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We’re living in a very precarious and frightening moment in time. Looking back through history, humanity has faced moments like this many times before; look through the lens of folklore and myth, and we see that humans have always been able to combat our fear with creativity.
Today, creativity is being revived in a myriad of different ways, as people all over the globe seek an emotional outlet during the various quarantine measures. Here in the UK, the reoccurring motif has become that of the rainbow. Paintings and collages decorate the windows of homes, places of work, and schools; rainbows can be seen everywhere, from roadsides to the virtual platforms online.
Inspired by this, I thought I would take a look into the folklore and myth surrounding the rainbow, and what it has meant for humans and our creativity.
For centuries, in cultures all across the globe, the rainbow has been a source of inspiration and imagination. Rainbows, like other meteorological phenomena, were admired for their beauty, but also feared for their mystery, deceptiveness, and transience. They become the perfect subject for the artist or the storyteller: a multi-coloured ray, visible to all, only sometimes present, and which occupies the space between our earth and the sky, where (in many cultures) gods are thought to reside. Not alarming in the way thunder or lightning might be, but curious, strange, and otherworldly.
This post will outline some of the stories and beliefs surrounding rainbows, from various countries and civilisations. It will also look briefly at the idea of ‘comparative mythology’: a school of thought in 19th century folkloristics which sought to determine why, in the stories and lore of such distant cultures, very similar notions can be found.
When rainbows appear in the sky, high above the world of humans, it makes sense that they were seen in relation to the gods. Originating in Australian Aboriginal belief is one of the oldest continuing beliefs in the world: the Rainbow Serpent. When a rainbow appears in the sky, it is the Serpent: a creator god, who can be both malevolent and benevolent. The balance struck between malevolence and benevolence can also be found in the Abrahamic religions. In the story of Noah and the Ark, rainbow bridges the moment between destruction and salvation; it appears after the flood, as a promise from God never to destroy all life on earth. In Roman and Norse belief, rainbows were also tied to the gods, but in a more functional way. The Roman goddess Isis used a rainbow path to carry her messages from heaven to earth; similarly, the Norse gods used a rainbow bridge called the Bifrost, to journey between Midgard (earth) and their home of Asgard. The souls of honourable Nordic warriors were carried across the Bifrost into the afterlife. Rainbows were also seen as paths for souls in Polynesian and Hawaiian belief.
These latter examples show rainbows to sometimes have a bearing in the world of humans. The most widely recognised of these beliefs is the Hindu and New Age notion of the chakras, energy points focused at different points in the human body which are codified in the colours of the rainbow. The notion of balance can also be found here: the positive and negative energies at each chakra must be balanced through meditation to achieve spiritual fulfilment. In other folk beliefs, such as in Bulgaria, rainbows can control gender, and to walk under the arc of a rainbow will cause one to ‘switch’ genders. No biological change occurs: it is gender that changes, not sex. It would be interesting to consider whether this belief reveals a gender understanding of gender fluidity, and of gender identity as a spectrum as varied as the rainbow.
Rainbows are also believed to have the dangerous power to physically effect humans. In Estonia, it is thought that pointing at a rainbow will cause the finger to rot and even fall off. In Amazonian beliefs, rainbows are the cause of all manner of diseases and skin complaints; one must close their mouth if they do not wish evil to enter their bodies, and shelter inside until the rainbow is gone.
To those who have not heard these stories before, one might find them very incongruous to the more familiar notion of the rainbow as a source of hope. We learn through songs to dream ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, and find the ‘Rainbow Connection’, or to try and find the Irish leprechaun’s hidden wealth at the end of the rainbow. Rainbows stand for hope in many other cultures, too. Chinese folklore tells that, upon finding a slit in the sky, the goddess Nüwa fixes it by creating the rainbow from many-coloured stones. Also from China comes the folktale of two lovers, Hsienpo (who is red) and Yingt’ai (who is blue), that are brought together when a rainbow is formed. It makes sense, then, that rainbows feature on flags which stand for hope, social change, love, and inclusion.
After looking at all of the beliefs outlined above, I noticed two main axes on which the rainbow sits: the axis of humans to gods, and the axis of hope to danger. I’m sure one could even take the time to plot the stories on a diagram in relation to these notions. What is for me quite fascinating is how the rainbow can have such similar meanings in cultures stretching all the way across the globe. Many of these beliefs come from a time before these cultures were brought together – so how did the similarities arise?
Folklorists, noting such similarities when studying folktales, have sought to come up with a reasoning, and despite different schools of thought coming forward, no real consensus has been reached. The three main theories propose that: a) all tales originate in one root language which later divided into the various Indo-European languages we have today; b) all tales originate in one central place, that being India; or c) all tales originate in phenomena all early civilisations experienced – the most universal being weather and meteorological events.
This last theory is called ‘comparative mythology’, and was rejected even in its own time as being too fanciful. Eminent folklorist Stith Thompson says that it is ‘so fantastic that the modern reader who ventures to examine it begins to doubt his own sanity’! Yet, its focus on weather phenomena like the rainbow make it worth touching upon briefly here.
The central idea of ‘comparative mythology’ as put forward by forklorist George Cox is that early civilisations lacked the ability to draw a line between themselves as humans, and non-human, sometimes even inanimate, things. These early human understood the world in their own image, and so believed external things to have the same complexity of consciousness as themselves. Weather and meteorological events – from the sun rising and setting, to thunderstorms and rainbows – are characterised and given narratives based on these characteristics.
For example, the sun’s radiance determines it as a masculine force; its position in the sky connects it to the gods, and makes him a prince or hero; its path across the sky tells of a journey; its setting signifies a death, with a long night being a mourning period before the birth of a new hero the next day. Comparative mythology argues that various peoples from all over the globe, witnessing the sun, understood it in a similar way, and this explains why such character types and narratives appear in folktales of very distant cultures.
So, to take the rainbow, and see it through the lens of comparative mythology. It’s position in the sky links it to the gods, but the fact it touches the horizon also links it to the human world. It’s shape and length explains why it might be seen as a path or bridge, a slit, or even a serpent. The manner in which it sometimes appears, seemingly at random, might lead early peoples to connect it with other things that happen on occasion, for reasons beyond understanding: danger, disease, or death. The rainbow becomes an omen, or a path to take souls to the afterlife. Its beauty, its ability to manifest from (seemingly) nothing, and its inability to be found, might be what makes a rainbow a symbol of hope: in its mystery lies the potential for wishes to come true.
In our modern world, scientific understanding has helped us to solve the mystery of the rainbow. Its colours are generated by the refraction of light; it appears in the sky due to the water vapours there; it cannot be followed as it is an optical illusion, not a static object. With this knowledge, we might be tempted to look back and laugh at the early folk beliefs, like the Rainbow Serpent. Yet while this is the oldest – and perhaps the strangest – belief, it does come the closest to some kind of truth, both of why rainbows are formed and why humans are here to witness it. The Rainbow Serpent was seen as the force behind the most vital life-giving resource: water.
Some other good resources on rainbows in folklore and mythology:
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