It starts with a single drop of water. As visible light passes through the drop, the light is refracted as through a prism, split into its component wavelengths and reflected back to the eye. Multiplied by thousands of drops in the sky, an arc of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and purple emerges as if by magic. Rainbows…mystical, splendiferous, mind-bending.
In honor of the 75th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz’s release in 1939—and its signature song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” sung by Judy Garland–let’s take a look at the rainbow as symbol, as scientific discovery and as the place where dreams come true.
The rainbow has a storied history. Can you imagine what early man must have thought seeing this phenomenon? Or through the ages how various cultures interpreted its appearance? Its rarity, glimmering colors and arcing shape must have evoked strong reactions. (Rainbows are actually circles; the arc is only visible because the horizon blocks the view, although under the right conditions, the whole circle can appear.)
In The Rainbow Bridge: Rainbows in Art, Myth, and Science, authors Raymond L. Lee and Alistair B. Fraser describe how universally this wonder of nature has influenced cultures:
…across the millennia the rainbow has been venerated as god and goddess, feared as demon and pestilence, trusted as battle omen, and used as an optical proving ground. The rainbow image is woven into the fabric of both our past and present….
Indeed, we see a plethora of stories across time and cultures, some with singular perspectives, others with shared narrative threads, of the presence of rainbows. In the famous Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh, the immortal Utnapishtim survived a massive deluge that destroyed the world. Much of the story finds parallels in Noah and the ark as told in the Bible and Quran, in particular a rainbow that figures in both stories as a promise by a deity to never destroy the world again.
In Greek mythology Iris was the spirit of the rainbow, which symbolized a path for her as a messenger between earth and heaven. This is similar to the concept of the Bifröst Bridge in Norse mythology. Shaped like a rainbow, the bridge linked Ásgard and Midgard, the dwellings of the gods and humans, respectively.
The Goddess Nüwa in Chinese mythology had the upper body of a woman and the lower of a dragon. She was a creation goddess who sculpted the first human from mud in a similar rendering as the Bible and Quran’s creation stories. She created the rainbow by filling a slit in the sky with five stones of different colors.
Across Africa many tribes have used the rainbow to signify such situations as kingship with divine origins (Luba in Democratic Republic of the Congo), danger (Fon in Benin) and a sacred symbol associated with rain (Luyia in Kenya).
The Hindus named the rainbow Indradhanush symbolizing the bow of Indra, the god of lightning, thunder and war.
As for the Aboriginal Australians, not only are they the oldest continuous culture on earth (see AntiquityNOW’s blog), but also have the oldest practicing religion. Their rainbow serpent mythology goes back millennia as evidenced by 7,000 year old rock shelter paintings in Kakadu National Park region. (See more in our partner Ancient Origin’s blog.)
The Rainbow Prophecy of the Cree in North America tells how the keepers of the rituals and values—the supreme beings–will return to earth on the day of awakening to heal the earth, unite all the people and create a world of peace, justice, love and harmony. (See also Ancient Origin’s blog.)
And let’s not forget the impish yet prickly Irish leprechaun and his fiendishly unattainable pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
SCIENCE BEHIND THE MAGIC
However, mythology can only take you so far. Leave it to Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727), called the most influential scientist of all time, also known as an overachiever extraordinaire and apple aficionada, to scientifically determine the way that light is transformed to create the colorful splendor of the rainbow. He was able to prove that natural light separated into different waves of color. There was no magic. Nothing of supernatural origins. It’s all about water, light, refraction and reflection. It takes a scientist to keep us grounded.
ANCIENT MYTHOLOGY IS FOUND “SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW”
In the movie The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is a poor farm girl played by Garland. The early scenes are set against the backdrop of a mournful black and white rural landscape and capture the despair of the times. During the 1930s the Great Depression held America in its grip. As if economic collapse weren’t enough, Kansas and Oklahoma also felt the brunt of a legacy of farming missteps that led to drought and crop depletion. It was dust storm country, brutal and unrelenting. Dorothy’s yearning for another reality is breathtakingly poignant as interpreted through Garland’s tremulous vocals in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Then, the tornado transforms Dorothy’s world. Swept up and deposited in Oz in all its Technicolor glory, Dorothy becomes the sojourner of a world of magic and mythology. Much like in the cultures of ancient times, symbolism was everywhere—the Good Witch and the Bad; the quest for a brain and a heart and that most noble of gifts, courage; innocence winning over evil; and the ultimate truth that “there’s no place like home.”
L. Frank Baum, the author of the children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, never realized his imagination would produce one of the most cherished of cinematic classics. As well, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with its evocative melody and its longing for a land where “…the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true” strikes a chord that has enshrined it as one of the most popular songs of all times. And as sung by the inimitable Garland, it also is a heartbreaking plea for a life beyond the rainbow, “where troubles melt like lemon drops,” Garland’s rendition as a young girl made all the more touching by her own personal story as it later unfolded.
So in the end, the rainbow in The Wizard of Oz brought us full circle back to Dorothy’s now much differently perceived life. Home is indeed where the heart is.
Rainbows will always inspire a sense of awe, of wonder, perhaps of longing. And as with the ancients, there is a drawing in of breath and a sense of majesty when those colors arch across the sky. There is something mystic happening, there’s a glorious science to what we see and there’s feeling that just beyond the horizon is a world of limitless possibilities. Magic, science and hope, all in Technicolor.
* Did you know that “Over the Rainbow” was nearly cut from The Wizard of Oz not once, nor twice but three times? Or that the set suffered from scorching heat and actors were sickened by toxic make-up? Read more little known facts about The Wizard of Oz in this Huffington Post article and a full analysis of the motifs of “Over the Rainbow” in a shmoop article
*Watch the clip of Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz here.
*To hear another version of “Over the Rainbow,” watch this video of rainbows accompanied by Israel (IZ) Kamakawiwo’Ole’s inimitable vocals.
*Here’s an account of Newton’s discovery as well as Goethe’s contribution to the rainbow canon and a segment that explores what dogs see when looking at a rainbow, all courtesy of National Public Radio’s syndicated Radio Lab and its program titled “Rippin’ the Rainbow a New One.”
Lee, R., & Fraser, A. (2001). The rainbow bridge: Rainbows in art, myth, and science. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Mills, A. (2003). Mythology: Myths, legends, & fantasies. Willoughby, NSW: Global Book Pub.
Sarapik, V. (n.d.). Rainbow, Colours, and Science Mythology. Retrieved September 25, 2014.
 Lee, R., & Fraser, A. (2001). The rainbow bridge: Rainbows in art, myth, and science. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press.