It is the second day of spring and I am not feeling the warmth at all. It’s been dreary and people all around me have been at very low energy. It’s been a series of hard-knock months. I keep looking out my window, which faces the Empire State Building, hoping to catch a rainbow; which tells me that I have definitely gotten a cold. I am not a rainbow makes me feel good kind of person. For many, when they see a rainbow it causes them to stop and reflect on the moment and maybe even make a wish. Growing up in my Puerto Rican household, my mom would tell me that good luck comes to those who dream of rainbows. There is something about the nature of duality of rainbows that embeds it with a grand sense of mystery. See, the refraction and reflection of sunlight is what makes rainbows appear but in order to see a rainbow there must be falling rain and sunshine. Throughout the centuries, different cultures and religions have expressed their belief and meaning as to the appearance of a rainbow. There are common threads across thee beliefs in that a rainbow represents good and possibly blessings and magic from the Universe. Rainbows, with their strident red outer layers, are part of our collective fantasies.
The beauty of a rainbow fantasy is that it implies to many that even after the roughest moments things will get better. However, noted artist Francisco de Goya once remarked, “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts, and the origin of marvels”. Let me just note that Goya was a very smart and insightful man who did a fabulous painting about May 2nd a day near and dear to my heart. Back to rainbows, fantasies and monsters. While mythological monsters are typically embedded in a definable cultural tradition, or as Director of the Institute for Medieval & Early Modern Studies and Professor of English at George Washington University Jerome Cohen’s Seven Theses of Monster Culture proposed, “The monster is born only at this metaphoric crossroads as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny independence. The monstrous body is pure culture”, some contrarian monsters have learned to transcend space and time, occurring in all their horrific glory across diverse and frequently unrelated traditions, their very existence serving as an object lesson in Goya’s marriage of fantasy and reason. A reasonable monster can appear anywhere. For example, hairy humanoids are ubiquitous – from the Native American Sasquatch, to the Himalayan Yeti, to the Mongolian Almas—as common a cross-cultural cryptid as one could hope for, suggesting the shear reasonableness of atavistic remnants of proto-humans lurking furtively on the fringes of civilization (whether they are actually there or not) marries the fantastic to the rational to produce an enduring, multi-cultural monstrosity. As this pertains to the particular incarnation of monstrous reasonableness called rainbow serpents, “Under this heading it is convenient to classify a number of beliefs and folklore stories relating to snake monsters. The association of ideas, which is a natural and logical one, includes guardianship of water, control of rain, and in some instances the comparison, or even identification of the snake with the rainbow. Snakes are swimmers, they thrive in a rainy season, hibernation ceases when the rains begin, many snakes have colors as bright as those of the rainbow. Thus the rainbow snake, water guardian, concept is not difficult to understand” (Hambly, 1931, p37).
Hmm. This does not sound like the type of rainbow one would find in a Singing in the Rain production. However, in Amazonian cultures, rainbows have long been associated with malign spirits that cause harm, such as miscarriages and (especially) skin problems. I have no idea how rainbows could cause skin problems. Although, I do tend to hive in cold rain and extreme heat. I suppose that can happen in the Amazon. As I look out at the Empire State Building should I really wish for a rainbow? I think we have been a little off on this rainbow stuff.
The Rainbow Serpent is an ancient serpentine creature (Australian Aboriginal traditions and rock art depicting it date as far back as at least 6000 B.C.), notable versions of which occur in Fiji (Degei), West Africa (Aido Hwedo), Haiti (Ayida Wedo, wife of Damballah), and numerous Australian aboriginal incarnations that although differing in naming conventions among indigenous groups, nonetheless are all representative of a shared mythology. The Rainbow Serpent as participant in the creation of the world may be one of mankind’s oldest continuing religious beliefs.
Plain old snake gods are fairly ubiquitous in ancient religions, from the Sumerian Marduk to the Aztec Quetzacoatl to the Egyptian Amduat to the Chinese Nüwa to the Hindu Shesha to the Norse Jörmungandr, not to mention humanity’s oft-repeated Ouroborous symbols (the snake swallowing its own tail, believed to be a nearly universal metaphor for eternal renewal), but the distinctive characteristic of the Rainbow Serpent, regardless of his alias in a given time, place, and culture is that the creature (1) is associated directly with rainbows, (2) is intimately involved in the creation of our world, (3) is often viewed as simultaneously male and female, (4) is closely tied to the regenerative power of rain and disturbing nature of storms, and (5) unlike many other serpent gods, is seen dualistically as both an agent of creation, as well as destruction. Again, this duality makes sense considering that you need rain and sun to produce a rainbow. If there is this dual nature to the rainbow, why are rainbows almost always thought of in simplistic terms?
We could point out that due to the pareidolic tendencies of us pesky humans (the act of seeing patterns in otherwise senseless systems – the same reason we can see the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich, unless of course snack foods are considered an important medium for miraculous visitations – I do try to allow for this possibility), that the obvious conclusion is that wherever people see rainbows, they say, “Hey, that kind of looks like this graceful simple physical multicolored connection between heaven and earth”. I’m all for Occam’s Razor, but that’s a bit of a reductionist explanation for a possible fantastic monster that has persisted cross-culturally for millennia. Sometimes the simplest explanation is the correct one. Sometimes the simplest explanation is simply the simplest explanation. See what I did there?
In Rainbow Connection, a song sung by Kermit the Frog, the idea of a rainbow is seen as something to wish and build one’s hope upon.
Why are there so many songs about rainbows
And what’s on the other side?
Rainbows are visions, but only illusions,
And rainbows have nothing to hide.
So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it
I know they’re wrong, wait and see.
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection,
The lovers, the dreamers and me.
We have fantasized about rainbows but we should heed Goya’s words: Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters. What impossible multi-colored monsters or serpent rainbows exists out there? Although we have to be careful what we wish upon it is nice to see a rainbow every now and again and think for a moment our dreams will come true; serpent rainbow be damned.
Hambly, Wilfrid D. 1886-1962. Serpent Worship In Africa. Chicago, 1931.
Herskovits, Melville J. 1895-1963. Dahomean Narrative. Evanston [Ill.]: Northwestern University Press, 1958.