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By the Stars: Matariki (part two)

Learn how Aotearoa New Zealand celebrates Matariki, and the creation of a new holiday to mark the occasion.
Hundreds of people gather on a city waterfront. It is dark still and they are dressed warmly.
© Te Papa. All rights Reserved

Seven or nine?

Some iwi only recognise seven whetū (stars) in Matariki, others the nine we saw in the last step. The symbolism of these whetū can also vary.

The two stars that are not recognized by all iwi are the two tapu (sacred) stars that 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 the granting of wishes, and the realising of aspirations for the coming year).

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.


Other iwi mark their new year with different celestial markers more visible in their rohe (region), like the star Puanga. For those iwi, Puanga is given prominence mainly because some iwi struggle to see Matariki clearly from their locality and therefore look to the next important star near Matariki. That star is Puanga.

This is not a rejection of Matariki as many of these iwi will still refer to Matariki and the other names in the constellation in their tribal narratives – however, Puanga is given preference.

Celebrating Matariki

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.

What is a hautapu?

In mid-winter, when Matariki appears on the eastern horizon in the morning, a ceremony takes place. This ceremony is commonly known as whāngai i te hautapu – or hautapu for short. It means to feed the stars with a sacred offering.

The whāngai i te hautapu is split into three main parts.

Te tirohanga | the viewing

When the star cluster is seen on the horizon it is carefully observed in great detail by tohunga. Each of the nine individual stars would be assessed, and mental notes would be made about their brightness, distinctiveness, colour, and distance from the surrounding stars. From these observations, tohunga make predictions about the productivity of the New Year.

A crowd of people gather outside looking at the sky, dressed warmly. It is dark, and in the foreground a fire burns nest to some cooking pots. A man in the centre points to the dark sky. Dr Rangi Matamua pointing towards the sky, Matariki Hautapu Ceremony at Te Papa. Photo by Wiremu Grace, 2021. Te Papa

Taki mōteatea | remembrance

Tohunga would begin a series of karakia to the cluster and the names of those who had died since the last rising of Matariki would be called out. This is a time to remember the previous year and all our loved ones who have passed since the last appearance of Matariki.

Te whāngai i ngā whetū | feeding the stars

Leading up to Matariki, the community select different kai as an offering. This is done by taking items from each of the domains of Tupuānuku (food from the earth), Tupuārangi (food from among the trees), Waitī (food from streams and lakes) and Waitā (food from the sea) and then offering these foods to the stars.

A metal steaming basket, lined with green leaves. It contains various foods, ready to be cooked. This includes kumara, eel, salmon, berries and other vegetables. An offering to be cooked for the Matariki stars, containing foods that correlate to the symbolism of the stars. Matariki Hautapu Ceremony at Te Papa. Photo by Wiremu Grace, 2021. Te Papa

The idea was that the best and most appropriate kai is selected and offered for the hautapu. Once kai is gathered a special oven is prepared, it’s name is ‘te umu kohukohu whetū’, ‘the steaming earth oven of the stars’. Hot stones are heated and placed in the umu and then the kai is put on top, covered with leaves and earth. These food items would be cooked early in the morning before Matariki rises.

At the completion of the karakia to Pōhutukawa and the calling of the names of the dead the umu is uncovered and the steam from within rises into the sky. Matariki then gathers the kai from the offering and feasts upon them, thus opening the Māori New Year.

The ceremony then ends with the rising of the sun.

In front of an elaborate stained glass door bearing Māori designs in blue and red, a man opens the lid of a cooking pot on a table to see if it is ready. Next to the table is a fire pit. Checking on the kai (food), Matariki Hautapu Ceremony at Te Papa. Photo by Wiremu Grace, 2021. Te Papa

A National Holiday

2022 marked 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 launched a temporary 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 of 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

The official Matariki public holiday site

© Te Papa. All rights Reserved
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