Written by Kerry E.B. Black
Nature inspires people. Poets sing of its wonders. Many escape to the wilderness and re-find our emotional centers. In nature, we seek the divine, and in the refraction of light through atmospheric water, we find a phenomenon that inspires people.
A rainbow served as the Hebrew God’s covenant with Noah, an indication of the end of the forty-day flood. In Germany, people used to believe rainbows also ensured the continuation of life, because if no rainbow appeared for forty years, the earth ended. Before that, the ancient Norse named a rainbow bridge to the land of the Gods Bifrost.
Many cultures believed rainbows led to godly worlds. Some Native Americans, Japanese, Polynesian, and Hawaiian people referred to rainbows as chariots to Heaven. Righteous souls in the Austrian Alps entered the afterworld via a rainbow, and good chiefs in New Zealand traveled to the afterlife aboard a rainbow.
The base of a rainbow holds magic. There, Celtic leprechauns keep pots of gold. However, for the Slavic people, looking at the base of a rainbow brought death. Even pointing to a rainbow could bring bad luck. Fairies often are associated with rainbows, too, and the rainbow is Indra, god of thunder and war’s bow and arrows in Hindu mythology. The Sumerian farmer god Ninurta wore a rainbow crown, and in a translation of the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” rainbows represented a divine sanction for war.
In Australia, a creator being called Ngalyod or Almudj takes the form of a rainbow serpent who brings the wet season. A Hawaiian legend of the beautiful Rainbow Maiden finds the heroine the focus of a love triangle. A jealous chief who wants her for his own kills and buries her, but her resilient spirit is released and saved. In another Hawaiian rainbow legend, a rainbow maiden named Anuenue runs messages to her god brothers Tane and Kanaloa.
Other Native people call the people of the “melting pot” of North America members of the “Rainbow Tribe,” a melding of spirits reincarnated from tribal ancestors. These rainbow warriors spread the message of caring for the earth and respecting the old ways.
The Iroquois Nation tells of a time the animals ignored their chief’s warning and ascended a rainbow in hopes of finding a way into the kingdom in the sky. When the rain dried, the rainbow disappeared and left the animals stranded. Those animals became the constellations seen at night. The Navaho People tell of the sons of First Woman who seek their fathers, the Sun God and the Water God, and a rainbow that assists them on their perilous journey.
A beautiful Lenni Lenape tale introduces Rainbow Crow who sacrificed his extraordinary colors to retrieve fire for the freezing peoples of the world. By carrying the warming salvation, the rainbow feathers blackened and crow’s melodious voice turned harsh from the smoke. A Cherokee belief describes rainbows as forming the hem of the sun god’s robes.
In Guam, the gods saved a believer, a young girl named Veronica, by building a colorful stairway called a rainbow. In the Philippines, the gods take pity on a farmer and build a rainbow to allow visits between him and his star maiden wife and their son.
Some cultures tremble at the sight of a rainbow. The Sumu of Honduras and Nicaragua see a rainbow and think “The Devil is vexed.” They hide their children away to keep them from pointing to the phenomenon and thus having ill befall them. In Burma, the rainbow is a child-eating demon. Peruvians close their mouth when in contact with a rainbow for fear of contracting a disease. Amazon cultures blame rainbows for miscarriage and skin ailments. African Bushman fear rainbows and make a cacophony with sticks to frighten it away.
Iris is an Ancient Greek personification of the rainbow, a messenger who links the gods to humanity. Ancient Romans believed a sky god’s chariot created rainbows arching across the sky. The Mayans worshiped Ixchel, goddess of the moon, water, weaving, and childbirth, and her name means “Lady Rainbow.” IxChel was the wife of the Mayan god Itzamna, and they were the progenitors of all the other gods. When angered, Ixchel poured floods, but when pleased, she created rainbows.
It is used as a prognostication device, as in this rhyme:
“A rainbow in the Eastern sky,
The morrow will be fine and dry.
A rainbow in the West that gleams,
Rain tomorrow falls in streams.”
A Bulgarian legend tells people can switch genders when they walk beneath the arch of a rainbow.
The Gay community identifies with the rainbow, incorporating it as a symbol of pride.
Nature provides the rainbow. Man interprets it, finding in its ROYGBIV (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet) inspiration for colorful tales, legends, myths, and inspirations.