Celebration of Mate Ma‘a Tonga echoes tributes paid in ancient festival during Mataliki

New Zealand is celebrating Matariki as Mate Ma’a Tonga prepare to take on the New Zealand Kiwis this Saturday.

Mate Ma’a Tonga’s Mate Ma’a Jason Taumālolo receiving his kava

The two teams will meet at the Mt Smart stadium in Auckland.

The Tongan Rugby Players have been feted all week in the run up to the game

The celebrations, which have drawn Tongans from all over the world, reflect Tonga’s own marking of the season that is called Mataliki in Tongan when the Pleiades stars or Matariki in Māori appeared in the sky , and the ancient ceremony of ‘Inasi (“first fruits”).

Nobles, commoners and officials have come together to support the players in the lead up to the game.

Symbol of kava

The Mate Ma’a Tonga received the highest cultural honour this week in Auckland during the kava ceremony. Each player was called out by the matāpule or heralds before each one of them fū (clapped) their hands to show they wanted to drink their kava. In Tongan culture, after drinking their kava this meant they were ready to go to war or follow any mission they were given.

In Tongan culture kava is the symbol of Mate Ma’a Tonga or the willingness to die for Tonga. According to the Tongan myth Kava was a daughter of Fevanga and Fefafa. One day they found the king was on their island of ‘Eueiki. There was only one kape (a kind of taro plant) on the island, but when they went to uproot it for the king’s meal they found he was leaning on it. So they killed their daughter, who was said to have suffered from leprosy, baked her in an underground oven and presented her body to king to show that was all they had. The Tongan kava ceremony was developed after this.

Some people compare this to the story in the Bible about Jesus teaching that the seed must die before it grows as it appeared in John 12:24-26.

Kava played an important role in the ‘Inasi festival during the Mataliki season, which lasted up to nine days.


As with Matariki among the Maori, for Tongans  the rising of Mataliki (Pleiades) and the Laʻā (Sun) on Tele-ki-Tokelau (Tropic of Cancer) marked the beginning of the ‘Inasi festival.

Kava preparation and serving process with the tou’a, the Tongan crowned Miss Universe New Zealand 2019 Diamond Langi

During the festival tribute was collected and shared, dances were held and  vast quantities of food were eaten. As with the run-up Saturday’s game, the ‘Inasi festival was attended by chiefs and people from all over Tonga.

The ceremony was held at the time of yam planting (June–July, inasi ufimui) and the harvesting of the early yams (October–November, inasi ufimotu’a/uluenga). When Captain Cook attended an ‘Inasi in 1777, a procession of 600 carriers brought the yams to the king.

The Tu’i Tonga received tributes of yams and other produce on behalf of the god Hikule’o to obtain a successful harvest and bring good luck in the coming year. Hikule’o was viewed as the representative of the other gods with oversight of the civil and sacred affairs of Tonga.

According to tradition, Heketā, the ancient capital city of Tonga, was the initial venue for the ‘Inasi before the capital moved to Lapaha, where gifts were presented at the royal tombs. Hikule’o was said to have had a house at Niutōua, the village immediately beside Heketā. According to tradition, the decision to move the chiefdom from Heketā to Lapaha was to provide a safe anchorage for the canoes of the 12th Tu’i Tonga, Talatama. The canoes were sacred to Hikule’o and used to bring in tribute from the outer islands.

Poetry and songs

Tongan poets composed songs using the word Mataliki and Peliatisi (Pleiades). These showed how they highly praised the constellation. One poet Sitiveni Fonua who goes by the heraldic name Manu ‘O Kafoa from Vava’u islands, wrote a song which contained this reference to Mataliki:

Pupunga Mataliki oku malama fakatuputupu Langi

Si’oto papai heilala ia he fetaulaki

‘O ka tū’uta pea ngatū leva ‘a Vava’u lahi

In English:

The cluster of Mataliki shines so high in the sky

It is my necklace (poetically)  of heilala (sacred scented flower of Tonga) to wear before I meet someone

And if Vava’u the great arrived.

Here is the link for this song

This is very short, metaphorical and piece, showing how this punake, wanted to poetically exaggerate how well the people of Vava’u had prepared their presentation. The song was composed well after the Tu’i Tonga and the ‘Inasi ceremony were suppressed after King George Taufa’āhau revolted against the Tongan king’s line known as Tu’i Tonga. However, the poet appears to have still admired the way how people performed for the ‘Inasi.

There are other songs including this one below. Apparently this song was composed about the  Late King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV or his daughter Princess Pilolevu Tuita.

He kuo huhulu ‘a Peliatisi

Ko e kaveinga folau ‘a e Pasifiki

Tau’aki sika ‘a hou’eiki

‘i he tukulaumea ‘a Mailefihi

In English it says:

Pleiades have shone

The stars for which Pacific voyagers steer

Where chiefs threw their darts at

The legacy of (Prince) Mailefihi

You can find the link to that song here

Although, we no longer celebrate the ancient festival, we are still celebrating and offering tribute to the Mate Ma’a Tonga just as our ancestors did during ‘Inasi.

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