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The Rainbow as Symbol of Universal Hope

The rainbow, a naturally occurring and universally recognized phenomenon, holds deep significance across various cultural, religious, spiritual, and social contexts. These interpretations often emphasize the rainbow’s beauty, its spectrum of colors, and its fleeting and unattainable nature. Spanning from its biblical significance as a symbol of divine mercy and covenant, to its emblematic role in social movements such as LGBTQ+ rights and environmental activism, the rainbow carries a myriad of meanings. Let’s delve deeper into the various connotations of this multicolored arc, providing a prism through which we can view the rich tapestry of human experience.

Religious and Spiritual Significance

Christianity

 The rainbow is mentioned in the Bible in the context of the story of Noah. After the Flood, which wiped out all living creatures except for those saved on Noah’s Ark, God sent a rainbow as a sign of His promise that He would never again destroy the earth with a flood (Genesis 9:13-17). This “Noahic Covenant” symbolized God’s mercy and promise to mankind, establishing the rainbow as a lasting symbol of God’s mercy and the covenant between Him and all life on earth. Hence, in Christian art and literature, the rainbow often represents hope, divine love, and transcendence.

Judaism

In Jewish tradition, the rainbow holds a similar position to that in Christianity, because both traditions share the story of Noah from the Torah or Old Testament. The Talmud further explores this concept by suggesting that seeing a rainbow is a good omen and one should bless God for remembering His covenant with humanity (Berachot 59a). Despite this, the Talmud also discourages staring at it, to show respect for God’s direct divine presence (Chagigah 16a).

Buddhism

Rainbows have a particular significance in Tibetan Buddhism. The “rainbow body” phenomenon refers to the realization of great practitioners who, through lifelong dedicated practice, can dissolve their physical bodies into pure light at the time of death, leaving only hair and nails behind. This concept reflects the ultimate goal of overcoming the physical plane and reaching a state of enlightenment or ‘Buddhahood.’ In this context, the rainbow is a symbol of transformation and a bridge between the earthly and spiritual realms.

Native American Cultures

 In many Native American cultures, the rainbow holds a special place. In Hopi and other Pueblo cultures, the ‘Rainbow Man’ or ‘Rainbow Kachina’ is a significant deity associated with rain, fertility, and agriculture, showcasing their dependence and respect towards nature. The Navajo consider the rainbow as a symbol of protection, and it often appears on ceremonial or healing objects. In Cherokee mythology, the rainbow crow is a significant character, with the colors of its feathers symbolizing harmony and peace.

These are broad interpretations, and the specific significance of the rainbow can vary among different communities or individuals within these religious and spiritual traditions.

Cultural Significance

Irish Culture

The Irish have a rich tradition of folklore and mythology. One of the most enduring symbols is the leprechaun – a type of fairy known for their mischievousness and for hoarding gold. The leprechaun’s gold is often said to be hidden at the end of a rainbow, which is impossible to reach due to the rainbow’s optical nature. This tale underscores themes of unattainable desires and the lengths to which people will go in their pursuit of wealth. The leprechaun and his rainbow treasure have become globally recognized symbols of Irish culture, especially around St. Patrick’s Day.

Chinese Culture

 In Chinese mythology, the rainbow was a slit in the sky sealed by the goddess Nüwa using stones of seven different colors. This myth indicates the rainbow as a symbol of unity and cohesiveness. Rainbows were also seen as bridges used by immortals and heavenly beings.

Polynesian Cultures

 In certain Polynesian cultures, rainbows also play a significant role. They are often seen as paths used by the gods or a symbol of divine favor. For example, in Hawaiian culture, rainbows were thought to be a celestial path for the gods to travel between the heavens and the earth. A rainbow appearing around one’s shadow was seen as a very good omen. This belief of rainbows acting as a bridge between the earthly and spiritual realm is mirrored in many cultures worldwide.

It is important to note that these interpretations are often part of a larger cultural context and can vary greatly depending on the specific community and its beliefs.

Social Movement Significance

LGBTQ+ Rights Movement

In 1978, artist and activist Gilbert Baker from San Francisco designed what is now known as the rainbow flag or the LGBTQ+ Pride flag. He was encouraged by Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials in the U.S., to create a symbol of pride for the gay community.

The original flag designed by Baker had eight stripes, each of which stood for a component of the community:

  1. Pink for sex.
  2. Red for life.
  3. Orange for healing.
  4. Yellow for sunlight.
  5. Green for nature.
  6. Turquoise for magic/art.
  7. Blue for serenity/harmony.
  8. Violet for spirit.

Due to production issues, pink and turquoise were removed from the flag, and blue was replaced with royal blue, leading to the six-stripe version most commonly seen today: red, orange, yellow, green, royal blue, and violet.

The rainbow flag rapidly gained popularity and recognition, becoming a symbol of the LGBTQ+ community’s diversity and unity. It represents the ongoing fight for rights, acceptance, and pride in their identities.

In recent years, variations of the flag have been created to represent different groups within the LGBTQ+ community, including the Philadelphia Pride Flag which adds black and brown stripes to represent people of color, and the Progress Pride Flag which includes elements from both the Philadelphia flag and the Transgender Pride Flag.

The widespread use of the rainbow flag exemplifies the power of symbols in social movements, providing a shared identity and visual representation for diverse groups of people to rally around.

Environmental Movement

The term “Rainbow Warrior” has deep roots in environmental activism, most notably associated with the environmental organization Greenpeace and their ship named the Rainbow Warrior.

Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior

The Rainbow Warrior, originally a trawler named “Sir William Hardy,” was purchased by Greenpeace in 1977. The name “Rainbow Warrior” was inspired by a North American Cree Indian prophecy that spoke of a time when humanity’s greed and disrespect for Mother Earth would spur people from all nations to rise and band together to protect and heal the Earth. These people would be known as the “Rainbow Warriors.”

The Rainbow Warrior became a symbol of Greenpeace’s environmental campaigns and played a critical role in significant environmental protests, including actions against commercial whaling, sealing, and nuclear testing. Perhaps its most well-known mission was in 1985 when it was bombed by French intelligence agents in Auckland Harbour, New Zealand, during a protest against French nuclear testing in the Pacific.

The sinking of the Rainbow Warrior drew global attention to Greenpeace’s cause and France’s nuclear testing program, making it a turning point for the international environmental movement. A second and third Rainbow Warrior have since been launched, with each ship serving as a powerful symbol of environmental protection and activism.

The Rainbow Warrior is an excellent example of how the rainbow, as a symbol, has been co-opted for a social cause to encapsulate a vision of peace, unity, and proactive defense of the earth. The ship, through its actions and its tragic end, became an icon of resistance and catalyzed further efforts toward nuclear disarmament and environmental protection.

Sources:

Bible, Genesis 9:13-17. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis%209%3A13-17&version=NIV

CNN. “A More Inclusive Pride Flag”. June 13, 2018. https://edition.cnn.com/2018/06/13/health/new-pride-flag-philly-trnd/index.html

Daniel Quasar’s Kickstarter. “Progress: A Pride Flag Reboot”. June 5, 2018. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/danielquasar/progress-a-pride-flag-reboot

Frank, Joseph. The Rainbow Bridge: Rainbows in Art, Myth, and Science. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.

Gilbert Baker Foundation. The Rainbow Flag. https://gilbertbaker.com/rainbow-flag-history/

Gilbert Baker Foundation. The Rainbow Flag. https://gilbertbaker.com/rainbow-flag-history/

Greenpeace International. The Story of the Rainbow Warrior. https://www.greenpeace.org/international/explore/history/the-bombing-of-the-rainbow-warrior/

Greenpeace International. The Story of the Rainbow Warrior. https://www.greenpeace.org/international/explore/history/the-bombing-of-the-rainbow-warrior/

Greenpeace. The Rainbow Warrior. https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/the-rainbow-warrior/

Ray, Reginald. Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet. Shambhala Publications, 2002.

The Guardian. “Rainbow Warrior’s legacy 30 years after bombing”. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jul/10/rainbow-warriors-legacy-30-years-after-bombing

The New York Times. “How the Pride Rainbow Flag Came to Be”. June 22, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/22/style/pride-rainbow-flag-history.html

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