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Rainbow – Meaning and Symbolism

Who wouldn’t love spotting a rainbow in the sky? Its beautiful burst of colors is surely breathtaking, exuding an air of mystery as it magically shows up on the horizon. As soon as a rainbow appears, you can expect people to pause and admire its beauty. It can bring a smile to the saddest of people and light up just about anyone’s mood.

While some may see rainbows as nothing but an optical illusion, no one can deny their elusive beauty. They’ve also come to symbolize different things, from new beginnings and feelings of hope to peace and equality. Read on to learn more about what rainbows mean when used in different contexts.

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Rainbow Symbolism

Rainbow symbolism

Rainbows are a natural phenomenon, that appear after a storm or heavy rain. While they may look solid, these beautiful arcs are caused by the reflection of sunlight on water droplets. Here are some of the most common meanings associated with rainbows.

  • Hope – Rainbows appear in the sky after a thunderstorm, signifying the end of a bad period and the look towards a new chapter. This has made rainbows a popular symbol of hope.
  • Promise – In the Bible, a rainbow appears after the flood as a promise from God that the period of flooding was over and that a new day was beginning. Christians often view the rainbow as God’s promise to humankind.
  • New Beginnings – A rainbow appears after thunderstorms, which are chaotic and disruptive weather events that signify a negative stage in life. Rainbows signal the end of these periods and the start of a new beginning. This meaning of rainbows also links to the story of Noah and the Ark, where the rainbow signals the end of flooding and the wiping out of humanity.
  • Diversity in Sexuality – In recent years, the rainbow has been adopted by LGBTQ activists as a symbol of the gay rights movement. In this context, the rainbow represents diversity in sexuality, as well as the pride, defiance, and hope for a better future for this group.
  • Good Luck – Irish legend has it that pots of gold can be found at the end of rainbows. According to the legend, leprechauns hide their gold at the end of rainbows, and if you  happen to come across such gold, you are free to take some for yourself. This has made the rainbow a symbol of good luck and prosperity.
  • Equality and Peace – The symbolism of equality comes from the fact that rainbows are made up of several colors. While each color is  unique and individual, they can work together to create a beautiful whole.  
  • Impermanence – Rainbows don’t last long in the sky, quickly dispersing after showing themselves. This associates them with impermanence and transience, making them a reminder of seizing the day and making the most of the time you have.

Rainbows in Ancient Mythology

Heimdall Norse mythology
The Deity Heimdallr next to Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge. PD-US.

In ancient mythology, rainbows were often referenced due to the mystery and beauty they represented. While some mythologies had deities who personified the rainbow, others saw rainbows as a bridge between humans and the gods.

For example, in the Norse religion, a burning rainbow bridge known as Bifrost is believed to connect the Earth with Asgard, thehome of the gods. It is said that only gods and those killed in battle could use the bridge. This is similar to other world myths that believe that only virtuous people can cross the rainbow bridge to heaven.

iris Greek
Iris Carrying Water of the River Styx. PD-US.

Rainbows play a different role in Greek mythology, where Iris served as a rainbow goddess. She was considered a messenger of the gods, creating a link between humanity and the gods. She was known to relay messages about war and retribution and carried a winged staff on her journeys.

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Another interesting interpretation of rainbows can be seen in Australian Aboriginal mythology. It’s  believed that humans, animals, and eternal beings like the Rainbow Serpent are part of the Dreaming, which refers to an infinite period that starts with the world’s creation. Australian Aboriginal tribes call the serpent different names, but it is consistently known to be the creator of the world and all living beings.

Rainbows in Films and Literature

Many poems and books refer to rainbows and their elusive beauty. For instance, in Stephen King’s 1985 novel It, one of the characters sees a rainbow, commenting that they’ll find gold at its end. Some have interpreted the symbolic journey towards the end of the rainbow as a futile goal, particularly because of the belief that tricking leprechauns into giving up their treasure was virtually impossible.

In Wordsworth’s 1802 classic My Heart Leaps Up, the poet records the joy that the sight of a rainbow brings. In his poem, he used a rainbow to symbolize the joys of his youth, which he expects to be with him until he grows older. He also speaks about how it would feel to lose such joy, living a life that is not worth living.

In movies, rainbows have been used to symbolize a wide variety of themes and emotions. One memorable use of this symbol is in the Wizard of Oz, where the protagonist Dorothy sings to the tune of Over the Rainbow.

In this iconic scene, she imagines a beautiful place where her dreams can finally come true. Interestingly, this scene was almost deleted before the movie was launched, but the film’s associate producer put his foot down and said that the song needed to stay. Years later, it has cemented its status as a cultural touchstone and became one of the greatest songs of the 20th Century.

Rainbows in Dreams

If you dream about rainbows, you’re probably wondering what it means. Since rainbows may come in different shapes and sizes in the world of dreams, it’s fascinating to note the wide variety of thoughts and feelings that they could symbolize. However, rainbows are usually interpreted as something positive in most dreams. Since it is usually associated with the legendary pot of gold, it is usually interpreted as a sign of hope, good luck, and fulfillment of a wish.

Other interpretations claim that a rainbow may represent your plans. If you feel a sense of calmness and confidence while staring at a rainbow in your dream, it might mean that luck is on your side. However, if you see a fading rainbow, it might mean that you might not get the thing you’re hoping for. The good news is having such a dream doesn’t mean that something will never happen – it might just mean that you’ll have to work extra hard for it.

If you dream of a rainbow that’s missing some colors, it might have a special meaning as well. Whatever color is missing might correspond to something that you’re currently missing in your life. For example, since the color red symbolizes passion, dreaming of a rainbow that lacks the color red might mean that you are living a life without passion. Conversely, if one of the colors in the rainbow appears brighter than the rest, it might mean that your life is brimming with that particular quality.

Interestingly, it is said that walking on a rainbow is one of the rarest dreams that one could get. Some believe that this is a major source of inspiration as it is a sign that you should be pursuing greater adventures.

Rainbow Symbols Today

Rainbow colors flags

Today, different rainbow symbols are used to represent hope and solidarity. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, people began hanging banners containing rainbows and short inspirational messages. This trend started in Europe when a series of lockdowns were implemented to help curb the spread of the virus.

Rainbows have also maintained their popularity as a symbol in flags. It dates as far back as the German Peasants’ War in the 16th Century, where rainbow flags were used as one of the symbols of the revolution. In the 1961 Peace movement in Italy, people also held similar multi-colored flags as they marched down the streets to protest nuclear weapons.

However, the rainbow flag has become a distinct symbol of the LGBTQA+ community. While people often associate the different colors with the diversity of the gay community, each color actually represents something. Red stands for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, blue for peace, and purple for spirit. The original flag had eight colors, but turquoise and pink were removed to ramp up the production of the Pride flag.

The popularity of the rainbow flag as a symbol of the gay community started when Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the US, was assassinated on November 27, 1978. Since then, the symbol has become more visible, and was eventually considered the official symbol of the LGBTQA+ community.

Wrapping Up

While rainbows may mean different things in different contexts, no one can deny the inspiration and sense of joy that it brings. As an ever-popular symbol of hope and pride, it will always hold a special place in communities that are looking to foster a sense of unity among its people as well as individuals who remain hopeful of what the future may bring.

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Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.