“…to fling rainbows over the rain
And beauty above the moon, and secret rainbows
On the domes of deep sea-shells…
There is the great humaneness at the heart of things,
The extravagant kindness."
Robinson Jeffers, “The Excesses of God”
Photo by Anne Ahmad
On Sanibel Island shells stack up as deep on the beaches as you care to dig. What determines a shell’s value, I wondered, years ago, as I watched our young sons play in the waves. The intensity of its rainbow? Loren Eiseley in The Star Thrower, described a beach comber, a star-thrower, who threw starfish back into the water. That masterful biologist-essayist challenged us, instead of grabbing, collecting, hoarding, we try “flinging ourselves into unknown dimensions of existence.” That’s what rainbows do. They take us from our comfortable murky brown existence and fling us into an irridescent heaven.
I'll bet, like me, you're humming "somewhere over the rainbow," right now. Many poets have tried to capture the beauty of rainbows. Wordsworth’s heart “leaped up” when he saw one. Shelley relayed rainbows to life: "a many-colored dome illuminated by the white light of Eternity.” Virgil said a rainbow "a thousand intermingled colors throws." D.H. Lawrence called rainbows "the feet of the arch that Lord God rested the worlds on," while Jack Kerouac called it "a hoop for the lowly."
As a child, I learned that God sent a rainbow to Noah's family who, for weeks, had been stuffed into a wooden ship with lots of, what must have been by then, very smelly animals. It was a sign. It meant there would be no more world floods. I've read that many Medieval people believed the rainbow would not appear in the sky for 40 years before the end of the world. So when it appeared, they heaved a great sigh of relief. They knew they could count on at least 40 more years!
Early Australians called the rainbow a great serpent, holding the earth together. In Native American myths, rainbows come down from the heavens to connect us to grandmother spirit.
On another trip, this time to Cozumel, I met up with Ix Chel. She's called "Lady Rainbow" and wears a serpent on her head--a sign of her great wisdom. She's also known as "Moon Lady" and regulates pregnancies. Early Peruvian people tell of how a young girl’s menstrual blood gave birth to the rainbow. From Ix Chel’s “womb jar,” she pours birthing waters onto the earth.
Ayahuasca, the brew, some South Americans still make from what they call the Mother Vine, often creates rainbowed visions that usually include multi-colored snakes. Central and South American people had a tradition of standing in silence and awe for as long as the rainbow appeared.
The Greeks called the Rainbow, Iris, daughter of the God of Wonder and the West Wind. Rainbow cloaks wrap people in magical ways. Like the Japanese, my Norse relatives, who called the rainbow Bifrost,believed it to be a bridge from one world to the next. In early Iran and Iraq ziggurats were called stepped rainbows and each of the seven steps was painted a different color—a key color of a planet. The lowest stage was black; the highest, red and at the top was a gilded and blue-tiled shrine. We move, it seems, from a darkened underworld, up into the light.
Long before Isaac Newton bent light through a prism and "discovered" a rainbow, the Romans created rainbows by refracting light through glass rods. Newton claimed to see about eleven refracted colors, but he settled on only seven so they would match a musical octave.
Carl Jung says in his book Psychology and Alchemy, “Only the gods walk rainbow bridges in safetly…human beings must pass under it.” What’s active inside a rainbow—or a double one as my friend Anne has depicted here. Dreams? Magic? Active spirits? Angels? Peace? Hope?
Looking at rainbows makes us feel as if we’re caught in a holy fire. However we view them, rainbows are, indeed, acts of extravagant kindness.