Skip main navigation

By the Stars: Matariki

Read this introduction to Matariki, the Māori New Year, and the symbolism behind each star in the constellation.
An image of the Matariki star cluster. all of the stars are labelled with their te reo Māori names
© Robert Gendler

What is Matariki?

Matariki signals the Māori New Year. It is a time of renewal and celebration in New Zealand that begins with the rising of the Matariki star cluster. The two meanings of Matariki both refer to stars: mata ariki (eyes of god) and mata riki (little eyes).

“Matariki, Hakiwai says, created the framework of life in te ao Maori: “It’s why we do things, our relationship and whakapapa [genealogical connections] to the taiao [environment], and to everything in and around us”.”
Arapata Hakiwai, Māori Co-leader, Te Papa Tongarewa

Watch this video to learn what each main star in the Matariki cluster symbolises to the Ngāti Toa iwi.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Note: some iwi recognise seven whetū (stars) in Matariki, others nine and the symbolism of these whetū varies. Still others mark their new year with different celestial markers more visible in their rohe (region).

Since we began celebrating Matariki at Te Papa we have been guided by the many iwi that have participated in our iwi-in-residence programme and in this way, kōrero (discussion) has evolved over that time to acknowledge the iwi in residence while also acknowledging the rohe in which Te Papa is situated, Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington). Matariki is visible in our rohe. As such, we acknowledge nine stars of Matariki. You can see between these two videos some of the variations in the Matariki pūrākau (mythology) between iwi.

The two additional stars we recognise are tapu (sacred) and embody aspects of the spiritual world, rather than the physical; Pōhutukawa (the star associated with those that have passed on) and Hiwa-i-te-rangi (the star associated with granting our wishes, and realising our aspirations for the coming year).

When is Matariki?

Matariki is a star cluster which appears in the night sky during mid-winter. According to the maramataka (Māori lunar calendar), the reappearance of Matariki brings the old lunar year to a close and marks the beginning of the new year. Hence, Matariki is associated with the Māori New Year.

Traditionally, festivities were conducted to celebrate Matariki. They followed the harvesting of crops when the pātaka kai (food storehouses) were full, freeing up time for family and leisure. These festivities included the lighting of ritual fires, the making of offerings, and celebrations of various kinds to farewell the dead, to honour ancestors, and to celebrate life.

Tohunga (experts) looked to the Matariki star cluster to find out how abundant the upcoming year’s harvest would be. Bright, clear stars promised a warm and successful season. Hazy stars, however, warned of cold weather and poor crops.

A National Holiday

2022 marks the launch of Matariki as a new public holiday for Aotearoa. It is our first public holiday celebrating mātauranga Māori (indigenous knowledge). Te Papa had the honour of hosting this landmark occasion, and has launched a temporary Matariki exhibition free to the public in its honour. The concepts behind this exhibition are to mark Matariki by reflecting on moments or people that have passed, celebrating the present and looking ahead to the future.

The Matariki exhibition at Te Papa. Three squared arches in a row. In the closest is large lightbulbs symbolising the stars in the cluster. In the second, coloured string arches over, rainbow-like, at the end are hundreds of notes left by visitors.A look into the temporary Matariki exhibition at Te Papa Tongarewa, 2022. Te Papa. All rights Reserved The Matariki exhibition at Te Papa. A wall says Mānawatia a Matariki in floating white letters, hundreds of strands ov coloured string arc over like a rainbow. Beyond is a small table and chairs and a wall full of white scraps of paper- pledges for the new year from visitors.A look into the temporary Matariki exhibition at Te Papa Tongarewa, 2022. Te Papa. All rights Reserved

Further Reading

See more of Te Papa Tongarewa’s Matariki resources
A more in-depth explanation from expert Dr Rangi Matamua on Matariki
Short Matariki Calendar Explanation from expert Dr Rangi Matamua on his development of a Matariki calendar based on traditional knowledge, including some carried by his own ancestors
The official Matariki public holiday site

© Te Papa. All rights Reserved
This article is from the free online

New Zealand History, Culture and Conflict: A Museum Perspective

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now