Rainbows in culture

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The rainbow, a natural phenomenon noted for its design and its place in the sky, has been a favorite component of art and religion throughout history.


The proverbial "end" of a rainbow. An observer situated at that location would only see the rainbow end at a further distance.

The rainbow has a place in legend owing to its beauty and the historical difficulty in explaining the phenomenon.

In Greco-Roman mythology, the rainbow was considered to be a path made by a messenger (Iris) between Earth and Heaven.

In some traditions of Tibetan Buddhism or Dzogchen, a rainbow body is believed to be attainable through practice.[1]

In Chinese mythology, the rainbow was a slit in the sky sealed by goddess Nüwa using stones of five different colours.

The Irish leprechaun's secret hiding place for his pot of gold is usually said to be at the end of the rainbow. This place is impossible to reach, because the rainbow is an optical effect which depends on the location of the viewer. When walking towards the end of a rainbow, it will appear to "move" further away (two people who simultaneously observe a rainbow at different locations will disagree about where a rainbow is).

In the Bible's Genesis flood narrative, after creating a flood to wash away humanity's corruption, God put the rainbow in the sky as the sign of his promise that he would never again destroy the earth with flood (Genesis 9:13–17):[2]

I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, This is the token of the covenant, which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.

Rabbinic Judaism learns from this portion of the Bible that rainbows are a symbol of divine anger and patience. On the occasion of seeing a rainbow, a blessing is said, thanking God for promising to never again flood the world. As well, there were certain Rabbis who never had rainbows appear in their lifetimes, such as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints founder and prophet Joseph Smith stated that the second coming of the Christ would not occur in any year in which a rainbow is seen.[3]

In the Dreamtime of Australian Aboriginal mythology, the Rainbow Serpent is the deity governing water.

In Amazonian cultures, rainbows have long been associated with malign spirits that cause harm, such as miscarriages and (especially) skin problems. In the Amuesha language of central Peru, certain diseases are called ayona’achartan, meaning "the rainbow hurt my skin". A tradition of closing one's mouth at the sight of a rainbow in order to avoid disease appears to pre-date the Incan empire.[4][5]

In New Age and Hindu philosophy, the seven colours of the rainbow represent the seven chakras, from the first chakra (red) to the seventh chakra (violet).


Rainbows are generally described as very colourful and peaceful. The rainbow occurs often in paintings.[6] Frequently these have a symbolic or programmatic significance (for example, Albrecht Dürer's Melancholia I). In particular, the rainbow appears regularly in religious art (for example, Joseph Anton Koch's Noah's Thank Offering). Romantic landscape painters such as J. M. W. Turner and John Constable were more concerned with recording fleeting effects of light (for example, Constable's Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows). Other notable examples appear in work by Hans Memling, Caspar David Friedrich, and Peter Paul Rubens.

The Blind Girl, oil painting (1856) by John Everett Millais. The rainbow – one of the beauties of nature that the blind girl cannot experience – is used to underline the pathos of her condition.
Noah's Thank Offering (c. 1803) by Joseph Anton Koch. Noah builds an altar to the Lord after being delivered from the Flood; God sends the rainbow as a sign of his covenant (Genesis 8–9).

In contemporary visual art, the rainbow often appears as well, notably in Peter Coffin's Untitled (Rainbow), 2005,[7] and in Ugo Rondinone's Hell, Yes!, 2001.[8] Like many other cultural references to the rainbow, these either emphasize the possible sublimity of the natural world or the cheerfulness, joy, and celebration often culturally associated with a profusion of colors.

In 2012, American artist, Michael Jones McKean created a large-scale artwork, The Rainbow.[9] The project created, impart, a fully sustainable prismatic rainbow using thousands of gallons of pressurized harvested rainwater, at times stretching several city blocks in size.[10]


Judith Bauer Stamper's 1987 Find Your Fate book Jem and The Holograms #3: The Secret of Rainbow Island, involves the reader in saving Rainbow Island, a tropical island that frequently has rainbows.

American legend retelling The Rough Face Girl involves the heroines seeing an invisible Chief, who wears a rainbow as a sash.

Stephen King's 1985 book 'It features a scene where Ben Hanscom sees a spray bow while fighting with Henry Bowers in The Barrens, and comments on finding gold at the end of it.

The 1983 Care Bears book "A Sister for Ben" involves Cheer Bear, whose tummy symbol is a rainbow, telling Ben he will see a rainbow when his sister says her first word.

Dan Piraro's comic strip Bizarro featured a 2008 cartoon about fictional pirate Rainbowbeard in response to Proposition 8.

The rainbow inspires metaphor and simile. Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse highlights the transience of life and Man's mortality through Mrs Ramsey's thought,

"it was all as ephemeral as a rainbow"

Wordsworth's 1802 poem "My Heart Leaps Up" begins:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!...

The Newtonian deconstruction of the rainbow is said to have provoked John Keats to lament in his 1820 poem "Lamia":

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine –
Unweave a rainbow

In contrast to this is Richard Dawkins; talking about his 1998 book Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder:

"My title is from Keats, who believed that Newton had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to the prismatic colours. Keats could hardly have been more wrong, and my aim is to guide all who are tempted by a similar view, towards the opposite conclusion. Science is, or ought to be, the inspiration for great poetry."



Computer games[edit]

  • In Rainbow Islands, a 1987 arcade game, rainbows are used for fighting enemies.


Rainbow flags tend to be used as a sign of a new era, of hope, or of social change. Rainbow flags have been used in many places over the centuries: in the German Peasants' War in the 16th century, as a symbol of the Cooperative movement; as a symbol of peace, especially in Italy; to represent the Tawantin Suyu, or Inca territory, mainly in Peru and Bolivia;[11] by some Druze communities in the Middle east; by the Jewish Autonomous Oblast; to represent the International Order of Rainbow for Girls since the early 1920s, and as a symbol of gay pride and LGBT social movements since the 1970s.[12][13] In the 1990s, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Nelson Mandela described the newly democratic South Africa as the "rainbow nation", also alluding to its diversity and multiculturalism.


  1. ^ Ray, Reginald (2001). Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet. Shambhala Publications. p. 323. ISBN 9781570627729.
  2. ^ Holy Bible: (King James Version.) (2004). Intellectual Reserve, inc.
  3. ^ "I have asked of the Lord concerning His coming; and while asking the Lord, He gave a sign and said, "In the days of Noah I set a bow in the heavens as a sign and token that in any year that the bow should be seen the Lord would not come; but there should be seed time and harvest during that year: but whenever you see the bow withdrawn, it shall be a token that there shall be famine, pestilence, and great distress among the nations, and that the coming of the Messiah is not far distant." Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Section Six 1843-44, p.340
  4. ^ Céline Valadeau; Joaquina Alban Castillo; Michel Sauvain; Augusto Francis Lorese; Geneviève Bourdy (January 8, 2010). "The rainbow hurts my skin: Medicinal concepts and plants uses among the Yanesha (Amuesha), an Amazonian Peruvian ethnic group". Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 127 (1): 175–192. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2009.09.024. PMID 19835943.
  5. ^ Webster, Patty. "Utilizing Western and Traditional Remedies in the Peruvian Amazon".
  6. ^ Niels Hutchison. "Stairways to Heaven". Colour Music. http://www.colourmusic.info/rain.htm/
  7. ^ Announcement on e-flux http://www.artandeducation.net/announcement/utah-museum-of-fine-arts-presents-the-smithson-effect/
  8. ^ Ugo Rondinone
  9. ^ https://huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/23/michael-jones-mckean_n_1539378.html
  10. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-12-17. Retrieved 2013-12-17.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  11. ^ "Flagspot.net". Flagspot.net. Retrieved 2010-10-16.
  12. ^ "The Rainbow Flag". Retrieved 2007-08-21. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  13. ^ Gilbert Baker (October 18, 2007). "Pride-Flyin' Flag: Rainbow-flag founder marks 30-years anniversary". Metro Weekly. Washington DC. Retrieved 2008-03-13.