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An ancient Maori tale of how the stars came to be

The story of Tama Rereti is this:

A very long time ago, soon after the first people were placed on the Earth, there were no stars in the sky at night. It was so dark that it was impossible to move around outside at night without tripping into things. The Taniwha was the only creature that was able to move around in the dark. The Taniwha were the guardians of nature and they liked to eat anything that was moving outside at night. During the daytime the Taniwha slept at the bottom of lakes and deep rivers.

At this time lived a great warrior named Tamarereti. His house was at the south end of the great lake that we call Taupo. One morning, Tamarereti awoke in his whare (a Maori hut) and felt very hungry, but when he looked in his food store he found that he had very little left to eat. As he stood in the door of his whare looking out over the rippling waters of the lake, he decided to go fishing, to catch some fish for himself and his family. It was a lovely mild spring morning with a light breeze from the south.

Tamarereti gathered up his fishing lines and baits and put them in his canoe, his waka and pushed off onto the lake. He hoisted the sail and set off for his favourite fishing spot. When he arrived he lowered the sail and started fishing. After a while, Tamarereti had caught some nice fish so he decided to head back to the village for a late breakfast.

Unfortunately the wind had dropped and he was becalmed. The day was mild and it was a long way back to the village so Tamarereti decided to lie down in the bottom of the waka for a snooze. It was peaceful in the waka and with the gentle rocking of it and the sound of the waves lapping against the sides, Tamarereti was soon fast asleep.

While he slept the gentle breeze returned and the canoe with Tamarereti on board sailed quietly towards the north end of the lake. Tamarereti slept for a long time. When he awoke he looked over the side of the canoe and to his surprise found that he was at the far end of the lake. There was no way he could make it back home across the lake before dusk. And after dusk the taniwha, the guardians who ate anything that was moving in the dark would come and gulp him. Tamarereti was a brave warrior. He was not afraid of fighting with the taniwha but he loved his family dearly. All he wanted was to get back home to his wife and children, to the ahi kaa, the sacred fire of his family.

By now he was extremely hungry. He was a wise person, Tamarereti, who knew that important decisions cannot be taken on an empty stomach. He knew he had to eat. So he sailed his canoe to a nearby pebble beach, threw over the anchor and paddled ashore with his fish. There, he lit a small cooking fire. He skewered his fish onto a stick and baked them over the flames. When they were cooked he sat on a fallen log and quietly ate the fish while he listened to the sounds of the breeze in the trees, the song of the Tui and the rippling of the little waves as they washed over the pebbles on the beach. It was warm and it felt very peaceful. As Tamarereti was looking into the dance of the flames he noticed that all the pebbles he used for the fireplace where shining bright. Suddenly this gave him an idea. He loaded as many of the shining pebbles into his canoe as it would hold and pushed off into the lake. He told to himself, what if, instead of going back home through the lake I will sail onto the great river from the sky? Tamarereti sailed towards the river and guided his canoe carefully into the entrance just as the sun slipped below the horizon and darkness descended on the Earth. The current of the river was strong and the canoe moved along at a steady pace.

As the canoe, the waka, entered the sky, Tamarereti began to scatter the bright, shining pebbles in all directions as he went along. The wake of the canoe became the Milky Way and the pebbles became its stars. This is the reason why we have stars in the sky. You might also wish to know that by the time Tamarereti had thrown out all the pebbles he had sailed right across the sky and was able to see his village in the first light of dawn.

He was very tired so he beached his canoe and tied the anchor rope to a large tree stump. Having secured his canoe Tamarereti walked slowly to his whare, and, just as the Sun rose above the hills in the East he clambered through the door and lay down on his sleeping mats exhausted. In just the twinkling of an eye Tamarereti was sound asleep.

Tamarereti slept soundly for many hours. When he awoke in the middle of the afternoon he found Ranginui, the god of the sky, sitting outside the whare waiting for him. At first Tamarereti was afraid that Ranginui would be angry with him for littering the sky with thousands of pebbles. Much to the surprise of Tamarereti, Ranginui was very pleased with the new appearance of the night sky. For the first time there was enough light at night to enable people to see what they doing and allow them to move around safely. Best of all Ranginui was delighted with the beauty of the night sky.

So that people in the future would remember how the stars were placed in the sky and how the sky was made beautiful at night, Ranginui asked Tamarereti if he would allow his canoe to be permanently anchored among the stars. Together that evening they chose the place in the sky where the wake of the canoe is at its brightest, and there the great canoe of Tamarereti floats peacefully to this day.

The canoe of Tama Rereti sets sail in November from Aotearoa signaling to Maori navigators that it was time to start planning their journeys back to Rarohenga. Rarohenga means the domain, the rohe, beyond the Sun, Ra. Maori give that name to the places they cannot see beyond the curvature of Earth.

Return to the main November Jodcast page to read about how a canoe constellation in the southern sky holds significance for the people of New Zealand.

This retelling of Tama Rereti's tale was composed by Haritina Mogosanu, and compiled for the Jodcast website by Saarah Nakhuda.

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