astronomy as calendar and using stories to remember things. Wonderful.

Jake said...

Your conversation with a certain participant on PAS has reminded me that this relationship between myth and 'scientific' or practical knowledge persisted in Western cultures far, far beyond the invention of writing into the seventeenth century. Newton was an alchemist, for instance, and scientific thought was interwoven with Puritan ideals and the rhetoric of artisanship -- not mythology exactly, but scientific practices were nevertheless embedded in social and cultural practices, despite the separation implied in our modern narrative of objectivity.

Closer to home, it was struck by your post in that, despite spend my standard four year doing a lot of star-gazing courtesy of a telescope that my primary school had recently acquired, my class didn't hear a word about Matariki. I'm sure that wouldn't be the case today.

hungrymama said...

Every year I mean to celebrate Matariki and every year it gets lost in the noise of my son's birthday. Maybe next year I'll actually manage to sort myself out - it feels very "right" to have something to celebrate that is ours.

Giovanni said...

Yes, ours, I couldn't agree more wholeheartedly.

@Jake
my class didn't hear a word about Matariki. I'm sure that wouldn't be the case today.

My understanding is that aside from the (predominantly non urban) Maori communities that kept celebrating it, Matariki was a pretty well kept secret for much of the last century, until the Maori Language Commission started promoting it. It's hardly probative given her background, but my partner grew up in the Waikato and never heard of it until she came back to NZ.

Conversely, the opportunities that this generation is getting of learning te reo and being raised with an appreciation of and an ability to participate in Maori culture are fantastic, and from what I've seen they take to it very enthusiastically. There are few things that our oldest likes as much as Greek and Maori stories, or Greek and Maori art - which incidentally means that when I showed him the catalogue of these he nearly passed out. By the time he's an adult I think Matariki will be very well established as a national celebration, with or without official recognition in the form of a day off work.

not mythology exactly, but scientific practices were nevertheless embedded in social and cultural practices, despite the separation implied in our modern narrative of objectivity.

That's just what it is, isn't it? A narrative. Robert Boyle's modest witness was a fiction, as Donna Haraway and others have ably exposed, and so is the Human Genome Project. Which is fine, that's how we've always understood our discoveries, but of course most scientists and technologists would rather claim objectivity and not being at all implicated in the telling of stories. Learning about our culture-shaping mythologies is a good foundation for being axble to critique those claims.

(For much the same reason as you'll recall I was very partial to the Jake Does Science project!)

@Emma
This was all started for me by a visit to This was all started for me by a visit to Stonehenge Aotearoa a few years back, and that lecture on astronomy as calendar and using stories to remember things. Wonderful.

I've yet to check out Stonehenge Aotearoa, I look forward to that. There's an Italian physicist in Wellington who's been giving the most amazing presentations about the history of the calendar, I'll need to coax him into writing a guest post or letting me look at his notes - incredibly fascinating stuff. Did you guys know that until the sixth century AD Christians had to talk to send emissaries to the rabbi in Jerusalem in order to work out when Easter was going to be?

harvestbird said...

At Seven Sisters I changed
(I think) to Edmonton Green.
To the north of North London.

There was a low-rise mall, with
market traders. You could walk
(I think) to Enfield Lock.

It wasn't a long visit, but I forced
some decisions.

They may not have been the best,
but they were mine.

Keri h said...

A long time ago, before I was adolescent, I met an old lady who fed the stars.
I knew of her - she was lame with arthitis; her two sons had died
at El Alamein
and her daughter had
'gone up north for a while'
and never come back-
she was never Taua- just Mrs' Looney'
and while she knew us beach-wild mongrels
she only liked one of my younger sisters
-who was winsome and blond (and scared)


when I came out that frosty night
-I saw a tiny spark fire up on Raumoa and it
might be just my shady shaky eyes again-
and I hated that idea, so-
and there she was, old Mrs Who
wobbling around her stick and trying
to get the fire to really go

I got cracklekelp, and sticks
and huffed, and all the while
she dirged in the background-
o! run the soundtrack of that past
reciting of truly ancient words
-again? Please-

and eventually
my breath & the sea sufficed
to cook and send
whatever she had put in that accurate kete, sizzled and fried and went to smoke to feed those stars
who otherwise would have died-

and as she staggered back down that strange historic hill she howled-

"Only you! No-one really else!

She would not take my hand.
She would not hold my shoulder.

artandmylife said...

Giovanni - lovely post.

And Keri H - beautiful poem, which or some reason speaks loudly to me today :-)

Giovanni said...

Yes, same here, I'm in equal parts overwhelmed and delighted by the contributions - the post will stay up for another week. I'm a very happy little blogger.

Di Mackey said...

I'm so glad I came by with time to sit and read and turn the words over.

The poems!!
Perfect.

objectdart said...

and here's me about to complain about the lack of new tiso.

keri just made me completely rethink how i see poetry. and even inspired me a little.

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