When the bow is in the cloud, then I will look upon it, to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”
Why are there so many songs about rainbows, and what’s on the other side?
(“The Rainbow Connection”, Music by Paul Willliams, Lyrics by Kenneth Ascher)
Rainbows are usually seen after rain, where refracted light shows all the different colours. In times past, of course, people didn’t know that this is what they were seeing, so many myths, legends, and traditions grew up around the world to explain the rainbow. I’ve done a bit of research, and have uncovered a few of interest.
There’s a story in China concerning tragic lovers. Hsienp and Yingt’ai were lovers who were forced to separate. As is usually the way in these tales, the two died, and a rainbow appeared over their grave. Consequently, whenever a rainbow appears, it is a sign that the lovers have been reunited.
In Norse mythology, the realm of the gods, Asgard, and the world of men, Midgard, can be crossed by a bridge known as the Bifrost. These days this is probably more commonly known from the Marvel series of movies, but it was a genuine aspect of the original legends, and referred to the rainbow.
The Maori goddess of the moon, Hina, took a mortal husband. When he became old, she created the rainbow as a means for him to travel back to Earth to die. Her realm was considered perfect, so death could not enter it.
In Greek mythology the rainbow was personified by Iris, grand-daughter of Oceanos, the Ocean. She was the messenger of the gods. While in earlier legend she was the rainbow, in later legends the rainbow was the path she spread to go on her messages for the gods. The rainbow, due to its shape presumably, was often depicted as a bridge or road.
Another rainbow messenger was Kahalaopuna, in Hawaiian legends. She was the rainbow maiden, daughter of the rain of Manoa Valley, and was the messenger for her brother gods Tane and Kanaloa. Interestingly Hawaii is known as the Rainbow State and is renowned for its spectacular rainbows.
In Australian aboriginal Dreamtime mythology, the Rainbow Serpent is the actual creator. As it moves across the land it forms various geological features.
In Ireland, of course, if you are able to travel to the end of the rainbow, you will find a pot of gold. It is guarded, however, by a leprechaun, a magical creature similar to a gnome, elf or pixie, who will not take kindly to attempts to take the gold.
Many cultures see the rainbow as a sacred object. The Navajo, for example, regard it as the path of holy spirits, and the Cherokee refer to the rainbow as the hem of the sun’s coat. Buddhist teachings say that the rainbow body is what you will achieve in the final step before enlightenment is reached. As far back as ancient Sumer, the rainbow is mentioned as a magical object in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest written fictional story known. The character Izdubar sees the rainbow rise in the fountain of life, that is next to the tree of immortality. The Welsh believed it to be the chair of the goddess Ceridwen. An ancient Germanic myth says it is the bowl used by God to make the colours of the birds.
Some beliefs about the rainbow see it as a weapon. Hindu mythology states that the god Indra uses the rainbow as a bow to shoot arrows of lightning. Arab mythology also describes it as a bow, of the weather god Quzah.
I have come across some beliefs that are less favourable to the rainbow. To the Sumu of Honduras and Nicaragua, the rainbow is seen as a bad sign, and adults will prevent their children from looking at it. In Burma the rainbow is a painted demon that eats children, and there is an old Slav tale that states a man touched by a rainbow becomes a demonic entity under the power of a god. In some South American countries a rainbow seen over the sea is a good omen, but if it is seen over the land it is regarded as an evil spirit looking for a victim.
Many of the references to rainbow beliefs that I have found are only briefly mentioned, and for some I would very much like to know more detail because they are so odd. For example, there is a Bulgarian belief that if you walk beneath a rainbow you will change gender! An old belief from Poland states that, similar to Irish beliefs, an angel placed gold at the end of the rainbow, but apparently only a nude man can find it! I could not find any further reference to these final two beliefs and would very much like to know the full story, as there must be context of some sort to make sense of this.
So it seems that more many thousands of years the human race has been fascinated by the rainbow and we have made up many stories to explain it. Refracted light through raindrops, however true, seems rather prosaic in comparison, doesn’t it? These stories are much more fun.
Do you know any other stories about rainbows? If so, let me know!