The significance of Matariki Day

Dr Nicholas Herriman 

Dr Nicholas Herriman







The significance of Matariki Day

June 10 marks Matariki Day in New Zealand. The meaning of Matariki Day is derived from stars in our night sky – stars that have stories which resonate across cultures and down through the centuries.

So what is the significance of Matariki Day?

Greek mythology

The star cluster known to modern science as Messier object 45 or M45 was known as the Pleiades to the Ancient Greeks, and it is the Greek story that is generally better known in Australia.

In Greek mythology, these were seven sisters who were pursued by Orion, the hunter. After their death, Zeus immortalised them by placing them in the sky. At the right time of the year you can see poor Orion suspended a short distance from objects of his amorous affection.

Maori tradition: Commemorating the New Year

But it was not only the Greeks who found the M45 star cluster meaningful.

The Maori Language Commission notes that the name for M45 is Matariki, which means ‘Tiny Eyes’ or ‘Eyes of God’: ‘The eyes are thought to watch over the land and its people’.

At this time of the year (May-June), the cluster rises just before dawn in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Thus this season, traditionally for harvesting and planting, is also known as Matariki in honour of the cluster.

It is a time of new beginning and of reflection. Apparently, for different Maori tribes this period marked the New Year. Its appearance in June has been proposed for the day for New Zealand’s New Year.

Across the Pacific

In Hawaii, Messier object 45 is known as Makahiki. Like Matariki, Mahahiki is also associated with the New Year, but it is celebrated at different time.

It is not odd that the name resembles ‘Matariki’. The Maori language of New Zealand and Hawaii’s indigenous language are thought to be closely related.

Minyiburru in the Western Desert

Leaving the Polynesian world, we can see M45 is also deeply significant in Aboriginal Australian cultures.

For various groups in Australia’s Western Desert, the Seven Sisters were superhuman ancestors of the dreaming. In Tonkinson’s classic, The Mardu Aborigines, the author explains that ‘many sites and stretches of territory are associated with the female Dreaming beings such as the Seven Sisters, or Minyiburru’.

The Minyiburru could change their own form into stars and were capable of creating hills and other features in an otherwise flat landscape. These places are sacred as something of these superhuman ancestors was left behind while they were helping to create the world.

The Seven Sisters were chased by another superhuman, a fellow with X-rated intentions. He had a huge penis that dragged along the ground as he travelled, often leaving a trail that can still be seen today in the form of the landscape.

In some Aboriginal cultures he ‘went up’ and formed some of the stars in the constellation the Greeks knew as Orion. Women know stories about some of the erotic exploits associated with the Seven Sisters, especially the youngest of the sisters.

Today indigenous people from various areas, not just the Western Desert, can tell you of the Seven Sisters’ travels from Fremantle to Hindmarsh Island to Cairns. Different groups have different names for their Seven Sisters.

Six stars or seven?

If you have ever wondered what ‘Subaru’ means in Japanese, look at the cluster of stars on the car’s insignia and you might be able to guess! The word itself means ‘unite’. However, there are only six stars on the Suburu logo, not seven, as according to the company’s website, only six are obviously visible in the night sky.

The constellation and the car company are also known in Japanese as Mutsura-Boshi (‘six gathered stars’), a name with romantic connotations, suggesting some parallels with the stories of Orion and the Minyiburru.

The same stars, but many stories

The night sky we all live under resonates in profound but different ways, and the stories that the night sky tells can reveal a great deal about cultures all around the world.

As New Zealanders celebrate Matariki Day today, let us wish them well, and let us take note of the Matariki/Minyibirru/Pleaides/M45 star cluster next time there is a cloudless night!

Dr Nicholas Herriman is a lecturer in anthropology at La Trobe University. You can listen to his podcast 'The Audible Anthropologist' on iTunes U.