Rainbows in culture

Part one and two

Having seen in previous blog posts that rainbows are not universally seen positively, it may not be so much of a shock to find that even within Europe, views have been divisive.

“Rainbow superstitions in Britain and Ireland reveal an ambivalence that is difficult to synthesize or explain.”
– The Penguin Guide to the Supersitions of Britain and Ireland, Steve Roud

Modern beliefs tend to be positive – make a wish on a rainbow, the pot of gold etc – but others are darker, with Scotland and Ireland having a pessimistic view.  A rainbow over a house was thought to be a sign of death.  Some people believe that it is unlucky to point at the moon and the stars and this extended to rainbows as well.

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Rainbows are an obvious choice for poetry and it doesn’t take long to find some wonderful lines:

“Be thou the rainbow to the storms of life!”
– Lord Byron

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!”
– William Wordsworth

Similarly, rainbows have featured in art for many many years, right back to 2000-4000 BCE.  However, painting a rainbow was not without controversy.  For a lot of history, there was an idea that rainbows were unpaintable and to attempt one “was often a self-conscious act of mastery – or even of hubris – and was usually seen as such by the contemporaries of those artists who dared to try.” (MacCannell)

Flags are another common place to find rainbows, most famously in the LGBT+ flag.  The original flag had eight colours:

  • Hot pink for sexuality
  • Red for life
  • Orange for healing
  • Yellow for sunlight
  • Green for nature
  • Turquoise for magic and art
  • Indigo for serenity
  • Violet for spirit

Turquoise and hot pink were removed by 1979 for cost reasons.

Rainbows have also been used to symbolise peace and unity.  Since 1921, a rainbow flag has been used to represent the international cooperative movement, with each colour having a meaning.

Today we tend to see rainbows as a scientifically understood phenomena, as awe-inspiring and as kitsch.  To minimise the depth of the rainbow and see them in an emoticon kind of way is to miss out on so much of this incredibly wonder of the natural world.  Rainbows should inspire you to stop, to stare and to wonder.  Perhaps instead of thinking them as light diffracted through a raindrop, we should think of them as miracles drawn on the sky, just for us.  After all, they are uniquely experienced and that is a gift, personalised just for you.

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