The rainbow is a beautiful natural phenomenon that has fascinated humans for millennia. Rainbows are formed when sunlight is reflected, refracted and dispersed by water droplets in the air. This results in the familiar multicolored arc we see in the sky during or after rainfall. But where did the rainbow originally get its status as a symbol? And what meaning has it held across different cultures and time periods?
Early Symbolic Meanings
Some of the earliest records linking the rainbow to symbolism come from ancient mythologies and religions. In Greek mythology, the goddess Iris was seen as the personification of the rainbow and served as a messenger linking the gods to humanity. The ancient Greeks considered rainbows to be pathways made by Iris to connect the human world to that of the gods.
|Ancient Greece||Pathway linking humanity and gods|
|Abrahamic religions||Sign of God’s covenant with Noah|
|Hinduism||Bow of Indra, god of thunder and war|
In Abrahamic religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the rainbow became a symbol of God’s covenant with Noah after the great flood. According to the Book of Genesis, God placed the rainbow in the sky after the flood as a sign that he would never again destroy the earth with water.
In Hinduism, the rainbow is called Indradhanush, meaning the bow of Indra, the god of thunder and war. It was considered to be Indra’s weapon and a symbol of his power over the sky and rainfall.
Symbolism in Culture and History
Beyond religion and mythology, the rainbow has accrued many additional layers of symbolism throughout history:
– **Hope and optimism** – With its light and color, the rainbow came to be seen as a symbol of hope, inspiration and the future. Movements like Rainbow Coalition and Rainbow/PUSH aimed to unite varied communities.
– **LGBTQ+ pride** – In the 1970s, the rainbow was adopted as a symbol of LGBTQ+ pride and diversity. Activist Gilbert Baker designed the now iconic rainbow pride flag in 1978.
– **Environmentalism** – The rainbow symbol is used by organizations like Greenpeace and the Rainbow Warriors, representing environmental protection and harmony.
– **Peace** – The rainbow flag has been used as a symbol of peace, as in the PACE (Peace) rainbow flag designed by Italian conceptual artist Oreste Sindici in 1961.
– **Inclusion and diversity** – With its spectrum of colors, the rainbow represents acceptance, togetherness and intersectionality across race, gender, class and sexual identities.
Meaning in Science and Optics
In the 17th century, Isaac Newton’s experiments with prisms unveiled the optical science behind rainbows. He demonstrated that white light was made up of the full color spectrum, with different wavelengths refracting at different angles to form the rainbow’s signature arc. Some key scientific perspectives on rainbow symbolism include:
– Newton saw the rainbow as a symbol of the underlying order and beauty in nature.
– Later physicists saw it as an illustration of the wave theory of light and the unifying power of science.
– Carl Sagan popularised the rainbow as a symbol of the underlying ‘truths’ uncovered by science.
– Richard Dawkins referred to the evolution of complex life from physics and chemistry as “going from the purity of the rainbow to the marvelous complexity of life”.
Rainbows as a Cultural Prism
While the rainbow originated as a natural optical phenomenon, human cultures have projected rich layers of symbolism onto it throughout history. The rainbow has been adapted to represent myths, gods, religion, optimism, inclusiveness, peace, environmentalism and scientific truth. In a sense, the rainbow reflects a prismatic view of humanity itself – how we see significance, meaning and beauty in different aspects of the world around us. Just as a prism refracts white light into its constituent colors, human culture and history refracts natural phenomena into diverse symbols meaningful to different peoples in different eras. The rainbow’s symbolic potency continues today, with new resonances in art, activism, commerce, fashion and more.
The original impetus for the rainbow as a mythical and religious symbol was likely its sheer visual beauty and rarity. Ancient humans ascribed spiritual significance and magical associations to this fleeting multicolored arc in the heavens. But the rainbow’s symbolism has proven flexible enough to be adapted to many secular purposes over time. While its original significance was tied to gods and myths, its current widespread use as an inclusive symbol represents the rainbow’s evolution and resonance in modern society. From divine messenger to scientific marvel to symbol of diversity, the rainbow remains a cultural prism of humanity’s changing fears, dreams and values.