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The Astronomical Knowledge of the Maori, Genuine and Empirical

Heliacal Rising of Stars

Heliacal Rising of Stars.

It is a noteworthy fact that the Maori relied on the cosmic rising of stars in his utilization of them as marking seasons, phases of industry, periods of time, &c. In the Cook Group the year commenced when the Pleiades were first seen in the evening sky, but in New Zealand it was the heliacal rising of that group that marked the new year.

The passage of time during the night and the approach of dawn were notified to the Maori by the positions of the stars, the Milky Way being a much used harbinger of dawn. References to this old practice often occur in old narratives, as “When Venus appeared above the horizon,” or “As the stars of morning rose.” and so on.

Some very curious auguries and omens were derived from the stars, and this is one reason why certain persons closely and persistently scanned them. A star in a position close to the moon excited much interest, the omen depending upon its position. If it is “biting”—that is, near—the mata o holuroa, or cusp of the page 27 crescent moon, it betokens the approach of an enemy force. Such omens often caused natives to take careful precautions against being surprised.

An East Coast native made the following remarks: “Venus as morning star is called Tawera. Sirius, the Pleiades, and Orion's Belt are important seasonal stars. Canopus marks the coming of frost, and from the Milky Way are derived weather-signs, while the Magellan Clouds warn us of coming winds. The star Whaitiri-papa belongs to February and March, and gives important signs regarding sea-fish. Vega marks the autumn season, and the Pleiades a plenitude of food-supplies; hence the aphorismic utterance regarding it scooping up food products of land and sea.” Undoubtedly the Maori looked upon stars as fecundators, while terra mater was the passive agent.

The natives held peculiar views regarding stars. An old man of the Awa folk, of Whakatane district, informed me that he was a matatuhi, or seer, and that one of his ancestors, Te Rewha, warned him of any approaching danger. This helpful ancestor of his seems to have been represented by a star, or to have utilized stars as a means of signalling to his kinsman of this world.

The following remarks on stars were collected by the late Mr. G. H. Davies: “The Pleiades hold the highest rank among the stars, inasmuch as they usher in the new year and are also visible at its close. These are the phases: in the twelfth month [of the Maori year] they set, to return again with the new year. The task of Canopus is that of making itself important Rigel is hostile to the Pleiades because it wishes to rule the year itself. Venus announces coming daylight and the afflictions of mankind; most of her warnings are of evil things.”

The rude beginning of the study of the stars consisted of observing them with the naked eye, and this condition must have continued far on the long road that leads to civilization. This fact, however, does not show that other helps, however rude, may not have been devised and employed by uncultured folk. One of the very rudest is mentioned in a paper contributed by Mr. H. Beattie, of Gore, to the Journal of the Polynesian Society (vol. 27, page 145). An old South Island native gave him certain information about the stars, and the writer continues: “When he (the native) was a lad at Temuka he had seen his father put sticks in the ground, and observe the stars. If the observed star moved south the season would be bad: if it moved north the season would be dry and good. One of the stars by which he made his nightly observations was Wero-i-te-ninihi, and the narrator said he could point this and other stars out; but, alas! the collector is no astronomer, and did not accept the offer.” Now, surely the above contrivance must have been the very rudest forerunner of our modern observatories.

There is one advantage that the Maori held in his naked-eye studies of the stars, and that was in the possession of extremely keen eyesight. This power of the natives has astonished the present writer when sojourning among them. Colenso tells us that they could see Jupiter's satellites, and not only seven stars of the Pleiades, but also several others.