Exploring the symbols, metaphors, motifs and archetypal patterns found in myth, pop culture, literature, songs, religion, psychology, Tarot, art and history--and why they matter.
Taste the Rainbow
Every March, we’re reminded that a pot ‘o gold lies at the end of the rainbow. Some say wisdom hides there, too.
When denigrating New Age space cadets, some mumble under their breaths “unicorns farting rainbows”.
Despite the beauty of rainbows oft relegated to kitsch or superficiality, this prismatic bridge finds fascinating symbolic substance in mythos and lore.
Those of us raised within Abrahamic religions remember the rainbow’s association with Noah’s flood. Legend states that Jehovah sought to punish sinful humanity and sent a devastating downpour. Only Noah and his family survived. Apparently regretting his rash decision, Jehovah promised that he’d never destroy the earth by water again. His solemn seal? The rainbow.
As I was writing the companion book to our Snowland Deck, specifically focused on the Temperance card, I came across a fascinating parallel to the biblical story of Noah.
Babylonian lore predates the Old Testament and, according to Barbara Walker in her book The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects, the earlier flood story finds goddess Ishtar livid at the god who caused the worldwide deluge that killed so many of her people. In retaliation, Ishtar set the rainbow in the heaven as a barrier, effectively blocking him from feeding on offerings sacrificed at earth’s altars in his name. Amusingly, Walker notes this act was a bit like a mother sending a naughty child to bed without supper.
Where you find a rainbow reference, you’ll often find irises. This is because Iris is the goddess of the rainbow; in fact, the Greek word iris means “rainbow”. When we hear the word “rainbow”, we may think of the seven-banded ROYGBIV spectacular that shows up after a rain, but we may just as likely think “riot of color” in any arrangement. This is precisely why the tinted part of our eyes is called the iris, and why a genus of flower shares the moniker. It’s all about color…and lots of it!
A bold palette of many colors hints at diversity and inclusion. This is why the rainbow flag created in 1978 flies at LGBT events. While black and white are certainly part of the color spectrum, they are not the only ones (as Abrahamic religions often preach). That is, dualistic thinking may split the world into male/female, good/bad, sacred/profane, ordinary/special, conscious/unconscious, strong/weak, inside/outside, sinful/holy or a multitude of other “us versus them” polarities. And while the black and white swirls of the Eastern yin/yang symbol may represent the union of all things, it’s my estimation that the rainbow symbol captures this essence of “everything”—and diversity—so much better.
Which brings me back to the Temperance card of Tarot.
Trump XIV signifies the unified whole, as well as moderation, equilibrium, blending and walking the “middle path”. On the Waite-Smith Temperance card, a white-clad Iris pours water from one vessel to another. Although no rainbow appears on this version of Temperance, there are blooming irises connecting it to the goddess Iris. In The Tarot: A Key to the Wisdom of the Ages, Paul Foster Cases theorizes that Waite’s fondness for mysteriousness might explain Pamela Colman Smith’s inclusion of irises rather than the more obvious rainbow.
Case founded the esoteric group Builders of the Adytum, and in the BOTA Tarot deck, a rainbow arcs over the angel’s head. (Note: in addition to Iris, some say that the figure in the Temperance card is Michael the Archangel, while others say it’s a winged Hermes or even a double-duty Iris/Michael hybrid). The Golden Dawn’s astrological attribution for this card is Sagittarius (The Archer) and, at first glance, you may wonder what the hell that has to do with Temperance or moderation, especially since there’s nary a bow or arrow on either the BOTA or Waite-Smith version of this card.
Case points out that the Hebrew word for Sagittarius is QShTh (Qesheth), meaning “The Bow”, which connects it to the “bow of promise”—a rainbow.
So this “bow of promise” then becomes a bridge—presumably, between heaven and earth, the divine and the human. Just as likely, the rainbow serves as a bridge between the conscious and the subconscious, the known and unknown, Christ and Sophia. After all, what do bridges do? Whether across chasms, rivers or mythological levels, they connect separated things: lands, realms, objects or peoples.
Walter notes that the Chinese believe that the rainbow connects yin and yang, the male and female principles, via tai chi’, or the Great Ridgepole that unites.
In her book Pictures of the Heart: A Tarot Dictionary, Sandra A. Thomson says that in some folk legends, the rainbow “represented the androgynous blending of opposites”. Indeed, even Dr. Waite noted in his book The Pictorial Key to the Tarotthat the angel in the Temperance card is neither male nor female.
There are many other myths, stories and beliefs involving rainbows—the Tibetan tantric Buddhist “rainbow body”, the Navajo Rainbow Nation, the Australian Aboriginal rainbow serpent, the rainbow pillar connecting the sephiroth of Kether and Tiphareth on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, the Norse bridge Bifrost and so on. This time around, though, I just wanted to give you a taste of the rainbow, especially as it relates to unity, diversity, Iris, irises and Tarot’s Temperance.
I’ll leave you with a quote from The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images, where the editors refer to a passage from Carl W. Jung’s Collected Works:
“Just as Iris heralded the approach of the gods, so, psychologically, the show of ‘many colors’ heralds the transcendent self in which the many facets of the personality, once opposing each other, are brought into unity.”
Below is a video of one of my absolute favorite songs, Rainbow in the Dark by Ronnie James Dio. As a teen, I wasn’t sure what it meant—how can you see a rainbow in the dark?—but I found comfort in the idea that even when I felt alone, I was somehow a luminous “rainbow in the dark” and, by extension, connected to something Greater.
P.S. If you’ve recently lost a pet as I have, you may find comfort at the Rainbow Bridge.
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