Symbols rarely, if ever, belong only to a certain group or culture. A thing or a phenomenon can symbolize more than one thing, as everyone can assign it a different meaning. One such phenomenon is the rainbow, symbolized since the earliest human civilizations.
In many cultures, religions, and mythology, the rainbow represents a multitude of things. It is not surprising that this sweeping arch of colors across the bright blue skies has fascinated humanity since the dawn of time.
Humans have always added their own meanings to things they do not understand, and a sky full of different colors was certain to become a symbol of some kind. So, let’s see what rainbow symbolism and meanings are.
The rainbow symbolizes: hope, peace, promise, new beginnings, wealth, magic, art, and literature.
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Rainbow Symbolism and Meanings
The symbolism of rainbows has been used in the earliest myths of ancient civilizations to today’s Abrahamic religions. There is also prominent rainbow symbolism in literature and art.
Humanity and the Rainbow Fascination
Humanity has always been enamored by the beauty of rainbows, which is why many works in literature and art pieces are dedicated to it.
Artists have been trying to capture its essence for centuries, and many were convinced that rainbows have magical properties. Of course, today, thanks to science, we know that rainbows are merely an optical illusion and not a physical thing that exists.
However, even the way it forms sounds magical. When light strikes water droplets, it creates a rainbow, which is why this multicolored arc most often appears after a rainfall, or around waterfalls, fog, and sea spray.
Contrary to popular belief, rainbows are not half circles. They are full circles and can only be seen from a plane due to the altitude. There is no denying that the multicolored rays of the rainbow are breathtaking to watch and why so many cultures use the rainbow as a symbol.
The light after the storm
You may have heard that the light comes after the storm said to someone going through difficult periods in their life. For many, the rainbow signifies hope for better days after a hard life.
It is said that rainbows appear after the darkness is gone. In fact, most rainbow symbolisms are somewhat related to hope, such as a better future and luck. It all involves the hope for a better tomorrow, so to speak.
Hope is the moving force that motivates people to keep going through life, even during the bleakest points, as there must be good days waiting on the other side of the rainbow. As a symbol of hope in recent times, the rainbow was the most prevalent symbol worldwide during the worldwide lockdowns.
As a support for the medical workers, who were at the forefront of the battle with the pandemic, children started putting drawings of rainbows on their windows, which inspired a wave of hope.
During the 20th century, the rainbow was often seen as a symbol of various social movements and changes. The 60s were times of protests against war, and the peaceful protests that took place during the decade were flooded with rainbow flags to represent the desire for peace.
In the 70s, Gilbert Baker designed the rainbow flag that the LGBT community still uses today. He removed the pink triangle that the Nazis used to stigmatize and oppress this marginalized group.
Then in the 90s, the term “rainbow nation” was coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe South Africa. The same term was used in 1994 by Nelson Mandela as a symbol of unity and reconciliation.
In Abrahamic religions, more notably in Judaism and Christianity, it represents the divine promise of God to Noah. In the Book of Genesis, after the Biblical Flood, the rainbow appeared in the sky as a promise from God that he would not flood the world again and that it was safe to repopulate again.
The rainbow also represents the new prosperous beginning waiting for those in Noah’s arc in the new world.
Bridge to the gods
Various myths of ancient cultures see the rainbow as a symbol of the bridge between their gods and humanity. In Norse Mythology, a burning rainbow bridge called the Bifrost is believed to connect Midgard (Earth) and Asgard, the realm of the Gods. Only the Gods and warriors who had fallen in battle could walk the Bifrost.
On the other hand, in Roman mythology, rainbows were thought to be pathways taken by the messenger god Mercury. Navajo tradition says that a rainbow is a path the holy spirits take. In Greek mythology, the rainbow was the pathway the goddess Iris took from Mount Olympus to bring the gods’ commands to the land of mortals.
In Maori mythology, Hina, or the moon, was the one to cause the rainbow to span the heavens down to Earth. She created the rainbow so her mortal husband could return to Earth to die since death may not enter her celestial home.
Wealth and magic
You have likely heard the story that there is a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. This belief comes from Celtic mythology, as the ancient Celtic gold coins were called “rainbow saucers”.
The pot of gold that is said to be at the end of a rainbow is a treasure belonging to the Irish leprechauns. Leprechauns are little fairies that wear green and make shoes. According to the myth, trapping is the only way to persuade a leprechaun to give up its treasure.
However, the one that traps a leprechaun must be careful as it will try to trick them into looking away from it, at which point both the leprechaun and the treasure will vanish. This story is why many associate a rainbow with a sign of good fortune.
Art and literature
The world of art and literature has long been fascinated with the colors of the rainbow and trying to capture their beauty. The rainbow was especially popular among romantic and impressionist artists of the 19th century, such as Monet.
But perhaps in poetry is where the rainbow has the most powerful symbolism. There are poems using the rainbow as a symbol of God’s divinity and as a marvel of science’s achievements in answering lifelong questions.
There was a divide between the poets writing during the Age of Reason and the Romantics. The poets of the Age of Reason praised science, like in James Thompson’s “The Rainbow”, where he praises Newton’s discoveries.
In contrast, the Romantics believed that the inclusion of science in art could destroy the wonder of nature. It was John Keats who claimed that Newton had managed to “unweave a rainbow” through his scientific discoveries with prisms.
Rainbows and bad omens
Even though most rainbow symbolisms and meanings denote positive things, there are cultures where a rainbow is a bad omen.
For example, in the ancient Inca culture, a rainbow was believed to be a sky serpent, and they would not even dare look up into the sky due to fear. They would often cover their mouths with their hands when a rainbow appeared.
Another culture that believes rainbows to be sky serpents is Vietnam. The Vietnamese call the rainbow a “perilous sky serpent”, which means two interconnected serpents. Rainbows signify bad things to come in these two cultures, unlike most other cultures, where a rainbow is seen as a good omen.
There is a wide range of differing opinions regarding rainbow symbolism and meaning. The most prevalent rainbow symbolisms across cultures worldwide are those of hope, luck, wealth, and mainly positive things.
However, some cultures consider a rainbow appearing in the sky to be a bad omen. Of course, today, due to science, we know that a rainbow is only an optical illusion, a meteorological phenomenon caused by the reflection of light in water droplets. Still, the rainbow is breathtaking to see.