Rainbows mean many things to many people. For a Heathen like me, a rainbow stands for Bifrost, the bridge that spans this earth we live on – Midgard, or Middle Earth – and Asgard, the abode of the gods in the heavens. According to Gylfaginning 12, it was erected by the gods between the heavens and earth and the Aesir ride over it every day. It is guarded by the god Heimdall (below) and will be destroyed at Ragnarok. It’s not only lovely, but it’s functional, and not at all symbolic of covenants except perhaps as a commitment from the gods to their children. That’s my practical-minded ancestors for you.
Other ancient cultures had explanations for the rainbow of course. The Greeks also saw the rainbow as a path between Earth and Heaven; the Chinese as a “slit” in the sky which was sealed using stones of five different colors; and the pre-Islamic Pagan Arabs saw it as Qaus Quzaħ in Arabic, or the war bow of the god Quzaħ. I could go on and on.
Rainbows are as old as earth’s atmosphere, and doubtless there were tales told of it we will never know, from the time before history came to be written down.
Of course, scientifically speaking, a rainbow is, as Wikipedia tells us,
an optical and meteorological phenomenon that causes a spectrum of light to appear in the sky when the Sun shines on to droplets of moisture in the Earth’s atmosphere. It takes the form of a multicoloured arc, with red on the outer part of the arc and violet on the inner section.” It “spans a continuous spectrum of colours; the distinct bands are an artifact of human colour vision.
And obviously, nobody can own a rainbow. I mean, you just can’t. You can’t touch it. You can’t even see it unless you are standing in the right place. To claim you have a right to use a rainbow and nobody else does is absurd, given how many people have found ways in which to use on in their advertising and packaging.
Unless you’re the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), that is. This Christofascist organization has other ideas. They say the nasty old gay rights people have stolen it – from them. Yes, it’s rightfully a Christian symbol, apparently. Maybe this would be a good time to ask for the cross back, since it far predates Christianity – back to the Stone Age, in fact. Think they’ll bite?
Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, head of the Ruth Institute, a San Marcos, California-based organization and “a project of the National Organization for Marriage” says they ought to have the rainbow, not “the gay lobby” because “the rainbow is a sign of God’s covenant with man.
“Proposition 8 was passed by a great grassroots coalition that included people from all across the religious traditions, and also people of every race and color,” Morse recognizes. “We are the real rainbow coalition. The gay lobby does not own the rainbow.”
I imagine she is talking about the part where God promised Noah not to destroy the earth with another flood in Genesis 9:13–17, rather than the more famous covenant with Moses.
Of course, as I have pointed out above, the rainbow is actually many things to many people, and meant important things to people long before the covenant of which the good doctor speaks. For example, in the far older (2150-2000 BCE) Epic of Gilgamesh (Tablet 11) the rainbow is the “jeweled necklace of the Great Mother Ishtar” that she lifts into the sky as a promise that she “will never forget these days of the great flood” that destroyed her children. It goes without saying we can’t privilege one “historical” record over another so we have to accept that the Epic of Gilgamesh tells it like it is:
Then Ishtar arrived. She lifted up the necklace of great jewels that her father, Anu, had created to please her and said, “Heavenly gods, as surely as this jeweled necklace hangs upon my neck, I will never forget these days of the great flood. Let all of the gods except Enlil come to the offering. Enlil may not come, for without reason he brought forth the flood that destroyed my people.”
And yes, of course, the flood is much older than Judaism as well. Just as Christianity “borrowed” from the Paganisms that came before it, so did Judaism from those of previous eras. There is nothing new under the sun – including the rainbow.
We could pursue this course endlessly but it’s really rather silly isn’t it?
Dr. Morse the rainbow was “appropriated” by the LGBT community.
Look at all the uses to which rainbows have been put over the years:
- German Peasants’ War in the 16th century;
- a symbol of the Cooperative movement;
- a symbol of peace, especially in Italy;
- to represent the Tawantin Suyu, or Inca territory, mainly in Peru and Bolivia;
- by some Druze communities in the Middle east;
- by the Jewish Autonomous Oblast; to represent the International Order of Rainbow for Girls since the early 1920s; and
- as a symbol of gay pride and LGBT social movements since the 1970s.
Lots of people use rainbows these days. Leprechauns live at the end of them and Lucky Charms cereal comes immediately to mind. Should General Mills give their rainbow back as well and maybe the Leprechaun along with it for good measure?
Appropriated by the LGBT community, Dr. Morse? Seriously? Seems to me a lot of people have been using the rainbow over the centuries. I begin to suspect that like most fundamentalists, she has not bothered with her history lessons, certainly not with Religion 101. If we’re going to start giving back what’s been taking the list is going to get quite long, and I’m afraid I’m going to be insisting on that cross.
“We can’t simply let that go by. Families put rainbows in their children’s nurseries. Little Christian preschools will have rainbows…Noah’s Ark and all the animals…. Those are great Christian symbols, great Jewish symbols.”
This is where the buzzer sounds – and it sounds an awful lot like a raspberry. It’s a great symbol period, use by many people for many thousands of years, and in origin, it is no more Christian than the Christmas tree. Dr. Morse, do not collect go, do not collect $200. I don’t think your grubby, bigoted mitts should be allowed to sully a beautiful rainbow.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.