The Myth, Magic, and Science of the Rainbow

by Cedar Stevens

The Arc of the Rainbow has ever captured the joy and imagination of the human spirit. From the Greek Goddess Iris to the Rainbow Serpent of the Aborigines of Australia to the Gay Pride Flag, the Rainbow has been a symbol and tool of perception and the gentle power of diversity and creative energy. In this essay I will attempt to link, explain, and expand upon the available magic, science and mythology of the Rainbow.

The colors of the Rainbow were described as numbering seven by Sir Isaac Newton, no doubt building from and explicating his studies of classic natural history. Newton's color wheel is: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Purple.

On more modern painter's color wheels, the Rainbow is usually divided into six colors, omitting Indigo, which is a tertiary color. All of the other colors of Newton's Rainbow are primary: Red, Yellow, and Blue, or secondary: Orange, Green, and Purple. Why is Indigo included in this system? Newton probably had other, very good reasons to define the Rainbow as a function of the favored magical number of seven, and far be it from me to argue with Isaac Newton on that account.

I hereby propose that the Newtonian Rainbow be relieved of the anomalous Indigo color, which does not even manage a scientific definition (expressed as a range of frequencies of vibrations of light) in an ordinary college dictionary. I recommend that we preserve the magic number seven of the Rainbow by including "Clear," as the combination of all the colors. Allow me to explain.

The natural, undissected Rainbow is known to us by two phenomena: the appearance of the Rainbow Arc in the Sky, and the division of white light by the art of the Prism. Both are really expressions of the same basic reality of perception. Visible light, perceived and often described as white light, is a combination of particles of energy which express themselves in a cyclical nature, known as waves. A triangularly shaped transparent solid which is the prism, or a drop of water, by the process of diffraction, has the power to separate the colors hidden within white light, according to frequency of the waves. This is then very easy to measure experimentally, and to demonstrate with ordinary graphics.

It bears mentioning that white light itself is just one small fraction of the kinds of electromagnetic energy that communicates through the universe. Others are radio waves, infrared radiation, etc. When we speak of the Rainbow, or white light, we are speaking of: that subset of electromagnetic radiation which is discernible by the eyes of human beings. It is known that other waves of energy are perceived by other living beings, such as magnet fields by pigeons, or ultraviolet colors by many kinds of insects. Other forms of this wave type of energy transformation are sensed by hearing, or by tactile sensation of vibrational motion. In between the high frequency vibration of visual light and the relatively low frequency of sound waves, there is a lot of room for imagination. Therefore, the Rainbow colors are one subset of energy that is especially applicable and useful to humans.

The other, lower octave of energy waves well known to humans are known as sound waves, and Sir Isaac Newton and others have attempted to correlate the two phenomena.

(graphic of Isaac's do re mi with colors coming soon)

In our modern adjustment of the Newtonian Rainbow, Indigo would be replaced with Purple for "la," and Clear (or White or Silver) would be given to "si." There are reasons for this correlation, which are useful in order to correlate the classic Rainbow with the Hindu and Yogic understanding of Chakras.

Chakras are energy centers of the human body as perceived by Yoga practice. We find alternative examples of the same system which can resolve light, major scale musical notes, the Oriental chakras and perhaps even fragrance.

This review of chakras is much abbreviated, since many excellent books give further information and alternative color systems for the chakras. This system of healing is highly individualistic and many people have different color expression of their chakras. For example, Pink is a common color replacement for the heart chakra. The seven-scaled Rainbow as applied to the Chakras is a generalized, idealized imaging of the average Human. Your mileage may vary!

Let us return to the Prism and the Rainbow. There are two easily observable differences between the two phenomena. A prism, resting on the lab table, splits the beam of light and onto the screen. At the bottom is Red, the color with the longest wavelength, and less affected by the diffraction of the prism. The other colors proceed, with Purple at the top. To contrast, the Rainbow casts its colors with Purple at the bottom, inside of the arc, and Red at the top. To simplify the explanation, the water drop of rain not only acts as a prism, which separates light into its component colors, but it also acts as a mirror, and a concave one at that. This concave mirror reflects light in a reversed manner, which is why the colors of the primary Rainbow is "upside down" Oh, but there are many things that can transpire within a droplet of water, and here is another. Sometimes light is refracted, and then reflected and reflected a second time within the drop of water. And since the Rainbow is cast by not one drop of water, but by many, the many droplets often conspire to cast a second Rainbow above the first, in which the colors are reversed, with Red at the bottom and Purple at the top.

If we have all the colors of the Rainbow plus White, then what of the color Black? Black is the 0th chakra. Below the feet, corresponding to primordial darkness, that which came before the light, before the Big Bang. Then, seemingly for no reason at all, Nothing anomalizes into Something, and the world is born. It sounds as good a theory as many, at least, and science has made some compelling scenarios upon the hypothesis.

First the darkness, then comes light

And now behold by Iris' might:

Purple! (Response: Purple!)

Blue!

Green!

Yellow!

Orange!

Red!

And by Her Rainbow,

The Artist's palate fed!

In this proposed sevenfold package of the Rainbow, the six primaries and secondaries, we name "Clear" as the seventh and combination of the six. Clear can be understood to be both Black and White, recognizing the origin of light, and the end of the Palate where all colors blend again to return to darkness. Representationally, in art or function, White, Silver, or Black could be used to stand in for clear, as the aesthetic or interpretation requires.

The colors of the Rainbow are not evenly divided according to the frequency range of light. We perceive a disproportionate range of visible light as the color Red, from 6220 to 7700 Angstroms, about 38%. Green is the next most popular, with 22% of the spectrum as we perceive it. Violet weighs in next from the lower end of our range 3900 - 4500 Angstroms, or 15% of the visible spectrum. Yellow and Orange get a small bandwidth each, and Blue accounts for 11% of the spectrum we perceive.

(graphic coming soon)

This seems to tell us a lot about ourselves as monkeys. Leaf Green, fruit Red. But: flower Purple? What does color Purple teach us? Do other monkeys favor it as we do?

Magical Associations and Mythology of the Rainbow

Simply because of the power and universally shared perception of color, the Rainbow becomes an alphabet of the range of human emotions. These associations of colors easily translate into magical and perceptual technology applied to everything from psychotherapy to candle spells.

(graphic coming soon)

Used all together, the Rainbow then translates into an open road for That Which is Possible for human beings. Appearing after a storm as it does, the Rainbow offers promise, hope and healing, as Noah and his wife saw it after the Flood.

Iris is perhaps the most personable mythic deities to represent the Rainbow. She is given as the daughter of the Oceanic Elektra (not the Electra of Trojan myth or the Pleidean star sister) and Thaumus. She often appears in the same capacity, and even in the company, as fellow messenger god Mercury, and she shares with him the depiction of winged head and feet. Her duty is primarily to Zeus and Hera. Many other religions see the Rainbow as not a deity but as a road, a connection between Heaven and Earth, and it is not wasted on many mythopoetic systems that the Rainbow appears to go beneath the Earth at the horizon and then back up again, suggesting a continuously circular bridge between above and below, between life and death.

In tarot, the 14th trump card, Temperance, is often depicted as an Angel who mixes fire and water into a vessel which then pours forth a Rainbow. In some decks, including the Crowley Thoth deck, Temperance is replaced (or reinterpreted) by the Art card. Crowley was himself something of an artist and many of his groups of associates and friends as well as he had little use for Temperance but religious devotion to Art, so the transposition suggests. Since the Rainbow is the basis of the Artist's palate, it makes magical sense to correspond the two. As in the nature of the Rainbow, the Temperance Angel combines the pure elemental essences of Fire (light) and Water (the drop of cloud vapor) to create the Rainbow. This would explain why even older interpretations of the Tarot do not give Temperance the modern day definition of purity and restraint, but rather one of transformation by way of alchemy, the perfect combination of elements. One element in the right proportion perfectly tempers another to create a thing of beauty. The Temperance Angel is often depicted standing next to iris flowers, reinforcing its association or equivalence with the Goddess Iris.

The other Tarot card that features the Rainbow is the Ten of Cups. Usually, it depicts a heterosexual nuclear family of two parents and two children, boy and girl, celebrating home, prosperity, and family beneath the Rainbow, which is encrusted with ten golden, overflowing Cups. It symbolizes the attainment of material and familial blessings, the crowning glory of adulthood, presumably after all the prerequisite rites of passage, the Storms.

The arch of the Rainbow has also been used as a political symbol of diversity, and it may be that Reverend Jesse Jackson was not the first who used it as a symbol of racial tolerance and mutual support, as the Rainbow creates an arch, and each block that forms the architectural arch is necessary for creating that portal from one stage of understanding and evolution of thought into another, following the imperative of Grace. By the alchemy of all the races and of all walks of life, the strength of the arch and the permanence of the doorway are improved. Evolution and ecology also teach us the lesson that strength and resiliency of the ecosystem are improved by diversity in species.

This very radical concept that differentness is acceptable, and that even our survival may depend upon it, is certainly one of comfort to any individual who has ever been marginalized or made to feel different or even unwelcome in the dominant culture. The next political use of the Rainbow's power of diversity is by the Gay Pride movement. Was the Rainbow borrowed from Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, or is it Judy Garland's rendition of "Over the Rainbow" in Wizard of Oz that made the Rainbow flag colors a banner under which to rally? I believe it fair to say that Art and Gayness have long felt comfort in each other's arms. The alchemy of the Temperance angel would imply that a serendipity of the several theories would combine to make the most radiant of hues, and perhaps a most splendid political alliance.

Could it mean that Iris of the Rainbow is therefore the Goddess of art and creativity, of the diversity of race and human expression of sexuality and all other potential ways of being and vision? I propose that she be considered as such, and her conversations with me on these subjects lead me to write this very monologue. Iris is easily the Goddess of Gay Pride, Art, and Racial and Political Diversity. In other words, everything under the Rainbow, creative potential as perceived and expressed by humans.

The Rainbow is not the creatrix, nor is Iris, but Iris of the Rainbow speaks to those created by the Mother, who eventually terrifies, abandons or at least disappoints us by becoming the Destroyer (the Storm). Often immediately upon separating ourselves from the Mother, many of us undergo a Storm of spirit, where our basic right to exist, our ability to "fit in" or care for ourselves is called into question. By looking to the promise in the sky, the light of the sun transforms within the tears in our eyes into the Rainbow, which offers hope, Redemption, and a promise that all of us have a part in creating the world.

In nature, the Rainbow has but few rare natural expressions. In the hands of humans, however, it becomes the basic tool of art, allowing the creation of many forms of color, including the return to Black, a combining of all the colors of pigment, which combine to approximate the primordial lack of light, absence of color. As a tool, the Rainbow artist's palate combines in limitless colors, shades, and shapes to create that which is possible.

Magical operations involving the rainbow

Just viewing a Rainbow is purifying and blessing. It is considered to be bad luck, taboo, or just plain rude, to point at a Rainbow. If desired, a magical object can be placed where it appears that a Rainbow ends in order to bless or consecrate it. The Rainbow is supposed to point towards a pot of gold, and it could be used in divination. For example, where I often viewed Rainbows from my former magick shop, I could usually make them point to the "Everything 99 Cent store." Wishes are often uttered to be taken on this bridge from Earth to Heaven to the Underworld and back again. Photograph yourself or friends for a long lasting reminder of your blessing.

Rainbow water is a multipurpose blessing water appropriate to any magical use. I have a distinct memory of reading in Scott Cunningham's Earth Power something like this "The three most magic waters are 1) Sunshine Water, rain that is collected when the Sun is shining, 2) Rainbow Water, which is rain collected while a Rainbow is in evidence, and 3) the most magic water of all is Tears shed for Joy." I began collecting accordingly. But since then I have been unable to source this memory! The best I can find in the Rainbow Brew in Cunningham's Incense Oils and Brews, which has you collect the Rainbow water for multipurpose magical use, since it has all the colors in it.

Rainbow water would then be very potentiating as an addition to any magical baths, teas, or water used for inks, magical painting or sacred art. Blessings, creativity workings, or any artistic operation could only be enhanced by the Rainbow water. Likewise, any spell designed to imbue Hope after the Storm, or instill attitudes of Tolerance or even just eye opening could find use for it.

Ceremonial magicians, especially in the Golden Dawn tradition also make use of a Rainbow wand. While the precise procedures of its construction are probably initiatory secrets, it involves a wand that is Black at the handheld end, radiating upward beginning with Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Purple then White. My personal adaptation for this is a 7 inch wand with one inch per color. I use Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Purple then Clear (which can represented as Pearl, White or Silver). Alternatively, a 49 inch or 49 centimeter wand or staff could be constructed with the same proportions. While each color is being painted, the corresponding note is sung, and the wand is imbued with this note while visualizing and uttering words of power relating to the color. Each band of color is thereby informed of its power as it is being painted. A pitch pipe is very helpful to this exercise. If at all possible, the wand should be oriented such that the root end of the stick or dowel is the bottom, colored as Red (or Black in the Ceremonial tradition). If you buy prefab dowels from a craft center, the orientation of the wood can often be determined thus: hold a pendulum over each end of the rod. The root end should cause the pendulum to swing in a circular (feminine) direction whereas the (masculine) branch end should make it swing back and forth.

Just as the seven notes are correlated to the colors of the Rainbow, it could be attempted to correlate olfactory notes to color. Without giving my own recipe for Iris of the Rainbow oil, I can tell you that clove, oak moss, and sassafras are usually interpreted as Red, and these combinations can be used monochromatically or synergistically for aromatherapy and chakra alignment.

There are some individuals who by accident of birth have crossed lines of perception, allowing them to experience color as sound, sound as scent, or scent as color. It is also known that certain psychoactive drugs can mimic this integration temporarily, giving a glimpse into this mesmerizing experience which is called synaesthesia. So boggling as it is to the mortal mind, it may give us a hint as to that which lies beyond life and death, over the Rainbow Bridge.

The Rainbow appears but of rare occasion and ephemerally, but we have borrowed the component colors to load the paint which is ever on the palate, and what we will create of it is our future, before us on a blank canvas.