A literary Matariki

Matariki, Aotearoa New Zealand New Year has arrived with the return of the star grouping of the same name, what is widely known as The Pleiades, a star cluster within the constellation of Taurus.

In some Māori traditions Matariki forms a pou or post along with Tautoru (Orion’s belt) and Takurua (Sirius). This is the post of Hine-nui-te-pō, the goddess of death, and symbolically marks the death of the old year.

The Matariki cluster, for whatever reason, has fired the imagination for millennia, appearing in poetry and stories since time immemorial. All around the world there are many traditions, legends, and stories based on this cluster of stars.

Matariki in Māori songs and poetry

The stars of Matariki make an appearance in a number of Māori songs and mōteatea (a traditional form of chant or sung poetry), in the latter it is often in a lament or remembrance of a loved one.

Such as this lament by Mere Reweti Taingunguru of Te Whanau-a-Apanui for her husband Te Whatu-a-Rangahau which opens with the lines –

Cover of Ngā MōteateaTērā Matariki huihui ana mai. / Ka ngaro rā, ē, te whetū kukume ata.

(Behold the Pleiades are clustered above. / Lost, alas, is the star that hauls forth the dawn.)

Or this one by Mihi-ki-te-kapua –

Tirohia atu nei ngā whetū, / Me ko Matariki e ārau ana; / He hōmai tau i ngā mahara / E kohi nei, whakarerea atu / Nā te roimata ka hua riringi / Tāheke ware kai aku kamo.

(I gaze up at the stars, / And the Pleiades are gathered together / Which gives rise to many thoughts / That well up within, and freely / Do the tears pour forth / And flow shamelessly from mine eyes.)

Wow. That’s almost got me a bit teary myself.

Then there’s this lament for Ngati Mutunga chiefs Te Whao and Tu-poki

Cover of Ngā mōteatea the songsKa ripa ki waho rā, e Atutahi koa, / Te whetū tārake o te rangi, / Ka kopi te kukume, / Ka hahae Matariki ē, / Puanga, Tautoru, /Nāna i kukume koutou ki te mate, ē.

(Away out yonder is Atutahi, / The star that shines apart in the heavens. / The noose was pulled taut / At the rising of Matariki, / In the company of Puanga and Tautoru. / It was thus you were all hauled down in death, alas.)

The presence or rise of Matariki is also used to indicate the time of year as in this action song of Ngati Rangiwewehi –

Mō te Matariki, e totope nei te hukarere, / Ngā taritari o Matariki.

(In the winter time, heralded now by snowstorms,  / And this cold weather of Matariki.)

Or this lament for Te Umukohukohu –

Ka puta Matariki ka rere Whānui. / Ko te tohu tēnā o te tau e!

(Matariki re-appears, Whānui starts its flight. / Being the sign of the [new] year!)

More recent examples include the song “Te Aroha” by Tuini Ngawai, written in 1960 which has the lines –

Horohia e Matariki / ki te Whenua / Te māra-matanga mo te motu e / Kia tipu he puawai honore / Mo te pani, mō te rawakore e / Mo te rawakore e

(Spread your light oh Matariki / On to Mother Earth / As a guiding light for this land / May the seed become an honoured bloom / for the poor, for the needy. / For the needy.)

The Pleiades in poetry around the world

These same stars, though called by other names have been referenced multiple times in poetry in other cultures too. In the 20th century a Japanese literary magazine mainly focused on poetry, was called “Subaru”, the Japanese name for the Pleaides/Matariki cluster.

In 16th century France there was a group of poets who called themselves “La Pleiade”, naming themselves after an even earlier group of poets from 3rd century BC Alexandria, the Alexandrian Pleiad. Another french group of poets based in Toulouse in the 14th century and made up of seven men and seven women also used the name to describe themselves.

Sappho, the greek poetess, thought to have been born around 630 BC, made at least one reference to The Pleaides in her “Midnight poem” –

Tonight I’ve watched / the moon and then / the Pleiades / go down / The night is now / half gone; youth / goes; I am / in bed alone

Industrious astronomers have used this description of the relative positions of the moon and the stars – making a guess at the rough year and place to determine which time of year the poem was written in.

The Pleiades also turn up in the poem “On the Beach at Night” by Walt Whitman

And nigh at hand, only a very little above,
Swim the delicate sisters the Pleiades.

Cover of John Milton's Paradise lostThere’s also an appearance in Book 7 of John Milton’s Paradise Lost

His longitude through Heaven’s high road; the gray
Dawn, and the Pleiades, before him danced,

And in “Locksley Hall” by Lord Tennyson

Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.

There are also multiple references in the star cluster in the epic poetry of Homer, in The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Pleiades references in other literature

Cover of Ethan FromeOther literary associations include novels like Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. Here Ethan describes the night sky to his cousin Mattie.

That’s Orion down yonder; the big fellow to the right is Aldebaran, and the bunch of little ones-like bees swarming-they’re the Pleiades…

In more recent times popular novelist Lucinda Riley has undertaken a series called The Seven Sisters with each book focusing on a different one of the seven sisters.

What’s your favourite mention of Matariki or the Pleiades in literature?

For more poetry about Matariki and the stars try –

Learn more about Matariki –

5 thoughts on “A literary Matariki

  1. Juliet 10 June 2016 / 4:52 pm

    Wonderful material here, all gathered together in your blog. Thank you.

    • Juliet 10 June 2016 / 4:55 pm

      PS thanks especially for the Sappho quote, which I didn’t know. Please don’t call her a poetess though. The word poet applies to both female and males, just as the word writer does, and author, playwright etc.

      • Mo-mo 13 June 2016 / 1:07 pm

        Hi Juliet, glad you enjoyed this. I partly used the word “poetess” as a way of indicating to people who weren’t familiar with her that she was a woman, but point taken.

      • Juliet 13 June 2016 / 8:13 pm

        Thanks for replying Mo Mo. Here’s another way to indicate that Sappho is a woman:

        ‘Sappho, the Greek poet, was thought to have been born around 630 BC. She made at least one reference to The Pleaides in her “Midnight poem” . . .

  2. Juliet 13 June 2016 / 8:15 pm

    PS Dale Spender in her book ‘Man-made language’ gives some good tips for this issue and is a strong advocate for not attempting to feminise words such as sculptor, artist, writer, poet, musician etc.

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