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"Rainbow Myths", by Carl B. Boyer

Dernière mise à jour : 4 août 2023

Caspar David Friedrich - Mountain Landscape with Rainbow, 1810

Extract from :

Carl B. Boyer The Rainbow: From Myth to Mathematics


"In ancient classical literature the rainbow sometimes was deified as Iris; at other times it was regarded merely as the route traversed by the messenger of Hera. The conception of the rainbow as a pathway or bridge has been widespread. For some it has been the best of all bridges, built out of three colors; for others the phrase "building on the rainbow" has meant a bootless enterprise.

North American Indians were among those who thought of the rainbow as the Pathway of Souls, an interpretation found in many other places. Among the Japanese the rainbow is identified as the "Floating Bridge of Heaven"; and Hawaiian and Polynesian myths allude to the bow as the path to the upper world. In the Austrian Alps the souls of the righteous are said to ascend the bow to heaven; and in New Zealand the dead chieftains are believed to pass along it to reach their new home. In parts of France the rainbow is called the pont du St. Esprit, and in many places it is the bridge of St. Bernard or of St. Martin or of St. Peter.

Associations of the rainbow and the milky way are frequent. The Arabic name for the milky way is equivalent to Gate of Heaven, and in Russia the analogous role was played by the rainbow. Elsewhere also the bow has been called the Gate of Paradise; and by some the rainbow has been thought to be a ray of light which falls on the earth when Peter opens the heavenly gate. In parts of France the rainbow is known as the porte de St. Jacques, while the milky way is called chemin de St. Jacques. In Swabia and Bavaria saints pass by the rainbow from heaven to earth; while in Polynesia this is the route of the gods themselves.

In Eddic literature the bow served as a link between the gods and manthe Bifrost bridge, guarded by Heimdel, over which the gods passed daily. At the time of the Gotterdamerung the sons of Muspell will cross the bridge and then demolish it. Sometimes also in the Eddas the rainbow is interpreted as a necklace worn by Freyja, the "necklace of the Brisings," alluded to in Beowulf; again it is the bow of Thor from which he shoots arrows at evil spirits. Among the Finns it has been an arc which hurls arrows of fire; in Mozambique it is the arm of a conquering god. (...)

In myth and legend the rainbow has been regarded variously as a harbinger of misfortune and as a sign of good luck. Some have held it to be a bad sign if the feet of the bow rest on water, whereas a rainbow arching from dry land to dry land is a good augury. Dream books held that when one dreams of seeing a rainbow, he will give or receive a gift according as the bow is seen in the west or the east.

The Crown-prince Frederick August took it as a good omen when, upon his receiving the kingdom from Napoleon in 1806, a rainbow appeared; but others interpreted it as boding ill, a view confirmed by the war and destruction of Saxony which ensued. By many, a rainbow appearing at the birth of a child is taken to be a favorable sign; but in Slavonic accounts a glance from the fay who sits at the foot of the rainbow, combing herself, brings death.

In other tales the bow is associated with "The Old One" (either male or female) who enters so frequently in folklore concerning atmospheric phenomena. Primitive Peruvians held the rainbow in such awe that they remained silent during its duration.

Conflicting views are implied by names given to the rainbow, even within the same country. In France the bow sometimes is known as Raie de St. Martin, or again it is called Raie du diable. In Arabia the rainbow also sometimes is known as the devil's arc; and in Germany the paler secondary bow is called Teufelsregenbogen. There has been a widespread belief that the exterior rainbow arc represents an unsuccessful attempt on the part of Satan to outdo the Architect of the rainbow. The colorless lunar rainbow has been regarded as particularly ill-omened.

The rainbow inevitably has shared in numerological and theological fancies. Among Buddhists the colors of the rainbow were related to the seven planets and the seven regions of the earth. In Christianity the colors were linked sometimes to the seven sacraments; and the bow served as a sign of the Trinity when from the element earth at one end it passed through the element air to the other foot resting on a third element, water.

Alchemy, too, found the rainbow symbolism appropriate to its theories. The alchemists' so-called "philosophic rainbow," the effiorescence of metallic colors which heralded the recovery of pure gold, was, like the meteorological bow, a sign that the struggle between the elements was over and that peace reigned.


The inaccessibility of the ends of the rainbow has encouraged the growth of countless legends. Some gypsies believe that one who at Whitsuntide finds the end of a rainbow and mounts it will win eternal health and beauty. Some in France say that where the rainbow touches the earth a fay has placed a magic pearl; while according to other legends one finds there prized beads which cannot now be manufactured. More prevalent are stories about golden rainbow vessels. It is widely held that angels who mount the bow let fall little dishes which are especially effective in easing the labor of a pregnant woman and in curing the fevers of obedient children who find them and drink out of them.

On the other hand, one who dares sell one of these little golden bowls may be struck dumb. These rainbow dishes are also popularly reported to be found in a boot, shoe, or hat which has been thrown over the bow. In Swabia it has been thought that the ends of the rainbow rest upon two such Regenbogenschiisselchen, and that he who comes upon the end of the bow which can be seen the longer will there find the coveted patina. One form of the legend holds that the rainbow draws water by means of these golden vessels; another explains the rainbow as the brightness produced by reflection of the sun's rays in these golden dishes; still a third asserts that from each rainbow the sun causes a golden paten to fall.

The word iris (and its derivative, iridescent) today has been taken over by the work-a-day world; but to our ancestors it was a vivid reminder that the colors of the rainbow are divine. Thaumaturgy, a word which now refers to the mundane science of wonderworking, once deified primitive man's sense of awe. Thaumas, Greek god of wonder, was, quite appropriately, regarded as the father of Iris; and either the daughter or her atmospheric harbinger, therefore, was known also as Thaumantias. Man's story of the rainbow seems to be no exception to the principle expressed by Comte that a branch of natural science arises first in mythology and religion before it achieves its ultimate status as a positivistic science.


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