We are grateful to Mr Harry Dansey for the following information on this old ceremony of ‘feeding the stars’.
The fact that the appearance of the Pleiades—Matariki—as a notable event in the Maori Year is not now well known, is proof of the fact that when old customs die, they die indeed.
This beautiful star group, probably best known as ‘The Seven Sisters’, attracted the attention and excited the admiration of people in the ancient world from Greece to Polynesia. Whether the stars were said to be the seven daughters of Pleione and Atlas or whether they were Matariki and her six children, they were the same stars whose passage across the heavens, whose rising or whose setting, were used to measure time from Celtic Britain to Aotearoa.
Rather than re-write that which has been written so well in the past about Matariki, let me refer those who are interested to Elsdon Best's observations. The principal source is the Dominion Museum Monograph No. 3. Astronomical Knowledge of the Maori published in Wellington in 1922.
Most of the information can be found on pages 42, 43, 44 and 45, with other references at intervals through the publication—
One paragraph describes the ancient ceremony. It reads:—
‘The appearance of the Plaiades was a notable event in Maoriland. It was greeted in two ways—by laments for those who had died recently, and by women with singing and posture dances. The event was marked by a festival, by feasting and universal joy. Parties of women faced the famous star group and greeted it with song and dance.’
It would appear from the writings of the Revd W. W. Gile that the new year in the Cook Islands was indicated by the rising of the Pleiades out of the Ocean, above the eastern horizon, just after sunset, about the middle of December. They would of course have been visible in earlier months, but rising later. The Maori however, marked the beginning of the year from the very first possible appearance of the group.
From one of my star guides it would seem that the earliest time these stars would be seen after their absence from the southern skies is about 4 a.m. on July 15, from Wellington. But further north, at latitude 35°S, if the observer had a clear horizon—say from a hill—he might see the stars rise shortly before sunrise early in June. This would confirm the stories of waiting at night for the stars, that is, if they did wait, then it would be in the depths of the night.
Not all my knowledge of this is drawn from books. The first evidence I can document is a note from the late Mr Rangihuna Pire, of South Taranaki, who told me in 1957—he was
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then in his 70s—that he used to be taken by his grandparents to watch for Matariki at night in mid-winter. That was at Kaupokonui, in South Taranaki. The old people might wait up several nights before the stars rose. They would make a small hangi. When they saw the stars, they would weep and tell Matariki the names of those who had gone since the stars set, then the oven would be uncovered so the scent of the food would rise and strengthen the stars, for they were weak and cold. I say ‘they’, but Rangihuna rather referred to the group as if it were one star, and I see that Best says that Maoris spoke of a constellation as if it were a single star—not that the Pleiades is a constellation, of course, but an asterism or star cluster in the constellation of Taurus.
I spoke of this in a broadcast in 1958 and I supposed that this was one of the last instances of this old custom being observed. It would have been in the late 1880s or early 1890s. But after the broadcast, a woman told me how her kuia—I presume grandmother—carried on the custom on her own just outside New Plymouth until her death in the early years of World War II. So the custom persisted until say 1941.
I was much moved by the thought of the old lady, the last of the last, carrying out an age-old custom which died with her. I mentioned this while lecturing to an Auckland University extension course at which Mrs Winchester was a pupil. Her poem, which I like very much, was based on this reference.
My good friend Riwai Te Hiwinui Tawhiri, of Ngati Porou, now living in Auckland and aged 89, told me of a somewhat similar custom, although for a different purpose. A note made on September 31, 1965, says.
‘A ceremony I saw practised as a boy was to seek an omen before going whaling. My step-grandfather, Hamuera and other elders, before dawn, would light a hangi, prepare it and wait for the appearance of the stars called the ‘Seven Sisters’. There was only a token amount of food, usually kumara. They would uncover the hangi when they saw this group of stars called Matariki. If the food was well cooked it was a successful omen. If it was not, it was a warning not to go out, or if they did, not to approach a wounded whale. Those who disobeyed very often came to grief. That was at Otaruia, the principal whaling station between Gisborne and Reporua.’
I must respectfully differ from those who hold the view that traditionally women did not make hangis. In very ancient times they did—in Grey's Polynesian Mythology can be found an account of how Manaia, in Hawaiki, was angry because food in a hangi prepared by his wife was not cooked. He said: ‘Is the firewood like the bones of your brother Ngatoroirangi that you hesitate to use it?’—or words to that effect—which was very insulting and which brought much trouble to all concerned.
In more recent times women frequently helped to prepare hangis. An instance is given by Te Rangi Hiroa in The Coming of the Maori, page 376 in which he describes the preparation of meals. It shows that both men and women shared the work. He describes how men chopped the wood and women prepared the vegetables.
‘The commander of each fire, usually a woman, applied a match …’ and also: ‘women poured in the scraped potatoes to above the level of plaited flax bands (pacpae) placed round the circumference of the pit, added the fish or meat, sprinkled more water and quickly covered the mound of food with plaited oven covers …’
And, at least in the places where I have lived, women have often made hangis although I would say that at big gatherings, men appear to have most of the responsibility. Indeed the best hangimaker I know—and the one who taught me how to make one—is my mother-in-law, Mrs Huna Hikaka.