Article by Rebecca
Image by Will Hobbs (www.sirwilliamwesley.com)
“Why are there so many songs about rainbows?” Well Kermit, it’s because there is a ton of associations with rainbows. Rainbows are featured in more myth, more legend, and more symbolism than you can shake a Muppet at!
Anyone that watched the television show “Mr. Wizard’s World” can tell you that rainbows are merely the result of the sun’s light shining through drops of moisture in the air (generally rain drops or mist). This forms the familiar arc of multicolored light that we recognize as a rainbow. The colors generally being identified as Roy G. Biv, in other words, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. (People also use the phrase “Richard of York gave battle in vain” to remember them.) However, this is The Magical Buffet, you know that we ain’t talkin’ science here!
The rainbow is an important “geographic” location in the form of the rainbow bridge. In the Norse cosmology, Bifrost is the rainbow bridge that connects Asgard, the land of the gods, to Midgard, the earthly realm. Japanese creation myth says that Izanagi and Izanami stand on the Floating Bridge of Heaven to create the land; the bridge is believed to be a rainbow. The Navajo believe that the rainbow is the bridge between the spirit and human worlds. The Hindu god of war, Indra, shoots arrows from a bow that is a rainbow. In parts of India the rainbow is referred to as “Indra’s Bow.” In the Bible, the rainbow is a symbol of the covenant between God and man. It is a symbol of God’s promise after the Flood to not destroy humankind again. In addition, Christ is sometimes shown enthroned on a rainbow at the Last Judgment. The rainbow demonstrates His heavenly power and mercy. There is also Iris, who is the personification of the rainbow and messenger of the Gods in Greek mythology.
That was fun, but you know what’s more fun? Talking about gender and sexuality! In some folklore, such as that of the Albanians, Serbians, Hungarians, and the French, the rainbow is associated with sex change. In the Chinese culture, when a secondary rainbow appears (which is caused by a double reflection inside the rain drops) the brighter one is male and the darker one is female. Then, there is gay pride. The rainbow is used as a symbol of pride within the homosexual community. Why? Well, in 1978 Gilbert Baker designed a rainbow flag to symbolize gay pride and diversity at the San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Celebration. The colors and the meanings of them, for the original pride flag were hot pink (sexuality), red (life), orange (healing), yellow (sunlight), green (nature), turquoise (magic), blue (serenity), and violet (spirit). These days the flag generally has only six stripes, but it is still recognized nearly universally as a symbol of homosexual pride and of support for the community.
Just so you do not think that homosexuals and their supporters are the only ones to ever use a rainbow in a flag format, Italy used a rainbow flag as symbol of peace. It became very popular in 2002 as a sign of protest over the impending war in Iraq. A rainbow flag is also used in Peru and Ecuador to mark Inca territory. The International Co-Operative Alliance used to have a rainbow flag as well, but after concern of it getting confused with the gay pride flag they changed to a new design that still prominently features the rainbow.
It’s not all divinity and gay pride though. Ancient Peruvians claimed if a rainbow were to enter a person’s body they would become ill. In Malaysia, there is a belief that walking under a rainbow causes a fatal fever. Folklore in Hungary suggests that if you point at a rainbow, the pointing finger will wither. African mythology talks of Nkongolo, the Rainbow King, as a cruel tyrant. Perhaps that’s why in some parts of Africa it is dangerous to point at rainbows.
As you can see, the rainbow plays an important role in many myths, legends, and religions all around the world. Most of the time, the rainbow is a positive symbol, one of unity, diversity, peace, and divinity. Of course, it sometimes is associated with illness and disease. This can make the rainbow a thing to be feared. I think that Jack Tresidder hit the nail on the head when he entitled his entry about the rainbow, in his book “Symbols and Their Meanings”, “The Ambivalent Symbolism of the Rainbow.”