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Rainbows - Penny Snowden

During the pandemic painted rainbows, often made by children, have been displayed in windows not just here but across the world as schools closed and households observed social-distancing rules.

This was a symbol of a sense of community at a time when people were isolated and also perhaps representing hope of a brighter time to come. It also became a symbol here in Britain of support for the NHS which was being almost overwhelmed at the height of the pandemic.

Rainbows are a symbol of hope in many cultures. They appear as perfect arcs, often during a rainstorm when the sun shines onto water droplets, shattering its white light into an array of brilliant colours. They are actually full circles, but to see the half that falls below the horizon, you would have to view the rainbow from above the earth.

In Christian culture, a rainbow promises better times to come – God sent one to Noah after the great flood as a sign that people could go forth and multiply without fear of another flood or drowning. The rainbow was the sign of His covenant with his people that he would never destroy the Earth again.

Rainbows are frequently represented in Western art and culture, as a sign of hope and promise of better times to come.

However, the hope expressed in a rainbow can also represent inaccessible riches. According to Irish legend, the end of a rainbow marks where leprechauns have buried a pot of the gold they stole from the Vikings. The frustration lies in the tantalising fact you can only see a rainbow if you are far away from it, and they appear to move as you move, so the promise remains elusive.

Somewhere over the rainbow, “dreams come true” and “troubles melt like lemon drops”, as Judy Garland sang in the Wizard of Oz musical. But again this magical place is unattainable, she laments: “Birds fly over the rainbow – why then, oh why, can’t I?”

Rainbows are a relatively common meteorological phenomenon and as a result all across the world cultures have sought diverse meaning in the coloured arc in the sky. Here are just some examples :-

For the Aboriginal people of Pennefather River in North Queensland, Australia, the rainbow is a very brightly coloured snake that appears to stop rain that has been made by their enemies. The rainbow-serpent is a very important and powerful spirit throughout Aboriginal Dreamtime culture, thought to be the oldest continuous religious belief in the world, and is depicted in rock art dating back at least 10,000 years.

Rainbows have also been spiritually important to Western cultures – for the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the arch of colour was the visible form of the fleet-footed messenger goddess Iris. For Buddhists, it is possible to become a spiritual rainbow body – the rainbow symbolises the highest state that can be reached before Nirvana or enlightenment.

For some cultures, rainbows are not themselves gods, but bridges between their world and ours, a pathway leading to the light and the heavens. Some Indonesian societies see a rainbow as a bridge used by soul boats as they journey to the spiritual realm, for instance. Again, in Norse mythologies, a rainbow – called Bifröst – was a burning bridge connecting Asgard and Midgard, the kingdoms of gods and men respectively.

In Japanese myth, the rainbow is a Floating Bridge of Heaven on which the male and female creators of the world descended to create land from the ocean of chaos.

Now the diversely coloured rainbow is being used to reflect diversity in sexuality, becoming the international symbol of the gay (LGBTQ) movement. Gilbert Baker, an artist and drag queen, first created the rainbow flag in 1978, and it has been used extensively to depict pride, defiance and also hope for acceptance, respect and equal rights for this marginalised group.

For colours seen by the human eye, the most commonly cited and remembered sequence is Isaac Newton’s sevenfold red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, remembered by the mnemonic Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain (ROYGBIV).

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