When it comes to natural phenomena, there are few things more intangible (for lack of a better term) than rainbows: you can’t pick them up in your hand like a rock; you can’t hear them like a thunderclap or a strong wind; you can’t feel them on your skin like rain; and you can’t remove things from them like fruit off a tree. Nonetheless, the rainbow is one of the most ubiquitous natural phenomena known to humanity. Artists have painted them, poets have written about them, and nearly every culture has assigned them powerful symbolic meanings, no matter where on the planet those cultures were located.
Before examining specific cultural meanings of the rainbow, let’s take a look at the rainbow itself. Traditionally, rainbows are said to consist of seven colors, and although this breakdown is not always visible on actual specimens, the number seven is perhaps more symbolically charged than any other (the seven days of the week, the seven deadly sins/cardinal virtues, and the seven notes of the musical scale are just the tip of the iceberg). Besides its colors, the shape and location of the rainbow also plays an important part in its symbolic meaning. Since rainbows appear in the sky and typically seem to be arching towards something, many cultures have assigned them divine attributes or origins, one common example being that rainbows are a link from the world of humans to heaven and the gods:
ABORIGINAL: among the Aborigines of Australia, the idea of the rainbow as a bridge between the earth and sky is on full display. One story says that the creator spirit came down to earth on a rainbow, and where the rainbow touched the ground the surrounding pebbles and stones became the first opals, gems with powerful cultural importance to the Aborigines.
BIBLICAL: the best-known example of a rainbow in the Bible occurs in the Book of Genesis. After the flood receded and Noah’s Ark came to rest on a mountaintop, a rainbow appeared in the sky as a sign of the covenant God has made with humans, as well as the promise not to unleash such a cataclysmic event on the earth again.
GREEK: in Greek mythology, Iris is a divine messenger (especially for Hera) and goddess of the rainbow. Although she isn’t as well known as major Olympian goddesses like Athena or Aphrodite, whenever Iris travels to deliver a message, she trails a rainbow in her wake that can be seen by mankind, making her somewhat more “visible” to the world of mortals.
MESOPOTAMIA: this region, which roughly corresponds to modern-day Iraq, produced the oldest extant work of literature in the world, the Epic of Gilgamesh. This poem details the adventures of the legendary king of Uruk and describes an event that many scholars believe was the primary inspiration for the Biblical story of Noah: After an immense and catastrophic flood, a rainbow appears in the sky, which in this case symbolizes the elaborate necklace of the goddess Ishtar.
SCANDINAVIA: a well-known feature of Norse mythology is that the universe comprises multiple worlds existing parallel to each other. These worlds are sometimes physically connected, and the most famous example is that of Midgard (the realm of human beings) and Asgard (the realm of a race of gods known as the Aesir). The divine bridge Bifrost, which is typically described as an immense rainbow, links these two worlds.
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