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Legends of the Rainbow: Myths Throughout History

Legends of the Rainbow: Myths Throughout History
rainbows over green hills

A pot of gold. The Land of Oz. For as long as there have been rainbows, there have been dreamers who have been wondering what’s on the other side of these awe-inspiring phenomenons. Of course, the closer you get to a rainbow, the more elusive it is, which only adds to their legendary mystique.

Throughout history, rainbow myths have become a part of our shared cultures. Some are so old that we don’t know how they started, while others come from stories in recent history. The various legends of rainbows that come from all over the world are a testament to mankind's fascination with this rare meteorological occurrence.

Rainbow Myths: Legends That Began In Reality

Of course, legends about rainbows are just that: legends. They may be fictional stories, but that doesn’t mean that these myths are completely free of any facts. Legends often start with curious dreamers—men and women who were captivated by the event they were witnessing but couldn’t explain. The closer they tried to get to the rainbow, the more unattainable they became. These distant and aloof bursts of light became the stuff of legends.

Of course, science teaches us that rainbows are a reflection of the visible spectrum of light — a phenomenon that occurs when light is reflected and dispersed off of faraway water droplets. In each rainbow, you can observe each color of the spectrum: red, orange, yellow, blue, green, and violet. However, if you lived hundreds or thousands of years ago, how would you describe the colors of the rainbow? How would you begin to explain its seemingly inexplicable origins? Let’s consider some of these stories to see how various cultures have described rainbows.

The Pot of Gold

The Irish tradition of a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow is certainly not the oldest rainbow myth, but it may be the most pervasive in western culture. You’re almost certainly familiar with the particulars: a wealth of riches is stored at the end of every rainbow, which is carefully guarded by a leprechaun. But what is the origin of this legend? The details are a bit obscure, but it’s said the legend sprung from a story about a husband and wife who were farmers. A leprechaun cursed them for their greedy ways, storing their coveted treasures (you guessed it) at the end of the rainbow, which was just out of their reach.

A Greek Messenger

In the mythology of the ancient Greeks, rainbows were the personification of the goddess Iris. This goddess was a messenger between Heaven and Earth, hence the representation of how the rainbow hangs between the two. In Homer’s epic the Iliad, Iris was a winged creature who specifically served as the messenger of Zeus. Her presence was always looked upon as a sign of hope, which certainly was a welcomed sign compared to many of the other erratic gods in the Greek pantheon!

Chinese Dragon Legends

campers near snowy mountain at nigh

No summary of legends about rainbows is complete without addressing how rainbows play a part in Chinese culture. Although these stories aren’t as familiar to those of us in the West, rainbow myths are a foundational part of many traditions of China.

The dragon is synonymous with the rainbow in Chinese culture as both dwell in the sky between heaven and earth. The word “hong” in Chinese means “rainbow,” and its character is drawn as a two-headed dragon with an arch in the middle that’s very reminiscent of a rainbow. Dragon and rainbow myths have many other things in common. For instance, both are elusive, and both exist in the realms of water and lightning. It’s an intriguing parallel!

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

For a relatively modern legend about rainbows, let’s consider L. Frank Baum’s series of books about the land of Oz written in the early 1900’s. In the Land of Oz, Rainbow was a personified character who was created by the Rain King. Rainbow was the father of several of the fairies of the land, including Polychrome. Of course, while most modern readers aren’t as familiar with Baum’s fourteen books about the Land of Oz, you likely are familiar with the classic movie where Dorothy, played by a young Judy Garland, wistfully sings of going “somewhere over the rainbow.”

Learn More From Rainbow Symphony

Today, we may understand the science behind rainbows, but we find rainbow myths to be just as intriguing as ever. If you’d like to learn more of the stories about the intersection of science and imagination, follow Rainbow Symphony on Facebook or Instagram. You can also check out our blog for the latest in science, art, and innovation.

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