The hidden lessons of Matariki and Maramataka: our ancestors knew what was up
With the approaching month of June, we look forward to celebrating Matariki, the beginning of a new year in the Māori lunar calendar. But the concept of maramataka is often misunderstood. Many describe it as the means by which Māori measure time. Maramataka is not just a lunar calendar. It is everything that is living and the connections we have with the world. It is taiao (the world) in action. From the stars and sunlight to the rains, winds, rivers, oceans, and whenua, everything that grows from it and how we as people coexist within a shared universe. It is how Māori comprehend the flow of our world
Like many ancient civilisations, Māori used the stars and heavenly bodies to navigate and explain our world. Pre-European arrival, Māori used their own cycles to create what Westerners would call a calendrical system. More than one system existed. The first included the sun’s differing motion across the horizon from its northern and southern solstice points that differ throughout a year. As the sky changed, Māori used the arrangements and positions of stars and their constellations as indicators for the passage of time and a navigation tool to track our position whilst out at sea. The appearance of particular constellations and stars at night and other biological and environmental markers became indicators of a new season. Lastly, Māori used the moon’s phases and appearance to track periods of time that we now call months. All three concepts form a multifaceted system and way of knowing that we call maramataka.
Maramataka informs Māori of changes in the world. Māori see themselves as part of the earth. Therefore, changes in the cycles of maramataka and the tracking of environmental transformation inform us of changes within ourselves. Many compare the idea of Maramataka to Western mystical concepts such as astrology. More often than not, mātauranga Māori concepts are more akin to concepts in science than concepts with no explanatory power. Some academics suggest that the name of Māori moon nights had esoteric environmental knowledge imbued within them that described the relationship between the moon cycle and gathering activities (fishing and planting). Kuia from their respective iwi speak of the knowledge within Māori pūrākau (mythological traditions) that are handed down through generations. Appropriate knowledge and lessons, such as gardening and fishing practices, are outlined within these stories and iwi narratives.
Following the arrival of Pākeha, maramataka was slowly replaced by Gregorian calendars and European timekeepers. This departure from maramataka mātauranga toward Western concepts and religions also meant a loss of knowledge and tikanga that came along with traditional Māori pūrākau and maramataka. The loss of Māori land contributed to the loss of maramataka knowledge ingrained in our stories. This included all knowledge associated with the food resources of the land. Only now are we beginning to understand how much we have lost.
Matariki, and the philosophy built around it, operates in the territory of spirituality rather than religion. We can attribute the loss of maramataka concepts to the introduction of religion. Family dynamics shifted from extended whānau collections to the nuclear family concept. Western religious gender roles demoted Māori women from their positions, and Christian narratives overtook pūrākau in explaining the creation of our universe.
The mashing of maramataka with Western astrology is uncomfortable, but unsurprising. It denotes a continuous effort to erase pre-European concepts that do not adhere to Western perspectives. The holistic nature within maramataka exists due to Māori identifying ourselves as part of a shared universe. The earth is one canoe which we are all in with no exception. Changing environments, such as blooming flowers and the lunar cycle, provide introspection and are used as a reference point by which we may track signs of a shifting taiao and hāpori.
Māori continue to uncover a deeper understanding of ancient wisdom and narratives that have been omitted and marginalised from written literature and oral history during the process of colonisation. Māori concepts and knowledge are slowly resurfacing as a new generation gains an affinity for a culture stolen from them. These tauira continue to uncover lost knowledge. With this knowledge resurfacing, Māori concepts are becoming more socially acceptable in the public and political spheres despite mild opposition. Current discourse signals an evolving perception toward Māori culture and customs. April 7th marked legislation setting up Matariki as a public holiday. National MP Simon O’Connor commented that the public holiday should have a more “neutral name”, suggesting Messier 45 as a better option. The gall to dismiss the annual celebration of New Zealand’s indigenous people and rename it after a French astronomer displays the out of touch and ignorant behaviour of those that do not understand or value Māori concepts and culture. National leader Christopher Luxon expressed that he didn’t want another public holiday, preferring to have us work. As Māori, we will listen to the world around us, and if it tells us to rest, we will rest.
Recently, there has been a renewed interest in the traditional knowledge of Māori, predominantly concerning the environment. This interest has stemmed from an ongoing climate crisis and concerns about the sustainability of the earth’s natural resources. Western environmentalism becomes interested in Māori horticultural and environmental knowledge that has been used for 1000 years.
Disregarding the stress of anti-Māori rhetoric and environmental damage, we try to look towards the coming month. As we continue to uncover pre-colonial stories, our understanding of taiao grows. Matariki is a time to celebrate the past and future. Celebrate your loved ones, be mindful, be present, and reflect. Hoki whakamuri kia anga whakamua. Look to the past in order to forge our future.