nature / Storytelling

Folklore Thursday: Rainbow Folklore

As summer turns to autumn, the likelihood of rain grows – and with rain, comes rainbows.

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I’m a fan of rainbows. Each week, I take photographs of #rainbowblooms to share on Twitter on Sundays.

I still have fond memories of the rainbow I saw in the Isle of Wight. It wasn’t just the beauty of the rainbow itself. It was the joy that spread through those witnessing it, so infectious that it drew people who were sheltering from the rain in a nearby pub outdoors to witness the colours for themself.

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Now, we know that rainbows are created through light refraction. You can even create your own rainbow with the help of a prism or glass of water. (You can also make a fake rainbow that demonstrates water density, using water, sugar and food colouring, if you’re in a mood for more science.)

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However, rainbows have long appeared in folklore. Almost everyone knows about the pots of gold at the end of the rainbow (protected by leprechauns). German myth claims the rainbow’s end is marked by a rain of gold coins.  But it’s not just riches that can be found at the end of the rainbow.

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Many cultures have described rainbows as bridges between worlds, connecting mortals to the spiritual realm or providing a route to enlightenment.

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Often, only the virtuous or heroic can cross a rainbow bridge. Other myths are more stringent, and present rainbows as transport systems for deities alone.

Indian god Indira uses a rainbow bow to shoot lightning arrows. The Livonian word for rainbow, pit’kiz kor, translates as Thunder Bow, and one Latin term for rainbow is arcus caelestis – ‘bow of the heaven or gods’ – suggesting more than one culture sees rainbows in this way.

Aboriginal folklore tells how the world is shaped by an (often-genderless or omnigender, and sexually fluid) rainbow serpent. This mighty snake is creator of everything in the universe and can create or destroy, bringing abundance or pestilence.

The rainbow serpent’s attributes reflect rain’s power to bring life or death. Thunder and lightening are thought to be caused by the rainbow serpent’s anger. The serpent is also linked to menstruation and fertility, land, water and social relationships.

The Rainbow Serpent is thought to be one of the world’s oldest myths (though Aboriginal stories take place, ‘everywhen’, with no past, present or future.) Similar stories can be found in African and BrazilIan folklore: unsurprising to me, as rainbows are one of nature’s most magical displays.

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Rainbows can be a marker of change: a rainbow apparently appeared after the great flood that led Noah to build his ark, as a promise that the world would never be destroyed by a flood again. The Mayans similarly saw rainbows as a sign that the gods were no longer angry with them, after their world was destroyed by fire-rain.

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Other myths talk of rainbows  drinking water from streams and rivers (along with occasional sheep or people), then redistributing the water as rain.

Buddhists see rainbows as the highest achievable state outside nirvana. And the chakras are marked by the colours of the rainbow, with red representing the root chakra and violet the crown, with the rest of the colours in rainbow order passing from bottom to top.

The ancient Arabians believed, rather beautifully, that rainbows were tapestries woven in the sky by the south wind.

Rainbows are also a symbol of diversity  used by Pride to show the joy of inclusivity – and Bulgarian folklore suggests walking under a rainbow will change your gender.

The Whirling Rainbow prophecy takes it even further, suggesting there will come a time when every culture will live in peace, hold hands and unite in a rainbow of love to heal the world and create utopia for all. This will bring ancient trees and mythical creatures back to life, and everything will flourish

However, rainbows aren’t seen as entirely benign. In Burma, they are depicted as child-eating demons; and some Amazonian cultures believe rainbows are responsible for skin complaints and miscarriages. Apparently, in Honduras and Nicaragua, some considered it a bad omen and would stay indoors until it passed.

Keeping your mouth closed around rainbows can help reduce the risk of associated ailments (in Peru, some remained silent for the rainbow’s duration to pay it respect). Be careful about pointing at rainbows too: some say it can cause your finger to rot or even drop off altogether.

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If a rainbow is magical, a moonbow is even more so. These are formed around waterfalls, on bright moonlit nights , when the spray catches the moonlight.

Whatever you believe, there’s no doubt rainbows are beautiful. Join in with #rainbowblooms each Sunday and appreciate the full spectrum of colours for yourself.

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