The Rainbow

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!


 In ancient times the Greeks saw Iris as the daughter of the Sun and Water. They held that in the time of mystical unfoldment, when the sheaths of conditioned life were still potential, the Sun penetrated the droplets of the Mother and caused her to give birth to a heavenly progeny of banded colours, an offspring who arched across the sky and embodied all the hues that came to find their frail mixed reflection in the world below. Her name means 'Speaker' and she came and went as a messenger of the gods. She was young then, as she is now, and her golden wings carried her with such speed along her pathway that the will of Zeus was instantaneously disseminated. Later on she came to be known as the daughter of Thaumas, whose name forms the basis of thaumaturgy or 'wonder-working'. If more worldly people placed her paternity among the demigods instead of the Highest Sun, they also sensed, however dimly, the deep mystery behind the manifestation of her multi-coloured radiance.

 The shape of the rainbow has inspired many people to think of it as a mighty bow of God. In the Old Testament the covenant made by Elohim with Noah states that the world should not again be destroyed by flood and that the bow seen in the clouds would henceforth be a sign of this promise. The Anyanja tribe of Africa call the rainbow Uta Wa Leza or Bow of Leza, who is their principal god, while the Lapps place its brilliant curve in the hands of their thunder deity, who used it to drive away evil spirits. The Iroquois identified the thunderer as Hino, whom they called the Slayer of All Noxious Things, the Heavenly Archer. They believed that his bride was the rainbow-weapon whom he ever carried around his shoulder. This symbolic expression echoed in many cultures is effectively conveyed in the simple lines of James Johnson, who wrote:

And God stepped out in space,
And He looked around and said,
'I'm lonely - I'll make me a world.'

And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around His shoulder.

 The symbol of the arch or span is an almost universal metaphor expressing man's deepest yearnings to bridge the distance that appears to separate his fumbling hands and feet of clay from the veiled murmurings of his virgin soul. The rainbow seems to epitomize this expanse, stretching between heaven and earth as an ethereal pathway of souls. The Old Norse described how the Valkyries carried brave warriors killed in battle over that diaphanous bridge to their well-earned rest. They believed it led to Valhalla, the place of the gods, and the red band burning along its edge repelled the approach of earthly giants who attempted to violate their lofty realm. The Polynesian people wove beauteous legends about the rainbow bridge such as that sung by the Tahunas or Adept-Priests in The Song to Teave. They spoke of the emergence of souls along the span, telling in melody how the sparkling new lives came from the Fifth Heaven of Teave to the earth while eyes there were closed in sleep.

The blood of His children flowed from
The blood of the King of Heaven.
The spirits of His children flew hither in a gentle breeze that
wafted from the Seven Divinities who surrounded the
Throne of God.
They descended from His Holy Kingdom in a Rainbow that
flashed from the Eternal Realm of Light.
They came hither In a great river that flowed from the
breast of heaven and poured from the King of Kings
of the Celestial Spheres.
They floated away from the Regents of Heaven.

 To other people in the world the rainbow symbolizes a serpent who either sucks up lakes and rivers and spews them out as rain or rubs his back against the icy firmament, causing snow and precipitation, as believed by the Shoshone Indians. Despite the fact that some cultures in the Southern Hemisphere conceive of the rainbow serpent as evil, the majority of people in the world interpret its curve as a good omen. If they don't see it as God's bow, a bridge or a serpent, they tend at least to read its sign as an indication of good luck. A most interesting latter-day example of this took place during the Second World War when a U.S. tank corps fighting in Europe came to associate successful skirmishes with the appearance of a rainbow. It was not long before they interpreted its display as an indication to commence manoeuvres. They began to refer to one another as Rainbows, and before the war ended became known as the Rainbow Division. It has often been noted that men under stress will resort to ancient forms of totemistic and magical practices, but perhaps there are times when the very urgency of a situation enables people to perceive relations between symbols which they don't ordinarily see. Perhaps the heightened awareness of death brings human consciousness closer in touch with a realm of archetypal symbols which are linked through form, colour and ontological relationships with whole classes of causes and effects, enabling an individual to intuit links between phenomena related to the same force-field.

 Goethe once wrote that Newton's analysis of the rainbow would "cripple Nature's heart" and indeed the poet, like Pythagoras before him, believed that the eye must be a microcosmic sun in order for us to see light and colour. The belief that light and colour could be radiated by the eyes, the head and the entire human form is abundantly demonstrated in medieval paintings and stained glass windows. Often blue was the colour associated with divine light, and its halo would presumably have been visible to those who had the eyes to see it. By Newton's time, however, colour was believed to be the result of the variable refraction of white light off any given object. Through his experiments Newton showed that white light is actually a mixture of colours or wavelengths, each having a different refractive index or, as in the case of the refracted light that emerges from a band of water droplets, its own rainbow angle. This variable dispersion produces a scattering of light into a spectrum composed of coloured arcs having their angular radius at forty-two degrees. As the primary rainbow can only be seen at this angle, a person in one position sights a rainbow which is quite different from that seen by someone a block away. This is because the rainbow is not a stationary phenomenon fixed in the heavens, but rather the result of refraction and separation of light coming from different bands of droplets relative to the position of the observer. Thus each person witnesses a unique rainbow, and each of the colours of that rainbow come to the eye from a different set of droplets. Put the other way around, it can be said that the red light from one droplet will be seen by someone standing in one place, while the blue from that same droplet will be witnessed by another standing somewhere else.

 The same principles that apply to the primary can be used to understand the secondary rainbow though, because of further reflection, its colours are not only weaker but also inverted in order. The secondary arches above the primary rainbow at about fifty degrees angular radius, but if the droplets are very small it can become superposed upon the primary bands, bringing about an interference of the two ray systems, resulting in a disappearance of colour. The size of the droplets also affects the width and purity of the colours within the primary rainbow itself. Uniformly large droplets produce bright, distinct bands, while very small ones result in an overlap which can bring about the same loss of colour produced by superposition.

 The whole marvellous process of seeing a rainbow involves many complex stages of conditioned manifestation. On the physical plane it can be traced to the radiation of the sun, which emits rays of white light that strike droplets in the air. The light enters the droplets and is bent by the angle of strike and by the atomic structure of the droplets themselves. The bent rays are reflected within the walls of the droplets before they are refracted out, scattering the various wavelengths of colour which were contained within the white light. The primary bow is formed by two refractions and one internal reflection, while the formation of the secondary bow involves an additional reflection within the drop. Additional rainbows which are not visible to our eye would result from further internal reflections within the drop and would be both progressively weaker in colour and alternately inverted.

 The light refracted at the correct angle thus produces the rainbow spectrum, which is transmitted to the eye of the observer. The eye receives the informing light waves, which are refracted inwardly by the cornea so that the rays converge upon three chemically distinct colour receptors or cones that reside at the back of the retina. The information of three colours (red, blue and green) are each encoded into two-colour, on-off signals which are then transmitted to the higher visual centres in the brain as electrochemical signals. In reality, all three types of receptors react to all colours, but in varying degrees. It is the total 'sensation' received by the brain that determines the colours actually seen. It is significant that yellow, which we usually consider one of the three primary colours, is produced by an 'effective mixing' of red and green, which are chromatic opposites. It is obvious that there is a great difference between the mixing of an artist's pigments and the mixing of various wavelengths of white light. It is also evident that the simple act of looking up and exulting in the beauty of a lovely rainbow involves enormously complex conversions of particles and waves and their response to atomic structures, as well as very complicated and inadequately understood modes of electrochemical transmission and transformation. Even if we left aside the psychological intricacies related to the perception and analysis of the rainbow, a satisfactory quantitative theory of the phenomenon itself draws upon all that is known in modern science of the theory of light. Allowances must be made for wavelike properties such as interference, diffraction and polarization, as well as paniculate properties such as the momentum carried by a beam of light. Some of the most powerful tools of mathematical physics were developed explicitly to deal with the rainbow, and it has served as a touchstone for testing all the theories of optics developed over the last few hundred years. Truly it may be said that despite the different perspectives of Goethe and Newton, the rainbow has also served as a bridge between poetry and science.

Along a parabola
Life like a rocket flies,
Mainly in darkness,
Now and then on a rainbow.

 Once radiated by the sun, light is part of a vast, continuous spectrum of electromagnetic radiation distinguished by the fact that the eye is sensitive to it. Electromagnetic radiation has wavelike and particulate traits, each seeming to predominate at different times according to rhythms and patterns which modern science has not yet understood. All energy in the electromagnetic spectrum travels at the same rate of speed but in different frequencies, and light, with its various wavelengths, is only a small segment or octave along this vast sounding-board. Light, seeming to travel through empty space, is merely a visible expression of this much greater field in which changes in electrical gradients constantly give rise to changes in magnetic gradients. The interaction of effects in this field can be probed with the use of a spectroscope, revealing the refractive index of all sorts of atomic structures in space. A sort of language of refracted colours can disclose what substance stars are made of, how hot they are and what is their relationship to each other and the sun. Every chemical known has a distinctive spectrum of its own, revealing the complex combinations of energy that exist in all the activities and formations in the universe, and the rainbow spectrum stands as Nature's master-key, which has only just begun to unlock some of the mysteries of light and life. In the words of Shelley,

Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity.

 In considering these relationships it is natural to ponder the connection between light and sound. One may ask if the rainbow describes a progression of vibrating notes which are echoed, like its colours, through the manifested world. Are the harmonics, or octave overtones, heard in music analogous to secondary, tertiary and other rainbows? Do the basic musical ratios of Pythagoras, which reflect a common periodic pattern in nature, have a counterpart in chromatic effects? Though modern science has not discovered the link between these lateral and longitudinal sets of vibrations, men have intuited their reflection of one another for millennia. Goethe wrote:

Colour and sound do not admit of being directly compared in any way, but both are referable to a higher formula, both are derivable, although each for itself, from this higher law. They are like two rivers which have their source in one and the same mountain. . . . Both are general, elementary effects acting according to the general law of separation and tendency to union, of undulation and oscillation.

 Kandinsky went further in asserting their harmony when he wrote: "The sound of colours is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes, or a dark lake in the treble." Perhaps when two people stand at two different places and observe what in fact are two different and unique rainbows, they would hear, if they could, two subtly distinct melodies, each in a different key.

 Quoting from the Vishnu Purana, H. P. Blavatsky wrote that sound is the identifying characteristic of Akasa-Ether, which itself is said to be white or colourless. It (Akasa) "generates air, the property of which is Touch; which (by friction) becomes productive of colour and light". According to ancient teachings, sound together with its accompanying element and sense, precedes other phenomena in the unfolding process of manifestation. Colour corresponds to the sense of sight and the element of fire or light, and is followed by water and the sense of taste, and then by earth and the sense of smell. It would seem that the sun, which radiates white light into the physical world, functions as a sort of focalized analogue to the subtle, colourless realm of pure, archetypal sound, whose manifestation in the world generates air and fire or light.

 We can think of the sun as an aperture through which streams the conditioned reflection of mighty, arcane forces that swell within the electric bosom of the Mother. It is the focal point through which emerges onto this plane the effects born of the causes generated by Fohat, who wove the Thread of Primeval Light which runs through the progressively less ethereal planes, tying itself into successive knots or suns. This archetypal idea inspired the ancients to say that man originated from a divine essence flowing from the eye or solar orb. They saw this microcosmically repeated by the creative light which emanated from the eye of one who sees beneath the crust of appearances and who could penetrate the mystery of the spectrum. In other words, if the eye is analogous to the sun, then perhaps it too is a focal aperture which not only receives information like that of the rainbow, but can transmit an inner knowledge of light and colour, enabling the individual to perceive the hidden mathematical ratios expressed in the order, intensity and precise colour dominances of any particular rainbow. Thus, instead of Iris being merely the automatically contracted tissue which regulates the amount of light entering the eye, she could once again assume her proper position of messenger of the inner god who transmits any amount of light at will.

 The sevenfold spectrum of the rainbow reflects the critical ratio in nature which regulates a harmonious perception of forms, substances, sensory phenomena and stages of growth and development. The virtues which can make of man a god may be seen in harmony with its chromatic potencies. If one begins at the lower edge of the primary rainbow, a relationship could be suggested between dana, charity and love immortal, and the colour red. Shila or harmony would relate to orange; kshanti, patience sweet, to yellow; viraga, indifference to pleasure and pain, to green; virya, the dauntless energy, to blue; dhyana of the golden gate, to indigo; and prajna, to violet.

 As with the virtues themselves, one sees that each of the colours contains all the others, but their sequence and rate of vibration lend a special significance to their order. Red surely symbolizes fire and it is the heat of its flame which burns away the self-centred sheaths of worldly identity and permits the disciple to place himself upon the path of virtue. The red of passion becomes alchemized through tapas and leads the feet of the seeker toward the realms of its lighter and brighter hues and eventually into the domain of what we call orange. The orange partakes of the force of red and the utter serenity of yellow, thus engendering a dynamic harmony which can balance causes and effects in speech and action. If one is not overextended in speech and action, one can maintain a sense of stillness in the midst of activity which encourages the rhythmic flow necessary to the perfection of sweet patience which naught can ruffle. It seems natural to think of kshanti in terms of yellow, whose attracting and radiating powers are a perfect symbol of peaceful duration, contented patience and calm benevolence.

 Viraga is the paramita which is pivotal to the seven virtues and signifies indifference to pleasure and pain and the conquest of illusion. That it is related to green is significant in that the colour of Nature's robes is associated with growth and healing. The great doctrine of the Hermetic tradition was engraved upon an Emerald Tablet, and the caduceus of that Divine Healer, with its balancing powers, testifies to the equilibrium necessary for physical as well as spiritual health. The healing has to take place in the whole being, and the indifference to sensation must rest supreme at the point where mind and body meet. There has been a movement away from the calm serenity of orange and yellow, and the disciple needs to achieve a new sense of balance and objectivity as he prepares to concentrate all his energies upon a realization of supernal Truth. Moving out of the realm of warm and radiating colours, he now enters into that of the cool depths of blue, Virya corresponds to a medium blue like that of the sky and symbolizes a heroic movement out of the terrestrial realm into that of inner space where the mind is concentrated on one point as it moves toward an ever-deepening indigo blue. The darkness deepens as the golden gates of dhyana are neared. The disciple holds his gaze upon that portal and prepares to cross the threshold into the realm of the central Spiritual Sun, the deep blue orb which lies hidden behind its golden mask. Divinity awaits him - the ceaseless contemplation of the Divine which rules in its ultraviolet robes, those robes which combine the blue of the spiritual eye and the red of the world's heart, the heart that beats for every pilgrim struggling along the vast arch of the rainbow bridge. From life to life the future Bodhisattva must practise the virtues, emphasizing them in varying orders and combinations depending upon his position along the wheel of life. Just so do colours variously predominate in our lives, and we must strive to strengthen and purify those which are weak or muddy in order to develop a balanced harmony between them. There must be a point where a perfect mathematical ratio between colours can be achieved.

 The ancients who saw colour as a spiritual phenomenon viewed light as an emanation of God which penetrated the bodies of all things and shone forth as their aura. A pure blue field around an individual is interpreted as indicating a state of spiritual dominance over matter, while yellow is always associated with tranquil and radiant benevolence. We could view this as a balanced harmony between the red of the heart and the green of healing, mirroring the fact that in the process of seeing colour, yellow is produced by an 'effective mixing' of red and green rays. Violet is truly a double-edged colour, symbolizing in some of its hues the haughty withdrawal of the liberationist, while others signify the kingly stance of an enlightened Adept. The remarkable high frequency of the violet end of the spectrum suggests a rapidity of movement involving a more refined set of variables. We may interpret this refinement to include elements like the size of the droplets refracting light. It is interesting to note that when droplets are very small, they produce a bright violet light to the exclusion of other colours, and if they become even smaller, superposition of wave-fronts will begin to take place and the rainbow will become colourless. Perhaps when the secondary becomes superposed upon the primary rainbow, producing the same results, we could symbolically interpret it as both a refinement and alignment of the sevenfold nature of man.

 As he re-establishes new balances again and again, from life to life, man slowly begins to achieve an overall equilibrium which comes to reflect the constant and central reality of the reincarnating soul. His whole being becomes centred in the cycle of existences which the Plains Indians called the medicine wheel. They believed that man was born, in each life, at some point on the medicine wheel, which was divided into four cardinal points, each represented by a colour or power. A man may have the vision of an eagle associated with yellow, but if he lacked the courage of the bear, whose colour was red, he would not be able to act upon the basis of his wisdom. Until he had balanced all the colours of the wheel through many lives, a man was only a partial man. A fully realized person is one who encompasses the entire medicine wheel in every aspect of his nature. It is this ideal that the true disciple strives to reach. He looks at rainbows and notices that each one is different, with different colours predominating and various degrees of brightness shifting in every possible combination. If he thinks of this in connection with the virtues he is striving to master, he will all the more deeply appreciate why every human being is truly a mystery and why it requires many lives to penetrate to the essential colours of life which can only then be subsumed into the pure white light of the solar eye. By becoming the whole wheel, the disciple resembles the spherical droplet that reflects and refracts the perfectly balanced spectrum. He is now ready to take the rainbow 'bow' in his hand, drive away evil spirits, and assume the role of the spiritual archer who hits the mark. Now he has envisioned the beauteous span that stretches from earth to heaven and back again. He has become one with the pure ray and the sacred solar eye, and he reaches to the sun only to give back the seven colours of its reflected essence. He is Keshara, the Sky Walker, whose pathway is the rainbow bridge that lifts the hearts of men and women and leads their souls homewards.