Arc-eology: A Sweeping Summary of the Rainbow Through the Ages

  • The origin of the word rainbow ranges from the Latin arcus pluvius to the Middle English reinbowe to the German regenbogen to the Danish regnbue, but all are basically the equivalent of rain + bow or arch.
  • In the Bible, the rainbow spans the book, from the promise of peace in Genesis (“I have set My rainbow in the clouds”) to the potency of power in Revelation (“…I saw another strong angel coming down out of heaven…with a rainbow on his head and his feet were like pillars of fire”).
  • In ancient cultures, the rainbow’s meaning equally covered the spectrum:
    • The Greeks believed it was a bridge between heaven and earth, while the Greek poet Homer was said to have seen the rainbow as all purple (d’oh).
    • Similarly, in Norse legend the sacred Rainbow Bridge (or Bifrost) was proclaimed to be the connection between Midgard (where humankind dwelled) and Asgard (the realm of the gods).
    • As far back as the Stone Age, Serbians saw it as the bow of their storm god.
    • The Japanese once viewed the rainbow to be a bad omen as it reminded them of snakes. And while some cultures believed it was the gods’ way of apologizing for a torrential downpour, others saw it as a beautiful yet stern reminder of the wrath of their gods (in other words if you didn’t obey their every command, they’d hit you with another whopper).
    • In many cultures, the rainbow had strong sexual overtones, possessing both male and female characteristics.
    • But it was Bulgarian folklore that took that thought to a whole new level, with the belief that if you walked under a rainbow’s arch you would change genders.  
  • As the only planet in the solar system where it’s visible, Earth has the exclusive on rainbows.
  • In past newsletters, we touched on the rainbow flag and its association with the LGBT social movement.  But its colorful history began centuries before that.
    • In 1525, during the German Peasant’s War, it was a symbol of hope for the downtrodden as they took up arms against the tyrannical aristocrats.
    • Dating back to 1895, it was the official flag of International Cooperative Alliance, which united organizations from agriculture to tourism.
    • Beginning in early 1960s, members of the Jewish Bene Ohr (the Children of Light) wore rainbow tallits (prayer shawls) to symbolize the Kabbalah (esoteric teachings of Judaism).
    • Since 1973, it’s been the official city flag of Cusco, Peru.
  • In 1994, after the fall of apartheid, and during its first fully democratic election, Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared South Africa as the Rainbow Nation.
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