Nature’s Vampires

We all know about blood sucking bats, but did you know that of all the many types of bats, only three actually drink blood?  Technically this is know as haematology, the practice of feeding on blood.  And blood is actually a great food source – it’s rich in proteins and lipids, is very nutritious and, so long as you don’t over do it on one individual, you’ve got yourself an unlimited cow to milk as it were.

Mosquitoes are another well known vampire, with the females needing to drink blood in order to make eggs.  It’s also common knowledge that they are responsible for the spread of malaria but what you might not know is that they, or other blood sucking flies, have been spreading it for 100 million years.  Mosquitoes can also transmit sleeping sickness, typhus, river blindness and other diseases making them one of the deadliest animals in the world.  In 2015, malaria alone caused 438,000 deaths and cases of dengue have increased rapidly over the last 30 years.

 

As an aside, the mosquito is not therefore evil and nor should it be made extinct.  All animals fill niches in nature and have co-evolved to fulfil a purpose or role that isn’t always clear to us.  In this case, they provide food for birds, fish, frogs and so on and are also pollinators.

Also in the fly family, we find sand flies, bat flies, black flies and midges which all enjoy a drink of blood.  There are also fleas, bedbugs and ticks as well as so called “kissing bugs”, or Triatomine Bugs, which apparently get their name because they like to bite people’s faces…

We also have vampire moths who use their antenna to pierce the skin of their unlucky host and some types of butterflies are partial to a sip of blood.  They can’t inflict injuries themselves so it’s more a case of coming across some spilt blood and indulging.  Sticking with small critters, some worms and arthropods like blood, as do some nematodes, such as Ancylostomids which feed on blood from the gut.  And leeches are well known for their blood sucking behaviour and are utilised in medicine such as to prevent blood from clotting.

Living underwater doesn’t protect you from vampires… Torpedo snails like the blood of electric rays, making small cuts and then using their proboscis to draw blood from the wound.  If this doesn’t work, they will insert their proboscis into they ray’s mouth, gills or anus…

Another threat comes from the Lamprey; an eel like creature which seems perfectly designed for the blood sucking way of life…  They are basically a tube with teeth…  They don’t have a jaw, instead having a suction cup style mouth which contains circles of sinister teeth.  These teeth are stabbed into the fish and anti clotting chemicals are secreted.  This tends to result in the host dying, either from blood loss or infection, at which point the lamprey will detach and move on.

The Candiru is a parasitic cat fish that are best known for allegedly being able to travel up a stream of urine and into a man’s penis.  Regardless of whether that is true or not, these tiny fish do deserve a mighty reputation.  They enter the gills of larger fish to suck their blood and generally make their lives a misery.  Once full of blood, they leave and burrow into the river bed to digest their meal.

And finally birds… The Hood Mockingbird likes open wounds, such as those they may find on sea lions or researchers but don’t rely just on blood.  However, they do increase this behaviour during the dry season suggesting it may be motivated by the need for fluid or moisture.

Vampire finches are a bit more brutal, preferring to peck at other birds, specifically blue footed boobies, until they bleed.  The boobies don’t object as much as you might expect and it’s thought the finches might once have cleaned parasites from the birds and developed a taste for blood along the way.

Oxpeckers are another blood loving bird that eats ticks and insects as well as flesh and blood from wounds on large mammals.  Whether this is a mutually beneficial relationship or not seems to be a topic of debate.  The oxpeckers may be helping with tick removal and grooming of spots that the mammal may not be able to reach.  With regards to the blood consumption, it has been argued that it may help to keep wounds clean and prevent infection and infestation.

The practice of consuming blood has co-evolved in different species, suggesting there is an evolutionary advantage for some creatures to engage in it.  And when you stop to think about it, some humans also take part in haematology… Just think about black puddings…

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Slipper Limpet, Crepidula Fornicata

This post is inspired by a poem from Isabel Galleymore which I looked at in a poetry class and fell in love with.  It’s part of her collection Significant Other which I’d highly recommend.  Whilst the poem is enjoyable by itself, knowing more about the slipper limpet heightens the pleasure and appreciation of Galleymore’s skill.

Whilst slipper limpets are found in the UK, they are a non native species that arrived from America in the 19th century.  The first live slipper limpets were found in Liverpool Bay and are likely to have hitched a ride on the back of oysters.  During the 19th century, eating oysters became fashionable in London and native stocks rapidly became depleted.  To meet demand, oysters were imported from America, along with the now invasive stowaway.

Slipper Limpets live under rocks in the intertidal zone and feed by filtering plankton from the water.  They have thin, flattened shells which has a little shelf and when flipped upside down, apparently look like a slipper hence the name.  The first half of the scientific name actually means slipper in Latin and whilst we’re thinking about the name, it’s also important to note they aren’t actually a limpet… They are instead a type of sea snail.

They live in groups of up to 12 with one stacked upon another, largest at the bottom and getting smaller as you go up the tower (or Galleymore’s “high-rise orgy“).  The base slipper limpet attaches herself to things like rocks, scallops, crabs and mussels and thus the slipper limpets live a sedentary life.  And it is always either a female or an empty shell, with the rest of the stack being male.  It is advantageous for females to be bigger than males so they can carry more eggs.  And they can lay between 10,000 and 200,000 eggs so they need plenty of space!

The male has a penis that can be as long as his body, and it needs to be; it has to extend round and under the female’s shell in order to reach her genital opening.  It is because they need to be so close that they attach to one another – imagine being stuck with your ex literally on your back until you die…

Slipper limpets are born male and will later change sex, something known as sequential hermaphrodism.  Recent research has shown that the change occurs as a result of physical contact with another male.  However, it’s not instant and doesn’t happen as a result of every contact.  The change itself takes about 60 days – or about two moon cycles – to change sex and during this time the penis shrinks and disappears and the female organs develop.

The more you learn about the slipper limpet, the more appropriate you think the scientific name is.  But whilst it would be fun to imagine an animal named for it’s sexual habits, fornicate unfortunately comes from the Latin word for arch – fornix – and refers to their arched shape.

Peak breeding occurs during May and June and most females spawn twice a year, after neap tides.  Egg capsules are brooded under the foot of the female, attached to the inside of her shell or her foot.  The young hatch as larvae after 3 to 4 weeks and will stay in larval form for about 4 to 5 weeks.  After this they will leave home.  In their early life they are able to move, slowly crawling to find a suitable site to set up home, but generally after about two years they are stuck wherever they are.  Hopefully having chosen the perfect spot, given they live up to 10 years.  If they settle alone, they will turn female and become the base slipper limpet.  Alternatively, they will join an existing chain and wait their turn.

Scientists have been looking at the Slipper Limpet to see if it has any medical benefits for us and hemocyanin – the same chemical that makes the blood of horseshoe crabs and octopuses blue – has been found in their blood and is effective in treating breast and bladder cancer.  Their tough fleshy food may also have uses for human medicine.  Collagen from it can be used in regenerative medicine, such as advanced wound care and bone and nerve repair.  Whilst collagen is found in virtually every living organism, the collagen from the slipper limpets is stable in the same range as human collagen and thus provides an alternative source – at present collagen from cows and pigs is used.

Returning to the poem, I am in awe of Galleymore’s ability to make us stop and think twice about this seemingly dull, drab, slightly gnarled looking creature.  Without her poem, I wouldn’t know about the slipper limpet and I certainly wouldn’t have had so many conversations about it.

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Devilish creatures

The (Christian) devil has had many faces, some more human than others, and we can look at these depictions to learn about what the people who made them were afraid of.  Depictions of the devil and demons inevitably reflect the prejudices of the day and we can see that in descriptions of demons as peasant like, with red hair, with appearance of a Scotsman and so on.

We have had a virtually blank slate when it comes to the appearance of the devil as the bible doesn’t really give any detail, thus making it easy to project fears onto.

“Many kinds of animals have come to symbolize the evil beast, as a force associated with evil or whatever it is we dislike.”
– Lynda Birke

During the middle ages, the devil was depicted as animal like with horns, a tail and sharp teeth – an image I’m sure we’re all familiar with today.  This became more human from the 16th century, thus more able to seduce and recruit witches to his cause.

Depicting the devil as an animal may have been a way of reinforcing both the chain of being and the animalistic nature of the devil.  Using animals such as male goats and rams could have been to emphasise him as a sexual being – hence wild and uncontrolled and seductive – as horns have long been used to represent fertility and sexuality.  Some people have suggested that the goat has been linked with the devil because of their weird, devilish, eyes but I think it’s hard to know which came first – a chicken and egg situation.  Admittedly goats have unusual eyes and this may have been enough for people to declare them devil touched.  We also have the idea of goats vs sheep – the sheep being the flock of saved souls and the goat being those who are damned.

Pre-Christian thinking and beliefs inevitably have a role to play in how the devil was imagined.  In ancient Babylonia there were wicked demons; winged female creatures that flew at night looking for men to seduce and children to attack.  Christianity routinely took existing gods and turned them into evil spirits and this may be how the devil acquired wings.  We can also see the devil as the ancestor of Pan – a half man, half goat Roman god who was associated with lust and hence could easily be seen as the epitome of temptation.  Pan was also the god of nature and casting him as the devil reinforced the divide between man and nature, and emphasised the importance of not worshipping nature.

The devil also appeared as a cat or dog.  Greeks and Romans associated dogs with Hecate, a goddess of witchcraft (and by association for Christians, of evil).  There has also been a long association of dogs with the underworld and thus it was natural for Christianity to link dogs and the devil.  Dogs also roamed freely and uncontrolled in the middle ages, a time when restless souls, or those who didn’t seem to belong anywhere, were seen with suspicion.

Another devilish form is the serpent, specifically, the serpent in the garden of Eden.  Again, this highlights the sexual, seductive and tempting nature of the devil as snakes have a long association with fertility and sex.

These different forms fed into the concerns around bestiality.  The animal could well be the devil in disguise and thus sex with it would lead to half monster creatures and the devil would have succeeded in creating chaos and disrupting the god given order of the world.

In addition to the devil himself being portrayed as an animal, we see this association between devil and beast in the form of witches familiars.  The species varied significantly and included cats, dogs, rats, toads, mice, snails, birds, ferrets, moles and even small insects such as flies and moths.  Whilst a witch may find their familiar appears out of nowhere, or is gifted by a fellow witch, one way of acquiring them was through the devil.  The devil would give it in exchange for a pledge of allegiance.

We also find witches on the continent riding to sabbats on demons disguised as animals, and were said to be able to shape shift themselves as well as transform others into animals.  All of this added to the threat that witches posed.

Something I’ve been pondering as I’ve been writing this is, what would the devil look like today?  I can’t help but think of certain politicians…

Links

Men, women and nature; a hierarchy

One of the ideas that came up when I was looking at the line between humans and animals was the idea that there is a hierarchy, with men at the top, followed by women, then nature.  So as a woman, I am ‘better’ than an animal, but I can’t begin to think I am as ‘good’ as a man.  Living in a patriarchal society as a well informed feminist, this wasn’t a new idea but it got me thinking.

Women have long been ‘lumped in’ with nature, with animals and this has affected how women have been treated.  It has also affected men.  With women being seen as other, and by default lesser, than man, men then must separate themselves from the devalued femininity.  They must act manly to preserve the distinction between male and female and to preserve their status.

There are a number of ways in which animals and women have lived parallel lives.  Animals have been portrayed as being limited by their biology, being driven by instinct alone, and so have women – we are depicted, for example, as being a slave to our hormones.  Science has historically had little respect for women, just like for animals.

And talking of science, studies of animals and their society have been, and still are, used to reinforce ideas around humans including our beliefs about gender and sexual orientation.  Animal studies incorporate and reinforce our beliefs about masculinity and femininity.

We can see this play out when we look at the theory of evolution.  We often see survival of the fittest portrayed as a competitive display of strength and power, individuals pitted against each other in a show down, a somewhat masculine image.  This is also despite the numerous examples of mutuality within nature.

Another concept around evolution is that of sexual selection.  This is almost exclusively talked about as being one sex (male) competing against others for the limited reproductive resources of the other (female) and thus:

“the language of evolutionary theory, then, has helped to construct images of gendered animals, the prototypes of gendered people.”
– Lynda Birke

Whilst we’re looking at evolution, we should also note that the iconic image of ape turning into man, suggests a “linear progression towards the apex” (Birke) and reinforces the idea of humans are at the top of a scale.  This, and other ways of talking about and illustrating evolution, conflates placement in time with judgement of worth.  Stopping and thinking about it, you realise how paradoxical it is – we are the new kids on the block and for some reason we think we should automatically be neighbourhood king.

Western thinking tends to see nature (and women) as something to be dominated, to be conquered and this has consequences for how we treat nature (and women).

“Western imperialism and global exploitation assumes that it can appropriate nature’s resources without significant consequence; those resources may be other peoples, or they may be directly affected by western destruction of their local environment.”
– Birke

In addition to colonising the world, we see this played out in the male conquest of the wilderness; hiking, climbing, mountaineering, and of course hunting.  Hunting feels like it may be the ultimate act of subduing nature and hence a badge of masculinity with the furs and taxidermy used as status symbols.  And if hunting is a way of showing how well you can dominate, to then eat the animals you’ve killed, is even better.  Eating is loaded with symbolism; ‘real men’ eat meat, vegetarianism is effeminate and so on.  Even our pets can have something to say about our gender; owning a rottweiler is a sign of masculinity whereas a poodle is a sign of femininity.

The language we use to describe or denigrate women – chick, pussy, bitch etc – all reinforce the idea of women as part of the ‘non human animal’ group, separated from men.  They reinforce the difference between men and women and are used to reinforce gender stereotypes which in turn reinforces the hierarchy.  And just as some men react by rejecting any suggestion of femininity, some women reject the suggestion of animality.

There are some reasons why women may want to separate themselves from animals, a major one being that all the time we are seen as animalistic, we can be treated as animals, which at this point in history opens us up to abuse and suffering.  In the late 19th century, women became concerned about the treatment of animals because they feared that the fate of animals could easily become the fate of women.  Being grouped with animals may feel, to some people, like they are being denied their humanity.  Thinking of women as animals is certainly it is a form of objectification which is inherent with all kinds of issues…

In separating women from animals, there is the possibility, the hope, of aligning ourselves next to men and thus claiming a place at the top of the hierarchy.  But is this the end goal we really want to head towards?

“Animals in western culture are ‘other’, objects of scientific enquiry.  We have defined ourselves in opposition to a generality of ‘animals’, irrespective of the qualities of individual species.  It seems paradoxical that at a time when much feminist theory is moving beyond simple dualism of gender (outing great emphasis on differences between women, say) it should do so by implicitly building its analyses on another simple dichotomy – humans verses ‘other animals’.  A more consistent approach, indeed, might be to extend the emphases on plurality and difference, and to begin to deconstruct the (punitive) boundary between us and other species.”
– Birke

Death Around The World

In America, death has become a big business since the start of the 20th century.  Before this, families were in charge of the body, the funeral and what happened after that.  It would have been seen as odd if you weren’t involved in preparing your loved one for the afterlife.  Today, we are very detached from death and the rituals we have around death echo this.

Whilst this might be the case in America and the UK, other parts of the world do things very differently.  This is the topic of From Here To Eternity by Caitlin Doughty and I would highly recommend giving it a read.  See what takes your fancy for your own death, and have a think about what really grates on you and why.  And most importantly, have a conversation, or multiple, about death.

A few themes weave their way through the different cultures that are covered in the book, including that of an intimate goodbye and a much more natural seeming option for what happens after death.  For example, a 30 year old man from Belize, told Doughty that when he dies, he’d like to “be buried in a simple hole, shrouded with an animal skin, with leaves lining the walls of the grave.  He plans on designing the animal shroud himself.”

Religion and culture are often the forces that define when death occurs.  And that seems an odd thing to say from a Western perspective but death is more ambiguous that we give it credit for.  Even within Western cultures, we find a physical and a social death.

Physical death: the point after which the body begins to break down

Social death: The point at which a person is no longer a socially active member of a group – you can persist as a social entity long after physical death through memories, mementos etc.

“The way that the corpse is understood effects the way we look at its disposal”
– Olson, 2014 (I forgot to note a first name, I think it was Phil, sorry if it wasn’t!)

In Indonesia, the people of Toraja have a different defined point of death.  Whilst a person may have stopped breathing, they are considered to be in a state more like illness.  This illness will last until an animal – buffalo or pig – has been sacrificed, then the person will be able to die.  During the illness phase, the body is kept in the home, and this can last several years.  Whilst in the home, the family cares for their family member, making sure they have food, changing their clothing, speaking to them and even sharing a bed with them.

This can seem, to eyes from another culture, to be disgusting or disrespectful but that is far from the truth.  The acts are seen as a way of showing love and respect and a way of caring for a loved one that recognises the strength of that bond.  It is an intimate process and a meaningful way to stay connected to a loved one.

After death, most of us think that of burial and cremation, with the latter occurring within the context of a professionalised crematory.  But we have been dealing with death since humanity first began and thus our versions of these rituals are just a touch of the ice burg.

Possibly the earliest example of cremation is found in Australia and refers to the bones of a woman who lived about 42,000 years ago.  She is known as the Mungo Lady and was cremated, then the remaining bones were crushed, and in a second cremation were burned.  We also know that other parts of the world, such as the Ancient Greeks and ancient Romans, and Hindus have practised cremation as a way to cleanse and liberate the soul.

In Italy, in 1869, burial was announced to be unhygienic and thus cremation was touted as the best option for your corpse.  It was presented as being a way to save yourself from being eaten by worms.  The machines used in cremation today, closely resemble those from the 1800s and have a heavy impact on the environment.  To burn quickly, it’s recommended that you have a wooden coffin as cardboard – which intuitively feels more environmentally friendly – burns too quickly so more fuel has to be used to burn the body.  Additionally, there are various byproducts which aren’t that great…

Most cremation in the western world goes on behind closed doors, away from the family, away from view.  Then the ashes are turned into something unrecognisable from the human that the family knew and loved.  As an aside, these are not like on films, they will not scatter into the breeze.  One friend described them as more like cat litter…

One thing I found very interesting is that in the UK, any metal that is left after the body has been cremated gets collected by a company from the Netherlands which then turns it into cars and bikes and taxis.

Japan has the highest rate of cremation, with 99.9% of dead people being cremated.  They also have some fantastically innovative options for the cremated remains, which are normally devoid of individuality.  With an ageing population, the dead may not have someone to tend to their grave or the site of their ashes and so technology has stepped up.  Large buildings store multiple sets of remains and thus the care and tending is carried out by monks.  If you are a relative who cannot get there, you can check in on your relative online, even experience a virtual gravestone with virtual incense and flowers and offerings.

Traditionally, after a Japanese cremation, the family will pick bones from the ashes.

“The family are handed pairs of chopsticks, one made of bamboo, one made of metal.  The chief mourner begins with the feet, picking up bones with the chopsticks and placing them in the urn.  Other family members join in and continue up the skeleton.  The skull will not fit into the urn intact, so the cremator might intervene to break it up into smaller bone fragments using a metal chopstick.  The final bone, the hyoid (the horseshoe-shaped bone underneath the jaw) is placed in the urn last.”
– Doughty

There is an aspect of caring going on here, as well as following reassuring rituals at a time when nothing seems to make sense.  It provides the opportunity for you to carry out something meaningful, something that you can do when there is very little you can do.

Another obvious model for death, dying and grief comes from Mexico where traditions, including the Day of the Dead, embraces and exists alongside death.

“For the families, this night is not just a one-way acceptance of offerings for their dead; it is an exchange with the community.”
– Doughty

There are so many amazing, fascinating death rituals that can be found all round the world and of course I will only be touching on a few.  With this in mind, I really suggest reading up about sky burials.  Many of us have heard of them but know little about the actualities of the ceremony.  In part of India, cremation and burial are considered off limits as post-death options because unclean dead bodies are thought to defile the sacred elements of earth, fire and water.  Hence the body must go to the sky.  In Tibet, wood (for cremation) is scarce, and the ground is too hard and cold for burial, so again, we have turned to the sky.  This is where the vultures come in.  These sky dancers carry the body, in pieces, up into the sky and your body is returned to nature.

Where America and the UK avoid death, formalise death and deny death, Mexico embraces it and in bringing death out of the shadows, they create space for grief, and thus for healing.  My own experience of non western death comes from Togo.  In a remote, mountainous area, I found myself at a funeral and there was a visceral, almost violent outpouring of grief.  To my 18 year old eyes and ears, it seemed intense and felt uncomfortable.  But even then, it felt more authentic than what I imagined a western funeral to be like (my own granma had asked that children weren’t at the funeral when she died).  There was something in the chanting and singing and wailing that felt powerful, and healing.

Whilst I have been hard on the west, things are starting to change.  Just a few weeks ago, I went to a few talks about death as part of York’s Dead Good Festival.  This included a talk about the cremation process, about natural burials and about what happens if you donate your body to medical education.

In the UK, traditional burial is waning in popularity, with 77% of people choosing cremation by fire and with natural burials becoming increasingly popular since 1994.

“The poet Walt Whitman spoke of soil and earth as the great transformers, accepting “the leavings” of men and producing “such divine materials.”  Whitman marvelled at the ability of the earth to reabsorb the corrupt, the vile, the diseased, and produce new, pristine life.”
– Doughty

And what could be more inspiring that that?!  As one person Doughty met said, it takes nine months to grow a baby, perhaps it should take the same time for the body to disintegrate, rather than the few hours that cremation takes.

Natural burials can be more personalised, more intimate and have more family involvement.  You can say goodbye to your loved ones in a way that reflects who you were in life and, in giving your body back to nature, you feed the very landscape you will spend eternity in.  And that’s a really important point – very often, if you choose traditional burial, you are only guaranteed that site for a set number of years, after that, you may find yourself getting rehomed.

Another way to die as you lived, is to donate yourself to medical education.  As a clarification, many people seem to muddle whole body donation with organ donation.  The first is where your body is used by medical students and the second is where your organs are given to a living person who needs them.

In the UK, you can tick a box on your drivers license to agree to organ donation and as of some point in 2020, it will become an opt out system instead of opt in.  This means your organs will be up for grabs, unless you have specified otherwise.  For whole body donation, you need to contact an anatomy unit.  If you visit the Human Tissue Authority you can get more information about body donation as well as find out where your nearest unit is.

If your body is accepted for organ donation, it is unlikely to be used for medical education – they need whole bodies, preferably ‘normal’ bodies for the students to learn from.  If you are accepted for whole body donation, you may be used for either up to three years, or indefinitely depending on what you choose.  After you’ve been used, there will be a funeral and a thanksgiving ceremony.  Family can be involved as much or as little as they want but the funeral is free and provides a way of memorialising the death.  The thanksgiving ceremony is an opportunity for the medical school to acknowledge this ultimate gift.

In the UK, you donate directly to medical schools but in the US, there are body brokers and some of these seem to be profit driven so do your research. Other uses for bodies include researching specific conditions, for military weapons testing, for car safety and even in body farms.

Further reading:

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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Resources

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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