What is a rainbow?

26th June 2018

Today, because of science and what not, we know exactly what rainbows are. As light from the sun passes through raindrops, it is refracted numerous times and reflected back out again at different angles, creating the rainbow effect. That’s it, basically. Simple as.

But can you imagine the bafflement that rainbows must have caused people before we had an actual explanation for their existence? These technicolour arcs spread huge across the sky, with no visible start or end point, always seemingly just on the edge of the horizon. They must have been absolutely blagged.

Throughout history, humans have sought to understand things and find ways to explain them, and before science, this was most often done through religion, mythology and storytelling. That rainbows feature so prominently and so universally throughout the myths and legends of so many different cultures is a testament to how puzzling these natural phenomena must have been. In some cultures, they play a central role in an entire belief system, and in others, they’re just attached to a little moral story or belief, but the rainbow features nonetheless. Here are a few of the most interesting examples of rainbows featuring in mythology and folklore from all over the world.

The lovers in the rainbow

A well-known folktale popular all throughout China tells the story of young lovers Hsienpo and Yingt’ai, and also that of the rainbow. The story goes that as a young girl, Yingt’ai was sent to school with the boys but had to disguise herself as one of them. She kept this up for years, all the while living with Hsienpo, an actual boy.

The short version of the story is that Yingt’ai really fancied Hsienpo for a long time, and eventually kind of tried to tell him she was actually a girl and that she was in love with him, but dense old Hsienpo didn’t pick up on her hints.

A rainbow mosaic
Whenever you see a rainbow, Hsienpo and Yingt’ai are together again

The two separated and Yingt’ai was arranged to be married off to some rich dude, but in the meantime, Hsienpo had been missing his long-time companion and had started writing letters to Yingt’ai, never receiving a response. Eventually, he decided to go and see Yingt’ai for himself, but when he arrived at their family home and asked to see young Mr Yingt’ai, the family servant gave him a confused look. “There is only a young Ms. Yingt’ai, but you can’t see her anyway, as she’s to be married soon.”

At this point, Hsienpo finally put two and two together and, realising he was too late to be with the one he loved, he stopped eating and eventually died. When Yingt’ai heard the news she was devastated, and on the way to her wedding asked to stop at Hsienpo’s grave, where she then died too, on account of all the heartbreak. Over the grave appeared a rainbow, and from then on it was said that the lovers represent different colours of the rainbow and that every time the rainbow appears, they are together again.

I’m not crying; you are.

The rainbow body

For practitioners of a certain variant of Buddhism, the rainbow is highly significant and is actually a state of being that can be reached, given the right level of meditation. Dzogchen is a collection of teachings and meditation techniques passed down by generation of Tibetan Buddhists, aimed at allowing those who follow the methods to achieve full enlightenment.

A mural of Padmasambhava, the first Buddhist master to achieve Rainbow in body, in Seattle USA 📸 Wonderlane

Full enlightenment isn’t the easiest concept to pin down. What it essentially means is a kind of oneness with the universe and everything in it — a state in which you have completely transcended the mortal plane of existence and become more like a god, really. It’s also referred to as Nirvana. Only the most devout and holy masters of these teachings have ever come close or achieved full-enlightenment, but the last step before doing so is to achieve “rainbow body” or to become a rainbow.

Since the eighth century, there have been stories and reports of practitioners of these meditation methods physically manifesting as light at the time of their deaths and leaving behind vastly smaller or non-existent bodies. This supposedly denotes that their bodies have ceased to exist in the physical realm, so enlightened were they. Though this obviously seems far fetched, a handful of scientists who’ve tried to investigate the phenomena have, to some extent, corroborated some accounts, and author and filmmaker David Wilcock has discussed it at length.

The Bifrost

Heimdallr will be ready to greet you in Asgard, at the end of the rainbow

In ancient Norse mythology, rainbows were thought of as a vast bridge, connecting the world inhabited by humans with that of the gods, or Midgard and Asgard, respectively. The bridge could only be travelled upon by gods — or those killed in battle — and was said to end in Himinbjörg, home of Heimdallr, gatekeeper of the gods.

Named Bifröst — which translates as something like “shimmering path” — the rainbow featured in the Norse collective texts Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, though you’re perhaps more familiar with the concept from Marvel’s Thor and Avengers films. The Norse god Heimdallr is depicted onscreen by none other than Idris Elba, in a casting move which both infuriated white supremacists and brought one of Hollywood’s slickest actors into the franchise all at once. Nice going.

Stretching from some unseeable point on Earth, right into the heavens, it isn’t hard to see where this myth comes from, and the idea of rainbows as a bridge pops up in several other cultures in various forms.



26th June 2018