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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Rainbows and mythology

Part one

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

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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).”
– Blust

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.

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Rainbows, a colourful history

Note, this is part one of three as it turned into a rather long post…  Later posts will look at mythology and superstitions around rainbows.

If you follow me on Instagram you may have noticed an abundance of rainbows.  I’m doing a little photo project that was sparked as a result of a gorgeous rainbow selection of tea and a day where I saw multiple rainbows, including one that seemed like we were driving through the base of it – spoiler, there was no gold, no leprechauns, just one Irish carer…

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Anyway, alongside that project, I wanted to find out more about how rainbows feature in cultures and how they have been used symbolically, as well as how our understanding of rainbows has changed over time.

One of the things I love about rainbows is how people still view them with awe and how they can bring smiles to tired faces.

If you want to know more about how rainbows are formed, then the Met Office has some brief, easy to understand information.  One of the things I love is that conditions must be just right for a rainbow to be seen, and that feels very special to me.

  • The sun needs to be behind the viewer
  • The sun needs to be low in the sky, at an angle of less than 42° above the horizon. The lower the sun in the sky the more of an arc of a rainbow the viewer will see
  • Rain, fog or some other source of water droplets must be in front of the viewer

Another aspect of rainbows is that no one can see the same one, even if someone is standing next to you, they will not see the exact rainbow you see.  This combined with the specific conditions necessary to create one makes it feel like seeing a rainbow is a personal gift.

“The rainbow that a cloudspotter sees standing in one position is never the same as that observed from another one.  The droplets that are over in the direction of the arc – perhaps a half to one and a half miles away – each sparkle a bit of sunlight into his eyes.  From the drops that fall through the sky off in some directions, it is the yellow-looking part of the spectrum that twinkles at the cloudspotter.  From those in other directions, it is the violet, etc.  This means that, should the observer change position, different raindrops will be the ones sparkling at him.  Hopefully, this will help cloudspotters accept that it is a futile and, frankly humiliating aspiration to seek the end of a rainbow.”
– The Cloudspotter’s Guide, Gavin Pretor-Pinney

Today we tend to think of rainbows having seven colours, we may remember them through a mnemonic like Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain, but the number is actually arbitrary and has changed over time.  Research suggests that the number of colours seen is about the language that person uses, if a language has fewer colour words then they will see fewer colours.

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As far back as 3rd to 2nd century BCE, people were trying to describe the rainbow but Aristotle was the first to give a complete description and he identified three colours.  The idea of there being three colours was justified in a number of ways including the three stages of events (beginning, middle and end), the three dimensions of space and the use of the number three in the worship of gods.

Later Newton would claim there were five colours, namely red, yellow, green, blue and violet but he would go on to add orange and indigo.  This created a seven colour scale analogous to the notes in a musical scale.  Despite this being the accepted idea today, it was considered heretical at the time.    Newton would also suggest that all of the colours of the rainbow are found in white light, a concept which provides a great metaphor for humanity.

In my next post I’ll be looking at how rainbows feature in mythology.

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It’s a pig’s life…

As we’ve already seen, pigs attract some very conflicting opinions and that theme continues.  Despite their reputation as dirty and wallowing in mud, they are clean animals and instead of smelling bad, they have an amazing sense of smell.  They are paradox after paradox!

Pigs are exceptionally intelligent, very inquisitive and highly social animals that actively interact with their environment when given a chance.  This sense of curiosity and their playful, lively nature combine with their brains resulting in excellent problem solving skills.  They are also emotional and have their own personalities:

“Pigs display consistent behavioral and emotional characteristics that have been described variously as personality. e.g., coping styles, response types, temperament, and behavioral tendencies.”
– Lori Marino and Christina M. Colvin

It is, in part, because of their intelligence that we have been able to work with them, such as in truffle hunting.  They use their snout, which is a precise hunting tool, to rustle out the prized truffles in the leaf litter.  They find the gold in the mud.  If you are reading this because an oracle card has come up, then it might be worth thinking about this in more depth.  Are you missing something because it is hidden? Are you working to find the good in bad situations?

Pigs are also able to detect landmines using similar skills.  They have also been used to cheer people up by visiting retirement homes and hospitals, used in therapy and taken into classrooms to help children learn about animals.  According to the American Mini Pig Association:

“Pigs have been recognized by families of children with autism to help with vocalization and calming. Pigs have been known to detect low blood sugar in their owners with diabetes or detect and warn of oncoming seizures. They can ease anxiety and panic attacks and improve the symptoms of depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in some individuals.”

And the benefits aren’t just to humans.  Pigs have been called the gardeners of the forest.  Their natural behaviour means they turn over leaf litter, rotivating and ploughing as they go about their day.  They also help with composting and spreading seeds, all of which are important to the ecosystem.

Finally, apparently I can’t write blog posts these days without diving into sex… So, when it comes to pigs, here’s a few interesting titbits…

  • At one point in recent history, England was exporting fresh and frozen pig seamen to china to be used to improve their stock
  • Boars produce a lot of seminal fluid, on average about 250ml per ejaculate (humans are a mere 2-4ml) and…
  • because of the amount of fluid being transferred, ejaculation alone takes about 15 minutes and the male can’t pull out part way through because…
  • it’s penis is shaped in such a way that after a few thrusts it gets sort of locked in… Only once the act is over, can he easily remove himself.
  • After all this, the sow will give birth three months, three weeks and three days later. I don’t know how spot on that its but the three times three of it pleases me and makes me wonder about the numerological meaning of three!

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Pigs: a history of mixed feelings

“Pigs and pork have, throughout history, been used to divide and unite people”
– Pia Spry-Marques

This will be the start of a few posts on pigs, mostly because there is so much to say about them.  It is because of this that I wanted to look at the pig its own right, not just as a supplement to the boar.  In the animal totem tarot deck, the queen of pentacles is depicted by a pig and so I’m also going to do a post that focuses on that specifically.

Our history with pigs goes back about 18,000 years and starts with the boar.  Boars are the ancestors of domestic pigs with spots and stripes that helped them blend into their environment.  These vanished, their tails became curly and their ears flopped as we domesticated them. Their tusks also disappeared and our attitudes towards them changed dramatically, shifting from a devil like enemy to a vital provider.

The domestic pig was bred from eurasion wild boars about 9000 years ago in Eastern Turkey and China simultaneously (some sources suggesting there were other domestication events at around the same time elsewhere but it’s complicated stuff).  As they were adaptable, had large and regular litters, were tough and were in close contact with humans (they would raid fields) they were a good candidate for breeding compared to other types of boars.  Pigs were also important compared to other domesticated species; they like living in groups, they are adaptable and they eat pretty much anything.  This meant they essentially looked after themselves and ate what we threw away, making them important to the history of agriculture and farming.

Today, pigs are widely distributed around the world, both down to their natural wanderings and human involvement.  From steamy rainforests to dry savannas to snowy woodlands, pigs are one of the most successful mammals on earth.  Evolution and human involvement has resulted in over 500 breeds of pigs today, but it isn’t just the pig landscape that has changed because of man.  The reverse is true, without the man-pig relationship, human history could have looked very different – exploration and civilisation were aided by the pig.

“Pigs are ubiquitous in the modern world, whether we are talking about the more than one billion domesticated pigs on the planet or the countless representations of pigs and ‘piggishness’ that circulate through most of the world’s cultures… Pigs have been structurally and symbolically significant in the making of human society and culture across the globe.  Pigs have fed us, entertained us and provided us with ways to think about our relationships with each other on this porcine planet.”
– Brett Mizelle

Despite this universality, pigs suffer from mixed reviews.  Whilst they have provided us with food and have been praised and celebrated, they have also been cast out and seen as dirty and smelly.

“The persistent uncertainty about whether pigs are good or bad animals is connected to the lived relationship between humans and pigs.  These attitudes reflect a moral ambivalence about the killing of pigs and ideas about pigs themselves, both of which are often factors in conflicts between human social groups.”
– Mizelle

Pigs provided a way for different classes of society to distinguish themselves and due to the association with lower classes, the pig increasingly became ostracised as a symbol of poverty, dirtiness and slothenlyness.  Mizelle also asks whether our conflicting feelings towards pigs may arise because of our similarities.  With pigs both physically near and physiologically alike, our treatment of them may induce feelings of guilt which we then transferred to the pig.  In order to treat it as we do, to keep it confined and to butcher it, we must psychologically distance ourselves from the pig.  And we can see this clearly in how we talk; male chauvinist pigs, pig ugly, smell like a pig, greedy pig and so on…

“There is a long history of porcine proverbs that describe efforts to convert the useless to the useful, the ugly to the pretty.  The maxim ‘You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear’ dates back to the mid sixteenth century.”
– Mizelle

Returning to the similarities between humans and pigs, we see also the need to distance them in order to eat them, calling the meat pork and talking of chops and bacon instead.

Pork is the most widely eaten meat in the world, with over half of it consumed in china.  Whilst I am not going to look too closely at meat, as Mizelle says:

“Different groups have consumed different cuts of pork over time, making pork consumption a useful lens into race, religion and class.”

And for more information about this, we can look to Mark Essig:

“The reputation of pork depends upon the life of the pig. In early medieval Europe, when most pigs foraged in the woods, pork was the preferred meat of the nobility. By 1300 most forests had been felled, and pigs became scavengers. In a medieval British text, a woman explains that she won’t serve pork because pigs “eat human shit in the streets.” Pigs also dined on human flesh, which was available because executed prisoners, among others, were left unburied.”

Even within the context of food, it’s clear that there are many views about pigs throughout time and space.  Stepping away from pigs as food, we have Aristotle who (despite almost certainly eating pork) called pigs “the animals most like people” because of their similarities to humans; little did he know just how alike to us they are.

Physiologically, pigs are very like humans and because of this, they play a key role in human medicine.  We have made use of them in skin grafts for burns, in making insulin for diabetics and we have pig heart valves.  Pigs have been used by medical students to practise their skill and researchers have utilised the similarities.  One horrific sounding experiment used live pigs to study the effects of atomic blasts and radiation during the Cold War.  Unfortunately for pigs, they play a life saving role in today’s medical landscape.  As pigs heal in a similar way to us, unlike rodents, they have been useful for medical experimentation.  They are also used in less obvious ways such as in gelatine for pills, in sponges used in surgery, in some blood clotting medicine and in wound treatment.

Beyond medicine, pigs are also found in make up, biodiesel, toothpaste, antifreeze, bone china, glue, in the manufacturing of train brakes and even in cigarette filters…

Whilst you might think this is all in recent history, medical experimentation using pigs actually has a long history.  As far back as ancient Greece, they were being used because human dissection wasn’t allowed at the time.  It was through a ‘squealing pig’ experiment that Galen found it was the brain, not the heart, that controlled actions and thoughts.

Pigs have proven useful and have helped to develop civilisation and scientific knowledge.  They have saved lives and we have rewarded them by casting them as dirty and smelly.  We love them and we hate them.  And I am struggling to think of any other animal which is subject to such conflicted feelings…

In later posts I’ll be looking at pigs the animals, the beliefs around pigs and I will do a post looking at the pig in the queen of pentacles animal totem tarot.

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Love is in the air!

Spring is coming and soon love will be in the air!  Whether it’s the pheromones of animals or the pollen of plants, the air around us is positively brimming with the scent of reproduction.

Winged creatures like butterflies often engage in courtship flights, dancing around each other as part of a pre-copulation ritual.  The courtship ritual of the bald eagle involves locking talons and tumbling toward earth…  And then there are insects which engage in aerobatic sex, mid air, such as flies and dragonflies.

When it comes to humans (and other animals) we all have a unique smell, a chemical signature that we refer to as pheromones.  They play a role in who we are attracted to which I think is fairly well known, but also, probably lesser known, is that they also help us to identify people we are related to – useful if you want to avoid sleeping with your secret cousin that no one knew about… Having different genetic make up means healthier children and less inbreeding which is why we’ve evolved to detect this.  Couples which are more genetically similar have fewer orgasms which sounds pretty rubbish but things go one step further and couples who are more genetically alike also have a higher rate of cheating…  Basically, evolution is doing everything it can to reduce the chance of inbreeding.

Pheromones are also used to help a guy to detect where in her menstrual cycle a woman is and his body releases testosterone according to ovulation status.

However, the use of hormonal contraception appears to be changing how humans react to these chemical signatures.  When taking birth control pills, the natural ability to distinguish between males who are genetically alike and genetically different is disrupted and instead, women are attracted to the males who are most similar.  Verdolin gives a great example:

“I was discussing this with my friend Stacey, who exclaimed, “That must be why I couldn’t stand the smell of my ex-husband!”  She went on to explain that when she met her first husband she had been taking birth control pills.  Several years into their marriage, after she discontinued the pill, not only was she unable to get pregnant, but she no longer cared for the smell of her husband.”

Aside: pheromones are found in underarm hair and public hair so maybe go au naturale if you’re seeking a partner?

Animals use pheromones to communicate with each other, to mark their territory and to induce aggression.  They are also used in parental bonding, to keep group behaviour in check and of course to attract mates – some creatures can even smell out virgins.  They are also used to mark your mate in order to keep away other potential mates.  Squirrels secrete pheromones onto their partners onto their partner to tell other males that she’s taken.  Queen bees use pheromones to control hive behaviour and stop workers from reproducing.  Plants use pheromones to attract pollinators, for example a kind of orchid can mimic bee pheromones to pollinate them.

Male lemmings can not only sniff out a female who’s ready to mate, but they can also distinguish between those who have mated already and those who have not.

“From beetles to bees and lizards, females do give off a different scent if they have already mated or if they are ready to mate.”
– Verdolin

A large number of male creatures will include anti-aphrodisiac pheromones in their bodily secretions so that the female they are mating will have less interest in sex.  The pheromones can also make her less attractive to other males.

What of other ways that love is in the air?  Well, plants can reproduce in a couple of ways, both involving the air; insect pollination and wind pollination.  The latter means that large amounts of pollen are released to the breeze in the hope that they find another plant to fertilise.  Whilst this does mean hayfever for many of us, it’s nice to think that it’s all in the aid of making baby trees and flowers!

Suggested reading:

“Mum, who do you love best?” – Parental favouritism in the animal kingdom

Whilst this is a question we tend to think of as being asked by a child with siblings, it turns out, animal parents have favourites too…

For example, there’s a species of budgie that regurgitates food for its young and males will feed in response to chicks begging whereas females will seek out the smallest offspring and prioritise them.  In bearded vultures, it really does pay to be the favourite; it’s common for parents to only feed the first born chick…  But it’s not just size and birth order that parents prioritise.  Sticking with the bird world, let’s have a look at a few more examples.

Eastern bluebird dads favour their sons, protecting them from danger whilst exposing their daughters.  But sons aren’t equal either, the baby which is brightest in colour will garner dads protection more so than his duller brother.  Mums on the other hand didn’t discriminate.  If we turn to coots, we find much the same, with parents preferentially feeding nestlings which have ornamental plumes over their duller nestmates.  But it isn’t always about how attractive the offspring are:

“In birds, female blue tits, for instance, are better parents to the offspring they had with sexy males.  Not only that, but if the male they have mated with has his colouring dulled, the equivalent of being made less attractive, the female will actively reduce her efforts to feed their offspring.”
– Verdolin

So, what’s going on with parents?  Why do they play favourites with their children?

Well, what resources are available is an essential part of understanding this.  If you have five chicks and food is scarce, you could split it all equally and end up with five slightly less healthy chicks, or you could allocate them in an unequal way and thus play favourites with your children.

With chinstrap penguins who have more than one chick, they will make their kids chase them for food.  The chick that wins the race gets the food and the one that lags behind will ultimately die.  It sounds incredibly harsh but if you only have enough food for one chick, you need to make sure it goes to the one who has the highest chance of surviving to adulthood and having their own chicks.  This explains why parents tend to favour the fastest and strongest of their young, but what about those eastern bluebird dads and the female blue tits?

This type of favouritism, based on appearances, is again about trying to ensure that your lineage will continue.  With the blue tits, sexy males mean sexy children who in turn will have more sex and hence more chicks themselves.  By putting more resources into caring for the chicks from the sexy male, the mummy blue tit is worker harder to ensure her young will become healthy, sexy and successful breeders themselves.  For bluebirds, the females prefer to mate with brighter males and thus in the example above, where dad is trying to protect his brightest son, he is attempting to protect the son who has the best chance of mating when he grows up.

You might be wondering though, why are daddy bluebirds so concerned with their sons and not their daughters.  It’s not just that bluebirds want to have daddy son time, it happens in other species as well.  For example, wandering albatrosses feed their sons more than their daughters and I’m sure there are many more examples out there of dads putting their effort into ensuring their sons grow up to be big, strong, sexy adults.  Essentially it comes down to wanting to continue the family line and sexy males (in species where an individual male has more sex than an individual female) will achieve that.

But it’s not even just after birth that parents play favourites, in some species there can be a disproportionate ratio of males and females born, taking the idea of parental preference to an extreme.  One example of this is the red deer which has more sons if mum is in good condition and more daughters is she is afflicted by parasites, ill health, in a lower rank etc.  This means that more dominant females have more sons than their non dominant counterparts, something that we see with macaques as well.

The Trivers-Willard hypothesis suggests an explanation for this favouritism.  The hypothesis is that with conditions are great, females should give birth to and invest in raising sons over daughters.  When conditions are poorer, the reverse should occur.  As with the other types of favouritism we’ve looked at, this is about ensuring that your children have lots of children and your line continues.  To understand why the Trivers-Willard hypothesis might hold, we need to note a few things:

  • If a mother is in great condition, she is more likely to have a child who is in great condition.
  • If a child is in great condition, they have a better chance of surviving to adulthood.
  • If the species is such that males have the potential to produce more offspring than females, then being sexy is important. If you aren’t a sexy male, then you might not attract any females, thus you won’t have any children and essentially the resources that your mother chose to give you are wasted.  Basically, mum would have been better having a daughter.

Essentially, a male in great condition will have significantly more offspring than a female in the same condition and thus is a better investment.  A male in poorer condition will potentially have less offspring than a female in the same condition and so is a bad choice to invest in.

Whilst it may not be of comfort to you if you aren’t the favourite child, at least you know you’re not alone… And just in case you were wondering, its thought that two thirds to three quarters of human parents favour one child over another…

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