Stars in their eyes

Well, having recently suggested that the Matariki star group replace the Southern Cross on our national flag, it behoves me to actually learn a little bit about the Matariki and why this star cluster was  such a significant influence on Maori tradition. And quite an interesting little journey in space and time it was.

Matariki (translated as ‘ little eyes’) is a star cluster that appears in the South-East horizon of the night sky in May/ June in New Zealand and the Maori new year is now said to start on the first new moon after its appearance. Other tradition has this cluster has also been associated with the winter solstice and the star cluster named as Matariki, the mother, surrounded by her six daughters whose role is to assist the weakened sun to return to strength

Identifying notable stars and associating them with natural phenomena or religious significance is well recorded from ancient times, but still, it makes you wonder how the Maori actually came to settle on this cluster of seven stars, (usually with the naked eye only six can be identified; officially there are nine named with hundreds actually in the cluster, but for some reason, Maori myth refers to seven).

After a little further investigation, I learn that this same cluster of stars is recognised in Hawaii where it is named Makaliʻi hiki (also translates as ‘little eyes’). The Makaliʻi hiki in Hawaii rises shortly after sunset and is visible for four months from October/November to February/March. In Hawaiian tradition, this was a four month period of celebration of the harvest called Makahiki. Warfare was forbidden and it was a period of feasting, sports, dancing and celebration. The Makaliʻi hiki were also a navigational guide for the Hawaiians. Since the Maori have referred to their spiritual homeland as being Hawaiiki, joining these two geographical dots is a reasonable conclusion.

This same cluster of six stars is also recognised in Japan under the name Mutsuraboshi (“six stars”) in the 8th century Kojiki and Manyosyu documents. The constellation is also known in Japan as Subaru (“unite”) and you may note that the Subaru car logo contains six stars. Interestingly Japanese often saw seven stars instead of six. Travelers to Japan may be familiar with Shichifukujin (literally “seven happy gods”) which are often seen at temples and in miniature at souvenir shops throughout Japan. Locals in some prefectures of Japan still call the cluster “Shichifukujin”.  In Japan, as in Hawaii, this is recognised as the harvest time.

As with many things Japanese, the recognition of this cluster of stars was imported from Chinese astronomy observations. This cluster of stars seem to be among the first stars mentioned in astronomical literature, appearing in Chinese annals of 2357 B.C. The Chinese were a very advanced civilisation in the study of astronomy.

Seven stars Sumerian tablet, circa 2500 bc

Seven stars Sumerian tablet, circa 2500 bc

The Babylonian star catalogues name this same group MUL.MUL or “star of stars”, and they head the list of stars along the ecliptic, reflecting the fact that they were close to the point of vernal equinox around the 23rd century BC. Several Sumerian tablets have depicted the seven stars that reference the harvest period.

But the common name for this cluster of stars is Pleiades. The Pleiades cluster is within 4° of the ecliptic and is in the constellation of Taurus. The heliacal (pre-dawn) rising of the Pleiades marks late May/ June mid winter season in the Southern Hemisphere, likewise in the Northern Hemisphere the cluster can be seen in November from dusk to dawn.

Pleiades is mentioned in Greek mythology in the poems of Homer and Hesiod around 1,000 BC, in which the Pleiades were seven sisters: Maia, Electra, Alcyone, Taygete, Asterope, Celaeno and Merope. 

According to Greek mythology, after a chance meeting with the hunter Orion, the seven sisters became the object of his pursuit. Enamoured with the young women he pursued them over the face of the Earth. In pity for their plight, Zeus changed them into a flock of doves, which he set in the heavens. 

Even though the Greeks actually name nine stars of the Pleiades, they acknowledge that only six stars are distinctly visible to the naked eye. Apart from the seven daughters they also name Atlas and Pleione as the parents. These two stars do exist although they would have been invisible to the searching eyes of ancient Greeks, Chinese or Persian astronomers. But of the seven sisters, they write that the star Merope is often called the “lost Pleiade” because she was not seen by astronomers or charted like her sisters. The ancient Greeks explained that Merope was most faintly visible because she took a mortal husband, Sisyphus, the King of Corinth. It is a mystery how they knew of more than the six visible stars.

This same cluster of six/ seven stars appears in the folklore throughout the Americas, from the Cherokee to the Aztecs (Tianquiztli , the marketplace). In Norse folklore the same cluster was known as Freyja’s hens, identified as a hen with six chicks. In Celtic tradition the rising of this cluster between the Autumn equinox and Winter solstice was a period to mourn the dead which led to festivals of “all souls day” and Halloween. They also appear in Hindu writings.

So, that was quite a trip around the world and through history from something that I thought was a unique Maori tradition. That makes it not only significant, but also very curious. The cluster is, after all, over 400 light years away, so it’s certainly not as luminous as, say, Venus the morning/ evening star which is only about 4 light minutes away from earth. Matariki/ Pleiades is a collection of six specks in the night sky amongst a million specks that could be viewed in the sky of the ancients which was free of urban light pollution.

This is all based on the knowledge that the cluster was identified around 2500 BC in Persia, China and possibly even Britain with Stonehenge as appearing at the right time for the annual harvest. That this knowledge would travel with the people from Asia during their migrations would be the logical process upon which the referencing of Matariki came to be in Aotearoa around 1200 AD.

But then, with further investigation, I learn that the Australian Aborigines also include this same Pleiades star cluster, which they call the Meamei, in their dreamtime folklore. According to their mythology, the cluster represents seven girls chased by the hunter, Djulpan. This is an identical myth to the Greek myth of Orion, the hunter chasing Pleione and her six daughters. Again they speak of seven stars although only six are visible to their naked eyes.

So the Australian Aborigines, who have been living on the Australian continent for 60,000 years, have the same mythology about the same star cluster as was written by the Greek poets less than 3,000 years ago. The Aborigines, isolated from Greek poets and Chinese or Persian astronomers had acquired the same knowledge and myth about this small cluster of stars up to 55,000 years prior to recorded discovery in the northern hemisphere. And the Australian Aborigines had no need to monitor harvest time, they did not plant crops. However sites of the celebration of Meamei still tended to be where bush foods grew or where water was found. But for them the rising of the Meamei (Pleiades) was a sacred celebration involving the dramatisation of the fleeing of the seven sisters from the advances of the  hunter, Djulpan (Orion) as passed down from their dreamtime mythology. The narrative does have variation between tribes/ nations within Australia.

I was easily able to link the dots from Aotearoa to Hawaii and then onto the ancient Chinese astronomers. But there is no way I can connect any dots between classical Greece and the Aboriginal dreamtime. And when we look at the night sky as it would be seen in the clear night skies before the intrusion of the night lights of cities, and follow the star map that takes us (in the south) from the Southern cross via Orion’s belt to Matariki, just a quarter of the night sky, we can only wonder how all these cultures from all around the globe, focused on this single star cluster:

Someone must have told us very early in our ‘sapiens’ consciousness that this cluster was a special part of the heavens and given us all a star map to hand down through the generations as a place of veneration.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

  1. #1 by Isamu and Dan on July 23, 2015 - 2:30 pm

    Fascinating stuff. And how about Subaru? Who knew?

    Sent from my iPad



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