Rainbows are among the most glorious and wondrous natural phenomena on earth. When we see one, we marvel at its beauty – and many people can also experience deep feelings of spirituality.
What have rainbows meant to different cultures around the world over the centuries? And what does it mean when you see one? In this post, we answer these questions and more as we discuss everything you need to know about rainbow symbolism and meaning.
What do rainbows mean to us in life?
Before we look at what rainbows symbolize in different cultures around the world, let’s talk about what people think of when they see a rainbow and what they associate it with.
Rainbows are formed when light is reflected, refracted and scattered by water droplets in the air, resulting in the light being split into a visible spectrum.
They are most commonly seen after rain, so the appearance of a bright and colorful rainbow after inclement weather is often associated with imagining happy feelings after a dark time and a feeling that something good will always follow the dark times.
Rainbows last only a short time once formed, and this ephemeral quality, coupled with the sense of wonder and mystery they inspire, has always been associated with magic and the spirit world.
Rainbows are also a source of wonder for children, and children love to draw or paint them, so as adults, when we see a rainbow, we are reminded of the innocent, carefree days of our childhood.
After all, since we don’t usually see rainbows that often, their vibrant beauty always seems so welcome, bringing positive feelings and a sense that luck is on the way.
Rainbow symbolism in different cultures
A natural phenomenon that existed long before human ancestors descended from the trees, rainbows will be familiar to people around the world since the dawn of time.
Until relatively recently, people did not know how rainbows are formed, so the wondrous arc of bright colors in the light would have seemed magical, even divine.
Because of this, it’s no wonder that rainbows have figured in the beliefs and mythologies of quite a number of cultures, so let’s take a look at some of them now.
According to the Navajo, the rainbow was a magical serpent that only brave warriors could ride, but it brought those who were worthy to the spirit world, where they received divine guidance.
The Cherokee, on the other hand, believed they were the hem of the sun’s mantle.
Irish ideas about rainbows are among the most well-known. According to traditional belief, a rainbow shows you where a leprechaun buried a pot of gold. But since you never get to the end of a rainbow due to the optical effect, nobody can find it either.
According to another Celtic tradition, the arch of a rainbow is said to resemble the womb of a pregnant woman, so rainbows were also a symbol of fertility.
It was even believed that pregnancy would be more successful if the baby was conceived under a rainbow.
For the Vikings, the rainbow was considered the path between Midgard, the realm of men, and Asgard, the realm of the gods. The path was called Bifröst, and Viking warriors who fell in battle walked the path on their way to Valhalla, the golden hall of Odin.
In ancient Greece, rainbows were associated with the goddess Iris. She was the embodiment of the rainbow and served as the messenger of the gods. She was usually depicted as either a rainbow or a beautiful woman with wings.
Like the Vikings, the Japanese believed that rainbows were bridges to the sky. In a Japanese creation myth, the male and female creators of the world descended to earth on a rainbow, creating land out of the chaos of the oceans.
Rainbows also feature in Chinese mythology. According to one story, rainbows were caused by the goddess Nüwa (女娲), the creator goddess, who patched the sky together with five colored stones after it was torn apart in a great battle between divine beings.
According to another myth, rainbows were a two-headed dragon that carried messages from the physical world to the spirit world. First, the message was relayed from Earth to a head. Then it was passed on to the second head before finally reaching the spirit realm.
The Rainbow Serpent is a common motif in Australian Aboriginal art and is usually thought of as a creator god.
This god is regarded as the giver of life – but also as a destroyer in anger. The details of the myth vary between different Aboriginal groups, but it is usually associated with water and its life-giving properties.
In Genesis, God sending Noah a rainbow as a sign that he and all the animals can leave the ark and that God promises never to flood the earth again is another great deluge. Because of this, it symbolizes God’s covenant with mankind, as well as his great mercy and forgiveness.
In Hindu belief, the rainbow is considered the divine bow of Indra, the god of thunder and war.
In Buddhism, the rainbow is the second highest state of enlightenment that must be attained before one can attain nirvana. In this state of meditation, all matter is transformed into pure light.
Pre-Islamic Arabic Faith
Similar to the Hindu symbolism of the rainbow, the rainbow was believed to represent a divine arc in the pre-Islamic Arab world.
Central American cultures
According to the Mayans, the rainbow was the crown worn by the god Ixchel, a jaguar goddess associated with rain and midwives.
However, according to some other Mesoamerican beliefs, rainbows were seen as bad omens, and when they appeared, people hid their children.
The Karen of Myanmar
As in some Central American cultures, the Karen of Myanmar and surrounding areas believe that rainbows are bad omens. They are believed to be demons that eat children, so children are hidden if one turns up.
According to an old Bulgarian belief, people crossing a rainbow change gender, which was believed to be something to avoid.
This is somewhat ironic when we consider the modern symbolism of the rainbow and how it is represented.
Modern rainbow symbolism
To this day, the rainbow continues to be used as a symbol, so let’s take a look at what it now represents.
South Africa – the “rainbow nation”
After the abolition of apartheid, South Africa became known as the “rainbow nation,” a term of unity coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to represent the diverse peoples who all call themselves South Africans.
The symbol of the LGBTQA+ movement
Perhaps the most prominent use of the rainbow today is within the LGBTQA+ community as a symbol of unity and inclusion. The colors of the rainbow represent LGBTQA+ diversity and the acceptance of all people, regardless of their sexual orientation.
The use of the rainbow flag began in San Francisco as a symbol of gay pride, and the original version had eight colors, each representing a specific meaning. They were as follows:
Turquoise magic and art
Many other variations have also been used since the original design appeared in the late 1970s.
Symbol of hope during the Covid pandemic
Most recently, the rainbow was used as a symbol of hope during the Covid pandemic.
From Italy it appeared in shop windows, often accompanied by positive messages that everything will be fine in the end. This was an important sign of encouragement for young children to see while locked indoors during lockdown.
The rainbow is a fitting symbol for this as it represents joy and bright colors when the sun shines through after a period of darkness.
What does it mean when you see a rainbow?
Rainbows hold deep symbolism for many people, both in ancient and contemporary societies. But what does it mean when you see a rainbow?
Seeing a rainbow can have many interpretations, but they are almost always positive.
When you see a rainbow, you should look within yourself, perhaps through meditation or deep thought. Think about what you were thinking about when you saw the rainbow and think about any problems or questions you have in your life right now.
This way, by trusting your intuition, you can find out what message seeing a rainbow has for you.
Here are some of the general meanings that seeing a rainbow can have:
1. Good news or good luck
In many cultures, rainbows are considered a sign of good luck or that good news is on the way, and if you see one, that might be the simplest explanation.
It’s common to have an uplifting feeling when you see a rainbow, and many people believe that something good will happen when you see one.
This is reminiscent of the Irish tale of leprechauns and pots of gold – although you’re unlikely to find a literal pot of coins!
2. Hope that something good will happen
Rainbows often appear after a dark thunderstorm, and when this happens it can bring you a message of hope.
Does something in your life feel sad or desperate? Do you feel like the bad times will never end?
If you’re feeling this way and then see a rainbow appear, it can be a message that you shouldn’t give up hope because the good times will come again as sure as the sun always follows the rain.
3. A fresh start
A similar message could be about a new beginning in your life. It could mean that a new phase is beginning in your life – and that you should approach it with a positive attitude to ensure you make the most of the opportunity.
On the other hand, it could mean that you have to be proactive in taking the first step towards changing your life.
Is there something you know you want to do but hesitate to do because you don’t know how it will turn out? Then…
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