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The Astronomical Knowledge of the Maori, Genuine and Empirical

The Use of Stars in Navigation

page 28

The Use of Stars in Navigation.

The following remarks by Mr. S. Percy Smith on this subject are of interest: “The great knowledge of the stars they possessed enabled them to guide their vessels from end to end of the Pacific…. They combined with their astrology a considerable amount of astronomy, giving names to all the principal stars, besides many constellations. There are indications, too, that they were acquainted with the fact that the earth is round, or that it is not flat. This would, of course, become known to them through their voyages, by the appearance of fresh stars as they progressed either north or south.” He also gives the Hawaiian sailing-directions for the voyage to Tahiti, as handed down by oral tradition: “If you sail for Kahiki (Tahiti) you will discover new constellations and strange stars over the deep ocean. When you arrive at the Piko o Wakea you will lose sight of Hokupaa (North Star), and the Newe (Southern Cross) will be the southern guiding-star, and the constellation of Humu will stand as a guide above you.” The Piko o Wakea (or Pito o Watea, as it would be in the New Zealand dialect) may be rendered as the centre of space, the navel of Watea, the personified form of space. Mr. S. P. Smith identifies this “navel of space” as the ecliptic, or ara matua (main road or path)—the part of the heavens across which the principal heavenly bodies pursue their courses. These two expressions of our Polynesian star-gazers are of much interest.

In making long ocean voyages the ancestors of the Maori carried on their vessels one or two expert star-gazers, men versed in the lore of tatai arorangi. Hence we are told, in the story of the voyage of the vessel “Takitumu” from eastern Polynesia to New Zealand, that Puhi-whanake and Whatuira were the two experts. During the course of the voyage these men passed each night in scanning the stars, in order to direct the steersmen and also to be able to foretell weather conditions. Other experts attended to the steering during the daytime, when sun, wind, and sea conditions were noted, even that the ture ara moana, or sea-road, might be kept, and the prow of the rude vessel held on the far-distant and unseen objective. Tradition states that the stars relied on during the voyage hither of the “Takitumu” were Atutahi (Canopus), Tautoru (Orion's Belt), Puanga (Rigel), Karewa, Takurua (Sirius), Tawera (Venus as Morning Star), Meremere (Venus as Evening Star), Matariki (Pleiades), Tama-rereti (Tail of Scorpion?), Te Ikaroa (the Galaxy).

A remark that occurs in this story is as follows: “Carefully keep the prow of the vessel laid on Venus during the night; during the daytime follow behind Tama-nui-te-ra (the sun).” But what puzzles the ignorant person (such as the writer) is at what juncture in the movement of a star or other body on its course did the steersman commence to steer by it. The course would be about south-west on the voyage to New Zealand, and the heavenly bodies have a pernicious habit of rising in the east. At what point were they utilized? Another account says that the prow of the vessel was kept to the left of the sun or Venus; but unless these bodies were in a certain position the hapless page 29 voyagers might still be wandering about the ocean, or haply might have colonized South America. The explanations of Maori deep-sea navigation call for further information.

The sailing-directions laid down by Kupe, who is said to have been the first Polynesian voyager to reach New Zealand, seem to be fairly explicit. They are as follows: “Keep the sun, moon, or Venus just to the right of the bow of the vessel, and steer nearly south-west.” This voyage to New Zealand was made in November or December, and Mr. S. P. Smith tell us that the true course from Rarotonga to Auckland is about S. 56 W., or S.W. by W.

But ever the Maori believes that the credit of all these deepsea voyages of yore lies with the gods. For Ruamano led the way across the trackless ocean; Arai-te-uru guarded the wake of “Takitumu”; on either side Tutara-kauika and the Wehengakauki, monsters of the deep, convoyed her, and bore her to the far-distant land-head at Aotearoa. With Hine-kotea, and Hinemakehu, and Hine-korito, and Hine-huruhuru to guard and guide, wherefore should fear assail our Argonauts? Far ahead Kahukura (personified form of rainbow) was sent to stand on high as a guide-mark, and the prow of “Takitimu” was laid on him. As night fell Kahukura returned to the stern of “Takitumu,” and his sister, Hine-korako (personified form of lunar halo), was sent forward to take his place. And ever Tunui-a-te-ika acted as a messenger, for he moved far ahead, and returned to tell of the nearness of land. Such are the quaint beliefs of the Maori; and any voyager of wide seas who believes that hordes of beings are guiding and guarding him should surely be of tranquil mind. Apart from this, a vessel was solemnly placed under the protection of the gods ere a voyage was commenced.

Aotahi (Canopus) is often mentioned in these old chronicles as a star of much importance to navigators, not only as a guiding-mark, apparently, but also because they believed that it foretold weather conditions.

In the South Island notes published by Mr. Beattie in the Journal of the Polynesian Society occurs the following: “The stars Autahi (Canopus) and its pointer Takurua (Sirius), and Puanga (Rigel), and those under Matariki, are in the east while the Wero stars are in the west. The latter stars gave the sailing-directions, while the former denoted weather and seasons. Wero-i-te-ninihi and Wero-i-te-kokota are fixed stars, but Wero-i-aumaria (? ao-marie) only appears between the two former occasionally. When my informant's father saw the Wero stars he recited a karakia (charm) beginning Te ahuru nei, le mahana nei (The shelter, the warmth, &c.).” This writer also gives a queer old myth concerning the ancestors of the Maori, when, in the old home-land, they first came into contact with the sea. “Here they looked at the ocean, and thought that the sky ran down into it on the horizon. They built a cnoe … and liberated it with incantations. It went out of sight, but was driven back through the gap between sea and sky.”

In Banks's Journal we find a note on Tahitian navigation: “In their longer voyages they steer in the day by the sun, and page 30 in the night by the stars. Of these they know a very large number by name, and the cleverest among them will tell in what part of the heavens they are to be seen in any month when they are above the horizon. They know also the time of their annual appearance and disappearance to a great nicety, far greater than would be easily believed by a European astronomer.”

The late chief Hone Mohi Tawhai informed Mr. J. B. Lee that he knew about three hundred star-names, but no one took the trouble to collect them. What interesting notes might have been collected in past days!

Writing of stars in his Polynesian Researches Ellis says: “These were their only guides in steering their fragile barks across the deep. When setting out on a voyage some particular star or constellation was selected as their guide during the night… The Pleiades were a favourite guiding-star with these sailors, and by them, in the present voyage, we steered during the night.” This was a short voyage from Tahiti to Huahine.

In speaking of the old civilizations of Egypt and Rome Fenton says: “In those old days the knowledge of navigation was very considerable. The stars supplied the absence of the compass, and one very remarkable group received its name from the Greek word ‘to steer.”

The old Maori voyagers were also compelled to closely study the winds. Few compass-points have specific names; in most cases the wind-names were employed as such. Mohi Turei gave names for sixteen points, but Gill published a list of thirty-two points as known at the Cook Isles, each with its proper name. He remarks: “In olden times great stress was laid on this knowledge for the purpose of fishing, and especially for their long sea voyages from group to group.”