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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 5 (August 1, 1936)

The Wisdom of the Maori The Call of the Stars

page 41

The Wisdom of the Maori The Call of the Stars.

This is the beginning of the old Maori's New Year. He knew that by the signs of the stars for one thing, and by the various indications that Nature is stirring for the approaching spring, Puanga has reappeared with his glittering panoply. Look out to the cast about three o'clock in the morning and you will see the rise of Orion preceded by the bright morning star. Many astronomers consider Orion the grandest of all the constellations. Certainly it is the one most easily picked out in the heavens, not even excepting the Southern Cross. Those three stars in a line forming the Belt, and the great stars vertically above and below are as famous among the Maoris as they are in the pakeha science of the sky. The appearance of Tautoru (“The Three Friends”) and Puanga in midwinter, when the constellation is at a sufficient distance from the sun to be visible at rising is a tohu or sign, annually looked for by the old generation of Maori.

Season-Forecasting Star.

One of my old Maori friends, a man skilled in the wisdom of the cultivators and bushmen and fishermen of his race, said that a name for the three of Tautoru and Orion, was “Nga Tira a Puanga,” which means “Puanga's Company,” or “The Travelling Party of Puanga.” Some called the bright star above the Belt (Rigel of the astronomers), Puanga, but most of the wellinformed elders said the name was really that of the red star below which when seen rising out of the ocean, is very large and bright. It throws out unmistakeable red flashes. “If these flashes appear to be towards the north,” said my authority, “it will be a year of plenty on land and in the sea, but if towards the south it will be a lean season for food. In the past our people looked eagerly for the first appearance of Puanga each winter, a sign, they said, that never failed. You could put this to the test, supposing that you had a good clear view of the eastern ocean, by watching for Puanga and his Tira.”

This season-forecasting star is, therefore, not Rigel, as some writers have said, but Betelgeux, which in Oldworld classic lore is the right arm of Orion the Huntsman. In this southern world he appears to be diving downward— “the Boetian huntsman upside down,” to quote Alfred Domett's “Ranold and Amohia.” Astronomers describe Betelgeux as a curious red star, which varies in brightness, a scientific fact well evident to the keeneyed Maori.

The Starry Bird-Snare.

There is a variety of Maori-Polynesian folk-belief concerning Puanga and his Band, as of that other wonderful star group the Pleiades (Matariki). By some the Three Friends and the neighbouring bright stars are called the “Pewa,” or “Bird Snare.” This fancy likens the constellation to the carved perch used for snaring the kaka parrot which we used to see in use in the Urewera Country and other bush districts. The rise of Puanga (in the South Island dialect Puaka) is regarded as a celestial sign to the cultivators to begin the preparation of the ground in readiness for the early spring planting.

Maoris and Highlanders.

That great friend of the Maori, Sir Donald Maclean—who came to New Zealand soon after 1840 and died in Napier in 1877—was the first pakeha, I think, to remark on the many close resemblances between his own Scottish Highland folk and the Maori tribesmen. In his MS. diary he mentioned such traits in common as the wearing of the kilt, the coronach and the Maori tangi, the chanted elegies, the war customs. He felt quite at home among the Maoris very soon after his arrival on the shores of the Hauraki.

The Foeman's Head.

Another man of note, Sir George Bowen, when Governor of New Zealand, was greatly interested by the resemblance between Scot and Maori, particularly in their feuds, raids and war-practices generally. In June, 1868. he wrote in one of his despatches to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, describing the conditions of the Maori tribes: —

“In March last a herd of cattle belonging to Messrs. Buckland and Firth, of Auckland, was driven off by a party of Maori marauders but was afterwards restored on the application of those gentlemen to Tamati Ngapora, the uncle and chief councillor of King Tawhiao. The details of this case, even in the most minute circumstances would, if told at length read exactly like a chapter of ‘Waverley,’ which relates how the cattle of the Baron of Bradwardine, when carried off by the Highland cateran Donald Bean Lean, were restored through the influence of Fergus Mclvor, the chief of the clan.”

Governor Bowen went on to compare Highland clansmen's grim deeds with those of the Hauhaus. “Lord Macaulay and Sir Walter Scott,” he wrote “have recorded on the authority of official documents how a band of MacGregors, having cut off the head of an enemy, carried the ghastly trophy in triumph to the chief. The whole clan met under the roof of an ancient church. Every one in turn laid his hand on the dead man's scalp and vowed to defend the slayers.”

The Governor likened this to some of the acts of the Hauhaus in the Maori Wars, especially the decapitation of Captain Lloyd and others, of the 57th Regiment, after a surprise attack at Te Ahauhu, in Taranaki; and the carrying round of the heads as emblems to incite the other tribes to war. There was also the tragic affair of the Rev. Volkner, so violently deprived of his head by Kereopa, and the savage ceremony in Volkner's own church afterwards. Scots and Maoris, they were brothers under their skins.