Most if not all traditional cultures including Māori used the stars to guide them not only in navigation, but also as a correlation to the seasonal patterns of fish, plants and other living creatures, and how these impacted on human food and medicine supplies and survival. Maramataka is a traditional Māori practice of using knowledge of the star systems, moon cycles, tides and the environment to determine the appropriate time to carry out particular tasks. Maramataka came to Aotearoa with the first Polynesian migrants around 1000 years ago, and iwi in different parts of the country developed their own maramataka based on their local environment. It is sometimes called the Māori calendar, but instead of counting days, weeks and months, it is based upon the cycles and phases of the moon.
Here in Aotearoa this year we are having a national holiday for the first time in our history to celebrate an important timeline in this lunar calender, known as Matariki. The Matariki cluster of seven stars (Matariki and her six daughters, known as the Pleiades to Greek astronomers) reappears in our night sky between the end of May and July, and this year it coincides closely with the winter solstice.
Plants have a huge relevance to Matariki and human nutrition, health and survival, and to the wellness of the earth. A key plant for early Māori, was the kumara (Ipomoea batatas, or sweet potato), which originated in south America but was adapted and cultivated as a virtual perennial in the Pacific islands, then further adapted by early Māori to the temperate New Zealand climate and stored successfully during the winter months. This was a major achievement of early Māori agriculture, as this plant provided sustenance and helped ensure winter survival. Little wonder that in centuries gone by, as is still the case with traditional and farming families and close communities today, when the kumara or other important crop was safely harvested, dried and stored, there soon came a time for celebration and a special hangi or sharing of food. Research has since shown kumara to have many potential medicinal applications, including in the treatment of diabetes and hyperlipidaemia(1), cancer(2, 3) and chronic inflammatory conditions such as arthritis(4).
These traditional ceremonies, celebrations and rituals, many of which involved an admiration and gratitude to the far away stars (regarded as atua, or gods to Māori), are important for many reasons. Not only do they help to foster a closer connection with nature and respect for the sustenance Papatūānuku (the earth mother) provides, but they also foster a stronger sense of community.
While Matariki has different meanings to different iwi and individuals, it should be a time to celebrate harvest, gift and share food, and plan for the year ahead. In north America they have Thanksgiving, in Germany an autumn harvest festival known as Erntedankfest, in China a mid-autumn festival known as the Moon Festival. These festivals have their own unique traditions, including making offerings to the gods, and preparing a special traditional dish. In all cases, they incorporate the practice of expressing gratitude to the earth, seas and rivers for providing food and sustenance, and celebrating the end of another annual cycle of growing, harvesting and gathering food and medicine from nature.
Finally, an annual seasonal event that relates to the stars and life in Aotearoa New Zealand, and celebrates the richness of the traditional knowledge and pursuits of Māori, is being acknowledged in the diaries of all New Zealanders.
The faster and faster pace of modern living, increasing impact of information technology, artificial intelligence and virtual reality on our daily lives, excessive consumerism and preoccupation with monetary wealth, are factors catalyzing an increasingly alarming disconnection from nature for a growing proportion of the world’s population. The Covid-19 lockdowns resulted in people taking more interest again in their local surroundings, neighbourhoods and communities. Global supply chain disruptions gave and continue to give us a wakeup call as to how over-dependent we are, on goods and medicines produced in far away countries. Matariki this year for me is a time to reflect upon how vulnerable we humans still are to the powers of nature, yet how fruitful nature can be. Regardless of what we’re already pursuing in our busy lives, it is important and necessary to sometimes pause and reflect on how fortunate we are to be living in a small country on a small planet in the cosmos, which still provides bountiful supplies of food and medicine for most of us almost at our very doorsteps.
Unlike how we perhaps tend to approach other European culture-dominated public holidays, Matariki is a time to try and ensure we take proper time out to actually spend time in nature, and celebrate the beautiful land, waterways, plants and creatures that surround us here in Aotearoa. Listening to Te Whenua (the land), noticing what changes are happening around us, and nurturing our local environment. Looking upwards to the stars, and also behind and to the sides sometimes, not just to the front or to other humans, books or the internet for guidance.
While each of us will have or over time develop our own personal connection to this first ever intrinsically Aotearoan holiday and time of reflection, there is much we can do to help foster a closer relationship with plants and their wellbeing. Making and sharing nutritious and kapai food from kumara, pumpkin, apples or other recent local harvests from our garden or forest, or immersing ourselves for a time in the bush, where the plants talk to us and teach us just by being there. Planting seeds of a native plant, garlic or other food or medicinal species, or nurturing plants already established in our local environment. Harvesting medicines from them and planning to make teas, tinctures, syrups or balms, or preparing and planning for the annual plant calender year ahead, are all activities that align well with the significance of Matariki. And what better time to slow down, reflect and immerse ourselves in these simple but meaningful and powerful pursuits than Matariki this year, after what the world has been through in the last couple of years.
- Naomi, R., Bahari, H., Yazid, M. D., Othman, F., Zakaria, Z. A., & Hussain, M. K. (2021). Potential Effects of Sweet Potato (Ipomoea batatas) in Hyperglycemia and Dyslipidemia-A Systematic Review in Diabetic Retinopathy Context. International journal of molecular sciences, 22(19), 10816.
- Mohanraj, R., & Sivasankar, S. (2014). Sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas [L.] Lam)–a valuable medicinal food: a review. Journal of medicinal food, 17(7), 733–741.
- Lin, H. H., Lin, K. H., Wu, K. F., & Chen, Y. C. (2021). Identification of Ipomoea batatas anti-cancer peptide (IbACP)-responsive genes in sweet potato leaves. Plant science : an international journal of experimental plant biology, 305, 110849.
- Majid, M., Nasir, B., Zahra, S. S., Khan, M. R., Mirza, B., & Haq, I. U. (2018). Ipomoea batatas L. Lam. ameliorates acute and chronic inflammations by suppressing inflammatory mediators, a comprehensive exploration using in vitro and in vivo models. BMC complementary and alternative medicine, 18(1), 216.