Wairarapa: Kiwis' own great stone icon

By Paul Rush

Paul Rush visits a site where Maori legend and ancient architecture collide to remind us of our shared heritage.
Stonehenge-Aotearoa is built on a similar scale to Stonehenge in England.
Stonehenge-Aotearoa is built on a similar scale to Stonehenge in England.

Looking up at a cloudless Wairarapa sky just before dawn, I'm delighted to see that it's peppered with needle-sharp stars.

One cluster stands out. It is Matariki (the Pleiades) in the constellation of Taurus. I can make out seven bright stars, the "seven sisters", named for the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione in Greek mythology. They're an eye-watering 400 light years away.

Maori tohunga had special knowledge of the stars and understood that the nga whetu (eternal shining ones) followed a seasonal cycle like the Earth itself.

They knew that the rising and setting of the stars marked the progression of seasons, and certain stars were said to bring seasonal foods.

They looked for the rising of Matariki just before sunrise somewhere between late May and late-June. This marked the beginning of the Maori New Year (Te Tau Hou), a time of light, life, wellbeing and good harvests. The New Year celebration is enjoying a revival in New Zealand.

I'm looking forward to Matariki, which starts on June 28 this year. An astonishing variety of events will be held throughout the country, which the New Zealand Maori Tourism Council will promote in brochures, advertising and an online national events calendar.

Concerts and art festivals in the main centres will present the best of Maori and Pacific Island talent. Kapa haka performances, star gazing, films, kite making, gourmet feasts, talks and workshops will be popular features. Many towns will combine Matariki celebrations with a mid-winter carnival.

"Matariki is an important festival that reflects our heritage," Stonehenge director Richard Hall tells me.

"The celebrations are mainly kaupapa Maori driven but, as Pakeha realise the logic of ancestral reliance on the Pleiades as calendars and watches, interest in the festival is growing rapidly.

"Our visitors love discovering the link between Stonehenge, Matariki and Maori culture. The whole festival is becoming more inclusive and we will arrange special presentations for school children and the public around June 28."

Stonehenge-Aotearoa is a practical open-sky observatory built on a similar scale to the famous Stonehenge in England.

It's a modern interpretation that incorporates ancient Egyptian, Celtic, Aztec and Polynesian astronomy including Maori star lore based on Matariki.

It was built in prefabricated carbon fibre concrete by 150 volunteers under the auspices of the Phoenix Astronomical Society.

Richard tells me, "The henge is not just the biggest garden ornament built in New Zealand, its purpose is strictly scientific - to make astronomy accessible to everyone."

Walking out into the centre of the stone circle is a strangely unreal experience. I feel an uncanny sense that I'm intruding on the sacred ground of an ancient civilisation.

The sheer physicality of the megaliths is overwhelming. The sculptural form and spiritual presence of the structure, representing 4000 years of mystery, moves me more than I expected.

The structure has 24 upright pillars connected by lintels, forming a 30m diameter circle. Six heel stones stand outside the circle to show the position of the sun at the summer and winter solstices and the equinoxes (when day and night are equal), Richard explains.

Near the centre of the henge stands an obelisk, which casts shadows along a tiled area called an analemma. This shows how the sun's position changes through the year relative to the background stars.

An elongated figure of eight is laid into the tiles to trace the path of the sun and denotes its position at the same time each day.

Maori have a natural aptitude for turning facts into entertaining legends that are full of fascinating characters and wondrous deeds.

In the oral genealogies, the stars became people of the sky, offspring of Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatuanuku, the earth mother. Legend tells us it was the separation of these first two parents that formed the Wharekura - the house of learning in which we all live.

Te Ra, the rising sun, passes over Stonehenge-Aotearoa's Tane stone at the equinox and then rises over his wife, the Hine-Raumati stone, in the southeast on a midsummer's day, long after the beautiful face of the goddess Matariki has passed from the sky.

As the year progresses through the equinoxes and solstices, the night sky continues to revolve around the south celestial pole.

The stars will remain steadfastly in their appointed places and the Pleiades will always be there to remind us of our shared heritage.

How to spot Matariki

Around June 28, watch for the star cluster on the northeast horizon near the point where the sun rises. The best time for viewing is half an hour before dawn. Traditionally, Maori New Year is celebrated on the sighting of the next new moon.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Stonehenge-Aotearoa is an hour's drive from Wellington and 10 minutes east of Carterton on Ahiaruhe Rd. There are guided tours on weekends and holidays. Bookings essential.

Further information: See matarikifestival.org.nz.

- NZ Herald

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