Growing up I was obsessed with rainbows. I collected jewellery, candles, all sorts of trinkets. I arranged my colouring pencils in the striped array of the spectrum. And I was also tremendously excited to see one fill the sky, drawn to their otherworldly beauty even if it was only a brief shard in the sky or the dancing light in a hosepipe. It is probably rare to meet someone who is not captured by the rainbow, but I know among my family at least that they held my attention for the longest. It is little wonder then that they feature so prominently in my book.
But rainbows are actually far rarer than you might think – as little as 10 a year are recorded on average in the UK. Some superstitions and myths even go as far to say that the absence of rainbows for 40 years symbolises the end of the world. Perhaps science could explain this somewhat through the affects of climate change as sun and rain are both essential for a rainbow to appear, but this is beyond my understanding. However, it raises an interesting question when it comes to rainbows and their connection to heaven.
Across the world and throughout history rainbows have symbolised the bridge between God and the earth. In Greek mythology, the goddess Iris personifies the rainbow and acts as messenger between the gods (specifically, Hera) and men. Likewise in Norse mythology Bifrost, the bridge between the human world and the world of the gods, is manifested by a rainbow. Even in the Bible the rainbow is used as a covenant between God and the earth (Genesis 9:13).
However, within Greek and Norse mythology the home of the dead is not with the Gods. Yet the rainbow is still seen as a link between heaven and earth: in China, and also among Native American tribes where it is seen as the road to heaven (interestingly, in Gabon they believe that their ancestors arrived via a rainbow). This association is made clear elsewhere – it is commonly feared among many African tribes as the bringer of death and disease, associated worldwide with snakes and water serpents.
The rainbow is also seen by many to have a dual personality – the I Ching describes it as a combination of yin and yang, the complementary opposites found in all life – and despite its association with death it is also seen as a bringer of life too. For example, the Mayan goddess Ix Chel is responsible for women’s fertility and protection during childbirth (the Maya also see the rainbow as a symbol of a new age), and Australian aborigines view the rainbow as humanity because it causes the energy and breath that give peple life. Perhaps this is no surprise – a rainbow can oly appear when there is rain and rain can be both a life giver in moderation and a destructive force if there is too little or too much.