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The Maori Division of Time

the maori year

the maori year

On the east coast the old Maori year began with the appearance of the first new moon after the heliacal rising of Matariki (the Pleiades). The first appearance of this group before sunrise was the signal for a sentimental greeting on the part of the Maori, for the ancient Pleiades year of South-East Asia was about to commence. The new-year festival was a very important one in Maori eyes.

It will be seen that the native New Year's Day was no fixed quantity. It might chance to be in June or in May. A native paper of the Napier district states that this year (1922) the old Maori year commences with the new moon on 27 May, so that date will be the Whiro of the lunar month Pipiri. The next new moon will be on 25 June. This year marked by the rising of the Pleiades was an institution of the east coast of the North Island. In the far North, however, also in the South Island and the Chatham Isles, the new year was marked by the cosmic page 12 rising of Rigel in Orion. This would not make much difference as to the date of the commencement of the year.

The Pleiades year was also an institution of Polynesia, with this difference, viz, that it commenced with the reappearance of that group above the horizon at sunset. This would place the New Year's Day of the Polynesian in December. The question here arises as to why the ancestors of the Maori changed the commencement of the Pleiades year after they settled in New Zealand.

We have seen that in some districts the cosmic rising of Rigel in Orion marked the beginning of the Maori year. Dr Thomson, who sojourned in the northern part of the North Island for some years, wrote as follows in his Story of New Zealand: “The New Zealand year was an imperfect mode of reckoning time, as there could never have been always 13 moons between the appearance of the Puanga star [Rigel] of one year and that of another. It is therefore obvious that the stars and the flowering of plants were the true records, otherwise winter would have soon been summer. All nations who adopt the lunar year put in an additional month every three years, but the New Zealanders were ignorant of this arrangement.”

It would appear that the above writer missed the point in his conclusions. He evidently had collected the names of 13 lunar months, or had been informed that such existed, and yet states that the insertion of an extra month was not a Maori usage. A few natives have given a list of 13 month names, and this fact should be fairly good proof that the thirteenth month was occasionally utilised, otherwise why retain it in the list. Many native authorities, however, gave names of 12 months only; thus it is possible that more than one system of regulating the year was practised, as in different districts. Names of 13 months were also collected at Tahiti. Nor do all peoples who adopt the lunar year appear to employ an extra month. The Hawaiians, for example, had their system of 12 lunar months of 30 days each, to which were added five extra days, as already explained. This would leave very little leeway to make up, and that could be managed by manipulation of the nights of the moon, a practice that was certainly followed by our Maori folk.

The weak point of the 30-day month appears to lie in the fact that it exceeds the period of lunar revolution, and this would soon make itself apparent, and call for remedy. The Maori gives the names of 30 nights of the moon in the great majority of cases, as also do natives of the various isles of Polynesia. It is quite possible that two systems were practised, one marked by a 13-month year, and the other by one of 12 months accompanied by some method of regulating that has not been explained.

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It has been stated that the Maori year was one of 10 months. This was apparently an error. Our best authorities, including the high-class teachings of the Takitumu tribes, give specific names for 12 months, and frequently allude to the divisions of the year as being ngahuru ma rua (10 and two) in number. In some districts, however, loosely applied terms seem to have been used to denote the eleventh and twelfth months, these two being deemed of little importance; the important tasks of the year concluded with the gathering of the harvest in the tenth month. In his Account of New Zealand, published in 1835, the Rev. Mr Yate, who resided in the far north, wrote: “They compute time by moons, of which they count 10 in the course of the year, reckoning three moons for one at the latter end of the season. The reason they give for this is that during two months between autumn and winter they have nothing to do in the way of cultivation; their time, consequently, is then occupied in comparative idleness. They are generally very correct in their time, and take their season for planting by the blossoms which appear upon some of the early shrubs.” This writer adds concerning the two unnamed months: “These two months are not in their calendar; they do not reckon them, nor are they in any way accounted for.”

Now, the above remarks do not describe a genuine 10-month year; they imply that 12 months were recognised, but that the last two had no specific or generally used terms applied to them. At the same time the present writer maintains that those natives had some form of name by which the two months were designated. Even in districts where each of the 12 months had a distinctive and well known name, certain expressions, such as ngahuru tuhoehoe, were sometimes employed to denote the last two months of the year.

We know that in far lands the 10-month year has been known in the past, but in such cases the year was divided into 10 equal, or nearly equal, parts. It was not a case of including a period of three months in the name of the tenth month, as explained by Mr Yate. In the very early times of the city of Rome the community had a 10-month year covering 304 days, and so had much leeway to make up. In later times two more months were added.

When an uncultured folk adopted agriculture it would be found that a more careful division of time than that pertaining to savagery was necessary – that the recurring seasons must be noted more closely. In order to effect this, barbaric man has ever turned to the heavenly bodies for assistance, hence their connection with the art of agriculture. S. Baring Gould has written as follows: “The march of the sun in its annual revolution, and the phases of the moon, formed the rough distribution of time to a rude people. But those observations were page 14 incomplete and truncated, and resulted in the creation of a year of 10 lunar months, of which five were summer and five were winter months. The number was increased to 12 when it was seen that certain groups of stars appeared and disappeared in fixed succession, and returned to the same situation above the horizon at the same periods.” It may be added that the moon always seems to have been the first time measurer with regard to the periods of the year and month, hence its great importance in the eyes of barbaric folk.

The tenth month of the Maori year would be represented by March, or March-April. It was often alluded to as the ngahuru, i.e., the tenth, and this term has come to be employed in a wider sense, as denoting the autumn season. It is quite possible that in remote times the Polynesian folk had the institution of the 10-month year. In White's Ancient History of the Maori, Volume 3, occurs mention of a singular tradition concerning one Wharepatari, who seems to have made known the 12-month year. He produced a staff or stave on which were 12 marks to denote the 12 months. Clearly the tradition, as preserved by Mr White, is but a fragment; equally as clear is the fact that it is an old astronomical myth.

This Whare-patari went to visit a people named Ruaroa, who were famous for their knowledge. They asked him, “How many months are there in the year, according to your knowledge?” He then showed them the rod having the 12 marks on it. Quoth the Ruaroa folk, “We are in error. We have but 10 months. Are we wrong in lifting our crops of kumara (sweet potato) in the eighth month?” Said Wharepatari, “You are wrong. Leave them until the tenth month. Know you not that there are two odd feathers in a bird's tail; likewise are there two odd months of the year.” (i.e., over and above 10). After that the crops of the Ruaroa folk were not lifted until the tenth month, when they found that the product was much superior in quality.

The above tradition, evidently much older than the Maori occupation of New Zealand, looks very much like a dim remembrance of a former 10-month year. As to the remark concerning 12 feathers in a bird's tail, the Maori maintains that there are 12 feathers in the tail of the huia, and 12 in the bunch of white feathers of a parson bird, his “choker”. As to the Ruaroa, or offspring of Ruaroa, can this name be connected with the name of the December solstice, ruaroa, as given by Fornander?

This latter writer, in The Polynesian Race, states that “There is evidence that the Marquesans at one time counted the year by 10 lunar months, and called it Puni, a circle, a round, a revolution; but how they managed either this or the year of 13 months to correspond with the division by seasons, or with the sidereal year, I am not informed.” page 15 Fornander traces the Polynesian year back to Asia. He also tells us that the Hawaiian year was one of 12 months of 30 days each, and that five extra days were intercalated at the end of the month called Welehu, which days were dedicated to the festival of the god Lono, the Rongo of Maori myth. Hewitt, in his Primitive Traditional History, mentions a three-year-cycle system that obtained in India in past times, among the Anu and other folk. This cycle had four divisions of 10 months each. He claims that this institution was carried into Europe, and that a survival of it exists at Carnac, in Brittany, in the well known 10 rows of stones at that place.

In the far north of our North Island the commencement of the Rigel year was marked by a three-day festival. In the districts where the Pleiades year was followed a similar festival was held when that group appeared on the eastern horizon in the early morn, and such appearance was greeted by women with song and tears. The Rev. R. Taylor, whose book Te lka a Maui contains much matter collected in the far north, wrote: “The year commences with the first new moon after the star Puanga is seen in the morning, which is in June” – or May, as he states in his little Maori-English dictionary.

Tutakangahau, of Tuhoe, clearly explained the fact that in the Matatua district the appearance of the Pleiades on the eastern horizon before sunrise was the sign awaited as a token of the new year. He made a peculiar statement that looks as though the year in that district commenced, or sometimes commenced, in the middle of a lunar month. If this was so it was a very singular procedure. He remarked that each month had 30 nights, but that the first month, Pipiri, had 15 nights only “of its own”; its other 15 nights formed half of the second month, Hongonoi. Hongonoi was composed of these 15 nights and 15 others “of its own”. The third and following months were made up in a similar manner. Unfortunately, I lost the opportunity of obtaining further light on the subject, and so am still in the dark as to what the old man meant. He was a man of much knowledge, and the most trust-worthy of authorities on old-time lore. The dull northern mind is to blame for my inability to explain these exasperating and elusive months.

In his Essay on the Native Race Colenso says: “Their year commenced with spring [?], to which, and to the proper planting season, they were guided by the rising of certain constellations, particularly of the Pleiades and of Orion; by the flowering of certain trees, especially a red-flowered creeper (Metrosideros sp.); by the sprouting of ferns, principally of the rauaruhe (Pteris esculenta); by the mating, moulting, and change of note of birds; by the singing of insects; and by the arrival of two migratory cuckoos.” The word “spring” in the above looks like page 16 a slip of the pen; one would scarcely describe June in New Zealand as a spring month.

The Rev. W. Gill, in his Myths and Songs from the South Pacific, tells us that “The reappearance of the Pleiades above the horizon at sunset, i.e., the beginning of a new year, was in many islands a time of extravagant rejoicing.” Again he says: “The arrival of the new year was indicated by the appearance of Matariki, or the Pleiades, on the eastern horizon just after sunset, i.e., about the middle of December. Hence the idolatrous worship paid to this beautiful cluster of stars in many of the South Sea Islands. The Pleiades were worshipped at Danger Island, and at the Penrhyns down to the introduction of Christianity in 1857. In many islands extravagant joy is still manifested at the rising of this constellation out of the ocean.” The expression “idolatrous worship”, used above, is not a happy one, though it would probably naturally occur to a missionary. The feeling of natives towards the Pleiades and some other stars was a sentimental one connected with their ancestors; “idolatrous worship” does not meet the case. The change from the evening to the morning rising of the Pleiades, as a token of the new year, is interesting. Was that change caused by the different climatic conditions met with in New Zealand? Assuredly the Polynesian ancestors of the Maori came hither from the Society and Cook Groups.

In the third edition of Hawaiki the late Mr S. Percy Smith wrote as follows: “The Polynesians date their new year from the rising of the Pleiades when it is seen as a morning star just before sunrise.” Apparently this statement represents a lapsus calami, for both Fornander and Gill state plainly that the Polynesian year commenced with the rising of that group at sunset in December. It was in New Zealand that the year began with the cosmic rising of the Pleiades. For some unexplained reasons the natives of Mangaia Isle identified one form of their flying kites with the Pleiades.

At page 86, Volume I, of the second edition of Ellis's Polynesian Researches occurs a table of Tahitian month names that about corresponds with our own arrangement, the year beginning in December. The author says: “It is the method of computation adopted by the late Pomare and the royal family.” He then goes on to say: “Another computation commenced the year at the month Apaapa, about the middle of May.” In the list of month names that he gives December is styled Te Tai, presumably for Te Tahi = the First. Ellis also tells us that the Tahitians divided the year into two seasons called “Pleiades above” and “Pleiades below”. The first of these commenced when, in the evening, these stars appeared on or near the horizon. The latter commenced when, at sunset, the constellation was invisible, and continued until, at that hour, it appeared again above the horizon. If, as page 17 suggested above, there were two distinct methods of year measurement in the eastern Pacific, then our Maori folk may have brought their system with them from those parts. Possibly the recognition of two seasons, both marked by the Pleiades, led to the two modes of commencing the year.

Fornander states that the Polynesians divided the year into seasons, months, and days. He continues: “The commencement of the seasons was regulated by the rising of Makari'i [= Makali'i = Matariki], the Pleiades, at the time of the setting of the sun.” The list of months given commences with that called Matariki, which is said to have commenced about 20 December. There were, however, some differences of computation in the various isles of the Hawaiian Group.

Hewitt, author of Primitive Traditional History, believes that the Pleiades year originated in southern India, and states that it is still retained by certain peoples on the north-west coast of India. He regards it as having been one of the earliest systems of computing the dawn of the new year. In India the commencement of the Pleiades year was marked by a firstfruits festival, as it was in Polynesia and New Zealand, where it was looked upon as an important function. Some tribes of Borneo take the heliacal rising of the Pleiades as the commencement of the planting season, and in olden times the group was closely connected with agriculture in many lands.

In his work, Ethnology, A. H. Keane states that the primitive Aryans reckoned the years as “winters”, divided into moons and nights, not months and days, and that they made no attempt to harmonise solar and lunar time. Surely they must have regulated the year of 12 lunar months in some manner, or they would soon have found themselves in parlous plight. The Polynesians and Maori folk certainly had some system of regulation, and the rising of the Pleiades was one of its most important points.

J. G. Fraser gives a chapter on “The Pleiades in Primitive Calendars” in his Spirits of the Corn and of the Wild. Therein he remarks that savages appear to have paid more attention to this constellation than to any other group of stars in the sky. In particular have they commonly timed the various operations of the agricultural year by observation of its heliacal rising or setting. Moreover, certain savages who do not till the earth have a strong feeling of veneration for this constellation: this has been noted in Australia and America. Some tribes of Mexico dated the commencement of their year from the heliacal setting of the Pleiades. At Bali Island, in Indonesia, the appearance of the Pleiades at sunset marks the end of the year. Throughout Indonesia and Melanesia this constellation is connected with agriculture, as it is or was in the Americas, in Africa, and in ancient Greece. And here, in page 18 our isles of the far south, the Maori looked upon the Pleiades as the providers of food for mankind; hence the secondary name of Aokai applied to the group. As the Maori made his offerings of firstfruits to these stars, how significant was his chanted appeal: “Whangaia iho ki te mata o te tau e roa e.”

Dr Shortland remarks in his Traditions and Superstitions of the New Zealanders that the Maori people “divide the year into moons, the first being determined by the rising of the Pleiades.” Far and wide throughout Polynesia this group is known by variant forms of the Maori name, as Matari'i at Tahiti; Makali'i at the Hawaiian Isles; Mataliki at Tonga; Mata'iki at the Marquesas. In the Cook Group and at Mangareva we find the Maori form in use.

With the Moriori folk of the Chatham Islands the year began with the reappearance of Puanga (Rigel in Orion) in the morning in June. Mr Shand hints at some faint knowledge of a 12 year cycle that those natives seem to have retained, but it was little more than a dim memory.

Of the Tongan system of time division the Rev. T. West wrote in Ten Years in South Central Polynesia: “There obtained among the Tonguese [!] a regular division of time into months and years, these divisions being marked by the recurrence of sacred seasons and public feasts, which were observed with religious ceremony, and were under the sanction of the most rigorous laws. It is also remarkable that the Tonguese have some knowledge of an intercalary month, the use or disuse of which has led to many discussions among themselves.”

In Turner's Samoa One Hundred Years Ago we read: “The moon was the timekeeper of the year. The year was divided into 12 lunar months, and each month was known by a name in common use all over the Group…. Among a people who had no fixed astronomical dates intercalation was easy, and the names of the 12 moons kept uniform…. The sun was the usual timekeeper of the day. The night was divided into three parts – midnight, and the first and second cock crowing.” The Samoan month names are connected with food supplies, etc. March is called Fakaafu, the Whakaahu of the Maori.