Māori Astronomy

Discover the rich world of Māori astronomy and uncover the secrets of the stars as seen through the eyes of the indigenous people of Aotearoa, New Zealand. Immerse yourself in the captivating stories, myths, and legends that shaped Māori cosmology, and explore the celestial navigation techniques that guided their remarkable ocean voyages across the vast Pacific. From the celebrated Matariki constellation to the revered lunar calendar, the Maramataka, learn how Māori astronomers observed and interpreted the celestial realm, forging a deep connection between the cosmos, the natural world, and their daily lives. Join us on a celestial journey through time, where the wisdom of the Māori people and the beauty of the night sky come together to reveal a unique perspective on the universe and our place within it.

Matariki Cluster

Image Credit: John Drummond

Polynesian Navigation: Māori Astronomy and the Stars of Aotearoa

Polynesian navigation has long been a topic of fascination and admiration for its incredible feats of skill and knowledge. The Māori people of New Zealand, with their deep connection to the natural world, embraced the stars as integral to their navigation techniques. Maori astronomy, or "Tātai Arorangi," played a crucial role in the lives of these early Polynesian explorers as they traversed the vast oceanic expanse. 

Star Compass: The Key to Celestial Navigation

At the heart of Māori celestial navigation was the concept of the "star compass" or "kāpehu whetū." This was a mental map of the night sky, divided into four quadrants, with each quadrant containing a specific set of stars that rose and set at particular angles. The star compass was used to determine direction and maintain a steady course during voyages. Te kāpehu whetū segments the 360-degree expanse surrounding a canoe in the open ocean into distinct whare (houses). These houses are determined by the positions at which the sun, moon, and stars ascend and descend. By closely observing these celestial bodies, the navigator endeavours to maintain the canoe's trajectory in relation to their movements.

The Māori navigators memorised the positions of key stars and constellations within each quadrant and were able to estimate their direction based on where these celestial bodies rose and set on the horizon. By observing the movements of specific stars, they could identify which quadrant they were in, and thus the general direction they were traveling.

  • The Four Winds Divided into Quarters
  • The Four Houses Representing North, South, East and West.
  • Dividing the Horizon: Quadrants and Houses

At its core, the star compass divides the horizon into quarters, each named after one of the four winds:

Tokerau - the north-east trade winds. These winds are associated with the warm and relatively stable weather coming from the northeast. They are considered favourable for voyaging, as they can bring clear skies and calm seas. 

Marangai - the south-east trade winds. The Marangai winds are the cool, moist winds blowing from the southeast. They are often responsible for bringing rain and can cause rough seas, making navigation more challenging. Despite the challenges they may present, these winds are also essential for the growth of vegetation and replenishment of freshwater resources on the islands.

Whakarunga - the south-west winds. These are cold, stormy winds that originate from the southwest. They are associated with adverse weather conditions, like heavy rain and rough seas, which can make navigation dangerous. In Māori astronomy, they are connected to the "head of the fish," which refers to a traditional Māori story about the demigod Māui pulling a giant fish (Te Ika-a-Māui, or the North Island of New Zealand) from the sea.

Whakararo - the north-west winds. The Whakararo winds come from the northwest and can bring a mix of weather conditions, including rain, warmth, and dry spells. These winds are associated with the "tail of the fish," which also refers to the same Māori story about Māui and the giant fish. The tail of the fish is the southernmost part of the North Island of New Zealand.

Additionally, the compass segments the entire horizon into equal areas called houses, totalling 32 houses in the full circle. The four primary houses representing north, south, west, and east are:

Whitinga - Whitinga is the eastern direction, where the Sun emerges from the ocean. In Māori culture, the east is associated with new beginnings, as it signifies the start of a new day. The term Whitinga means "the place of emergence." 

Tomokanga - Tomokanga is the western direction, where the Sun returns to the ocean. The west is associated with endings and the completion of the day. Tomokanga translates to "the entrance" or "the place of return." 

Raki - Raki refers to the northern direction in Māori cosmology. It is situated to the right of the Sun's passage through the sky when facing the equator. Raki is associated with warmth, dry weather, and nurturing, and it supports growth and fertility. 

Tonga - Tonga is the southern direction in Māori cosmology, situated to the left of the Sun's passage through the sky when facing the equator. It is associated with cold, rain, and the underworld, as it often brings storms and rough seas. The term Tonga can also refer to the south-west winds, which are connected to the "head of the fish" (Whakarunga) in Māori mythology. 

Each quadrant of the star compass consists of seven additional houses that further segment the horizon. These houses are mirrored across all quadrants, assisting navigators in memoriSing star positions and paths. Stars appear to ascend from the eastern horizon, traverse the north/south line (meridian), and descend toward the western horizon. Individual stars consistently rise and set in the same named house. The names and meanings of these houses are as follows:

- the Sun.

Kāinga - where the Sun resides.

Ngoi - a land bird (the brown noddy) utilised by navigators to locate land.

Manu - the waka envisioned as a bird soaring across the ocean.

Ngā Rangi - the heavens, which provide essential clues.

Ngā Reo - the navigator heeds the guidance of the stars' voices.

Haka - the void devoid of clues, where the true challenge commence.

Moon Phases and Māori Navigation

The Māori people relied on the Moon and the lunar calendar, known as the Maramataka, to navigate the vast Pacific Ocean and make decisions about daily life, agriculture, and fishing. The Moon played a crucial role in determining the passage of time, understanding the changing seasons, and predicting the ocean's behaviour. 

Māori navigators were keen observers of the Moon's phases, recognising their importance in measuring time and determining favourable conditions for sailing. Each phase had a specific name and was associated with particular weather patterns, ocean conditions, and activities. By understanding the Moon's phases, navigators could plan their journeys around the most suitable times for travel.

For example, the first few days after the new Moon were often considered favourable for sailing, as the seas were typically calmer and the weather more stable. The full Moon, on the other hand, could bring stronger winds and rougher seas, making it less favourable for voyages. Additionally, certain phases were believed to be more auspicious for fishing or planting crops, further influencing the timing of sea journeys.

Tidal Patterns and Māori Navigation:

The Māori people's understanding of the Moon's influence on tides was essential for successful navigation, particularly in coastal areas and around islands. Māori navigators were aware that the gravitational pull of the Moon caused the tides to rise and fall, creating predictable tidal patterns. By observing the Moon's phase and position, they could anticipate tidal changes and use this knowledge to their advantage.

Knowledge of tidal patterns allowed Māori navigators to plan their journeys around high or low tides, ensuring safe passage through shallow waters, reef systems, or narrow channels. Additionally, they could time their departures and arrivals to take advantage of favorable tidal currents, making their journeys more efficient and reducing the risk of grounding or becoming stranded.

Lunar Calendar for Seasonal Navigation:

The Maramataka, or Māori lunar calendar, played a vital role in seasonal navigation. By observing the Moon's position and phase in relation to specific stars and constellations, Māori navigators could estimate the time of year and plan their journeys accordingly. The lunar calendar provided information about the changing seasons, which influenced weather patterns, ocean conditions, and the availability of resources such as food and water.

For instance, the appearance of the Matariki (the Pleiades) constellation just before dawn marked the beginning of the Māori New Year and indicated the onset of winter. This period was generally considered unsuitable for long voyages due to colder temperatures, rougher seas, and more unpredictable weather. Instead, Māori communities would focus on land-based activities such as planting and harvesting crops or preserving food for the winter months. Conversely, the warmer summer months, with more stable weather conditions and calmer seas, were better suited for longer ocean journeys and exploration.

By understanding the relationship between the lunar calendar and the seasons, Māori navigators could make informed decisions about when to embark on long journeys, ensuring the safety and well-being of their communities.

The Māori Star Lore: Tautoru (Orion's Belt)

Tautoru, also known as Orion's Belt, is a significant constellation in Māori star lore and celestial navigation. This group of three closely aligned stars is part of the larger Orion constellation, which is easily visible in the night sky. Tautoru holds great importance in Māori mythology, culture, and everyday life.

Mythology and Symbolism:

Tautoru is believed to represent a whakapapa, or genealogy, of three brothers – Tautoru, Tupu-ā-rangi, and Urutengangana. According to Māori mythology, these celestial beings descended from the sky to provide guidance and wisdom to the people. The stars' close alignment symbolises the close bond shared between the brothers, and their position in the night sky serves as a reminder of the importance of family and ancestral connections. Tautoru is also associated with the legend of Tāwhaki, a mythical hero who climbed to the heavens to obtain sacred knowledge and avenge his father's death. Tāwhaki used the stars of Tautoru to guide him on his journey, highlighting the constellation's role in providing guidance and direction.

Everyday Life and Celestial Navigation:

In addition to its mythological significance, Tautoru played a crucial role in celestial navigation for the Māori. The constellation's easily recognizable pattern and consistent position in the sky made it an essential reference point for navigators traversing the vast Pacific Ocean. Tautoru was particularly useful for determining the direction of east and west. By observing the stars' position relative to the horizon, navigators could maintain a steady course on their journeys. Additionally, Tautoru was used to estimate the time of night based on its position in the sky, helping the Māori to measure the passage of time during their voyages.

Seasonal and Agricultural Significance:

The appearance of Tautoru in the night sky also served as a marker for the changing seasons. Its position in relation to other stars, such as Matariki (the Pleiades) and Atutahi (Canopus), indicated the arrival of different seasons, which in turn informed Māori agricultural and fishing practices. The reappearance of Tautoru in the pre-dawn sky, for example, signified the beginning of the harvest season.

The Māori Star Lore: Atutahi (Canopus) - The Guiding Star in Māori Astronomy

Atutahi, also known as Canopus, is the second-brightest star in the night sky and holds great significance in Māori astronomy. As a prominent celestial body, Atutahi has played an essential role in navigation, seasonal observations, and cultural practices for the Māori people of Aotearoa (New Zealand). The importance of Atutahi is evident in the various myths and legends associated with this star, as well as its practical applications in daily life.

Mythology and Symbolism:

In Māori mythology, Atutahi is often associated with Tāne, the god of forests and birds, who is also credited with creating the stars. One story tells of Tāne's journey to the heavens to gather stars for the night sky. Among the stars he collected, Atutahi was considered the most precious, and Tāne placed it in a prominent position to be admired and revered. This myth highlights the significance of Atutahi as a symbol of beauty, light, and divine creation.

Another legend describes Atutahi as the celestial representation of an ancestral chief named Atutahi-a-Kupe, who was known for his outstanding navigational skills. In this narrative, Atutahi's position in the sky serves as a testament to the chief's abilities, guiding and inspiring future generations of navigators.

Practical Applications:

Atutahi's prominence in the night sky has made it an essential navigational aid for the Māori people, especially for those who traversed the vast Pacific Ocean on their voyages of exploration and settlement. As a bright and easily recognisable star, Atutahi served as a reliable point of reference, helping navigators determine their position and direction while at sea.

Furthermore, the appearance of Atutahi in the pre-dawn sky is associated with the beginning of the kumara (sweet potato) planting season. The Māori people closely observed Atutahi's position in relation to the horizon, using this information to decide when to begin planting their crops. In this way, Atutahi played a vital role in agricultural practices, helping the Māori synchronise their activities with the cycles of the natural world.

Cultural Significance:

Atutahi's importance in Māori culture extends beyond its practical applications, as the star also holds deep spiritual and symbolic meaning. As a celestial representation of the god Tāne or the ancestral chief Atutahi-a-Kupe, Atutahi embodies the values of wisdom, guidance, and resilience. Observing and honouring this star serves to reinforce the cultural identity and sense of belonging among the Māori people, connecting them to their ancestors and the spiritual realm.

Māori Astronomical Myths and Legends:

The cultural significance of stars in Māori society is a reflection of the deep connection the Māori people had with their environment and the natural world. The heavens served as a source of inspiration, guidance, and spiritual connection, shaping their understanding of the cosmos and their place within it. The stars were not just practical tools for navigation but powerful symbols and reminders of the values, beliefs, and stories that defined Māori culture. This enduring connection to the stars continues to shape the identity and traditions of the Māori people today.

Cultural Significance of Stars in Maori Society

The stars held deep cultural significance for the Māori people of New Zealand, extending far beyond their practical use in navigation. The celestial bodies were intricately woven into the fabric of Māori society, featuring in legends, spirituality, and daily life. In this expanded examination of the cultural significance of stars in Māori society, we will explore the key themes that defined their relationship with the heavens and how this connection enriched their culture and worldview. 

Connection to Atua and Tipua

The Māori people believed that the stars, constellations, and celestial phenomena were intimately connected to the atua (gods) and tipua (ancestral beings). Many celestial bodies were associated with specific deities or ancestors, and their movements in the night sky were seen as a reflection of the actions and influence of these divine figures. For example, Matariki, the cluster of stars known as the Pleiades, was associated with the god Tāwhirimātea, the deity of weather and storms. The appearance of Matariki in the pre-dawn sky signalled the beginning of the Māori New Year, and its significance was both spiritual and practical, as it indicated the time for planting and harvesting crops.

Oral Traditions and Storytelling

Māori culture has a strong oral tradition, with stories, legends, and histories passed down through generations. The stars featured prominently in many of these tales, often as symbols or allegorical figures that conveyed important cultural values and lessons. For example, the story of Tāne Mahuta, the god of forests and birds, tells of his journey to the heavens to obtain the three baskets of knowledge. In this legend, the stars represent the knowledge he brought back to the people, and the constellations serve as a reminder of the importance of wisdom and learning in Māori society.

Customs and Rituals

The stars played an essential role in the customs and rituals of the Māori people, who incorporated their astronomical knowledge into various ceremonies and observances. The appearance or position of specific celestial bodies was used to determine the appropriate timing for significant events, such as planting and harvesting, fishing, and other communal activities. Matariki, for example, was not only significant for its connection to Tāwhirimātea but also marked a time for remembrance and renewal. The rising of Matariki in the pre-dawn sky was an occasion for communities to gather, remember those who had passed away, and celebrate the promise of a new year.

Local Variation and Tribal Interpretations

The Māori people's connection to the stars was not uniform across all iwi (tribes). Each tribe often had its own unique interpretation of the night sky and its celestial bodies. These local variations were based on the specific geography, climate, and cultural practices of each region, which in turn influenced the way the stars were observed and understood. These regional differences highlight the richness and diversity of Māori astronomical knowledge and demonstrate how the night sky served as a canvas upon which each iwi could express their distinct identity and worldview.

The Creation of the Milky Way (Te Ikaroa): A Māori Tale of Cosmic Origins

Te Ikaroa, the Māori name for the Milky Way, is a significant feature in the night sky, with its myriad stars forming a luminous band that stretches across the heavens. Māori mythology offers a captivating explanation for the creation of this celestial phenomenon, weaving together the cultural values and beliefs of the Māori people with their deep connection to the cosmos.

The Tale of Māui and the Creation of Te Ikaroa:

The story of the creation of Te Ikaroa involves Māui, a demigod who is a central figure in Māori mythology. Māui is known for his extraordinary feats and adventures, which include slowing the sun's journey across the sky, discovering the secret of fire, and fishing up the North Island of Aotearoa (New Zealand) with his magical fishhook. According to the legend, Māui used the jawbone of his ancestor, Murirangawhenua, as a fishhook to catch the great fish that would become the North Island. After successfully fishing up the island, Māui decided to cast the jawbone into the sky. As it soared through the heavens, the jawbone transformed into a luminous band of stars, creating the Milky Way, or Te Ikaroa.

Symbolism and Significance:

The tale of the creation of Te Ikaroa serves multiple purposes in Māori culture. Firstly, it connects the celestial realm with the terrestrial world, illustrating the intertwined nature of the cosmos and the Earth. The story demonstrates the Māori belief in the interconnectedness of all things, both earthly and celestial, and emphasizes the importance of understanding and respecting these connections. Secondly, the story of Te Ikaroa reinforces the significance of Māui as a cultural hero and a symbol of perseverance, ingenuity, and bravery. By casting the jawbone into the sky, Māui not only creates a celestial phenomenon but also leaves a permanent reminder of his great deeds and the importance of ancestry. The jawbone, a symbol of strength and wisdom, becomes a celestial object that serves as a source of guidance and inspiration for the Māori people.

Lastly, the story provides a mythological explanation for the origins of the Milky Way, showcasing the Māori people's reverence for the night sky and their keen observations of celestial phenomena. By attributing the creation of Te Ikaroa to the actions of Māui, the Māori demonstrate their appreciation for the beauty and wonder of the cosmos, as well as their deep connection to the celestial realm.

The Story of Rona and The Moon

The story of Rona and the Moon is a captivating Māori myth that offers a unique insight into the indigenous people's beliefs and their connection to celestial bodies. This tale, which explains the appearance of the Moon and its influence on human lives and the environment, weaves together elements of culture, mythology, and the natural world, highlighting the intricate relationship between the Māori people and the cosmos.

According to the legend, Rona was a woman who lived in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and was responsible for fetching water for her family. One night, as she went to collect water from a nearby stream, the Moon was obscured by clouds, plunging the landscape into darkness. Unable to see where she was going, Rona tripped over a tree root and fell, spilling the water she had collected.

In her frustration, Rona cursed the Moon for causing her misfortune. Hearing her insults, the Moon became enraged and descended from the sky to seize Rona. Desperate to escape the Moon's grasp, Rona clung to a nearby tree. However, the tree was also pulled into the sky by the Moon's powerful grip, and both Rona and the tree became forever trapped on the lunar surface.

Symbolism and Significance:

The story of Rona and the Moon serves multiple purposes in Māori culture. Firstly, it provides a mythological explanation for the dark patches on the Moon's surface, which are said to be the silhouettes of Rona and the tree she clung to. This narrative showcases the Māori people's keen observations of celestial phenomena and their desire to understand the natural world around them.

Secondly, the story emphasises the Māori belief in the interconnectedness of all things, including celestial bodies, the environment, and human lives. Rona's encounter with the Moon demonstrates the impact that celestial events can have on earthly experiences and highlights the importance of respecting and acknowledging these connections.

Lastly, the tale of Rona and the Moon serves as a cautionary story, warning against angering or disrespecting the celestial bodies that govern the natural world. In Māori cosmology, celestial bodies are often associated with deities or ancestral spirits, and showing disrespect towards them can have dire consequences. Rona's fate serves as a reminder to maintain a respectful attitude towards the celestial realm and the forces that shape our lives.

The Legend of Matariki

The legend of Matariki is a cherished Māori myth that centres around a group of stars known as Matariki, or the Pleiades. This captivating story, which celebrates the beginning of the Māori New Year, weaves together elements of culture, mythology, and the natural world, illuminating the significance of the Matariki constellation in Māori cosmology.

In Māori mythology, Matariki is a cluster of seven sister stars that hold a special place in the night sky. These sisters are the daughters of the sky father, Ranginui, and the earth mother, Papatūānuku. Their names are Tupu-ā-Nuku, Tupu-ā-Rangi, Waitī, Waitā, Waipuna-ā-Rangi, and Ururangi. Each sister has a unique role and responsibility, representing different aspects of the natural world and Māori life.

One day, the sisters decided to descend from the heavens to visit their mother, Papatūānuku, who dwelled on Earth. They wanted to comfort her and help her heal from the separation she experienced when Ranginui, the sky father, was pushed away from her by their children. The sisters gathered around their mother and embraced her, sharing their love and warmth. After their visit, the sisters returned to the sky, where they continue to shine brightly as the Matariki constellation. Every year, when Matariki rises on the eastern horizon just before dawn, the Māori people know that their New Year has arrived. The appearance of Matariki signals a time of renewal, reflection, and celebration, as the Māori people remember their ancestors, share stories, and prepare for the year ahead.

Symbolism and Significance:

The legend of Matariki highlights the importance of family, unity, and the interconnectedness of all things in Māori culture. The tale of the starry sisters serves as a reminder of the deep connection between the celestial realm and the natural world, as well as the cultural values and traditions that inform the Māori worldview. Furthermore, the story of Matariki emphasises the cyclical nature of life and the passage of time. The annual appearance of the Matariki constellation marks the beginning of a new cycle and a time of renewal, both for the land and the people. This tale reminds us of the importance of honouring the past, cherishing the present, and looking forward to the future.

The legend of Matariki is a captivating Māori tale that celebrates the beginning of the Māori New Year and the significance of the Matariki constellation in their cosmology. Through this narrative, we can appreciate the intricate relationship between the Māori people and the cosmos, as well as the cultural values and traditions that inform their worldview.