What Do Rainbows Mean?

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 
rainbow myths
A rainbow forms over the North Sea above Rattray Head Lighthouse, near Aberdeenshire, off the coast of Scotland. Jane Barlow/PA Images/Getty Images

Who doesn't like rainbows? Sure, some grouches might not care too much for them. But watch what unexpectedly seeing a rainbow does to someone. People stop what they're doing. Stare. Snap photos with their phones. And smile.

A rainbow's ability to bring joy to just about anyone is probably why they're painted on kids' cheeks at fairs. Why they're used to decorate birthday cakes, garden flags and bedding. Why they're mentioned in lyrics, poems and other writings. So, what do rainbows mean? In this article, we'll look at rainbow symbolism from around the world.


What Is a Rainbow?

A rainbow is an optical illusion created when light strikes drops of water. The light is refracted, or changes directions, then is reflected by the back of the water drops. As this reflected light is leaving the water, it's refracted again at several angles [source: National Geographic].

You'd think we mortals would know everything about rainbows, as popular as they are. Yet there are actually quite a few myths out there about what a rainbow represents.


Think you're pretty rainbow-savvy? Here's betting you learn at least one new fact about them by the time you finish this article. Our first rainbow myth is probably the most famous.

The Pot of Gold at the Rainbow's End

rainbow myths
There might be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The trouble is, you can never get to the end. Pixabay

In Irish folklore, rainbows symbolize good fortune. That's because leprechauns hide a pot of gold at the end of every one. Not only that, but that the pot of gold is guarded by a tricky leprechaun. The legend goes like this:

Once upon a time, the Vikings lived in Ireland, looting and plundering as they pleased, then burying their ill-gotten treasures all over the countryside. When they eventually departed from the Emerald Isle, they inadvertently left behind some of their booty, which the leprechauns found.


Now, the leprechauns knew the Vikings had gotten their treasures through stealing, which was wrong. This bad behavior made the leprechauns mistrust all people, Viking or not.

In order to ensure no humans could take what they now considered their gold, the leprechauns reburied it in pots deep underground all over the island. When rainbows appear, they always end at a spot where some leprechaun's pot of gold is buried [source: Mystical Myth].

Here's the catch: Believers who've searched for the legendary pot o' gold always end up stymied, because they can never find the rainbow's end (seriously, it's a matter of physics).

Noah's Ark

Rainbows have spiritual meaning for Jews and Christians. In the story of Noah's ark in the Book of Genesis, God shows Noah a rainbow and says, "Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature" (Genesis 9:16). The rainbow reminds Jews and Christians of God's promise to Noah to never again create an Earth-destroying flood.

In the Talmud, there is a blessing Jews can recite when beholding a rainbow: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, Who remembers the covenant, is faithful to His Covenant, and keeps His word" (Berakhot 59a).


The Rainbow Flag

Since 1978, rainbows have become a universal symbol of pride for the LGBTQ+ community. Gilbert Baker, a gay man, artist and drag queen, designed the rainbow flag for the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade on June 25, 1978.

Baker's original design featured eight colors, each with a different meaning: hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony and violet for spirit. To make it easier to mass-produce the rainbow flag, Baker later dropped hot pink and turquoise and replaced indigo with blue [source: Britannica].


The variety of pride flags has since seen incredible expansion to embrace a multitude of identities.

The Rainbow Bridge

In Norse mythology, the Bifrost is a flaming rainbow bridge connecting Asgard, where the gods live, to Midgard, where humans live.

Under the rule of the god Odin, the all-seeing, all-hearing god Heimdall guarded the Bifrost.


Colors of the Rainbow

rainbow myths
Do rainbows only have seven colors? No — more like a million! NurPhoto/Getty Images

In school you probably learned that the colors of the rainbow are (in order) red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. These are actually the colors of the visible spectrum.

Red has the longest wavelength and violet the shortest. (Some scientists think indigo is so similar to blue that it's indistinguishable for most people [source: National Geographic].) But those seven hues are not the only ones in the world, of course. Where's the pink, for example? Or brown? Or sage, aqua, celadon and coral?


Those colors, and more, are actually there in the rainbow. They're just invisible.

Rainbows contain upward of 1 million colors — that's right, 1 million — in a much larger continuum than the seven measly ones with which we're familiar [source: Howard]. Unfortunately, our human peepers can't see all of those other hues. So does this mean rainbows contain them or not? That's for you to debate.

Double Rainbows

rainbow myths
A double rainbow appears near Skali village in the Faroe Islands. There can be triple and quadruple rainbows, too, but you probably can't see them. JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images

Rainbows can multiply. Double, tertiary (triple) and quaternary (quadruple) rainbows all can occur.

Double rainbows occur when light gets reflected twice inside water droplets. When this happens, the second rainbow appears above the main one and is fainter. Its colors are also reversed (red is on the inner section and violet on the outer arch) due to the second reflection [source: National Geographic].


A tertiary rainbow occurs when light is reflected a third time. But you have to be facing the sun to see one because the sun is its center. Tertiary rainbows are very difficult to notice partly because you're looking into the sun, and partly because they're quite faint and very broad.

Even harder to see are quaternary rainbows, which form when light is reflected a fourth time. You also need to be facing the sun to spot these, and they're even fainter than tertiary rainbows [source: National Geographic].

And it doesn't stop there: Scientists have detected a 200th order rainbow (that's a rainbow with light reflected 200 times) in the lab [source: National Geographic].

Rainbow Myth FAQs

What order do the rainbow colors go in?
Traditionally kids are taught that there are seven colors in the rainbow, and the order of those colors is: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. The acronym that is used to remember this order is “ROY G. BIV,” which represents the initial of each color of the spectrum. Are there many other colors present, too? Absolutely, but that doesn’t make for such a handy mnemonic device.
Are there really seven colors in the rainbow?
The seven colors are actually the colors of the visible spectrum. However, these seven hues are not the only ones in the rainbow. In fact, there are more than 1 million colors in a rainbow, but they are not all visible to humans.
What happens when we see a rainbow?
A rainbow is just an optical illusion. We see rainbows when light strikes drops of water. It then refracts, or changes direction, and then is reflected by the back of the water drops. When this reflected light is leaving the water, it's refracted again at several angles, which allows us to see the colors of the rainbow.
What is the myth about rainbows?
There are lots of myths about rainbows. There's a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow, guarded by a tricky leprechaun; or that rainbows form perfect arcs; or that rainbows only appear with rain.
What do rainbows symbolize?
Rainbows are considered to be a symbol of hope in many cultures.

Lots More Information

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  • Edens, Harald. "Frequently asked questions about the rainbow." Weatherscapes. (Feb. 27, 2015) http://www.weatherscapes.com/techniques.php?cat=optics&page=rainbowfaq
  • Howard, Jacqueline. "Two People Never See The Same Rainbow – And 6 More Amazing Facts About The Optical Phenomenon." The Huffington Post. Aug. 31, 2013. (Feb. 24, 2015) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/31/facts-about-rainbows_n_3779801.html
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