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The Astronomical Knowledge of the Maori, Genuine and Empirical



The available data concerning Maori sky-lore is now exhausted, and this account must be closed. The knowledge gained by us of this subject is meagre and unsatisfactory, but it is now too late to remedy the deficiency. We have seen that all natives knew the principal stars, and that some made a close study of them. Angas relates how the children of the Tuhua district told him the names of stars, and wanted to know what he called them.

We have seen that the Maori combined astronomy and astrology; that he studied and knew the movements of the stars, made use of them in navigation and in time-measurement; that he also ascribed to them mythical powers and influence, mingled with puerile myths of folk-lore status. From far Babylonia, the home of primitive star-study, this noble science spread far and wide, and gradually sloughed off its false views until it came to its own. And so it will continue to be studied so long as man dwells on earth.

But the Maori, cut off from the world of knowledge and advancement, dwelling in small communities in far-spread isles of a great oceanic area, was out of touch with the progress of the science. And yet, by his study of the heavenly bodies, he was enabled to become the foremost neolithic navigator of the grey ages.

Tylor has said, “It always happens in the study of the lower races that the more means we have of understanding their thoughts the more sense and reason do we find in them.” Early investigators did not grasp the meaning of Maori myths—even Grey and Shortland never peered below the surface—hence they page 65 branded all classes of such myths as common folk-lore tales, and wrote of the Maori as lacking the power of abstract thought. They never recognized in hot-faced Tane, who treads the red west road and fertilizes the Earth Mother, the shining sun above. They told us of Dark Hina disappearing in the ocean, of her bathing in the waiora of Tane, of her relations with Maui, but no explanations of these concepts came from them. We are now gaining an insight into many of these old mythopoetical conceptions, and see that they contain much genuine knowledge clothed in the fanciful and allegorical garb beloved of barbaric man. And so, when the Maori sage taught that Tane-te-waiora succours and revives Dark Hina, and returns her to this world as Pale Hina the Beautiful, he is but stating in poetical terms our own blunt teaching that the sun again illumines the moon.

We know how man has advanced in his study of the heavenly bodies since rude savages alone gazed in wonder at sun and moon, stars, and comets. It is a far cry from the rude erection of sticks by which to line and observe the movement of a star (as practised by the Maori) to the huge telescopes of to-day….

All genuine Polynesians seem to look upon the isles of the Pacific as mere temporary abiding-places, sojourning-places to which they came from a far land. Ever their thoughts turn to the old home-land of the race in the far west; ever, as the body perishes, the freed spirit wings its way westward across vast ocean spaces to the loved father-land. And Tane the Eternal lays down the gleaming path by which the returning spirits pass over the rolling realm of Hinemoana to the far-off land of Irihia.

The wise men of yore passed long nights in gazing upon the glories of the Whanau Marama, and in adding to the hard-won lore of the tatai arorangi. They watched the world-old heavens above, and evolved the quaint concepts of Tane and Hina, of Kahukura and Auahi-turoa, in which to embody the results of their observations. The courageous sea-rovers of long-past centuries solved the mystery of the hanging sky, and roamed far and wide athwart the heaving breast of the Ocean Maid. They crept over the restless sea-roads, and explored the dark places of the earth; they sailed down into unknown realms, and founded new homes in a thousand sunlit isles. And ever the Whanau Marama, the Children of Light, lured them on, and guided them over the dark seas of Mahora-nui-atea. When Whiro cast the shades of night across the body of the Earth Mother there came Pale Hina, and the Fish of Maui and the horde of little suns, to cheer the lone voyagers on troubled seas. When these retired there came by the reddened road of the east brave Tane, sire of the Dawn Maid—

And lo! The sun himself; on wings
Of glory up the east he springs.

And so, from the far-off time when Vega was a pole-star, the Maori inherited the keen faculties that enabled him to perform his allotted task as an explorer. Albeit his knowledge was marred by many limitations, yet he clung to the half-truths he had inherited from the Sumerians, or some other old-time folk, page 66 and brought the Pleiades year from hidden lands to these isles of the far south. With mast hoisted and sail atrim he followed his ancestor Tane in search of a home in the far east. The brown-faced Argonauts fared on with a golden faith in their own powers and in the protecting power of their gods. For, with Hine-korako and Kahukura to guide them, with Tutara-kauika and Ruamano to guard them, with Pale Hina and her younger relatives to illumine their path, wherefore should fears assail them?

Thus it was that the neolithic Maori made his long voyage, combating the wrath of Paraweranui and sailing calmly over summer seas during the paki o Ruhi—the long, long voyage that lasted for so many centuries. Little wonder that the Maori folk greet the Whanau Marama, the Children of Light, with welcoming song and tears. For those Shining Ones not only guided and protected them throughout long centuries of ocean wandering, but also tie them to the long-lost but ever-loved home-land—that hidden home-land to which their spirits return by the ara whanui a Tane, the gleaming sun-glade, the golden path of the setting sun.

And never shine the dim stars
But that his heart would go
Away and back to olden lands
And dreams of long ago.

By Authority: W. A. G. Skinner, Government Printer, Wellington.—1922.