Monday, June 29, 2009


(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

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

The Matariki page on the Māori Language Commission website

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.

ū and 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.)