For about ten years, Polynesians have been rediscovering the natural annual cycle of ancient times: the alternation between the period of scarcity, Matari’i i raro, from May to November, and the season of abundance Matari’i i ni’a, November to May. An alternation marked by the shift of the Pleiades constellation.
Matari’i is the name given in the Society Islands and in the Austral Islands to the Pleiades constellation. Mata means “eye”, ri’i means “small”, Matari’i thus would mean “small eyes”. This constellation is known and used to mark the time all over the South Pacific, its name varies in function of the islands and archipelagos linguistic specificities. In the Marquesas, it is called Mata’iki. Sign of the bonds between all Polynesian people in the South Pacific, the name Matariki is common to the Tuamotu and Gambier Archipelagos in French Polynesia, but also in the Cook Islands and New Zealand. In Hawaï, another great Polynesian land, the Pleiades are known under the name Makali’i or Makalii.
A precious astronomic reference, the appearance or disappearance in the night sky of this constellation divided the year into two great distinctive periods of about six months each. The first one named Matari’i i ni’a, corresponded to the rise of the Pleiades. It started on November 20 (November 21 on leap years), at the very moment where the Pleiades are aligned with the setting sun and the horizon. The constellation then remains visible until around May 20, on which date it goes below the horizon at sunset, disappearing from the night sky and starting the era of Matari’i i raro.
Celebrations And Rituals
Until the arrival and the settlement of the Europeans early in the 19th Century, the start of the Matari’i i ni’a period, at the end of October, was the beginning of a cycle of celebrations and rituals of the utmost importance as it was directly connected with the most vital preoccupations of the Polynesians at the social level as well as the spiritual level.
The rising of the constellation at sunset, coincided with the beginning of the ritual activities of the Arioi, a brotherhood of artists trained in the arts and entertainment, keepers and transmitters of cultural heritage.
In December, were held also the harvest festivities, which were also the celebration of the arrival of the dead, as Teuira Henry explains in his work of reference “Tahiti in Ancient Times” written at the end of the 19th Century: “Each year all over the Society Archipelago, was celebrated a national holiday during the harvest of the first products of the land. This holiday was called the parara’a matahiti (maturity of the year). This season took place generally between the end of December and the beginning of January. […] For several days, festivities and revelries took place and it was the time when the people (…) were asking Romatane, god of Paradise, to come and share their joy with the spirits of their departed friends”. Thus the living could mourn their dead.
In our latitudes, the period when the Pleiades are visible, November through May, corresponds to the more humid and warmer season (average temperatures being between 27°C (81°F) and 30°C (86°F)). Rain showers are more frequent and more intense, marking a rainy season culminating in January – February. Tropical heat and humidity then constitute the ideal conditions for the growth, if not the exuberance, of a large part of the flora, such as flowers, fruit, vegetables and other plants with roots, which were the basis of traditional food.
Matari’i i ni’a corresponds also to the reproduction period of many lagoon fishes, which then gather in schools, and make fishing much easier. It is therefore not surprising that this period was associated with abundance in a traditional society greatly dependent on natural resources.
Conversely, during the Austral winter, from June to October, the climate is dryer and temperatures are lower (an all relative observation in comparison to the winters in temperate countries as the average temperature then is around 25 (77°F) to 28°C (82°F)!). In ancient times, this period was however a season of scarcity as nature was less generous. The arrival of these difficult times for the island population, sometimes hit with food shortages in periods between harvests, was marked precisely by the disappearance of the Pleiades in the night sky, meaning Matari’i i raro time.
New Quest For Meaning
“Ceremonies ended up again with rituals on the marae [Platforms built with stones where ancient religious worshipping took place as well as ceremonies of social or political character], rituals aimed at helping the dead to access the Rohutu-noa-noa (land of the dead Arioi). After this, the ‘Arioi would suspend their festivities and return back home to mourn the absence of the gods”. Coming with the dead at the time of the first ceremonies of the agrarian year, the Arioi were leaving with them at the end of the season of abundance, marked at the end of May by the disappearance of the Pleiades at sunset.
With Christianity penetrating Polynesian society at the start of the 19th Century, the festivities around Matari’i i ni’a and Matari’i i raro, were slowly replaced by festivities brought by European settlers, such as Christmas, the arrival of the Gospel celebrations, etc.
The ancient Polynesians’ religion, which guided and gave a deep meaning to these festivities yielded to the new creed. The importance of agrarian rituals also faded away with the modernization of the society all along the 20th Century. But since the start of the years 2000, the Polynesians have wished to rediscover these festivities and their deep meaning showing the strong bounds that exist between traditional Polynesian society and its environment. Under the influence of associations such as Haururu, Festivities ceremonies have been created to respond to this new quest for meaning and identity.
Where to look in the sky Où regarder dans le ciel ?
Matari’i is a mass of about 200 stars, which appears at sunset during the new moon (moonless night) in the month of November. They are very visible above the horizon on Tahiti’s East Coast at the mouth of the Papenoo river, and are present in the night sky until the beginning of the dry season.
Matari’i is seen in the extension of an imaginary line linking the three central stars of te uru Meremere (i.e. Orion) to Ana muri (Aldebaran, at the foot of a big capital letter A).