• Tahuhu Korero

What is Matariki and Why Should I Care?

Ushering in the new year has always been a time for celebration and festivities across many different countries around the world. From the Lunar New Year in Asia, to the Times Square Ball Drop in New York, the new year is symbolic with fresh starts and new opportunities. Matariki is the equivalent new year celebration for New Zealand Maori, and the cultural and historical significance of this event is one that still has ongoing relevance for today’s society.

What is Matariki?

Matariki is the Maori name for the cluster of seven stars known as the Pleiades, which rises in mid-winter [1]. The name Matariki is derived from the phrase Ngā mata o te ariki o Tāwhirimātea which means “the eyes of the god Tāwhirimātea” [2]. There are two interpretations of myths associated with Matariki. One legend is that the god of the winds, Tāwhirimātea, tore his eyes out and threw them into the skies when Ranginui (the sky father) and Papatūānuku (the earth mother) were separated by their children [3]. The second is that Matariki is a mother star with six daughters, and the star cluster is often referred to as the Seven Sisters.

Matariki is also the name of the celebrations associated with the rising of the stars. It is considered to mark the beginning of a new year for Maori, although different tribes celebrate Matariki at different times. Some celebrate the new year when the stars rise, while others observe it at the first new moon following the rising of Matariki.

Traditionally, Matariki was used for agricultural purposes. The cluster appears around the shortest day of the year and was used to estimate the success of the harvest crop in the next season [4]. The stars were also used as a signal for when to gather and plant crops. Matariki would lose visibility from April and reappear around May/June. If the stars were clear and bright, it signalled a favourable and productive season [5]. Crops would be planted in early September. However, if the stars were hazy and appeared closer together, it forecasted a cold winter and planting would be postponed until October.

Voyaging waka would also use Matariki to guide them across the Pacific [6]. Tohunga Kokorangi (expert Maori astronomers) would use the skies and other atmospheric indicators such as wind speeds to guide them when across the oceans in their wakas [7]. Clusters like Matariki and constellations like the Southern Cross were crucial in helping the Maori navigate in an era before technological advancements.


New year festivities would be celebrated after the harvesting of crops, to pay their respects to the Earth that had provided the harvest. Māori would celebrate the harvest season when the storehouses were full, and these celebrations coincided with the reappearance of Matariki [8]. It provided an opportunity for the whole whanau (family) to gather and celebrate the Earth. Historically, this social event included music, songs, dancing, and food, and would last for up to three days [9]. Tribes would also make offerings to the gods in order to wish for good crops for next year.

The association of the festival with the stars provided a chance for families to remember their whakapapa (genealogy) and farewell the ancestors that had passed away, as well as to celebrate the life and honour the dead [10]. Some said that the stars housed the souls of those departed.

Modern Relevance

Matariki celebrations were popular before European settlement, but gradually dwindled with one of the last traditional festivals recorded in the1940s. However, celebrations like Matariki have received a greater focus as part of the revival of Maori culture in modern times [11]. In 2001, the Maori Language Commission highlighted Matariki as a key focus for ‘Maori language regeneration’, leading to a rise of various institutions celebrating the event [12]. Te Rangi Huata believes the growing popularity of Matariki is because the event celebrates Maori culture and serves to bring together all of New Zealand [13].

Maori customs are an integral part of New Zealand’s identity, and observing celebrations like Matariki help preserve and pay respect to our rich cultural history. As New Zealanders, it is important to understand and be familiar with the historical links with our homeland. With Matariki for 2019 just around the corner, I hope that the event has gained a great significance and that you understand the history behind this cultural celebration a little better.


Cecilia Liu is in her fourth year of a law and arts degree, when she is not trying to cram revise for her exams, she can be found trying out all the fried chicken places around campus. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.


[1] Paul Meredith, ‘Matariki - Maori New Year,’ Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed 26 June 2019 from: https://teara.govt.nz/en/matariki-maori-new-year/

[2] Naomi Arnold, ‘The Inheritance’, New Zealand Geographic, accessed 26 June 2019 from https://www.nzgeo.com/stories/the-inheritance/

[3] Paul Meredith, ‘Matariki - Maori New Year’.

[4] The Kiwi Families Team, ‘Matariki the Maori New Year - 2019,’ Kiwi Families, accessed 26 June 2019 from: https://www.kiwifamilies.co.nz/articles/matariki-maori-new-year/

[5] The Kiwi Families Team, ‘Matariki the Maori New Year - 2019’.

[6] Te Papa, ‘Matariki Star Facts’, Te Papa Tongarewa, accessed 26 June 2019 from https://www.tepapa.govt.nz/discover-collections/read-watch-play/maori/matariki-maori-new-year/whare-tapere/matariki-star-facts

[7] Te Papa, ‘Matariki Star Facts’.

[8] The Kiwi Families Team, ‘Matariki the Maori New Year - 2019’.

[9] Paul Meredith, ‘Matariki - Maori New Year’.

[10] Paul Meredith, ‘Matariki - Maori New Year’.

[11] Paul Meredith, ‘Matariki - Maori New Year’.

[12] ‘Matariki,’ Wikipedia, accessed 26 June 2019 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matariki

[13] Paul Meredith, ‘Matariki - Maori New Year’.

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