Sunday, November 27, 2011

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

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.
Sprinkler rainbow.
A moonbow.
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.


  1. Ohhhh I did not know that about moonbows!! I learned something new. Okay, many new things. Anyway, fact is I've seen those before, and now I know what the heck I was looking at!

    Rainbows are awesome.

  2. But what does it MEAN?!?

    My lyric O' the day: "Double rainbow, double, double rainbow..."

  3. My mom told me that rainbows was a reminder that God wouldn't kill us with a flood. Yeah, he'd probably use fire. =) Talk about hiding from rainbows. LOL

  4. Ref: I told him that rainbows were magical conduits to Oz. And he was appeased.

    Sometimes the magical reasons are what we want to hear most. :)

  5. That was Steven Tyler? So weird. I like the explanation you gave your son the best.

  6. Whoa! I had to watch all the way to the end of that video just to see if he survived (thank goodness for the puppy intervention--I did hear barking, didn't I?) I loves me some rainbows, too, and love the myths. I'm with your son when it comes to Descartes, though!

  7. The Steven Tyler photo will haunt me all day...

  8. Rainbows are beautiful, aren't they? And they can be found everywhere. My favorites are the double rainbows. There's also the rainbows in the puddles of oil on the ground.

    Thanks BTW, I'm going to be singing, Somewhere over the Rainbow, all day now. :) So glad you told your son the truth...everyone knows rainbows lead to OZ and the rest is just man-made stuff.

    The other night I saw a moonbow...pretty spectacular.

    Have a good one. :)

  9. I was waiting for the double rainbows YouTube video! Never gets old. :)

    I didn't know moonbows had a name. Fascinating.

  10. I like that quote you started out with. I'm partial to moon bows, of course.

    My nephew came to visit me during his 'question' phase when we lived in DC. We went to the Smithsonian where they had this display of cavemen and a bear and one of the cavemen was dead. Nice. My nephew kept asking me about it and soon I had a whole gaggle of kids -- why, why, why.

    I said how they were hunting the bear, yada, yada. Why, why, why. What finally appeased them all was saying they didn't have supermarkets back then. "Ohhh!"

    Until I got to that point, I sure was cursing the Smithsonian.

  11. Oh, I would have been sorely disappointed if the double rainbow guy didn't show up on your post! I love moonbows, though I rarely see them.

  12. They are beautiful.

  13. Wow, Julie, great post. The ways rainbows pop up in various cultures is really interesting, esp. since they often represent interaction between heaven and earth, either as a blessing, a walkway or a bridge.

  14. That was interesting!! Twitter

  15. Other than the Biblical meaning, I did not know much about rainbows.

    We are fortunate to live in a river valley (close to a river) and are treated to lots of spring and summer single and double rainbows out our back window.

  16. Oh, SHEESH! I thought your comment about Steven Tyler was funny... until I got to that double-rainbowboy.

    I was laughing so freakin' hard! Gah! He had me laughing at the same time I was embarrassed and fearful for my gender! (Hug-A-Tree but Marry-A-Rainbow!)

    Honestly... close your eyes and that video sounds like it's a soundtrack to some XXX porn movie or something! Sadly, I never once had sex that was even half as exciting and satisfying as that double-rainbow was for that "guy" [sic?].

    Damn, that was funny! For his sake I must hope that he was flying on LSD ["Look at all the pretty colors!"], otherwise his enthusiasm is almost terrifying.

    ~ D-FensDogg
    'Loyal American Underground'

  17. I always learn the coolest, most fascinating things here. My nephews keep asking me questions like this of late. I'm looking here first when I need an answer to see if you've covered it. :)

  18. Everything you ever wanted to know about Rainbows...but were afraid to ask! Fascinating stuff!! :)

  19. Rainbows are so fascinating with their breath-taking beauty and sudden appearances in the sky. I’ve always loved gazing at them, and vividly remember the first time I’ve seen a “full” rainbow—a perfect half-circle. This has happened during my college years, when I was driving in countryside with a friend.

    We are fortunate with our front door facing directly to the spot where rainbows quite often occur: I just open the door and holler at the kids to come see the newly-formed rainbow. It’s always spectacular.

    Thank you for combining and sharing all these wonderful rainbow facts and mythological meanings! I knew about a few but you just introduced me to a whole amazing spectrum of rainbow knowledge! :-)

  20. I didn't know there were such things as moonbows . . . until I read this post! :)

  21. Rainbows always make me smile.

    BTW I've passed a blog award on to you. Stop by my blog to check it out.

  22. Hi Julie,

    I love rainbows. They are such a positive reminder that we are not alone. Everybody sees their own personal rainbow. When you look at one, you are seeing the light bounced off of certain raindrops, but when the person standing next to you looks at the same rainbow, they may see the light reflecting off other raindrops from a completely different angle. Everyone sees colors differently according to light and how their eyes interpret it.

    Colorful post!

  23. Good ole Reading Rainbow. I can't believe there isn't anything like that on TV anymore. Or even weekly children's book segments on Ellen or Rosie or The Talk. Many viewers are stay at home moms or grandparents.
    Anyhoo, I recently saw a clip of Jimmy Fallon dressed up as Jim Morrison singing the Reading Rainbow song and it was hilarious!

  24. Another great post!! :) As a kid,I always loved racing towards the rainbow on my bike..

  25. Great post. I knew a few of the myths but you dug up some I hadn't heard before.

    Beyond the science I love the magic of seeing a rainbow and I'm always left with a positive feeling.

  26. I'd walk under a rainbow to be a man for a day. So long as I could walk back under it and become a woman, again. I love being a woman but am infinitely curious about the inner workings of a man.

  27. Fascinating post. I've actually seen a moon-bow before, but I didn't know what it was until I read this. Thanks for sharing!

  28. This post should be required reading for all children, and their parents. I will think of you the next time I'm lucky enough to see a rainbow. Julie

  29. That's nice, nevertheless, we must think summore about what we all will face at death's hour, leaving this whorizontal playing field - you know, of course, one-outta-one croaks. So lemme gonna wanna giveth unto thee (like my onomanopaeia words?) a factual representation of the Great Beyond --- Miss GorgeousGirl, would you allow me to kiss your adorable feets in Heaven? I'd so love to do such a marvelous, wonderfull endeavor for five weeks or more. Meet me Upstairs, girl. See 'MySoulAccomplishment' first, an effusive, yummy story I wrote yeeers ago about love make’n in Heaven. And, yes, if we have the desire, anything is possible Upstairs. So, believe, girly, and you SHALL be rewarded in The End. Love you --- No, you don’t gotta with me or anyone; only a physical option for those who wanna make physical love a part of their physical eternity, dear. God bless you.

  30. As usual, you are a FOUNT of knowledge. Thank you for these wonderful tidbits. I knew some of these, but I also didn't know a lot of them. Rainbows, so multifaceted! :)

  31. oh, stephen tyler. Dude looks like a lady indeed

  32. Awesome teaching on rainbows. I feel so educated now on the matter, And I'll skip the Bulgarian rainbow!

  33. As always, super informative and amazingness. I love rainbows, but holy moly, not as much as that guy. That was....WOW!! haha. We once had a full rainbow right outside our house, it went from one side of our sidewalk to the other (about 10 feet) it was awesome.


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