LYRIC O’ THE DAY:
Shut off the beacons, cause we know what's out there
Forever quarrel between the sky and I
--The Sky and I, Scarlet Grey
As a mother, you learn to think on your feet, especially when your kids hit the "question everything" stage. My son recently asked me how to make a rainbow. When the fruit of my loins appeared unmoved by my explanation involving water droplets and sunshine, I told him that rainbows were magical conduits to Oz.
And he was appeased.
In its most basic form, the rainbow is a multicolored arc created when sunlight is refracted then reflected inside droplets of atmospheric moisture. Not just a rainy day phenomena, rainbows can occur anywhere there is a combo of light and mist: waterfalls, Elmo sprinklers, and even at night (called a moonbow).
|A classic rainbow.|
Rene Descartes is credited with describing the physics of the rainbow in 1637 by using a sphere to represent a single droplet of water. As sunlight hits each droplet (sphere) of water, angles of refraction occur. Here’s the physics:
Water droplets must be of a certain size for this refraction to occur. If the microscopic droplets that make up clouds were a little larger, we could have technicolor skies.
Since my grasp of physics is fairly limited, I’m moving on to something I’m a little more comfortable with--fiction. Almost every culture has folklore tied to the rainbow. The sight of a rainbow usually represents one of three things: a connection to the gods, a serpent, or as in Hindu cultures, an archer’s bow belonging to a god.
The first written description of a rainbow occurs in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the story of an ancient Sumerian king from around 3000 B.C. They were described as both a divine sanction of war and as a symbol of immortality gained from service to the gods.
Norse mythology tells of the Bifrost--a rainbow bridge that connected Asgard, the realm of the gods, with Midgard, the physical earth.
|Friedrich Wilhelm Heine's "The Battle of the Doomed Gods". Bifrost is in the background.|
Greek myth utilized the rainbow as a multicolored escalator for the minor messenger goddess Iris, wife of Morpheus. Unfortunately, the news she brought over the rainbow was often bleak--it was her spilling the beans about Helen's abduction that started the Trojan War.
|Pierre Narcisse Guerin's Morpheus and Iris.|
In the Judeo-Christian story of Noah, the rainbow represents God’s promise that he would never destroy the world again via flood.
Several cultures use rainbows to represent the ascension of souls to heaven. North American Indians have referred to rainbows as “pathways of souls.” The Japanese call it a “floating bridge of Heaven.”
Ancient Slavs saw the rainbow as something more menacing, bringing death and bad luck. According to their beliefs, a person touched by a rainbow would become a demon. Australian aborigines thought rainbows were great serpents sent after rains to claim unsuspecting victims and create mischief. Since they were connected to water, these serpents represented life and the struggle of man with the often harsh conditions of life in the outback.
|Artist Peter Eglington's rendition of the Australian Rainbow Serpent|
A few unique myths exist about rainbows. Some are familiar, such as the story of the Leprechaun’s pot of gold. Others are tales about the resilience of the human spirit and the power of love. In Hawaii, the rainbow was actually the aura of a maiden named Kahalaopuna, reflected as she danced in the skies. She took two chieftains as lovers, but one, Kauhi, became insanely jealous and killed her. When her spirit guides tried to rejoin her soul with her body so she could ascend to Heaven, Kauhi retaliated by burying her body beneath the tenacious roots of a koa tree so she could not be reached. Her other lover, Mahana, found her body and with the help of a kahuna returned her spirit to her. Only his true love made it possible for the maiden to be whole again. Together, they tricked the evil Kauhi into admitting his crimes and he was later burned in an oven. And that totally makes me think of rainbows.
I must admit, my favorite myth comes from Bulgarian legend, in which walking beneath a rainbow will change your gender.
|Steven Tyler gives some plausibility to the Bulgarian myth in his rainbow duds. Dude Looks Like a Lady, indeed.|
The rainbow has made its appearance throughout history as a symbol of political and social upheaval. As early as the 16th century, a rainbow flag was used by the German Peasants' War to signify hope and change. Fast forward to the mid twentieth century, when Italy used a rainbow flag as a sign of peace during protests against nuclear weapons.
Probably the most recognizable modern rainbow flag is used as a symbol of the gay pride movement. Gilbert Baker, a San Francisco artist, designed the original in 1978 with eight stripes: pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue, and violet. They represented, respectively, sexuality, life, healing, sun, nature, art, harmony, and spirit. Turquoise and pink were later removed due to problems with mass manufacturing those colors at the time.
|The pride flag as Baker initially created it.|
Rainbows continue to be symbols of diversity. The National Rainbow Coalition was a political organization that grew out of Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign. He appealed to the disadvantaged voter from a broad spectrum of races and creeds. The Rainbow Coalition merged with Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) in 1996 and still is involved in a variety of social initiatives.
|A rainbow initiative I miss a lot.|
In gypsy dream lore, rainbows are thought to represent a connection between the earthly self and the higher enlightened self--a symbol of redemption and hope. Seeing a rainbow is always sort of a spiritual experience for me--it evokes positive vibes and a mental check of my blessings. But not near as much as it does for this guy.