|Taatai Arorangi (Maori Astronomy)|
In the long evenings after sunset, the stars slowly appear like little suns lighting up the inky black velvet of the night sky. Swimming across the darkness is Te Ikaroa (the Milky Way), the great fish of Rangi, the Sky Father.
In an unpredictable world, the stars were predicable, unchanging, and immortal. Stars always rose in the East, and set in the West. The same constellations always appeared with each season. It never happened that a new pattern of stars, one never seen before, would suddenly appear in the East.
In bygone days, Tohunga Maori (Maori wise men and women) with a special knowledge of the stars spent much time studying the stars. The movement of the nga whetu (the eternal shining ones) followed a seasonal cycle, as did the Earth below, so that their rising and setting marked the progression of the seasons. Certain stars were said to bring the seasons into existence and to send down to the earth the foods that became available at the times of the year associated with them. Such links were the basis of a celestial calendar.
In common with many ancient cultures, tohunga looked for the rising (rebirth of the stars from the fires of Te Ra - the Sun) at dawn, just before sunrise. For many Polynesian groups the appearance of Matariki (the Pleiades), a pretty star cluster in the constellation of Taurus, towards dawn (late May in Aotearoa - New Zealand), marked the beginning of the New Year. Matariki is usually a woman. The seven stars that could be seen with the naked eye were considered to be Matariki and her six daughters.
The end of the year was identified with Matariki’s disappearance in the west as darkness approached. This was the direction and time of day traditionally associated with death and sorrow. The start of the New Year was marked by her reappearance in the north-east before dawn. The east was associated with light, life and wellbeing.
When Matariki first reappeared, she and her daughters were greeted with songs lamenting the loss of those who had died in the previous year. But the singers’ tears were joyful too, because the New Year had begun.
The Maori had a genius for turning factual information into entertaining tales. Good stories were easy to remember. Maori myths and legends were wonderful stories full of fascinating characters and wonderful deeds, but they were also full of information. The oral traditions of the Maori include genealogies, songs and myths that contain a wealth of information. They are baskets of knowledge just waiting to be opened.
In these stories, the stars became people of the sky. They were the offspring of Rangi (the Sky) and Papa (the Earth). They, also, had children. These whakapapa (family ties), were a way of illustrating the links between the stars and the seasonal cycle on the land.
Star Names Catalogue of Maori Star Names
Work of the GodsWork of the Gods is the first in a series of books by Kay Leather and Richard Hall that explores Taatai Arorangi, Maori astronomy and star lore.