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What is Matariki – The Maori New Year

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The Maori New Year in New Zealand.

Matariki is the Maori name given to the star cluster known as the Pleiades. For many iwis (tribes), seeing the star cluster rise before dawn around late-May early-June is the mark of a New Year.

The event is celebrated across New Zealand in the form of festivals full of food, singing and dancing. You are also likely to see markets, museum exhibitions and planetarium events dedicated to the Maori New Year. Matariki is also a time to remember those who passed during the past year, seen with positivity in the life and death cycle.

To introduce you to the New Zealand event, we have put together this quick guide explaining when Matariki is, what are the traditions and legends surrounding the star cluster and the time of year, how to see Matariki, and where to find information on finding Matariki events around New Zealand.

5 Quick facts about Matariki

  • At 440 light-years away, Matariki is one of the closest star clusters to Earth
  • Matariki was one of the star clusters used by the early Maori settlers to navigate the Pacific Ocean on the first voyages to New Zealand
  • There are about 500 stars in the Matariki star cluster but only six are visible from the naked eye
  • In English, Matariki is called “Pleiades” or the Seven Sisters, the Hawaiian name is “Makali‘i” or eyes of royalty, and in Japan, it is “Subaru” meaning gathered together
  • Matariki celebrations were very popular before they were stopped in the 1940s. It was then revived in 2000.

If you like these facts, you might like 10 Things You Did Not Know About the Maori Culture.

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When is Matariki?

The time Matariki is celebrated traditionally varies between iwi in New Zealand. While some iwis celebrate when the star cluster first rises during May/June, others will celebrate at the first full moon or new moon after the rising of Matariki. Some iwi, especially on the West Coast who cannot see Matariki clearly, traditionally celebrate the Maori New Year with the rising of Puanga – also known as Rigel in the Constellation of Orion.

Today, Matariki is more commonly celebrated at the first new moon after the rising of Matariki.

The next Matariki is due to begin on 15-June-2018.

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What does Matariki mean to the Maori people?

Matariki marks the beginning of a New Year, but it also has other significant meanings too.

Traditionally, Matariki is seen as a time to remember those who have died during the past year, but it is seen more like a happy event – a sign of the cycles of life and death. Usually, by this time of the year, crops had been harvested, and seafood and birds had been gathered so the storehouses were full by the time the Matariki celebrations occur. Matariki becomes a celebration with kai (food), singing and dancing. Many Matariki celebrations follow these same customs today, with the addition of flying kites which are meant to represent the fluttering of the stars.

Maori legends of Matariki

Like most natural features seen around New Zealand, Matariki has many different legends behind it. The most common of which is the legend of a mother called Matariki, and her six daughters. Another legend tells the story of how Tawhirimatea, the god of wind, found out that his parents had been separated so tore out his eyes and threw them into the sky. The stars of Matariki are his seven eyes. 

Back in the early days, Matariki was used to predict the next harvest. The brighter the Matariki star cluster seemed, the warmer the growing season would be for a good harvest.

Learn more about the Maori traditions in 5 Fun Facts About the Maori Haka.

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How to see the Matariki Star cluster

From late-May/early-June, look to the northeast horizon just before sunrise. Find the constellation of Orion’s belt (the line of stars that looks like they are going across the waist of a dancing dude).

Trace a line northwards from the three stars of Orion’s Belt and look for a faint sparkle of tiny dots – about the same width as Orion’s Belt is long. That is the Matariki star cluster.

You can also see Matariki during the summer months in the same location but after sunset.

For more stargazing tips, see 5 Stargazing Sites in New Zealand.

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Where to Celebrate Matariki In New Zealand

Matariki is celebrated all over New Zealand in many different ways. The Te Papa Museum in Wellington arguably hosts the biggest celebration with the Matariki Festival with events from storytelling to cultural days, singing and dancing to cooking demonstrations.

There are plenty of festivals found across New Zealand celebrating Matariki, as well as markets, theatre productions, astronomy nights are various planetariums and exhibitions in regional museums.

Take a look at Event Finder to find the nearest Matariki celebration to you. Plus, see our Top New Zealand Events in 2018.

More New Zealand events you should know about!

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