The Seven Sisters - Matariki and the Pleiades
Updated: Apr 1
Celebrating the return of the Seven Stars in New Zealand (Matariki) and European and Middle Eastern (Pleiades) Traditions
This star cluster has inspired legends and folklore among the Māori people in New Zealand, as well as in Europe and the Middle East. M45, commonly called the Pleiades or Seven Sisters, is an open star cluster. It contains over a thousand stars but is visually dominated by a handful of its brightest members. The Pleiades cluster has been observed since ancient times, so it has no known discoverer. However, Galileo Galilei, the Italian scientist best known for discovering the largest moons of Jupiter and championing a heliocentric model of the solar system, was the first to observe the Pleiades through a telescope. M45 is located an average distance of 445 light-years from Earth in the constellation Taurus. (NASA, https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2017/messier-45-the-pleiades)
We recognize this star cluster from verses in the Holy Bible, such as :
“He is wise in heart and mighty in strength…
Who made the Bear and Orion,
The Pleiades and the chambers of the south;
Who does great things beyond searching out,
And marvelous things beyond number.” (Job 9 -10).
Māori traditions in New Zealand
The observance of Matariki is timed with the appearance of the seven Matariki stars just after the new moon in June (coinciding with the winter solstice in the Southern hemisphere). Since this marks the beginning of the Maori New Year, I have looked at some of the associated traditions, and ways we can honour this time today.
The beginning of the Māori New Year is a time of renewal and celebration in New Zealand. Traditionally, festivities were conducted to celebrate Matariki, following the harvesting of crops when the food storehouses were full, freeing up time for family and leisure. These festivities included the lighting of ritual fires, the making of offerings, and celebrations of various kinds to farewell the dead, to honour ancestors, and to celebrate life.
The beginning of the 21st century has seen a revival in Matariki celebrations with New
Zealanders coming together to honour and celebrate this significant national event in a variety of ways. Some may also begin festivities on the first full moon after the star cluster rises, or on the next new moon. Where the Pleiades aren’t visible in some parts of New Zealand, people might use Puanga (Rigel in the constellation Orion) as a signal for the new year.
Traditionally, the reappearance of the Matariki star cluster coincided with the end of the harvest season. Winter food stocks were plentiful, and less work was needed in the gardens. As people had time to apply their energies to other activities, a time of renewal, reflection and innovation began. This was when kinship groups and close and extended family would learn from successes or failures and think about how things could be improved for the year to come.
There are many legends about the star cluster Matariki. One of the most popular is that the star Matariki is the mother, surrounded by her six daughters, Tupu-ā-nuku, Tupu-ā-rangi, Waipunarangi, Waitī and Waitā, and Ururangi. Matariki and her daughters journey across the sky each year to visit their great grandmother Papatūānuku, Mother Earth. During this visit, each of the stars help Papatūānuku to prepare for the year to come, using their unique qualities or gifts to bring mauri, life force or energy to her different environments. While spending time with their grandmother, they also learn new skills and gain new knowledge from her, which they safeguard and pass on to others.
European and other traditions
The Pleiades star cluster also features prominently in European and Middle Eastern traditions and lore. The constellation of Taurus contains the Pleiades, on the shoulder of the Bull. The Pleiades takes up less than 1° in the sky, about the width of one finger. The themes expressed for the Pleiades vary from “a narrow cloudy train of female stars” as described by Manilius (First Century Roman poet and astrologer), to the Chinese “seven sisters of industry”, to the children of Atlas, or seven doves who take Ambrosia to the infant Zeus.
The Pleiades were also a major calendar pivot point, their heliacal rising and setting being the official beginning, and later the ending, of the season. (When a celestial object, which has been absent from the sky for a period less than a year, rises and is visible just briefly before sunrise, the phenomenon is called heliacal rising.) In ancient Babylon, as in New Zealand, the Pleiades rising heralded the beginning of the new year. This grouping was linked by the Celts to the fates, an old oral custom forbade women to sew on the day when the Pleiades were either heliacal or acronychal (first star to rise in the east after sunset) rising just in case they broke the thread and accidentally snapped the thread of life for the human race. The Celts also use the acronychal rising of the Pleiades to mark the month of mourning for dead friends. Prayers for the dead were set on the first day of what we now know as November. This custom is still echoed today with all Hallows Eve October 31 and All Saints Day; also Veterans Day and Remembrance Day in the U.S., November 11.
With names originating from Greece, the main star of the Pleiades is Alcyone, the other named stars being Maia, Electra, Merope, Target and Sterope. The seven visible stars were also seen as a smaller version of the great She-Bear goddess, Ursa Major, with her seven stars (the Big Dipper).
Under the Greeks, the Pleiades were part of an early cult of Aphrodite, gave birth seven daughters, and turned them into a flock of doves that became the seven stars of the Pleiades. The leader of the stars was a goddess, Alcyone, who was said to bring good weather for the planting season. The seven visible stars of the Pleiades were also seen as a smaller version of the great she-bear goddess, Ursa Major, and her seven stars. In pre-Vedic India, they were the seven mothers who judged men and sometimes winter them with wedge-shaped races. To the Egyptians, they were seven goddesses that the dead had to encounter and by whom they had to be judged.
The Near and Middle East
The Seven Seals of medieval Islamic magic, which are believed to constitute the Greatest Name of God, also feature in Jewish Kabbalah from the same period.
The seven symbols may relate to the seven gods or seven spirits of Mesopotamian religion, both of which were invoked in magical spells. The “seven gods who decreed fate” (An, Enlil, Enki, Nanna, Inanna, Utu, Ninhursag) were senior to the more numerous Annunaki. The sibitti were seven spirits who served as weapons of the god Erra/Nergal, a member of the Annunaki. The sibitti were sometimes associated with the Annunaki as judges of the deceased in the underworld. Both sets of seven appear to have been identified with the seven members of the Pleiades star cluster, which is interesting in view of recent hints that the Seven Seals of Islamic magic may also have been linked with the Pleiades.
How to celebrate Matariki at home in New Zealand and elsewhere
It’s time to come together with your friends, whānau, and communities. It’s about eating, reflecting, having fun, and looking forward to the year ahead.
1. Enjoy a mid-winter feast with friends and whānau (extended family)
Traditionally, Matariki is a time to share food from the storehouse, harvested from past seasons. It’s too cold for planting, so it’s time to relax, eat, and enjoy good company.
2. Light a candle
Matariki is a time for reflection. Light a candle to remember loved ones who have passed away, or to farewell unwanted memories.
3. Write down your hopes, dreams, and aspirations for the year ahead
What do you want to achieve? What do you want to see? Record thoughts like these and return to them later – how did you do?
4. Go outside!
Look up at the stars (can you see Matariki?). Go for a walk in your neighbourhood and get to know its streams, rivers, and trees. Listen to the birds.
5. Play games and tell stories
Matariki is about having fun with your loved ones. Learn to play mū tōrere, a Māori board game. Or make up a story to tell your family.
6. Organise a neighbourhood ritual
Come together with your community for a Matariki ritual that uses all the ideas above: Fire and warmth, food, reflection, hopes and dreams, stories, nature, and games.
To discuss ways to celebrate the sacred in daily life, contact me at email@example.com and see www.dreamlifenz.com
Information on Matariki traditions in New Zealand is from the Te Papa Museum of New Zealand website.
Information on Western European traditions concerning the Pleiades is mainly from “Brady’s book of Fixed Stars” by Bernadette Brady.
Also see The Seven Seals of Judeo-Islamic Magic: Possible Origins of the Symbols, Lloyd D. Graham
Images and technical information from NASA’s Hubblesite.org
Joann Greig, MA in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology, Sophia Centre, University of Wales Trinity Saint David.