Rainbows feature in a variety of types of myth, and starting with end of the world myths we find rainbows popping up in a number of seemingly disconnected cultures, including northern India, parts of Canada and Argentina.
In Judeo-Christian lore, the rainbow is associated the flood. After the flood, God set his bow in the clouds as a “token of covenant”. In medieval Christianity, they were depicted in art showing the apocalypse as well as as a bow (a weapon, not gift wrapping). This rainbow as a bow concept was the case elsewhere in the world, with the Sanskrit word for rainbow literally meaning ‘the bow of Indra’ (one of the Hindu gods).
“The English language cannot describe a rainbow without reference to [the bow]: the ‘bow-ness’ of the bow intractably, implausibly, indestructibly remains.”
– Daniel MacCannell
Elsewhere in the world, the rainbow has been seen as part of a deity, such as a mythical belt, a necklace and so on. Rainbows as cosmic architectures, such as those in the Norse myths, are also well known but there is also the rainbow pathway that the goddess Iris uses to move between the mortal and the heavenly worlds.
“Among the American tribes, as well as among the Aryans, the rainbow and the Milky-Way have contributed the idea of a Bridge of the Dead, over which souls must pass on the way to the other world.”
– Myths and Myth-Makers, John Fiske (1873 hence language used)
Another way we can see rainbows in myth is as rainbow beings such as the snake-monster from the Mbuti people of the Democratic Republic of Congo – a man killer that creates catastrophes and generally inspires terror. Another terrifying rainbow creature is the serpent Magalim from New Guinea who causes madness and malaria when not busy swallowing people. Dangerous rainbow serpents can also be found in South America, including the Panare from Venezuela who use the same word to mean both rainbow and were-anaconda…
There is also the rainbow snake found in Aboriginal Australian mythology and that brings us onto the unexpected subject of dragons…
Some historians suggest a link between rainbows and dragons and this is investigated in depth by Robert Blust. He says that the dragon is the end point of a developing concept which began with rainbows and moved through the rainbow serpent to become the dragons we are more familiar with today, especially those from china. But this link may seem counter intuitive when seen through a Western lens:
“Within the Judeo-Christian tradition the rainbow is the bow of the covenant, a sign of divine promise and hope; by contrast the dragon is a sinister relic of the pre-Christian past.”
– Robert Blust
The rainbow serpent is a giant snake whose body arches like a rainbow across the sky. They are associated with the gift of blood, controlling the circulation of blood as well as menstrual cycles.
“The rainbow is most commonly represented in one of four ways:
As a celestial bow
As a bridge between heaven and earth
As a belt, scarf or other article of apparel of a deity
As a giant snake.
By far the most common view is that the rainbow is a giant snake which either drinks water from the Earth and sprays it over the sky (this causing it to rain), or that drinks from the sky (causing it to stop).”
It is easy to lean into this idea given that rainbows are often associated with the beginning or end of a rain shower. As our ancestors sought to explain and understand the world around them, natural phenomena were often personified and given the shape of a rainbow, a serpent is an obvious choice. Understanding the rainbow as a giant snake, it’s not too far of a leap to see why it might have developed into a dragon, especially the more serpentine Chinese dragons.
- Rainbows; Nature and Culture by Daniel MacCannell
- A Short History of the Rainbow, Massimo Corradi
- The Origin of Dragons, Robert Blust