Astronomy important part of early Polynesian culture


We residents of the 21st century tend to look at the sky with a scientific eye, and, of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. We know the stars are giant hydrogen bombs. We see the constellations as helpful conveniences to learn the sky.

Sadly, we are beginning to forget that humans used to tell stories about the stars — that our relationship with the starry vault was once very personal and not pedantic.

We must listen to everything the stars tell us to discover who we really are in this vast and glorious cosmos. We must open up our hearts as well as our minds. And we must remember that humanity is a family made up of many children, each with something valuable to say.

Consequently, this week we look at our western traditions about the stars, and two Polynesian tales about winter’s two most distinctive star groupings.

The Polynesians traveled far and wide by canoe. Their cultures thus inhabit a vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

Geographers define the Polynesian region as a triangle in the central and southern Pacific containing more than a hundred islands and about a dozen distinct cultures.

The Hawaiian Islands sit at the northern vertex of the triangle. New Zealand forms the southeast vertex, and Rapa Nui (formerly Easter Island) completes the triangle to the east.

We first consider an old story from the Kingdom of Tonga, located about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand. Tongan people currently inhabit 36 of its 169 islands. They still tell this ancient story.

A Tongan Tale

At the center of the constellation Orion, we see three remarkable stars. They are approximately the same brightness and evenly spaced.

Traditionally, most western stargazers recognize them as Orion’s belt. However, on the island of Tonga, they represent a celestial canoe.

On one of the Tongan islands lived a beautiful princess named Hina. She lived with her parents and three brothers in a fine house that befitted the wealth and power of her family.

Her parents loved her very dearly and spoiled her by granting her every wish.

One fine day, her brothers and father went fishing in their canoe. They paddled up a calm inlet and saw a baby shark caught on a reef. As one of the sons raised his spear to kill the shark, the father yelled, “Don’t kill it!”

You see, Tongans saw the shark as a gift from the gods. As such, they revered the shark, but they also feared the shark’s razor-sharp teeth.

Ever the doting parent, Hina’s father decided to give her the shark as a pet. So they blocked off the inlet as best they could to create a small pool of water for the shark to swim in.

Hina was delighted with the gift. She visited the shark every day.

As it grew to adulthood, it became pretty tame, for a shark at least. Hina could swim with it and caress its head as it swam by her.

One fateful evening, a violent storm buffeted Hina’s island. As the waves crashed upon the shore, they tore apart the shark’s reef and swept the shark deep into the ocean.

A deep and despairing sadness filled Hina’s heart. After days of bitter weeping, she begged her parents to paddle out from shore to look for her lost pet.

So Hina, her mother, and her father paddled into the open ocean and searched for the shark.

The hunt was long and arduous, but Hina finally saw a shark’s fin emerge from the deep. She knew at once that it was her shark, and her heart filled with joy.

Hina promised the shark that the family would build it a new pool but to no avail.

The shark had had a taste of freedom. In the vast ocean, it could swim and play as it pleased.

Hina could not bear her grief at the shark’s decision. She jumped from the canoe and became part of a reef where sharks hide to shelter from storms.

Her devoted parents followed her into the ocean. They left the canoe to float, forlorn and alone, in the water.

But the canoe rose upward into the sky through the power of love — Hina’s love for the shark and her parent’s love for her.

We still see the canoe and the spirits of its passengers today. The Tongan name for Orion’s belt is Alotulu, “three in a boat,” a fitting testament to love’s enduring power.

Our second story is from New Zealand, home of the Maori people.

A Maori Myth

We look next to the most beautiful star cluster in the sky. We westerners call it the Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters.

Use Orion’s belt stars to guide you. They point to the right to the V-shaped head of Taurus the Bull. Above the bull’s head, you will see a tiny, dipper-shaped assemblage of six stars easily visible to the unaided eye.

The left-most star of the bull’s head is another character in our story. Aldebaran, the angry blood-shot eye of the bull, is the dominant star in the region.

It was not always so. According to an old Polynesian story, near Aldebaran was a supremely bright star that outshone even Sirius, the most brilliant nighttime star in our sky these days.

Sirius is another character in the tale. You can find it far down and to the left from Aldebaran on the other side of the familiar constellation Orion. Again, use Orion’s belt stars to point your way, but follow them to the left this time.

Long before humans made their appearance on Earth, that brightest of all stars was called Matariki, or Little Eyes. So enamored was it of its own beauty that it began to boast to nearby stars that it was more lovely even than the gods themselves.

The gods did not take Matariki’s vanity well. They appointed Tane, the guardian of the four pillars of heaven, to drive Matariki from the starry sky.

Realizing that vanity was not the singular purview of Matariki, Tane asked the nearby bright stars Sirius and Aldebaran for their help. The two stars had always been jealous of Matariki’s brilliance, so they participated quite willingly in the conspiracy.

Together, the three warriors headed for their brighter enemy, but Matariki saw them coming and hid under the waters of the heavenly river we call the Milky Way.

Sirius, whose brilliance extended to an agile mind, quickly dammed the great river of light. Thus revealed, Matariki ran away so fast that it quickly disappeared in the distance, which was what Tane, Sirius, and Aldebaran had in mind in the first place.

There the story should have ended. However, powerful Tane’s blood was up.

He picked up Aldebaran and hit the unfortunate fugitive with a mighty throw. The blow was so enormous that it smashed Matariki into six dimmer pieces.

Fragmented and in pain, the six stars limped their way back to where the brighter star had once resided, near the now more brilliant star Aldebaran.

No longer do they outshine the bull’s angry eye. Now Sirius reigns supreme as the brightest star in the dark expanse of night.

You’d think that the formerly brilliant Matariki would have learned something from those events. Pride, after all, to our western sensibilities “goeth before a fall.”

It’s pretty tough to go from the brightest bulb in the cosmos to a scattered, little cluster of stars. Wouldn’t most of us feel deeply despondent over those events?

Or perhaps indomitable vanity is something to admire. To this very day, Matariki still occasionally looks down with its six eyes upon its reflection in the ocean waters. It whispers to

itself that it is far lovelier as the glorious Pleiades than it ever was as a mere star.

If you have ever seen the beauty of those Little Eyes reflected in your own, you will understand how Matariki felt.

By Tom Burns


Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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