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  • In te ao Māori, space has a complex and extensive whakapapa. The narratives differ from iwi to iwi but follow similar themes.

    Space whakapapa

    Māori astronomy is fundamental to Māori belief systems. Dr Pauline Harris and David Perenara-O’Connell briefly explain Māori cosmological origins.

    Select here to view video transcript, jargon alerts, discussion questions and copyright information.

    The cosmological origins of space start with Te Kore – the nothingness. Some whakapapa pūrākau claim Te Kore is the darkest of darkness while others say that darkness did not yet exist. Described as a state of potential, Te Kore was formless but in a constant state of change. It moved from one state of nothingness to another and became the first named Māori genealogy/whakapapa. Te Pō – also known as perpetual night – occurred within Te Kore, and this coexistence continued for aeons. Eventually, consciousness appeared in the formation of the Earth mother Papatūānuku and sky father Ranginui. Together, they produced more than 70 atua children.

    Tūhoe iwi tell of two of these atua – Tangotango and Wainui – whose tamariki include te Whānau Mārama (the Family of Light): Rā (Sun), Marama (Moon), ngā whetū (stars) and hīnātore (phosphorescent light). Other atua – Tāne with the help of Tamarēreti – placed these objects in the sky to adorn the chest of Ranginui and brought light into the world.

    Eventually, humans descended from Tāne-mahuta, so in multiple ways, humans whakapapa (are related) to the stars.

    Tātai arorangi – astronomical knowledge

    Astronomical knowledge, known as tātai arorangi, informed many aspects of Māori life, culture and traditions. Extensive star knowledge enabled navigators to travel the vast Pacific Ocean. This mātauranga/knowledge continued to develop upon arrival in Aotearoa. Tātai arorangi informed seasonal and monthly calendars (maramataka), the timing of planting, harvesting and hunting, the positioning and construction of meeting houses and other cultural practices.

    Rights: Bob Linsdell, CC BY 3.0

    Marae in Whakarewarewa Village

    Te Kore is seen by some as the construction of the universe – the building of a vast celestial wharenui. Marae are built to represent these celestial origins.

    This marae is located in Whakarewarewa Village, home of the Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao people.

    Much of tātai arorangi is passed on orally through pūrākau and whakapapa, waiata and whakataukī. These all carry messages, cautionary tales and metaphors that help us to understand ideas about space and navigation. Although some pūrākau are well known across the motu, they can vary by rohe, and some pūrākau are unique to certain iwi and hapū.

    Ngā rangi tūhāhā – Tāwhaki and Tuna

    Ngā rangi tūhāhā are separately spaced heavens. The near heavens encompass our own human universe and our local Solar System. The limitless heavens encompass the galaxies that we can see using powerful telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope. The distant heavens are those that are yet to be discovered.

    David Perenara-O’Connell (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāi Te Ruahikihiki, Ngāti Huirapa, Ngāi Te Rakiāmoa) tells of pūrākau related to Tāwhaki – an atua of several of ngā rangi tūhāhā. Pūrākau tell of Tāwhaki meeting Tuna in the highest of heavens and convincing Tuna to descend to the Earth. Māui and his people created a hīnaki (eel trap) from tororaro (Muehlenbeckia astonii) growing on Kaitōrete, near Ōtautahi Christchurch. They caught Tuna and cut him up to create kōiro (conger eel), piharau (lamprey) and freshwater tuna species.

    Rights: M. Rutherford, CC BY 4.0

    Kōiro – conger eel

    The southern conger eel (Conger verreauxi) is a marine species that can grow to nearly 2 m in length and weigh up to 20 kg.

    Pūrākau attribute its origins to Māui’s severing of Tuna’s tail and dropping it into the sea.

    Whānui and kūmara

    Dr Pauline Harris (Ngāti Kahungunu) recounts a pūrākau related to the whakapapa of Whānui, which tells the story of the kūmara.

    Whānui (the star also known as Vega) and his wife brought forth multiple kūmara children. Whānui’s brother Rongo-maui (the atua of cultivated food and crops) wanted to bring kūmara to Earth. Whānui disliked this idea and forbade Rongo-maui from taking his children. Rongo-maui took a different approach and mated with Whānui’s wife to produce kūmara children of his own. Whānui discovered this deception and became angered. To prevent Rongo-maui’s children from succeeding, Whānui sent to Earth his other children Anuhe, Toronū and Moko (caterpillars) along with moths and other pests that would feed on the kūmara.

    The pūrākau of Whānui has multiple messages. There is the theme of theft and wrongdoing. There is whakapapa describing kūmara as descendants of Rongo-maui. We also see a connection between kūmara and the star Whānui/Vega. When the star rises in March each year, there are practices associated with the harvesting of kūmara.

    Related content

    The Society of Māori Astronomy Research and Traditions (SMART) is working to restore knowledge of tātai arorangi and whakapapa pūrākau. SMART also features in the article Revitalising Māori astronomy.

    Mātauranga Māori is a significant knowledge base. Use the text and links within this resource to learn more about it.

    Te tapa ingoa is a Connected article by Priscilla Wehi and Hemi Whaanga that explores how early Māori named and grouped the plants and animals they found around them. Discover what this process reveals about Māori ways of viewing the world and the framework provided by whakapapa.

    Astronomical techniques involve knowledge of the night sky. Find out more in these articles:

    Activity ideas

    Try these related activities:

    • Navigating by the stars teaches cardinal compass points and how to use the Sun and star constellations – the Southern Cross and the Pointers – to identify them.
    • How’s your memory? involves the memorisation of the star compass components – just like the real navigators.
    • Compass treasure hunt uses knowledge of the Sun and Moon to make compass directions and uses these directions in a treasure hunt.

    Hunting galaxies far far away – explains how to use Aladin Lite to scan the entire sky for hidden galaxies and even decipher information about their stellar populations and evolution.

    Useful link

    Visit the Society of Māori Astronomy Research and Traditions (SMART) Facebook page.

    Land of Voyagers, on the Mātauranga website, has a number of multimedia resources that explain astronomical knowledge and other techniques used in traditional navigation.


    This resource has been produced with funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and the support of the New Zealand Space Agency.

    Rights: Crown copyright

    Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and the New Zealand Space Agency

    The New Zealand Space Agency, part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, is the lead government agency for space policy, regulation and sector development.

      Published 25 July 2022 Referencing Hub articles
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