Rainbow Science Essay, Research Paper
“Rainbows?the Mythology and the Magic”
A rainbow can be classified as an extraordinary and attractive natural phenomenon that has fascinated humans throughout the ages. There have been numerous observations of rainbows and many different definitions passed out through the cultures. Descriptions such as ” A rainbow is seven colors in the sky. It is a phenomenon which makes its appearance when it is raining at the same time when the sun is shining.” (Irwin, 32) have been transmitted verbally through cultures. There are many different aspects to a rainbow; from the technical issues such as the refraction of light, to the mythology which includes the Irish stories of leprechauns. All of these combine to make the rainbow one of the most significantly symbolic shapes of the ages.
The science behind the rainbow is very simple. A rainbow is simply an arc of concentric colored bands that develops when sunlight interacts with raindrops. Sunlight is refracted as it enters a raindrop, which causes the different wavelengths of visible light to separate. Longer wavelengths of light such as red are bent the least while shorter wavelengths of violet and blue are bent the most. ( Parkhurst, 58)
Much can also be said about the angles of the sun as it hits the different raindrops. If the angle between the refracted light and the normal (which forms a perpendicular angle to the surface) if the drop of the surface is greater then the critical angle, about 48 degrees, then the light will reflect off the back of the raindrop. If the angle is smaller then 48 degrees then the light will simply pass on through. The reflected light is refracted as it exits the raindrop. This means that the light does not exit at the same angle as it entered. Violet light, which bends the most, emerges at an angle of 40 degrees relative to the incoming sunlight while red light, which bends the least, exits the drop at an angle of 42 degrees. The other 5 colors, orange, yellow, green, blue and indigo, will leave the raindrop at angles in between. Usually, a rainbow will be seen when rain is falling in one part of the sky and the sun is shining in the other. For the rainbow to be visible, the sun must be behind the observer, who is in effect, facing the rain. Since only one color of light is observed from each raindrop, an incredible number of raindrops is required to produce the magnificent spectrum of colors that are characteristic of a rainbow. (Kemp, 102)
The etymology of the word rainbow is very diverse. Its connection with rain and heaven is very apparent in almost every culture. Balto-Finnic languages such as the Finnish, Ingrian and Karelian use the word sateenkaari , which places the emphasis on rain. This emphasis continues into the Germanic languages as well: German Regenbogen, Swedish regnbage, Old Norse regnbogi, and Danish regnbue. Also very widespread is the connection with heaven. This is apparent in the French language which uses the word arc-en-ciel. In Latin there are many different expressions denoting the rainbow: arcus pluvius ‘rainbow’, arcus caelestis ‘bow of the heaven or gods’, arcus coloratus ‘ colored bow’. (Shweizer, 60)
In the Bible the rainbow is referred to in both the New and Old Testaments, both in fairly similar contexts. The most well known rainbow is found in the Old Testament where the rainbow is a sign of the covenant between God and Noah. Genesis 9:13 reads: “I do set my bow in the cloud; and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.” The common interpretation of this rainbow is ambiguous and denotes God’s wrath and mercy. The New Testament takes a comparable approach to the rainbow when the Book of Revelations 4:3 reads “And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight unto an emerald.” This is also a symbol of the covenant between God and his followers. However, in the Bible there is no found reference to the colors of the rainbow nor the number of them. Since the ancient Gothic times, rainbows have been depicted in art. Paintings which contain apocalyptic motifs use the rainbow as a halo surrounding the body of God or a saint. In Gothic art such as Maiestas Domini, Christ is depicted as sitting on the rainbow in the midst of the Final Judgement. (Kemp, 138)
The mythology and mystery that has been designated to the rainbow in different cultures is one of the most varied in the whole world of nature. Many natural phenomenons are characterized as symbolic, however they are usually consistent. For example, in every civilization, fire is looked on as a form of destruction. The meaning of the rainbow is incredibly diverse from culture to culture. Generally speaking it is looked at for its beauty as a source of positive emotions and a gladdening of the heart. The widespread image of the rainbow is a bow, with which God sends down arrows and rain. But taken further, the rainbow was considered to be someone’s belt or robe. In the Albanian culture the rainbow is the belt of the goddess of beauty, and a later Catholic Saint Prenne (or Prende), whose name is derived from the word perendi meaning ‘heaven’. Swallows were harnessed to her carriage and pulled her through the gates of heaven. (Irwin, 145)
The Greek mythology also attributes the rainbow to a goddess. Iris was the daughter of Thaumas and Electra, the sister of Harpies and a messenger of the gods of Olympus. She is represented as both the goddess of the rainbow and its impersonation. The rainbow has been said to be the belt of Iris, a footpath between heaven and earth, or the stairway from which Iris descended to deliver messages to the mortals. Ironically, the original meaning of the word iris is ‘path or band’. (Schweizer, 173)
Some cultures have shown us that the rainbow is not as innocent and beautiful as it appears. Throughout Australia a serpent has been used as a simile of the rainbow. This theory is also seen in tribes of Africa and civilizations in Brazil. It is an important figure in rites of initiation and rainmaking, carrying often a dangerous and destructive character. The rainbow is said to be the cause of draughts in those parts of the world. The rainbow draws the water up to the sky, from where it falls down to the earth again. This in itself is not a bad thing but since the water is drawn up from everywhere, rivers, lakes and wells, it is a danger to humans. The water could bring with it fish and other forms of life including human beings. A tale in Germany relates the story of a curious shepherd boy who was drawn up by a rainbow along with his whole flock of sheep. Another evil myth associated with the rainbow is the thought that if you point at the rainbow your finger will fall away, mortify or rot. Although this theory does not fit with the others it is still a common belief in many countries. (Kemp, 153)
The thought that treasures lie at the other end of the rainbow is one that is often associated with small Irish leprechauns who will grant you three wishes and surrender their pot of gold unto the finder. The ends of the rainbow are said to lead to hidden treasures. This idea originated somewhere in old Europe. In places such as Silesia, an obscure area of eastern Europe, it is said that the angels put the gold there and it can only be recovered by a nude man. Although the laws of physics find it absolutely impossible to walk under a rainbow, in believed in the same region of old Europe that anyone passing beneath the rainbow would be transformed, man into woman, woman into man. (Kemp, 127)
The colors of the rainbow are symbolic of different things throughout the different cultures as well. The seven colors are often remembered by such phrases as ROY G BIV or in England as Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain. The colors have been used as a way to predict the weather, Much like the saying “Red sky at night sailors delight..” there are sayings in other cultures that focus on only two of the colors of the rainbow. Two such sayings have been translated roughly to “When the rainbow is red, it will not rain, when green, it will rain” and: “The clearer the red color of the rainbow, the more wind.” However, one can find an opposite meaning for nearly every color so forecastings such as these have been pretty nearly abandoned. To Iranian Muslims, even the brilliance of the colors in the rainbow have significance. Prominent green means abundance, red means war and yellow brings death. The Arawak Indians of South America recognize the rainbow as a sign of good fortune if seen over the ocean and a sign of bad luck if seen on land. Tribes of northeastern Siberia see the rainbow as the tongue of the sun. More locally, many North American Indian tribes regard it as a bridge between the living and the dead. (Parkhurst, 183)
Folk songs in Eastern European cultures also refer to the colors of the rainbow. One of these songs has been translated to: “A blue cloud is rising from the bog, from the bog blue, from the earth red, It’s not raining from the blue cloud, it’s raining from the claycolored. What’s there in the clouds? There is a rainbow in the clouds. What’s there between the rainbow? There’s a goose between the rainbow!” Other songs such as these use metaphors for the rainbow such as a maiden sitting on the edge of a cloud, or the goose replaced with a woman. (Schweizer, 212)
Modern culture also plays upon the mystical reputation of the rainbow in movies such as “Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz.” In both the book and the film, Dorothy’s house is lifted by a tornado and carried to the Land of Oz, which is described as over the rainbow. The theme song of the film, entitled (appropriately enough) “Over the Rainbow” contains lyrics that lead the listener to envision a mysterious land that lies beyond the rainbow. These lyrics read “Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, there’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby. Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue, and the dreams that I dare to dream really do come true.” Dorothy then goes on to have all kinds of adventures in Oz which lead her to wish for her home back in Kansas. Another very popular movie that led to an even more popular song was “The Muppet Movie.” With the help of producers such as Jim Henson, Kermit the Frog sings about the rainbow connection. This song describes the rainbow as an enigma; something that cannot be described yet definitely and objectively exists. This song asks us “Why are there so many songs about rainbows and what’s on the other side? Rainbows are visions but only illusions and rainbows have nothing to hide.”
Overall, the use of rainbows in mythology, beliefs and forms of entertainment has been great throughout history. As people continue to believe in the power of rainbows as a symbol of renewed hope and luck, the stories will pass down in a modern form of oral tradition. Parents will tell their children the stories they were told, and show them the movies that they used to love. The magic that can be explained and expanded upon catches people’s attention because it occurs so infrequently. As Kermit the Frog sang in “The Rainbow Connection”: All of us under it’s spell, we know that it’s probably magic.” Both children and grown-ups alike will always watch for rainbows from their rooms and car windows. To quote Kermit the Frog one last time: “All of us watching and wishing we’d find it. I hope that you’re watching too. Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection, the lovers, the dreamers and me.
1) Irwin, Eleanor. Color terms in Greek Poetry. Toronto, Canada, 1974.
2) Kemp, M. The Science of Art. New Haven, London, 1990 London.
3) Parkhurst, Charles. & Feller, Robert L. Color Research and Application. New York, New York, 1982.
4) Scweizer, Paul D. The Art Bulletin. New York, New York, 1982.