Paul Moon: Matariki's cultural somersault

As we enter the season, it's important to be clear about one thing - the annual celebration of Matariki, vigorously promoted as "the traditional Maori New Year", in its current format has very little that is traditional about it.

Not yet anyway. In another few decades, it might become as much a permanent fixture in the inventory of significant New Zealand dates as other commemorations, with the patina of tradition starting to layer itself on top. The present form and portrayal of Matariki, though, is a sparklingly modern concoction.

This is not to say it is a bad thing, but just that like all events that claim to have an historical basis, some clarity about its origins might be helpful. The meaning of the term is open to a variety of interpretations. Most people agree that the word matariki is the Maori name for the star cluster known as the Pleiades. Yet, its etymology points to other connotations as well.

As a compound word, it can be split into mata (meaning eyes) and either riki (small) or ariki (chiefly). In both cases, these metaphorical references are to the astronomical apparition. So far so good.

However, as the Tuhoe tohunga Hohepa Kereopa pointed out, there are other ways of interpreting matariki.

He proposed that mata could be used as a reference to face (not eyes), giving the term the meaning of "the face of a chiefly person".

Allied to this was still another possible interpretation which he offered: the mata part of the word could have been a mispronunciation of mate (death), thus making mate ariki a term applying to the death of chiefly people or esteemed elders.

This second suggestion was more than just an exercise in semantics. Kereopa recalled a list of eminent Maori who happened to have died around June (when matariki appears), and observed that as this was the middle of winter the elderly were more susceptible to illness and death.

For some Ngapuhi hapu, matariki was a fearful time when food was restricted to the absolute minimum, fish was avoided, and when warfare temporarily ceased. It was the opposite of the festivity that is now paraded under the name, and as with Tuhoe, there were strong connotations of death associated with the appearance of the Pleiades.

The connection between matariki and the cycle of planting crops - another part of the voguish beliefs underlying the modern celebration - is tenuous and also likely to be a colonial-era embellishment.

Traditional Maori communities had far more reliable and practical means of determining planting times, and did not need a three-month advance warning of when to prepare for kumara sowing. Orongonui - the full moon - was a preferred sign for planting most crops in spring, apart from kumara, which would be planted at mawharu, 12 days later.

In a similar vein, the recent suggestion that the clarity of the first appearance of the matariki cluster traditionally heralded whether or not the coming year's crop would be productive has little basis in oral history. Such a fickle method of predicting crop yields would not have been maintained because of its unreliability.

To suggest otherwise undermines the great pragmatism that was at the heart of traditional Maori communities. It is the sort of romanticised adornment that lacks a reliable provenance, and that consequently does little to clarify our understanding of pre-European New Zealand.

Matariki has not just been subject to a dose of overenthusiastic reconstruction, though. In its modern incarnation, it has undergone a cultural somersault. What was once considered tapu, and was treated with a mixture of fear and awe, is now seen by backers as a reason to celebrate and, trumpeted by one excited observer, as "emblematic of the rebirth of Maori identity and the dawning of a new age" - an age in which neither cultural authenticity nor rhetorical restraint will evidently form a significant part.

In the well-meaning effort to make Matariki mean all things to all people, it could end up meaning nothing. Hopefully Matariki will endure, if for no other reason than because it is an instructive part of our heritage, and is something unique to our country. But without greater attention to issues of historical and cultural accuracy, it could become yet another state-sponsored Trojan Horse for the Maori renaissance that never quite got through the gates.

* Dr Paul Moon is Professor of History at AUT University and author of A Tohunga's Natural World: Plants, Gardening and Food.

- NZ Herald

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