Behold: The Māori solar system!

Maori planetsTraditional stargazers in New Zealand referred to celestial bodies as Te Whānau Mārama, or the family of light. They observed, without telescopes, most of the planets in our solar system and gave them beautiful names that vary from mythic and imaginative to strikingly descriptive:

  • Mercury is Whiro, a mythic being representing darkness and evil
  • Venus is Kōpū, or Kōpū Tāwera, the morning star. When it rises in the evening it is called Meremere, or Meremere-tū-ahiahi.
  • Earth is Papatuanuku, mother of all living things.
  • Earth’s moon is Te Marama, offspring of Tangotango, the blackness of the heavenly night, and Wainui, the ocean – the two cosmic entities that also birthed Te Ra, the sun, and other stars.
  • Mars is Matawhero, I believe a reference to the planet’s red face.
  • Jupiter is Kopu-nui, translated by some as ‘giant belly’ and indicating an understanding of this planet’s great size. The Maori knew it as a masculine entity capable of traversing the heavens in the daylight.
  • Saturn is Pareārau, a female celestial being who wears a widow’s circlet.

The Māori stargazers were incredibly keen eyed, careful and systematic observers:

It is recorded that he has easily distinguished, with the naked eye, two of Jupiter’s satellites. It is therefore a matter for legitimate enquiry as to how he came to name the planet Saturn the “Chaplet,” or perhaps, the “Circlet-wearer,” seeing that science has revealed the fact that Saturn is surrounded with a ring. In the meantime there is no doubt whatever that the Maori names for the planets are both ancient and original.

As I understand it, the outer planets had no traditional Māori names. Wherangi, Tangaroa and Whiringa-Ki-Tawhiti are modern names given to Uranus, Neptune and the dwarf planet Pluto. The first is barely visible to the naked eye, while the last two were only discovered after the invention of telescopes.

More at The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, and Science Alive

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