The Pleiades are among the celestial objects that were very significant for navigation in the Pacific. Naturally such objects had also spiritual and religious meaning.
As it happens in the South Pacific, this cluster does have its heliacal rising close to midwinter, and the fact that it is close to the ecliptic and thus rises at almost the same point where the Sun appears a short time later, has undoubtedly added a lot of significance to this event for Māori. At that time of year the Māori name for this star cluster is Matariki. Its heliacal rising is significant to define the beginning of the Māori New Year, hence Matariki celebrations are essentially the welcoming of the New Year.
Māori culture has always been a Lunar culture and the phases of the Moon have been very important throughout the year. For the Māori New Year (Te Tou Hou) the actual start is at the first New Moon after the heliacal rising of Matariki. Some tribes refer to the first full Moon. Yet other tribes did use the heliacal rising of other celestial objects such as Puanga (Rigel) the second brightest star in the Orion constellation.
Matariki celebrations actually ran for a whole month until the next new (or full) Moon.
Matariki literally means the The Eyes of the God (Ngā Mata o te Ariki). The god is Tāwhirimātea.
When Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother were separated by their offspring, the god of the weather, Tāwhirimātea, became angry, tearing out his eyes and hurling them into the heavens.
The nine stars of Matariki
In Māori tradition there are nine stars (Ref):
- Matariki (Alcyone) – the mother of the other stars in the constellation. Rehua (Antares) is the father but is not considered part of the Matariki constellation.
- Pōhutukawa – connects Matariki to the dead and is the star that carries our dead across the year (Sterope/Asterope).
- Tupuānuku – is tied to food that grows in the ground (Pleione).
- Tupuārangi – is tied to food that comes from above your head such as birds and fruit (Atlas).
- Waitī – is tied to food that comes from fresh water (Maia).
- Waitā– is tied to food that comes from salt water (Taygeta).
- Waipunarangi – is tied to the rain (Electra).
- Ururangi – is tied to the winds (Merope).
- Hiwaiterangi/Hiwa – is the youngest star in the cluster, the star you send your wishes to (Celaeno).
The best resource is the book Matariki: The Star of the Year by Rangi Matamua, available here
Listen to the podcast "Matariki and Maori astronomy with Dr Rangi Matamua" here.