Matariki and the Emu in the Sky

As Aotearoa New Zealand celebrates Matariki, First Secretary Alanna Mackay writes:

Last weekend my family and I visited Wellington’s Space Place at Carter Observatory to see its ‘Matariki Dawn’ show.  My kids are learning about Matariki at school, and they loved seeing how the Maori stories of the stars are linked to the changing seasons.

Matariki, the Maori New Year, has an important place in NZ culture.  For many generations, people used the first full moon after the appearance of the Matariki star cluster to determine the next season’s crop.  The Pleiades star cluster (known as Matariki on this side of the ditch) is well-known in Indigenous cultures in Australia. The star cluster is often represented as a group of young women being followed by a group of men (the Orion cluster).

Many researchers consider the Indigenous peoples of Australia to be the world’s first astronomers. Generations of Dreaming stories have passed down precise astronomical information, used for understanding seasonal changes, hunting and harvesting, and navigation.

Astronomical stories differ across different cultural groups, but one common story is about the Emu in the Sky. The Emu is seen in the dark nebulas in the Milky Way (rather than in the stars, as in Western or Maori astronomy).  Here’s how researchers at the Australian National University describe the way the Emu forms a marker for seasonal change:

In Autumn, the Emu stretches from the South to the South-east, giving the impression the Emu has legs and appears to be running (female emu birds chase the males during mating) this time indicates mating season and egg laying. Emu eggs will be ready to eat.

In Winter, the Emu appearance changes with the legs disappearing, so now it is the male Emu sitting on its nest, hatching the new chicks. This time is also for egg collections. In late winter, the Emu becomes indistinct, with the body shape now representing an emu egg. This indicates the chicks are hatching and eggs are no longer available.

In Spring, the Emu appears to be sitting on the horizon. This is interpreted as the Emu sitting in a waterhole, which indicates the waterholes are full (typical after the winter rains).

Later in Summer the Emu dips even lower. Now the Emu is believed to have left the waterhole (the usual case as the country becomes dry in the summer months). The Emu in the Sky will not be visible again until its head peaks above the horizon in late summer, followed by the body in March.[1]


The Emu in the Sky. Photo credit: ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics

The Matariki celebrations in Aotearoa New Zealand and Dreaming stories like the Emu in the Sky invite us to learn from the past as we look forward to the new year.

If you’re interested in finding our more about Aboriginal astronomy and how different people have interpreted our shared southern night sky, check out these articles:

[1] ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, accessed 16 June 2017.

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