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The Astronomical Knowledge of the Maori, Genuine and Empirical


THE expression “Whanau Marama” was employed by the Maori to denote all the heavenly bodies. It may be rendered as “the Light-giving Family” (or “Offspring”), or “the Children of Light.” When we have scanned the origin of those luminaries we shall know why they were so termed.

Maori beliefs concerning the heavenly bodies were very different from our own, and must be compared with those of other uncultured races. Those beliefs include some very singular conceptions as to the influence of certain stars upon the products of the earth, and the manner in which they foretold the aspects of coming seasons and weather conditions. Doubtless much of the star-lore of the Maori was empirical—astronomy and astrology were intermingled in his beliefs and teachings; but, as he firmly believed in all such lore, it behoves us to place it on record, however puerile some of his superstitions and myths may be.

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The use to which the Maori put his knowledge of the heavenly bodies and their movements was in several instances a scientific one, as, for instance, when he navigated his vessels by them during deep-ocean voyages, and when he watched for the heliacal rising of stars to mark the commencement of the Maori year and of certain seasons and activities.

In pre-European times the stars were closely studied by the natives—not by all persons, be it explained, but by a limited number of men of the tohunga (or adept) class, who devoted much time to a study of the ra ririki, or little suns, as they were termed. Such men would often pass long hours of the night in contemplating the stars, and would be looked upon as reliable weather-prophets. Travellers and fishermen would consult them ere venturing forth, and their powers are said to have also enabled them to foretell the general aspect of coming seasons, their fruitfulness or otherwise. Such were the studies of the tohunga kokorangi, the Maori astronomer. These men knew well the movements of the stars; they knew when to look for their appearance, and always awaited it, in order to scan closely their aspect. One famed old wise man of the Wairarapa district, of last century, devoted much of his time to studying the stars and planets. His contemporaries have told me that they have often known him to pass the greater part of the night on the summit of a hillock near his hut, gazing continuously at the heavens. Of what was he thinking during the silent watches of the night, as he looked on Matariki and Te Kokota, on the blazing line of Te Kakau, or the curved line of the Canoe of Mairerangi? Surely his thoughts would return to his old seafaring ancestors who followed the stars across half a world, who sailed eastward and northward and southward until they lost the familiar stars of long ceturies, and saw strange new ones appear above the faroff horizon. And then, further back, his memory would recall the teachings of his elders concerning the hidden father-land, the mist-enshrouded land of Irihia, wherein his ancestors had dwelt ere the gleaming stars lured them forth on the great trackless ocean that was to be their home for so many centuries.

For, mark you, there was much of sentiment in the Maori mind in connection with the stars, and the thoughts of such a man would inevitably turn back to far-off days and to remote ancestors those stars had looked down upon in the days when the world was wide. Those old sea-voyagers and explorers, back to the days of the gods, had looked up at the same stars that now gleamed above him, the stars that live for ever, and serve as a link between the watchers of far-sundered centruries. No Maori of his type could avoid or suppress this train of thought, which would probably lead him to chant some old dirge as old as the days of Maui and of Kiwa. For such is the mentality of the Maori.

This peculiar sentimental aspect was also in evidence on the reappearance of certain stars—the more important stars, such as the Pleiades and Canopus—when the women would greet them with song, and lamentation, and possibly with posture dancing. But ever in the native mind at such times was the idea of page 5 associating the star or planet with the past, with remote ancestors, or with friends who had passed away to the spirit-world while, or before, the star was invisible. Thus we often note a reference to the stars in song, particularly in such as partake of the character of laments. The following are the opening lines of a lullaby sung by parents to an infant:—

I haere mai koe i te ao o Puanga
I te Huihui o Matariki
I a Parearau, i a Poutu-te-rangi.
Ka mutu, e tama, nga whetu homai kai ki Aotea.
(You came hither from the realm of Puanga (Rigel), from the Assembly of the Pleiades, from Jupiter, and from Pontu-te-rangi. These alone, O child, are the stars which provide food at Aotea.)

And again—

Tera Meremere ka mahuta i te pae.
(Yonder the evening star appears above the horizon.)

Here is another form—

Kia marama koe ki te kete a Tane
I mauria atu nei hei tohu mo tona matua
Tataitia ra, tiwhaia i runga ra
Ki Autahi e, Ki a Puanga raia
Ki a Takurua ra
Ringia i te kete ko Te Ika-o-te-rangi
Ka nako i runga nei.
(Be ye clear as to the receptacle of Tane, conveyed by him as a token for his parent; arranged and dotted on high were Canopus, Rigel, and Sirus. The Milky Way was poured out from the receptacle, and now adorns the firmament.)


Tera Kopu na te ata i hoake.
(Yonder is Venus, brought by the morn.)

Tera Matariki huihui ana mai.
(Yonder are the Pleiades, grouped together.)

The sun is referred to in the same manner as—

E to, e te ra, rehurehu ki te rua.
(Decline, o sun! and set in the abyss.)

Also in the curious form—

E whiti, e te ra, e maene ki te kiri.
(Shine, O sun! in pleasing manner on the skin [of man].)

Again, the moon is introduced in these opening lines of songs:—

Tera te marama e ata haere ana.
(Yonder the moon drifts slowly along.)

And also in—

Tera te marama ka mahuta ake i te pae.
(Yonder the moon rises o'er the horizon.)

And so we might continue to quote references to the heavenly bodies in the songs of the Maori.

The learned men of the Takitumu tribes always spoke of the heavenly bodies and the twelve heavens as so many distinct realms or worlds. One old fellow of Wairarapa used to be much page break annoyed by godless scoffers at this theory among young folks. When a meteor was seen, on would cry, “Ha! There is one of Moihi's worlds falling. Where will it strike? Maybe some of us will be killed.”

It is assuredly a fact that in former times the average Maori knew much more about the stars than does the average man among us. When one comes to peer into native beliefs and practices in their systems of astrogeny, sabaeism, astrolatry, and natural astrology, it is then that one sees how closely the Maori of yore must have studied the heavenly bodies, but more especially the stars. There is not only the empirical aspect of their knowledge to survey, but also the genuine form illustrated by the use of the heavenly bodies in navigation and in their system of regulating time. Tylor, the famed anthropologist, has said: “From savagery up to civilization there may be traced in the mythology of the stars a course of thought, changed indeed in application, yet never broken in its evident connection from first to last.” Assuredly the savage peoples of the earth have so studied the Shining Ones; barbaric man carried the study further, and added to the quaint star-lore of the mist-laden past; the old-time races of Accadia and Babylonia made further advances, and so, down through the changing centuries, man's knowledge of the heavens increased. The advance of knowledge has been slow in this department of science; it has been fouled by superstition and savage cruelty, but has slowly cleansed itself through the fleeting centuries.

Prior to discussing the heavenly bodies, it will be well to provide the heavens for them to abide in, and see them distributed. Now, in Maori myth there are twelve separate and distinct heavens, termed nga rangi tuhaha (the bespaced heavens). This is the Takitumu version of the East Coast tribes. Among some other tribes a system of ten heavens was upheld, and White and Davis mention still another of twenty heavens. The Takitumu teachings comprise the most complete account of Maori lore yet collected, and most of the data given in this paper have been culled from them.

It is the lowest and nearest of the twelve heavens that is looked upon as the Sky Parent, and is termed Ranginui, or Great Rangi. It is upon the body of this Sky Parent that the heavenly bodies move in their courses, as arranged by the gods of old. In barbaric cosmology the firmament stands as an arch above the earth; so says Tylor. This is true of the Maori; it is the hanging sky of Maori myth through the sides of which the bold seavoyagers of old forced their way, and by which Whiro attempted to reach the uppermost heaven in his search for the three baskets of knowledge; where, also, Tawhaki of the flashing lightning perished, to redden with his blood the blossoms of the rata and pohutukawa. This quaint notion of the bounds of the hanging sky is an old concept of the peoples of India.

The South Island natives, writes Mr. Beattie, say that when their forefathers left the original home-land they thought the sky came right down to the sea, but found there was room to get through.

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Watea is the personified form of space. Originally sky and earth were close together, but when Watea appeared they were separated. It was Watea who divided the waters that land might appear.

In the Maori tongue the word ra denotes the sun, as it does, with some dialectic changes, throughout Polynesia, and as it did in Babylonia and Egypt. Komaru and mamaru also denote the sun, but are seldom heard. These three names are also applied to a canoe-sail, though one fails to see any connection between the two.

The moon is called marama, and stars are whetu; a planet is whetu ao. The word wheturangi means “appearing above the horizon,” and, curiously enough, its use is not confined to the stars. The expressions whanau riki (little offspring) and whanau punga are sometimes applied to the stars by experts, but they are not common expressions.