At the heart of Māori celestial navigation was the concept of the "star compass" or "kāpehu whetū." This was a mental map of the night sky, divided into four quadrants, with each quadrant containing a specific set of stars that rose and set at particular angles. The star compass was used to determine direction and maintain a steady course during voyages. Te kāpehu whetū segments the 360-degree expanse surrounding a canoe in the open ocean into distinct whare (houses). These houses are determined by the positions at which the sun, moon, and stars ascend and descend. By closely observing these celestial bodies, the navigator endeavours to maintain the canoe's trajectory in relation to their movements.
The Māori navigators memorised the positions of key stars and constellations within each quadrant and were able to estimate their direction based on where these celestial bodies rose and set on the horizon. By observing the movements of specific stars, they could identify which quadrant they were in, and thus the general direction they were traveling.
- The Four Winds Divided into Quarters
- The Four Houses Representing North, South, East and West.
- Dividing the Horizon: Quadrants and Houses
At its core, the star compass divides the horizon into quarters, each named after one of the four winds:
Tokerau - the north-east trade winds. These winds are associated with the warm and relatively stable weather coming from the northeast. They are considered favourable for voyaging, as they can bring clear skies and calm seas.
Marangai - the south-east trade winds. The Marangai winds are the cool, moist winds blowing from the southeast. They are often responsible for bringing rain and can cause rough seas, making navigation more challenging. Despite the challenges they may present, these winds are also essential for the growth of vegetation and replenishment of freshwater resources on the islands.
Whakarunga - the south-west winds. These are cold, stormy winds that originate from the southwest. They are associated with adverse weather conditions, like heavy rain and rough seas, which can make navigation dangerous. In Māori astronomy, they are connected to the "head of the fish," which refers to a traditional Māori story about the demigod Māui pulling a giant fish (Te Ika-a-Māui, or the North Island of New Zealand) from the sea.
Whakararo - the north-west winds. The Whakararo winds come from the northwest and can bring a mix of weather conditions, including rain, warmth, and dry spells. These winds are associated with the "tail of the fish," which also refers to the same Māori story about Māui and the giant fish. The tail of the fish is the southernmost part of the North Island of New Zealand.
Additionally, the compass segments the entire horizon into equal areas called houses, totalling 32 houses in the full circle. The four primary houses representing north, south, west, and east are:
Whitinga - Whitinga is the eastern direction, where the Sun emerges from the ocean. In Māori culture, the east is associated with new beginnings, as it signifies the start of a new day. The term Whitinga means "the place of emergence."
Tomokanga - Tomokanga is the western direction, where the Sun returns to the ocean. The west is associated with endings and the completion of the day. Tomokanga translates to "the entrance" or "the place of return."
Raki - Raki refers to the northern direction in Māori cosmology. It is situated to the right of the Sun's passage through the sky when facing the equator. Raki is associated with warmth, dry weather, and nurturing, and it supports growth and fertility.
Tonga - Tonga is the southern direction in Māori cosmology, situated to the left of the Sun's passage through the sky when facing the equator. It is associated with cold, rain, and the underworld, as it often brings storms and rough seas. The term Tonga can also refer to the south-west winds, which are connected to the "head of the fish" (Whakarunga) in Māori mythology.
Each quadrant of the star compass consists of seven additional houses that further segment the horizon. These houses are mirrored across all quadrants, assisting navigators in memoriSing star positions and paths. Stars appear to ascend from the eastern horizon, traverse the north/south line (meridian), and descend toward the western horizon. Individual stars consistently rise and set in the same named house. The names and meanings of these houses are as follows:
Rā - the Sun.
Kāinga - where the Sun resides.
Ngoi - a land bird (the brown noddy) utilised by navigators to locate land.
Manu - the waka envisioned as a bird soaring across the ocean.
Ngā Rangi - the heavens, which provide essential clues.
Ngā Reo - the navigator heeds the guidance of the stars' voices.
Haka - the void devoid of clues, where the true challenge commence.