Stars of the Matariki cluster: Tupuānuku

Stars of the Matariki cluster: Tupuānuku

There are nine stars in the Matariki star cluster. It has many different names around the world, and is known as the Pleiades – its ancient Greek name – or the Seven Sisters in English. The Hawaiian name is Makali‘i, or ‘eyes of royalty’, and in Japan it is Subaru, meaning ‘gathered together’. 

The star Tupuānuku (Greek: Pleione) is the star associated with everything that grows within the soil to be harvested or gathered for food. Curator Mātauranga Māori Dougal Austin talks about the connection between the star Tupuānuku and a in our collection.

Together with her mother Matariki and her seven siblings, Tupuānuku (or Tupu-ā-nuku) is one of the nine whetū, or stars, comprising the whānau star cluster of Matariki.

In his seminal book Matariki: The Star Of The Year (2017), tohunga, Dr Rangi Mātāmua, observes that Māori blended both astronomy and astrology together in their star lore. He notes that while there is undoubtedly robust science within this lore, the spiritual component has always been of equal importance.

Mātāmua writes that observations were made of Matariki upon its first appearance in the night sky in Pipiri during the Tangaroa period. Tohunga ‘learned experts’ would observe the star cluster in its entirety and also assess each of the nine stars individually and then in relation to one another.

If the stars were collectively clearly seen at this time, without appearing hazy or seeming to quiver or move, then this was taken as a sign that a warm, plentiful season would follow.

If certain stars appeared brighter than others then the year ahead might be organized accordingly with more emphasis placed on activities associated with those particular stars.

If Tupuānuku appeared dim and small, then it was predicted that the produce from the village gardens would not be as bountiful as in previous years. Yet if this star was seen bright in the sky, then the storehouses would be full after the next harvest.

If Tupuānuku stood out more clearly and brighter than the other stars around it then gardening activities could be assigned a higher priority than might otherwise be the case.

To divine the coming gardening season observations of Matariki, including Tupuānuku, might be combined with those of other stars as well, including Tautoru ‘Orion’s Belt’, Puanga ‘Rigel’, and Whakāhu ‘Castor and Pollex in Gemini’.

If the astronomical signs were favourable then planting began in September, if not then it was put off to the following month.

Importance of kūmara

Having mined the above from Rangi Mātāmua’s book here are a few thoughts of my own:

The kūmara is a tropical plant – often described as a sweet potato – which was bought a long way south by our ancestors when they voyaged to Aotearoa and made this their new home. The climate here was significantly cooler and the growing season was significantly shorter than in the tropical homelands, indeed it was not possible to grow kūmara at all in the regions furthest south.

The environment of Aotearoa was much more marginal and the margin for error was much less than in Hawaiki. If mistakes were made the people would suffer. Decisions around the timing of planting of this important yet marginal crop would have been of great importance to the wellbeing and survival of the people.

Our ancestors once lived much closer to nature than most of us do today. Through careful observations made over many generations, they built up a vast knowledge of the natural environment, its changes throughout the seasons and variations from one year to the next.

No doubt those most knowledgeable were continually monitoring a great many signs and reassessing their thinking accordingly when making important decisions on behalf of the people.

Tupuānuku was highly regarded as being one of the signs associated with gardening. It is difficult to untangle the astronomical from the astrological but my impression is that Tupuānuku was particularly important with regard to te taha wairua and spiritually derived omen.

As we reconnect with marking the appearance of Matariki as the beginning of the Māori New Year it is timely to once again give this star the attention it deserves.

The ceremonial kō

This is a ceremonial kō, a garden digging implement used by a tohunga to till the first garden soil and signal the beginning of the planting season.

A split image with two different views of the same long pole
Front and side view of a Kō (digging implement), 19th century Aotearoa, locality unknown. Oldman Collection. Gift of the New Zealand Government, 1992. Te Papa (OL000152)
A wooden Māori carving on the end of a long pole.
Carving at upper end of the Kō (digging implement), 19th century Aotearoa, locality unknown. Oldman Collection. Gift of the New Zealand Government, 1992. Te Papa (OL000152)
A dark wooden Māori carving lashed onto a long pole
Attachment of the peka, or footrest of the Kō (digging implement), 19th century Aotearoa, locality unknown. Oldman Collection. Gift of the New Zealand Government, 1992. Te Papa (OL000152)

In 2004, I chose this kō to help represent Māori star lore in the exhibition Space: A galaxy of adventure (Te Papa, 11 Dec 2004 – 29 Mar 2005). I think it was a good choice and it was also literally the most spacey looking thing I could find in the taonga Māori collection. Prior to the exhibition the peka or footrest was detached and stored separately from the main part of the kō. We decided to reunite the two and restore the integrity of this taonga. I acknowledge Awhina Tamarapa for weaving the lashing shown above.

Te Parapara is a traditional Māori garden located at Hamilton Gardens, Kirikiriroa. Here kūmara are planted, grown, harvested and stored much as they were in days of old.

A garden with patterned earth piles surrounded by wooden spikes and a small red house on poles
Te Parapara in Hamilton Gardens, Kirikiriroa, 2016. Photo by Jane Harris

More information

Watch film footage of the kūmara harvest at Te Parapara.


Matariki: The Star of the Year, pp 2, 59-60, 62, 77-78, by Rangi Mātāmua, Huia Publishers, 2017

Top image credit: Te whānau Matariki. Image by Te Haunui Tuna, 2016, supplied by Rangi Matamua

Further reading

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *