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The Astronomical Knowledge of the Maori, Genuine and Empirical


We now come to the younger members of the Whanau Marama, the “little suns” of Maori lore, and here we shall encounter many quaint concepts, many peculiar myths, singular superstitions, and a certain amount of genuine knowledge. Like unto the old-time folk of Babylonia, the Maori was much given to studying the heavens in former times. As Bevan says of the former people, in his Land of the Two Rivers, they gazed at the expanse of the night skies in the belief that the fortunes of men somehow depended upon signs in the heavens; and that is precisely what the Maori did believe.

All peoples cherish myths and fanciful ideas concerning the stars, for such curious conceptions are evolved by all races of the lower culture-stages, and are ratained when such races attain a higher civilization. The peculiar fables and beliefs to be given in page 23 this paper may be paralleled in western lands, and similar things are found embedded in our own folk-lore.

It is certain that the list of star-names given herein is by no means complete, but few endeavours have ever been made to collect Maori star-lore, and it is now too late to rescue it. The men who knew have passed away. We had no Ellis among New Zealand missionaries, few of whom took any intelligent interest in the history, beliefs, and usages of this most interesting people. The late learned man Te Matorohanga stated that there was much to be said concerning many of the stars; and he was a man much given to the study of the heavens. The fixing of Maori star-names is by no means always easy, for the average person among us needs a planisphere to refer to when making inquiries, and such is not a planisphere to refer to when making inquiries, and such is not always to hand. Nor is it often convenient to have one's native authority at one's side at night-time. Star-names differ, in some cases, among different tribes.

Artemus Ward observed: “I can partly perceive how astronomers weigh the sun, and ascertain the component elements of the heavenly bodies by the aid of spectrum analysis; but what beats me about the stars is how we came to know their names.” It is not recorded as to how the Maori came to know their names either, but in a number of cases such star-names are known far and wide across Polynesia.

We have already seen that there is often a definite meaning in Maori myths, but our minds are slow to grasp the allegorical concepts in which such meanings were rendered and conserved. In his work on Primitive Traditional History Hewitt tenders some enlightening remarks on the myths of the lower races, their personification of phenomena, and mythopoetical allegories we deride as puerile. He tells us that such myths were framed for the instruction of the people, and that we misinterpret them by treating the actors described as living human beings. Concerning these myths he proceeds: “They told of the recurrence of the seasons, the annual phases of the growth of the crops, the ways of birds and beasts, &c.; and in these the winds, the rain, the stars, sun and moon, and all animate and inanimate objects were depicted as human beings, the meaning being explained to the children whose natural guardians the narrators were.” He adds that, in order to understand these things, “it is necessary to enter into their modes of thought, understand their symbolisms, to see things as they saw them.” He might have added that such myths are the natural, and apparently inevitable, result of universal personification.

There exists no monograph on the subject of Maori star-lore—no paper of any importance. Such matter as has been placed on record is in the form of brief or incomplete notes in a number of publications. Taylor's star-notes in Te Ika a Maui are sadly jumbled. Few men have been field-workers in Maori lore; thus many of the works dealing with such material simply contain rewritten data from previous publications. White gives an account of what he calls an astronomical school, and says that special houses were built in native villages in former times for the specific purpose of teaching therein the star-lore of the Maori. page 24 He even gives the dimensions of such houses. His English version of this story is not a translation of the Maori part. In the latter we find the following: “He tini nga whare penei o te pa kotaki” (“There were very many of such houses in a single fortified village”). This is absurd; and, what is more, no house was ever built by the Maori merely to teach star-lore in. White's remarks about the special schoolhouse for agricultural lore are equally erroneous. A special house was sometimes erected in which to teach tapu knowledge, but there was no restriction to one subject; all such matter was taught therein—historical and genealogical records, myth and religion, ritual formulæ, and star-lore, with many other matters. He remarks that it was a very tapu house, but that food was eaten in it—a thing that could not be done in even a dwellinghouse.

In the Maori tongue a star is termed whetu, the final vowel being long. This word, and such variant forms as fetu, hetu, and etu, is known far across Polynesia, also in Melanesia. In far off Nuguri, in the Solomon Isles, we find hetu—a star, and it is also applied to a comet there, as it is by the Maori. Whetu ao is a planet, and tatai whetu a constellation. Kahui whetu is also employed to denote a constellation, as also the word huihui (assembly), as in Te Huihui o Matariki (The Assembly of the Pleiades). In mythopoetical lore, as we have seen, the stars are the younger members of the Whanau Marama, and are termed the ra ririki (little suns). The heavenly bodies are also collectively known as the whanau puhi and whanau ariki (highborn family). These names seem to be in some cases conjoined, as whanau puhi ariki. The meaning of the word puhi in this connection is not clear. The winds are also known by that name, as in “the whanau puhi a Tawhirimatea” (“the wind family of Tawhirimatea”). Again, whanau punga and whetu punga are terms applied to the small stars of the Milky Way.

Williams gives tatai arorangi as an expression meaning “to study the heavens for guidance in navigation, &c.” A tangata tatai arorangi is the person who so studies them—an astronomer, if the term be permissible. An interesting note, a brief remark made by an old native of much knowledge, seems to show that this expression was employed to denote the personified form of astronomical knowledge: “Ko Tatai-arorangi he kai arataki i te ra” (“Tatai-arorangi is a conductor or guide of the sun”). Stowell gives tohunga kokorangi as signifying an astronomer, an adept in star-lore.

We have some quaint remarks on the subject of the stars, as gathered from native sources. An old man of the Awa folk, of Te Teko, spoke as follows: “There is no limit to the world according to Maori belief, and I was taught that there are persons in the heavens. When sky and earth were separated some of the offspring of Rangi were left on high, as Whaitiri, and Poutini, Tautoru, Matariki, Tama-rereti, Whanui, Kopu, Autahi, Te Mangoroa, Te Whakaruru-hau, Takero, and Tangotango, the multitudinous stars of the heavens, who dwell there as supernormal beings. Other supernatural offspring remain on earth.” The above names represent star-names, as we shall see anon.

page 25

The same man was responsible for the following discourse: “The Maori folk of Aotearoa possessed much knowledge in regard to regulating the year. Gaze upon the stars that are situated in the heavens; they regulate the days, nights, months, and seasons. People say that the moon dies. Not so; the moon never dies; it clings to its elder (the sun) for a space. Each has its own realm, the edler and the younger, but the elder one is much the more powerful of the two. They do not cling together as two persons do [in marriage]. A brace of days and nights and the moon is again seen by the Maori folk. So it goes on until the moon again becomes aged.”

Te Matorohanga, of Wairarapa, remarked: “Now, be clear as to the sun, moon, and their younger relatives the stars. All these are worlds, and possess soil, plains, water, stones, trees, mountains, and open country. It was the ocean, the waters, that formed the plains and open lands you see. Mataaho and Whakaruaumoko (personified forms of volcanic upheavals and earthquakes) were the dread beings who altered the aspect of the plains and waters of all land.”

In his introduction to The Lore of the Whare Wananga Mr. S. Percy Smith remarks on the frequency with which one meets with the number twelve in Maori lore. He proceeds: “When we consider also the thread of astronomical and meteorological ideas that permeate much of the teaching we can scarce avoid a suspicion that the whole philosophy was based largely and originally upon astronomy. It is certain that the Polynesians were accurate observers of celestial phenomena…. They gave a name to the celestial equator and every prominent star, and were fully aware of the rotundity of the earth, as proved by the fact of finding new stars as they went farther north or south. It may be that the number (twelve) of the heavens is connected with the twelve months and the twelve signs of the zodiac, and that this is the origin of their cosmogony.”

Samuel Laing tells us in Human Origins how barbaric man “watched the phases of the moon, counted the planets, followed the sun in its annual course, marking it first by seasons, and, as science advanced, by its progress through groups of fixed stars fancifully defined as constellations.” Also how, as observations accumulated, it was found that the sun, and not the moon, regulates the seasons.