Māori New Year usually starts in June, when the Pleiades cluster of stars appear in the sky – known in New Zealand’s indigenous language as Matariki (‘eyes of God’). This spectacular natural event is marked by an annual festival where people show respect for the land and their ancestors. Woven into this tradition is the Māori creation story itself, depicting a tale of familial betrayal on a heavenly scale.
The Māori creation story begins with the separation of the the sky father (Ranginui) and the earth mother (Papatūānuku). The couple lived in a tightly held embrace until their children, who were tired of living in the darkness, decided to tear them apart – thus bringing light and brightness into the world. Tāne Mahuta, the god of the forests, pushed up against the sky until he was ripped away from the earth, and then planted some poles to keep his parents in place.
All of Ranginui and Papatūānuku’s children seemed to be in agreement that this was the best thing to do – except for Tāwhirimātea, the god of wind and storms, who was not at all pleased with his brothers’ collective decision.
There are many stories around Tāwhirimātea’s anger towards the separation of his parents and his retaliation against his brothers.
In the Matariki origin legend, Tāwhirimātea became so enraged by the cruel separation of his parents that he tore out his eyes and threw them across the sky. As these made their way into the heavens, they positioned themselves to make the twinkling cluster that appears during the New Zealand winter months (June-July). His eyes have looked down on us ever since.
The god of wind and storms is also said to have ascended to his father so that they could plot out their vengeance. Tāwhirimātea drew upon all his forces in order to retaliate against his siblings. First, he sent his children (the four winds) in different directions (north, south, east and west); then he created a number of clouds and released a number of storms that would wreak havoc in all his brothers’ terrains.
He then attacked Tāne Mahuta by breaking his forest’s trees; assailed Tangaroa (the god of the sea) by causing the waves to grow bigger and more violent; and turned against the crops guarded by Rongomātāne (who took care of cultivated food like kumara/sweet potato) and Haumia-tikitiki (god of uncultivated food and fern root).
The only brother Tāwhirimātea couldn’t beat was Tūmatauenga, god of war and humans, who stood his ground and deflected all attacks with special incantations. Given that neither brother can win against each other, Tāwhirimātea continues to target Tūmatauenga’s reign with hurricanes and storms – essentially trying to destroy human life on land and sea.
For some Maori tribes (iwi), Matariki did not stem out of Tāwhirimātea’s ire. Rather, the seven stars are said to be a mother (Matariki) and her six daughters: Tupu-ā-nuku, Tupu-ā-rangi, Waipunarangi, Waitī, Waitā and Ururangi. In this tale, Matariki and her tamariki (children) journey across the sky every year to visit their grandmother Papatūānuku (the aforementioned earth mother), who passes on her knowledge and wisdom so that each different star can make a positive contribution to the environment they live in.
Tupu-ā-nuku, the eldest, spends her time with Papatūānuku, learning how to tend to plants, so that these can grow big enough to supply us with food, medicine and other essentials.
The grandmother usually bonds with Tupu-ā-rangi over traditional waiata (songs). The star loves to sing and has a beautiful voice known to revitalise the forests and bring joy to the world.
Waipunarangi bonds with Papatūānuku by accompanying her to the oceans, lakes and rivers. The grandmother teaches this star everything she needs to know about water as an essential life force: from the rainfall that allows the crops to grow to the collection of drinking water for people and animals.
The twins Waitī and Waitā are taught how to take care of the smallest of species, like insects and bugs. Like the two sisters, these creatures rely on their collective ability to get things done – think of an ant colony that needs to work together to build the intricate tunnels that guide them home, for instance.
Ururangi might be the last sister on the list, but she’s always the first to rush towards the grandmother, sit on her lap and urge her to tell them one of her many stories. This star’s loving demeanor and unwavering enthusiasm motivates Papatūānuku to brace for the coldness of winter as she imparts her wisdom onto her visiting grandchildren.
In the midst of it all we have mother Matariki, who guides and supports her children in all that they do. She is ultimately there to watch over her tamariki and ensure they use their grandmother’s teachings to become the best they can be.