On Sunday, June 21, Matariki’s return will take place on the winter solstice. Although Matariki wanders around the solstice, it doesn’t often coincide in this way.
This year the return of the sun and the return of the stars will happen together.
If you have seen Matariki, do you remember the first time or a particular sighting?
I do, and since winter is a storytelling season, here is a story for you.
The poet, the stars and a desert
It’s early May 1968, and I’m sitting on the small deck of the bach I own with my husband on Auckland’s west coast. Thick chicken wire, criss-crossing in a diamond pattern, encloses us. Sam the poet has just cracked another beer, and as it froths into a white china cup, he tells yarns about growing up in this area. Sam knows all the open spaces, and plenty of secret ones as well.
We talk poetry. As the sun drops in the sky, Sam recites Yeats. The red hessian curtains wave in the breeze as I go inside to cook spaghetti bolognese. We eat hungrily as darkness falls. Then Sam starts pointing out the stars that he learned in this very place as a boy.
‘There’s the Eridanus River in front of us. Over there, Canopus. And low in the sky: ‘Orion, and the three stars in his belt. They have beautiful Egyptian names: Alnilam, Alnitak, Mintaka.’ Even now, half a century later, I can still hear the music of Sam’s voice chanting ‘Alnilam, Alnitak, Mintaka.’
Discovering the Pleiades
Over the following months, with the help of a telescope, we continued to search the night sky. One night we found two gems: The Crown and the Pleiades, both little clusters that sparkled like jewels with a beauty all their own: intense concentrations in a dark sky, scattered like seeds or splashed like spilt milk.
This was my first sighting of the Pleiades, a cluster of seven stars — seven goddesses according to the ancient Greeks, and each one with her own story. Decades later I learned about Matariki, and realised that it was one and the same with the constellation that I already knew and loved under another name.
Matariki the wanderer, as it is known, dips above and below the horizon, teasing with its inconstancy. In both northern and southern hemispheres, it is sadly missed when it wanders away, and greeted with joy when it slips back again.
I watched Matariki the way I would watch a child at play, or a departing and returning lover. I watched for its elusive beauty and presence.
But I always wanted to see more. I knew that Māori would discern nine or more stars with the naked eye. Then in 2008, at a writing workshop far from civilisation, my wish was granted.
It was 3 a.m. when I awoke in the vast cold darkness of the Australian desert. I crawled out of my swag, quickly donned a thick coat, grabbed my binoculars and scanned the horizon. I knew where to look. Line up with Orion’s belt, move diagonally down to the left, past Aldebaran in Taurus and look low.
Suddenly there was Matariki! It was brilliant, glittering with the seven main stars and dozens of tiny companions, stunning and powerful, just the way that ancient peoples all over the world have seen it in their inky night skies. There I stood on the red desert earth, receiving Matariki, the wonder and the tenderness of it. I remembered how Maori would greet the wanderer with vigorous dancing, chanting and tears of joy. Now I knew why.
Home of gods and goddesses
Matariki carries legends. It is charged with mythology: the god Tane in a fit of jealousy, smashing a bright star into pieces and flinging the fragments across the sky. The bringer of food — nga kai a Matariki.
It is the home of the gods and the ancestors. When Matariki disappears, their watchful guidance is lost; when it reappears the gods resume directing things from above. The Greeks felt the same; the poet Hesiod advised mariners to stay on land when the Pleiades disappeared and their protection was withdrawn.
Have you seen it?
What does Matariki mean for you? I’m wondering what sightings you’ve had and whether you’ve seen the Pleiades from the northern hemisphere. Do share your stories by making a comment below.
A new year for Aotearoa
The return of Matariki marks the beginning of the Māori New Year. Winter Solstice marks the seasonal beginning for the European New Year. In the northern hemisphere winter solstice falls on December 21. In the southern hemisphere, it falls on June 21. When we follow the seasons rather than the Roman calendar, these similarities in cultural wisdom are clearly revealed.
You can be attentive to the turning point this year as the sun turns and Matariki reappears at dawn. In the stillness of a new beginning, regeneration stirs, visions are born, and seeds are germinated within.
May you find renewal as you enter a fresh cycle. May Matariki watch over you, and the goddesses of the Pleiades be with you.
Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising through the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.
—Tennyson, Locksley Hall
PS Would you like to experience a home ritual that will guide you through a process of replenishment and discovery? The Winter Attunement will lead you to the gifts that winter has waiting for you. You will connect with your inner wisdom and the new life that seeks to awaken within.
The first seasonal chapter, Winter Solstice, in my book Celebrating the Southern Seasons, will give you more information about Matariki and the solstice.