“The rainbow is a lovely haloed mystery, making me want to pray.” – Jack Kerouac (mid-1950’s)
Of all the wonders of nature visible to the human eye, the rainbow comes closest to being purely imaginary. It has no physical substance, so you cannot touch it. If you move toward it, it stays ahead of you; if you move away from it, it tags along. This elusiveness may be the reason the rainbow has woven its way through the folklore, legends, science, and art of every continent.
But the first rainbow was God’s sign to Noah.
“And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between Me and you…for perpetual generations. I set My rainbow in the cloud and it shall be for the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. It shall be, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow shall be seen in the cloud and I will remember My covenant…the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” Genesis 9:12,15.
Ancient mythologies attributed divine status to the rainbow. To the Siberians, it was the thunder god’s bow. To the Samoyeds, it was “munbano,” the hem of the sun god’s coat. In the Iliad, Homer wrote that Aphrodite, wounded by the warrior Diomedes, fled from battle to Mount Olympus on the path of a rainbow. But nowhere has the rainbow been given such diversified meaning as in folklore:
A rainbow in the morning
Is the shepherds warning;
A rainbow at night
Is the shepherd’s delight
Early Malayans thought an arc ending in water meant that a prince would soon die.
The Shoshonean Indians in America saw the rainbow as a serpent, rubbing its back against the firmament. Other North American tribes warned their children not to point at a rainbow, lest their finger swell and drop off.
One familiar legend is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Alchemists of old believed there was a substance that could transmute ordinary metals into gold. Persons seeking a shortcut to riches were said to be looking for it.
In 350 B.C. Aristotle theorized that raindrops acted as tiny mirrors reflecting sunlight, but because they were so small they were able to reflect colors only; not a whole image. No one improved upon this for over a thousand years.
In 1637, the Frenchman Rene Descartes proved that it is necessary for refraction (the bending of light rays) to occur when globules of water are struck by light, to produce a rainbow.
In 1665 Sir Isaac Newton discovered that sunlight is a composite of all color. A beam of light passed through a prism was split into a multicolored band. Passed through another prism, it became white light again.
Rainbows have graced the canvases of master artists for years. Peter Paul Rubens painted a glowing pastoral work in 1636. And poets such as Shelley, Longfellow and William Wordsworth have captured the rainbow’s mystery in writing.
In Italy, the rainbow is called “the flashing arch.” In North Africa, “the bride of the rain.” But our God, in His mercy, created the real rainbow, as a beautiful promise to His creation.