RAINBOW, COLOURS AND SCIENCE MYTHOLOGY
Rainbow as an extraordinary and attractive natural phenomenon has fascinated
human beings throughout ages. However, the cognitive representation the human
mind has created concerning it, has been variable to a high degree in different
Usually the interpretation of the rainbow by an ordinary Estonian is as follows:
"Rainbow is seven colours in the sky. It is a phenomenon which makes its
appearance when it is raining at the same time when the sun is shining."
The answers can undoubtedly vary to some extent, sometimes there can be a longer
explanation about refraction and reflection of the sunbeams in the raindrops, but in
outline they are similar. To the people of today the rainbow seems to be without
exception a source of positive emotions and an experience gladdening the heart, a
symbol of beauty and singularity.
It is quite apparent that the ordinary imagination of the rainbow is fused with the
imagination of spectrum.
The etymology of the Estonian word vikerkaar - 'rainbow' is rather ambiguous.
Word viker has several derivation possibilities, it could have originated from
the following meanings: from 'multicoloured', 'scythe' or 'thunder', as its name is in
Livonian - a cognate language to Estonian - pit'kiz kor 'thunder bow'.
In other Balto-Finnic languages the rainbow is usually connected with rain: Finnish,
Ingrian and Karelian sateenkaari, Izhorian vihmakarDo.
The connection with rain seems to be dominate in Germanic languages as well:
German Regenbogen, Swedish regnbåge, Old Norse
regnbogi, Danish regnbue. Widespread is the connection with heaven
- German dialectal Himmelring, French arc-en-ciel. In Latin there are
several different expressions denoting rainbow: arcus pluvius 'rainbow',
arcus caelestis 'bow of the heaven or gods', arcus coloratus 'coloured
bow'. One can also refer to the Greek word
In Greek mythology Iris was the daughter of Thaumas and Electra, the sister of
harpies and a messenger of Olympian gods. Since Hesiodos she has been
represented both as a goddess of rainbow and its impersonation. At the same time
the rainbow could be the belt of Iris and a footpath between heaven and earth. The
original meaning of the word iris is 'path, band'.
Interesting is also the Latvian word for rainbow - varaviksne, meaning literally
So is the Estonian word vikerkaar compared with other languages rather
curious. It is not quite clear if the meaning of the word viker 'multicoloured' is
secondary, derived from rainbow or vice versa, but nevertheless it is an unique word
referring probably to the colours of rainbow.
One of the most interesting mythological presentations of rainbow is the Eddic
Bifröst (or Bilröst, Bilfröst). In the Younger Edda it is described as a
tricoloured bridge to Asgard, very skillfully built by the gods. The colours are not
mentioned, but the bridge is very strong and destroyable only by the sons of Muspel,
the giants of fire as it happened in Völuspá. Bifröst was kept
guard by Heimdall, one of the Aesir, 'who casts bright rays'. In the Younger Edda
there is also a remark, that the Bifröst appears red as there is a burning fire on
it to show the way to Asgard (Gylfaginning XIII, XV).
The most wellknown rainbow representation in the European cultural area is the
version in the Bible, where the rainbow is the sign of the covenant between Jehovah
and Noah: I do set my bow in the cloud; and it shall be for a token of a covenant
between me and the earth (Genesis 9.13). The Old Testament treatment of the
rainbow is ambiguous denoting both Gods wrath and mercy. In the Old Testament
there is likewise found an image of Jehovah's bow with which he sends arrows to the
earth to punish the misdoers. It can be explained by the earlier Hebrew mythological
motifs, where the rainbow was connected with bow and the arrows with
In the New Testament the rainbow appears in a new relation. It is a symbol of the
covenant between God and people which has expanded to Christ as an establisher
of the new covenant. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine
stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an
emerald (Relevation 4.3). Still, in the Bible there is found no reference to the
colours of rainbow or to the number of them. Apparently with these apocalyptical
motifs the rather popular role of the rainbow in the late Gothic painting can be
explained. In Romanesque art it is possible to associate the rainbow with mandorla
or halo surrounding the body of God or a saint. In Gothic art Christ is depicted sitting
on the rainbow in scenes of Last Judgement as Maiestas Domini, it is the
3.1. Older representations of rainbow in different mythologies can be
divided into animate and inanimate ones. From the latter the already mentioned
image of bridge and path of gods, which binds heaven, the ulterior or gods' world
and this, the human world, is rather common everywhere (e.g. Greece, Japan,
Indonesia, India, Mesopotamia). The heroes of Polynesian and Hawaiian myths take
by it the souls of the dead to paradise, in Indonesia it is the bridge of soul boats. In
the myths of Finno-Ugric and other Nordic nations many features supposedly
attributed to the rainbow have been melted with the image of the Milky Way,
supported largely by their similar outward appearance. Last but not least, the folk
legends grounded on Christianity depict the rainbow as a bridge by what the dead
will raise to the Heaven on doomsday, with an angel sitting on it calling them with a
trumpet. Underfoot of the wicked dead the bridge will break down. So the rainbow as
a bridge has near always been connected with the other world, the realm of gods
The image of rainbow as a bow, with what (thunder)god sends down arrows and
rain, is rather widespread as well. Besides already above-mentioned images in the
Old Testament there are data about it by the Arabs and several African tribes.
Rainbow was the bow of Indra. Among the Balto-Finnic nations the similar image is
referred to by the Estonian dialectal (Saaremaa) word for rainbow ammukaar,
and Finnish and Karelian idiomatic ukon kaari (Ukko as a mythical
impersonation of a god of thunder).
Further the rainbow was considered to be somebody's belt or robe. It occurres
among other cultures in the Slavonic and German folk-beliefs. In Albania the rainbow
was a belt of the goddess of beauty and a later Catholic Saint Prenne (or Prende),
who's name is derived from the word perëndi meaning 'heaven'.
Swallows who were harnessed to her carriage drew it over the vault of heaven.
Concept of the rainbow as a belt of a mother of the heavens is known likewise by the
In the late German folk-beliefs there was popular the connection of the rainbow with
hidden treasures. The ends of the rainbow showed its location or could drop gold
3.2. From the animated imaginations one of the most essential ones was a
serpent as a simile of the rainbow - the rainbow snake or the rainbow
serpent. The most typical area of occurrence of that mythical figure is throughout
the Australian continent, but similar legends are known likewise in equatorial Africa
and in Brazil. It is an important figure in initiation and rainmaking rites, carrying often
a dangerous and destructive character (Eliade 1989).
Rather close to the latter is the image of the water-drinking rainbow, found in myths
of almost every part of the world. According to it, the rainbow draws the water up to
the sky, from where it falls down to the earth again. The water could be drawn from
everywhere, from rivers, lakes and wells. It is always accompanied with a danger to
grab together with the water fish and all kind of other stuff, including human beings.
At Siebenbürger in Germany e.g. the rainbow has drawn up a curious
shepherd boy with the whole flock of sheep and in Livonia a fisherman with his boat
(Hwb. d. Abergl.; Loorits 1926)
3.3. As to rainbow beliefs in Estonia, they are broadly speaking not very
original and similar to the above-mentioned themes. General is the imagination of
the water-drinking rainbow which can draw up the people too, when they are under
the bow (H II 10,55 (4) < VJg). Still, there are not so many records in archives
about drawing up the fish and people as in Livonia. The belief is common to the
other Balto-Finnic nations.
Secondly is common the prohibition to point one's finger at the rainbow, as at the
result of this, the finger will fall away, mortify or rot. It is analogically not allowed with
the other heaven phenomena and quite known also by the other nations. Image of
the rainbow as a belt is not so common in Estonia as it is in Livonia, but still known,
especially as a belt of God (e.g. EKS 4 1,220 (6) < VNg).
In addition there is the above-mentioned connection with the bow in Estonian islands
and analogical similes by the Finnish, Livonian, Lapp, Mordvinian and other
4. Rainbow colours
On the grounds of the preceding, it is interesting to mention that almost all rainbow
beliefs are inspired by its shape - the large arc - and not by its colours (except to
some extent the Younger Edda's one where the colours are not mentioned). Seven
colours, which are fixed in consciousness of a modern man one can't find anywhere.
There are even rhymes for children to acquire the names of these seven colours
more easily: in English Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain = red, orange,
yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet (McLaren 1985). The Estonian analog is more
sporadic e.g. Peremees ootab kitselt raha sulane tema liha 'Master waits
money from goat, man its meat'.
However there are several references to the colours of the rainbow as a mean of
weather forecast. Most common are the colours red and green, e.g. Kui vikerkaar
punane, ei tule vihma, kui roheline siis sajab (RKM II 245,106 (41) < Vagivere)
- 'When the rainbow is red, it will not rain, when green, it will rain'. Or: Mida
selgem vikerkaare punane karv on, seda enam tuult (H IV 8,647 (38) < Pal) -
'The clearer the red colour of the rainbow, the more wind'. However, one can find an
opposite or different meaning to nearly every colour - so, seemingly such forecasting
was not very fixed.
A couple of Estonian riddles are referring to the colours of the rainbow, as generally
the connection between an object and its colour is much more common to the
riddles. The most characteristic ones are:
(I) Punane puuder, sinine siider, ripub rikka mehe räästa all (<
Jõe) or in Finnish Sininen siirto, punainen puurto, keskellä kamarin
kattoa (Korhola 1961). This riddle is hardly translatable, but broadly speaking,
the rainbow is described here through two colours, red and blue.
(II) Üle ilma pihelgas (Eisen 1913:1110) 'The rowan-tree over the
(III) Seitse linti üle ilma seotud? (Eisen 1920:215, E 46993 (5) <
Saarde) 'Seven ribbons bound over the world'.
4.1. The first type is widely spread in Finland and Ingria, likewise in other
Balto-Finnic languages and probably originates from Finnish. Still, it is possible to
find parallels in other languages, where the simile of the rainbow contains limited
number of colours, two or even one. E.g. Russian riddle Krasnoje
koromysloje tsherez reku povislo refers to colour red (Mitrofanova
1968:330) or Irish: Whom do I see (coming) toward me through the sea but the
sunny gewgaw, the red-coated man with a red thread in his shirt. (Hull-Taylor
"A collection of Irish Riddles": 201).
Further it is possible to find connections with some clichés of the old
Estonian alliterative folk songs:
Hypothesis on the grounds of the preceding could be the proposition, that for the
Estonian, Finnish and other neighbouring nations there were only two significant
colours connected with the rainbow - red and blue. Still such conclusion could be
precipitate, as the use of red and blue is rather frequent in other clichés of
alliterative folk-songs. As a rule the combination is used to emphasize
(colour)differences between beings or things and to refer to extraordinary
Pilve tõuseb soost sinine,
soost sinine, maast punane,
Ei saja sinine pilve,
Mis seal pilvete seessa?
Vikerkaar pilvete seessa.
Mis seal vikerkaare vahella?
Hani vikerkaaride vahella.
(VK VI:1, 10 A "Kulla põlemine")
('A blue cloud is rising from the bog,
from the bog blue, from the earth red,
It's not raining from the blue cloud,
it's raining from the claycoloured.
What's there in the clouds?
There is a rainbow in the clouds.
What's there between the rainbow?
There's a goose between the rainbow.')
Pilvel on puhas purje,
purjel on hani punane,
hanil on saba sinine,
(ERlA I:1, 165, 2 "Pilves veepisarad")
('A pure sail is on a cloud,
a red goose is on the sail,
the goose has a blue tail')
This type of folk song has contaminated with several other types allowing to treat
hypothetically the similes, with a maiden sitting on the edge of the cloud, or the
goose replaced with a woman, as rainbow metaphors. While in Estonian folk songs
the cliché hani punane, saba sinine ('red goose, blue tail') is denoting
rainbow, then in Finnish and Karelian songs the analogical widespread cliché
is veno punainen 'red boat':
Pilvess' on vesipisaret,
Pisariss' on loajat lammit,
Lammiss' on veno punaset
(SKVR I:1,216; Koski 1983:72)
('In the cloud there are drops of water,
In the drops there are wide pools,
In the pools there are red boats')
4.2. Interesting connections are coming out likewise with the riddle
Üle ilma pihelgas ('The rowan-tree over the world'), the typical Finnish
version from it being Pitkä vitsa pihlajainen yli meren ulottuu. Finnish
folklorist Uno Harva has referred to an Estonian Swedish variant (the Estonian
Swedes lived in the western part and on several islands of Estonia from 13th century
to 1944, their selfname was aibofolket): Iwe wärde raunträ
in connection with the Finnish deity Rauni. According to Agricola Rauni was the wife
of the thundergod Ukko, known also by Swedish Lapps under the name of Ravdna
and the rowan-tree (raudna in Swedish Lappish) was dedicated to her. Harva
supposed, that the rowan-tree could be a code-name, euphemism for the rainbow
and rauni meant originally both rowan and rainbow. Later from it there
developed the personification of the rainbow as the wife of the thunder god (Harva
1948). Without considering the essential role the rowan-tree has had in folk-beliefs
one may refer to its protective properties against the thunder (e.g. Hwb. d. Abergl.
sub rot). Analogical properties were attributed to other things with red details.
So, one can suppose the holiness of the rowan-tree was to some extent derived from
its red berries. One can also refer to the Old Norse word rauda 'red' (Islandic
raudr, Lithuanian raûdas, Sanskrit rudhir). The Estonian
word raud 'iron' is derived from it, as rust is also red. Likewise, the name of
the deity Rauni could be derived from the Old Norse rauda. One can again
recall the connection of red and rainbow in the Balto-Finnic folk songs and suppose,
that the rainbow and rowan-tree were linked by the red colour.
4.3. The third riddle - Seitse linti üle ilma seotud? 'Seven
ribbons bound over the world' refers quite clearly to a later origin, as the number
seven wasn't earlier linked with rainbow in no way.
The well-known modern conception of the cause of rainbow - the refraction and
reflection of sunbeams in the raindrops - was firs apparently grounded by
René Descartes (1596-1650) in 1637. The common understanding of the
seven colours of the rainbow descends still from another source - it departs from Sir
Isaac Newton's famous prism experiments. In his Optics, published in 1704,
Newton described seven prismatic colours. From that claim is derived the common
"scientific truth" mixing completely the concepts of rainbow and spectrum,
caused partly by Newton himself, as he subsequently said that the rainbow consists
of seven homogeneous gleams. The reason for exactly seven primary colours of
spectrum is quite a sophisticated theme (McLaren 1985; Parkhurst, Feller 1982;
Schweizer 1982). The first one seems to be the desire to find analogy with the
musical scale. The idea didn't belong to Newton, as synaesthetical concepts were
expressed already by Aristotle in his De sensu et sensibili and in De
anima. The idea of seven principal colours originates likewise from Aristotle
(De sensu: IV, 442). From that paragraph, however, it is not quite clear, is the
number of colours inspired by some kind of Pythagorean symbolism of numbers or
not. Aristotle derived all other colours from the two, black and white, which belonged
to his linear colour concepts. It was not based on the hues but on the brightness of
colours. The concept of seven principal colours was very persistent throughout the
Middle Ages and found support especially from all kinds of mystical and alchemical
theories. It found full observance in Renaissance colour theories, e.g. Girolamo
Cardano (De gemmis et coloribus 1563), Cennino Cennini (Il libro
dell'arte ca 1400) and especially in the magnificent system of Gian Paolo
Lomazzo (Trattato dell'arte della pittura 1584; Idea del tempio della
pittura 1590), who was inspired by many other authorities, especially by
Cornelius Agrippa (Gavel 1979; Kemp 1990). He linked together under the
seven-based-system the planets, humors, temperaments, famous Renaissance
artists, animals, plants, metals etc. The 18th century natural philosophical doctrine of
harmonious relationships, grounded on Johannes Kepler's Harmonices mundi
(1619), is in some degree also based on the system of seven.
Aristotle's concept of rainbow is presented in his another book, in
Meteorologica. In its third part there is a discussion about the colours of the
rainbow and the proposition: "The rainbow has three colours, and these
three and no others" (Meteorologica III, 2. 371-372; 4. 374-375).
These three primaries are not manufactured by painters, and they are named by
Aristotle as 'violet, purple', translated also
as 'blue', 'green' and 'red'. Sometimes there can be seen the fourth
colour - 'yellow, orange-yellow'- but it is not
a primary one. The question of these names is of course complicated by the often
polysemantic character of the Greek colour terms.
Homer described the rainbow only with one colour - purple (Iliad 17.547) - an
interesting parallel recalling the rainbow riddles of Balto-Finnic folklore. Xenophanes
mentioned three: 'purple', 'yellow' and 'crimson'. The Aristotelian three-coloured
rainbow doctrine was so impressive, that it dominated throughout the Middle Ages.
The one and main reason for that was doubtlessly the possibility to connect it with
the Trinity. This concept was supported by several authors as Albertus Magnus and
Thomas Aquinas; Jacob Böhme (1575-1624) and Emanuel Swedenborg
(1688-1772) gave explanation of three colours inclining more to the symbolic and
mystic point of view. Still, from the 6th or 7th century there began the parallel
development of the four-colour rainbow theory. Its main conceptual bases was the
connection of the colours with the four elements (earth, air, water, fire), humours,
seasons etc. The idea of linking the colours and elements was already followed by
the Greek philosophers (Empedocles as the first known, but mentioned also by Plato
and Aristotle). The rainbow colours were probably associated with the elements by
Arabs and the main authoroty was here Ibn al-Haitam or Alhazen (965-1038): De
aspectibus or Perspectiva. In European tradition the same trend was
followed by the Dominican Theodoric of Freiberg in his treatise on the rainbow from
ca 1310. From the Renaissance authors there is known the Leon Battista Alberti's
reference to the four colours of the rainbow (De pictura 1435) which are
linked with the four elements (Gavel 1979).
So it seems obvious, that the honour of "discovering" the seven-colour
rainbow belongs to Newton. It's a typical example of secondary mythology still very
common in the cognitive representation in the human consciousness. Such firm
doctrine is represented e.g. even in Brockhaus Enzyklopädie (Band 24 1992;
sub Regenbogen: Ein bunter Haupt-Regenbogen hat von innen nach aussen
die Farbfolge Violett, Indigo, Blau, Grün, Gelb, Orange, Rot (sieben
A good compendium to the preceding and a remote Estonian echo of the history of
discovering the seven-colour rainbow could be the following description from
1890ies, reflecting the knowledge one could get from a last century village school in
Estonia: The sun is running so fast around itself that it overshadows the seven
colours it has, but when there is a rain cloud near the sun, it draws these seven
colours in its water vapour into sight. The sun is as a wheel of a spinning wheel that
has 7 spokes, each spoke of different colour, but the fast running of the wheel
doesn't allow to see the colours. (E 54367 (21) < Tori: Janseni seletus
koolis vikerkaarest. Päev oma väga kiire jooksuga enese ümber
varjab omas vee aurus 7 värvilist karva aga kui vihma pilv päeva vastu
se tõmbab omas vee auurus 7 värvilist karva nähtavale.
Päike on kui vokki rattas kel 7 kodarast iga kodaras isi värvi aga ruttuline
ratta jooks ei lase värvisi näha) or:
The rainbow is an odd thing created by God. Nobody believes that it appears
when the sun is shining on the cloud, so that the raindrops falling down change
themselves to seven-coloured ones in the sun (H II 65,628 (11) < Jüri:
Vikerkaar arvatakse üks iseäralik Jumalast loodud asi olema. Seda ei
usu keegi et ta siis nähtavale tuleb kui päike vihma pilve peale paistab, et
maha sadavad vihma piisad ennast päikese paistel seitsme karvaliseks
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In this article manuscript folklore collections from the folklore archives of the
Estonian Literary Museum have been used.