Ka puta Matariki ka rere Whānui
Ko te tohu tēnā o te tau e!

Matariki (Pleiades) re-appears, Whānui (Vega) starts its flight
This is the sign of the new year!

When the days get short and chilly it is good to be able to look forward to a mid-winter festival. Celebrations of ‘mid-winter Christmas’ have never really caught on Aotearoa NZ, but increasingly we have taken up the Māori tradition of Matariki, based on the reappearance of the Matariki star cluster (Pleiades) around the middle of June. This year there were different events all around the country, from those based on traditional kite-flying (manu tukutuku), to modern installations and light displays.

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Display at Te Papa Tongarewa (Museum of New Zealand) in Wellington, highlighting a traditional kite and the kōwhai flowers that bloom in mid-winter.

I decided to follow up on some of the legends around Matariki. There are two commonly-reported translations of Matariki: ‘mata’ (eyes) and either ‘riki’ (small), or ‘ariki’ (god). Both link to the dramatic legend of the god Ngā Mata o te Ariki Tāwhirimātea, which involves desperation and eye-gouging. The Matariki cluster is described as the mother Matariki and her six (sometimes eight) daughters, each with different associations: Tupu-ā-nuku (food from the ground), Tupu-ā-rangi (food from the sky), Waitī (food from fresh water), Waitā (food from the sea), Waipunarangi (rain), Ururangi (winds).

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‘Whairepo Flyers’, a temporary mural at Whairepo Lagoon on the Wellington waterfront, linking the Ahi Kā Matariki festival of 2019 and the whairepo, or stingrays – traditionally regarded as spirit guardians.

The Greek Pleiades myth too is about six or seven sisters, daughters of Atlas and Pleione, the ‘sailing queen’. There are again several different possible origins of the name. In The Greek Myths (1960) Robert Graves says that it comes from plei, ‘to sail’, referring to their rising when the good weather for sailing approaches, and is the start of the navigational year. Another version is that it comes from Peleiades, ‘a flock of doves’, and online sources say this may come from a root meaning ‘dark coloured, grey’.

The Seven Sisters is also a very important songline of Aboriginal Australia, interweaving legend and place. The Seven Sisters are Miyaymiyaay in the Gamilaraay language of New South Wales I work with. In this version of the story two of the sisters escape from their forced marriage by climbing pine trees to join the other sisters in the sky.

Possibly the most common sight of the Matariki cluster is on our streets in the form of the six stars of Subaru. A description of the cultural symbolism of Subaru in Japan by Steven Renshaw (2012) translates the meaning as ‘united’, ‘gathered’, etc. The jewels of sun goddess Amaterasu were called ‘Sumaru no Tama’ and given to her grandson, the first emperor. The Sumaru or Subaru jewels as stars in the sky indicated that the sun would return in spring.

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The Subaru logo on a car parked on our street.

But the Subaru star cluster is not all about seasons and place. I like that the sayings associated with Subaru indicate balance in relationships, including this one:

The moon is in the east, and Subaru is in the west; my darling is in the middle.

One comment

  1. Interesting how the different cultures are linked through the stars.
    Matariki celebrations are always a feature at school at this time of year.


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