Matariki: The Seven Sisters and their Global Connections
Pleiades, also referred to as the Seven Sisters, is an open cluster of seven stars that holds significant cultural and astronomical importance across diverse societies around the world. In New Zealand, this large open cluster is is known as Te Rā Aro ki a Matariki, or Matariki, which heralds the Maori New Year. This is when the stars rise on the horizon at dawn for three days in the mid-winter months. Like Lunar New Year, Eid, and Easter, Matariki dates change each year as a lunar holiday. This year, it will be celebrated on Friday, 14 July.
The Cultural Impact of The Seven Sisters
This seven- star cluster provides a wonderful opportunity to engage students in learning about cultural astronomy and the significance of celestial observations in global societies throughout history. The Seven Sisters has been observed by various cultures and countries around the world, inspiring countless stories about this star cluster that often revolve around the theme of “seven sisters, daughters, or girl,” albiet with some variations.
A Missing Star?
Today, however, we only see six stars in the Seven Sisters star cluster, which leads us to consider why the stories are so globally consistent with seven stars.
Astronomers believe the answer lies in the belief that 100,000 years ago, there was clearly a seventh star in the cluster which is now not visible (probably because it burnt out).
This then raises a second question on how is it possible that different cultures around the world have similar stories, myths or legends for an event that happened so long ago? How is it possible that different cultures across time and across the globe have such similar stories for this star cluster, commonly referred to as Pleiades?
“How come the Australian Aboriginal stories are so similar to the Greek ones? Anthropologists used to think Europeans might have brought the Greek story to Australia, where it was adapted by Aboriginal people for their own purposes. But the Aboriginal stories seem to be much, much older than European contact. And there was little contact between most Australian Aboriginal cultures and the rest of the world for at least 50,000 years. So why do they share the same stories?
All modern humans are descended from people who lived in Africa before they began their long migrations to the far corners of the globe about 100,000 years ago. Could these stories of the seven sisters be so old? Did all humans carry these stories with them as they travelled to Australia, Europe, and Asia?”
Expressions of the Seven Sisters Across Global Cultures
The Pleiades star cluster derives its name from “The Pleiades,” the seven daughters of the Titan Atlas, and the Oceanid Pleione from Greek mythology. However, the story of this star cluster appears both similarly and differently in creation stories, myths and legends in various cultures around the worldas children, warriors and animals. Consider these different global expressions of the Seven Sisters:
- New Zealand: Matariki
The Maori story for their New Year tells of the sun, Te Ra, who turns at this time away from his winter bride, Takurua and towards his summer bride, Hine Raumati.
- Australian Indigenous Cluster: Katatjruk and others:
Depending on which Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander cultural or language group you look to, there are different stories or ‘songlines’, usually based on seven sisters, such as the Wurundjeri people’s story of the seven Katatjruk sisters.
- Hawai’i: Makalli’i
Here, the main star of the seven is named Makalli’i, for the chief navigator of what Hawains believe was the first canoe to arrive in Hawaii, acknowledging their seafaring legacies. Makahiki is the name of the celebration that marks when Markalli’i can be seen on the eastern sunset which is centuries old and traditionally celebrated with activities such as hula dancing, wrestling, boxing, lava sledding, canoe racing and, of course, surfing (where surfing originated).
- Japan: Subaru
The cluster is referred to in Japan as ‘Subaru’ meaning ‘united’, ‘gather together’ or ‘cluster’, which is what many people do during their celebrations linked to the Seven Sisters.
- China: Mao, or the Hairy Head of the White Tiger of the West
Chinese traditionally divided the sky into four quarters; Black Tortoise of the North, Blue Dragon of the East, Vermilion Bird of the South and the White Tiger of the West. The head of the tiger of the west is named Mao. This cluster of White Tiger stars are linked to the legend of Luo Cheng, who was a skilled and noble warrior and philosopher.
- India: Krittika
Krittika means ‘the cutters’ in Sanskrit. Krittika is believed to be one mythological being, made up of 6 stars and also a legendary warrior and philosopher, purported to have 6 faces (one for each star in the cluster).
- The Philippines: Moroporo
This cluster is known as ‘the boiling lights’ or is referred to as a flock of birds. The stars signify the start of a new agricultural season and time for planting.
- Thailand: Dao Luk Kai
The stars are known as ‘the chick stars’ here and have a legend of a mother hen and six chicks which have a moral lesson in loyalty and love.
There are of course many, many more interpretations and stories for this star cluster, for the Americas, Europe, and Africa. Check out:
- Native American stories vary from tribe to tribe, sometimes they are represented as seven puppies, other times as seven orphans or lost boys, or even seven little girls.
- The Aztecs called them Tianquiztli, meaning a great marketplace.
- In Scandinavia, the Vikings called them Freya’s Hens, similar to Thailand’s legend.
- In Sub-Saharan Africa, Bantu Languages are associated with agriculture and planting, with some variation in the story from tribe to tribe.
Whatever the answer is to this fascinating question around the connectedness of the ‘Seven Sisters’, this global cultural celebration and phenomenon shows us that we have always been interconnected with others, across continents and time, making meaning from the same skies we collectively share, long before the internet, Zoom or social media.
As we look to the skies, as others do in their little part of the globe, they can remind us that we all share the same home, planet Earth.
Lottie Dowling is a Primary School trained educator who has worked in a number of education roles internationally for more than 20 years including state schools and international schools in London, China, and NZ. She has worked as a Drama and Literacy specialist, in ESL and EAL roles, and now specializes in Global Citizenship Education. She is currently the Manager of Going Global at Meg Languages.
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