Kite Traditions embedded in Matariki
Ancient Māori kite flying traditions have a highly symbolic connection to Matariki – the two were historically inseparable. Kites were seen as connectors between the heavens and earth.
Matariki is a small cluster of stars, also known as Pleiades. To Māori, the appearance of Matariki and Puanga (Rigel) signal the end of one year, and the beginning of the next. Traditionally Māori have recognised the rise of Matariki as a time to celebrate the New Year.
Towards the end of May each year, Matariki rises in the lightening dawn, at the same place on the horizon as the rising sun. The Māori New Year celebrations are then held, on the sighting of the next new moon. In olden times Matariki celebrations were held after the crops had been harvested and stored, whereupon huge feasts (hakari) and merry-making (Nga-Mahi-a-te-Rehia) ensued for several weeks during "down time" (from cultivation).
Here are the next nine Māori New Year dates, which herald in Matariki celebrations :
Māori beliefs hold that Nga-Mahi-a-te-Rehia, the "arts of pleasure", originated with Raukatauri, Raukatamea, Marere-o-tonga, Takatakaputea, and other such persons who are associated in Māori mythology with singing, dancing and other such performing arts. The arts of pleasure, which include – weaving, carving, akotanga, oration, problem solving (tupea), singing, dancing, story telling, feasting and game playing - would be practiced prolifically during Matariki festivals.
Matariki celebrations were a dynamic, vibrant process that linked Māori to their rich storehouses of pleasurable activities; to creative processing and inexhaustible artefact production. Matariki was also an inter-tribal period for forging relationships and for sharing ideas and technologies.
Games, as arts of pleasure, were an integral part of Māori life. Games were not restricted to a time or a place. This was particularly evident during Matariki festivities. Throughout pre-European New Zealand, the great Matariki Festivals were the annual catalyst for a broad spectrum of games development, invention and experimentation.
However, during this period of joyful abundance tribes throughout New Zealand, without exception, historically placed their greatest emphasis on kite flying.
Kite (or Manu) mythology is prolific in Māori folklore. Legends tell of Tawhaki trying vainly to follow Tangotango to heaven on a kite; of Rahi using a kite in pursuit of Te Ara and of Maui using kites to fly over landforms. Stories also focus on Matariki – one tells of Ranginui (The Sky God) lifting up out of the eastern horizon at the start of the Māori New Year, marked out with Matariki, Puanga, Takura (Sirius) and Tautoru (Orion’s Belt).
Gathering "raupo" (swamp plant) to fabricate a traditional kite.
Ancient Māori were expert kite makers and flight controllers. Their kites were usually "tail-less", were gaily decorated, of varied sizes, shapes, names and purposes – from those used for light-hearted entertainment to kites used for highly significant spiritual rituals. Children and adults made kites - to practice whanaungatanga (social relationships), to reinforce tikanga/kawa (tribal lore); to commune with spiritual deities, to produce artwork, to perfection aerial movements, to test skills in competitions (as in Manu Namu and Manu Kopua) and for fun, to add their "touch" of vibrancy to the sky.
The most common kites were constructed from toe toe (New Zealand pampas grass), manuka (one of New Zealand's most common shrubs), harakeke (flax), raupo (swamp plant) and aute (mulberry) bark - Manu Aute and Manu Raupo, whilst the largest and most complex were called Manu Atua, Manu Whara and Manu Tangata.
Kites were also believed to be messengers. Like birds, they were considered as having spiritual connections with the Gods, hence the ambitious cloud piercing kites (Manu Atua), requiring several people to operate, and using kilometre long ropes.
Tohunga (priest, or man of knowledge) saw kites as a metaphysical means to communicate with the Gods; as a means for divination and to see beyond the real world. Their sacred kites, Manu Whara, were constructed according to strictly guarded protocols, with flights that required chanting of sacred karakia (chants) in tandem with karere.
Manu Tangata were used to physically pickup people – in addition to Matariki displays they are recalled as having been used by attackers to gain entry to pa fortifications and also as a means of escape from besiegement.
Matariki can be appreciated therefore as a popular kite flying time and as an important period for kite development and proto-type testing.