Māori astronomer Rangi Matamua on Matariki

From Te Ahi Kaa, 6:06 pm on 25 June 2017

The rising of the Matariki star constellation (aka Pleiades) announces Te Tau Hou, the Māori New Year. Dr Rangi Matamua, a leading expert in Māori astronomy, talks about its meaning.

Matariki is the name for the cluster of stars known as the Pleiades. When it rises in the north-eastern skies in late May or early June, it signals to Māori that the New Year will begin.

Matariki is the name for the cluster of stars known as the Pleiades. When it rises in the north-eastern skies in late May or early June, it signals to Māori that the New Year will begin. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Filip Lolić

In his latest book Matariki The Star of Year, the Tūhoe academic outlined the dates that Matariki will rise until 2050, always between the end of June and mid-July. (This year it's set to rise between the 17th and 22nd of July.)

The book contains information sourced from manuscripts that were passed down to Rangi’s grandfather in 1934 and which he kept locked up for 50 years.

In 1995, these were handed down to Rangi.

“I had to research the record as much as I could. I went around the country interviewing anyone I could find who could talk to me about their idea of Matariki from the bottom of the south to the top of the north” 

Dr Rangi spoke at Te Papa about Matariki, an important part is the Lunar phases.

Dr Rangi spoke at Te Papa about Matariki, an important part is the Lunar phases. Photo: RNZ/Justine Murray

Despite being considered one of the countries foremost experts on Māori astronomy, Rangi disagrees with the notion that he is the ‘Matariki Man’.

“I’m not too sure about that. I do not know everything there is to know about Matariki. The korero that I have is the korero that I have. But I think more often than not we have similarities rather than differences.”

One of the most common questions Rangi is asked is how to find Matariki in the night sky.

“You all know the pot [aka Orion]. If you follow the pot from left to right in the sky wherever it is you will come to the brightest star in the sky, Hinetakurua - that’s Sirius, that’s a Dog Star. That’s the reason why Sirius Black turns into a dog. You find the bottom of the pot and you go left, you'll come to this diamond shape in the sky, that's Te Kokotā, the face of the bull. A little bit further to the left you'll find Matariki."

Te Taiwhenua o Heretaunga hosted an evening with Dr Rangi Mataamua.

Te Taiwhenua o Heretaunga hosted an evening with Dr Rangi Mataamua. Photo: RNZ/Justine Murray

Rangi also discussed the traditional knowledge and the meaning of the names in his presentation.

"The oldest [star] in the cluster is a female, her name is Pohutukawa, this is the star that is connected to the dead; Matariki's first sign of the year is to the dead. This is the star that carries the dead across the sky during the year."

In the future, Dr Rangi Matamua hopes to set up a Māori observatory and promote Māori astronomy education for youth.

This programme features excerpts from Rangi's presentation at an event in Hastings hosted by Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi.

Special thanks to Te Taiwhenua o Heretaunga, Sonder Productions and Dr Rangi Matamua.

Related: RNZ's Puanga Matariki collection