Thursday, August 11, 2022

The eyes of the chief

The Lascaux Cave in France, home to this 17,000 year-old painting of the Taurus constellation with the stars of Orion’s belt.

As a keen amateur star gazer, I’ve been a supporter over the years of the recognition of Matariki in some form so I was pleased when it was recognised as a public holiday, which we have just seen observed on Friday.

I would have been content if Queen’s Birthday had been dropped in its place but for now, it seems that particular legacy of our past remains.

Anything that reminds us to look up and marvel at the simple beauty in the heavens above which far exceeds anything seen peering at a device in your hand must be a good thing.

Let’s start with the star cluster itself. It is 444 light years from us, which is relatively close in universe terms.

Looking at any star is a lesson that space and time are interrelated. The light from these stars was emitted in 1578, when Francis Drake was crossing the Pacific on his planet circumnavigation and Europeans were in the process of establishing colonies in the Americas. Many cultures report seeing seven stars but with particularly good eyesight in dark skies apparently there are up to fourteen visible objects. 

These are large hot blue stars but there are at least 1000 other stars in this cluster, and all are relatively young at 100 million years old compared to our own middle-aged sun which is four and a half billion years old.

What I hadn’t realised until recently is the significance this star cluster has had for human cultures all over the world for many thousands of years.

I knew about the Māori, Greek and Japanese connections but stories like Matariki, Pleiades and Subaru are across almost every culture in both hemispheres.

The word Matariki or similar is found in Polynesian languages right across the Pacific.

In many of the Polynesian languages, Matariki translates into the “eyes of the god or the chief”.

Those early intrepid Polynesian navigators seven hundred years ago who became Māori, brought the stories and significance of Matariki with them.

When the cluster appears above the horizon, the Hawaiians celebrate the god of agriculture and fertility, the Tongans welcome the new year as do those on the far-flung Rapa Nui (Easter Island) who also acknowledge the end of the fishing season in April when the cluster sets.

Australian first nations people have songlines of these seven sisters being pursued by a man that we know as Orion the hunter.

Many Indigenous American cultures also mark the cluster’s rising with the beginning of the new year and a lot also have stories along the seven-sister narrative.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, the cultural significance of this star cluster abounds.

The Greeks, like many other European cultures, also saw them as seven sisters and the ancient Celts during the Bronze Age, like Māori, associated the cluster with mourning and the passing of loved ones.

In 1999, a bronze disc inlaid with gold was unearthed in Germany. 

It is now known as the Nebra sky disc as it depicts the sun, moon and a cluster of stars that are likely to be Matariki.

Its Bronze Age dating makes it 3500 years old and is called one of the most important archaeological finds of the twentieth century.

In recent times, archaeologists have been taking a closer look at many of the ancient cave paintings found throughout Europe.

They have noted that not only are animals and humans depicted in these paintings by our ancient ancestors, but they have also added astronomical information into their cave art.

The drawings show that humans understood the heavens and how that worked up to thirty thousand years before the Chinese and Greeks were working along similar lines.

It appears they were recording comet strikes, working out the equinoxes and keeping track of time and the seasons through the annual movement of the stars.

The Lascaux Cave in France was discovered by a young boy in 1940. 

There are thousands of paintings covering the cave walls dating back seventeen thousand years ago.

One is of the constellation Taurus depicted as a bull which is how we still see it. Infront of the bull’s nose are the stars of Orion’s belt and above his shoulder can clearly be seen the Pleiades or Matariki.

This new festival we have is not so new it seems and connects us not just with Pacific cultures but with cultures all over the world and with our distant past.

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