Rainbows – What Do They Mean?


Rainbows …
What Do They Mean?

Kelli H. Hill

We live in an iconic world.  Our verbal language and traditions are rapidly giving way to symbols, signs and heuristic shortcuts.  We have sliced and diced our way down from the elegant prose penned by my 16-year-old grandmother to memorialize the day she met my grandfather in the Roaring ‘20s to cryptic tweets of 140 words or less about something we feel is important enough to share with others.  Signs and symbols have become so ubiquitous in our culture that street gangs are hiring trademark attorneys and it’s hard to find anyone under 20 who can articulate a coherent thought anymore.

The upside: our global village is getting smaller.  The downside: our messages are too.  This “downsizing” of our messages makes nonverbal communication all the more critical; and those who use cultural artifacts to convey meaningful information have an edge in our increasingly nonverbal world.

Within this context, I’d like to expound a bit on an enduring symbol – the rainbow – which has been interpreted across time and culture to mean more than “it just rained.”

Jimmy Kimmel thrust the rainbow into pop culture when he publicized the now famous YouTube ramblings of one Yosemitebear62 as he reacted to a beautiful double rainbow on January 8, 2010, and wondered, “What does it mean?!?”  Here’s the YouTube link to his 3-minute rainbow-fueled catharsis:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQSNhk5ICTI.

The Science

Rainbows can be observed when the sun is behind you and casting light through water droplets in the air.  The water droplets act as prisms which refract the light and create a “cone-shaped” spectrum of colors which become visible in front of you (appearing to be at the horizon).  So a rainbow is really a full circle, only half of which is visible because the ground gets in the way.  And a rainbow is unique to each person’s perspective – each of us technically sees a different rainbow.  (Harris, 2013)

What Does It Mean? 

Long before the science of rainbows was fully understood by observers, rainbows have been imbued with meanings which surpass the mere science of the phenomenon.

Some of the more notable examples are its use by the ancient Peruvians who assigned mystical powers to it, the Biblical reference to it as indicative of God’s promise following “Noah’s” flood (King James Bible), Irish folk stories which promised a pot of gold for those lucky enough to find the rainbow’s end, the peace movement of the ‘60s, and the more recent popularization by the gay community as a symbol of gay pride.  (Lee, 2001)

LGBT Pride (1978)

LGBT flag

Rainbow images are also often used in connection with children’s toys and décor, owing to their bright colors and the “happiness” factor.  We have only to see a rainbow and our spirits are lifted it seems.  The gay community strategically uses the colors, but not the shape, of the rainbow in their flags and artifacts (Wickman, 2013).

The rainbow has been used as a semi-fixed cultural artifact for centuries.  They remind us of the intrinsic beauty of nature and lift our spirits at a glance.  Across most cultural and organizational uses, we see common themes of peace, hope, and unity; and – perhaps because it is a global phenomenon seen the world over – there’s a sense that we all share these special meanings to some extent.

Like Yosemitebear62, I also recently had the good fortune to see a double rainbow.  It was truly awesome to behold.  What does it mean?  For me, it’s a symbol that needs no words to remind us that we all share something beautiful that unites us, which is nice to know in a world so divided.

Here’s my double rainbow:  https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=3339024611269&set=vb.1738285943&type=3&theater

What does it mean to you?


Harris, T.  How Rainbows Work, retrieved from http://science.howstuffworks.com/nature/climate-weather/storms/rainbow.htm on November 17, 2013.

The Bible, King James Version. The Bible Study Site, http://www.biblestudy.org/question/what-does-a-rainbow-symbolize-in-bible.html

Lee, R, & Fraser, A., (2001). The Rainbow Bridge: Rainbows in Art, Myth, and Science, Penn State Press.

Wickman, Forrest (June 26, 2013).  A Rainbow Marriage – How did the rainbow become a symbol of gay pride?  Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/life/explainer/2012/06/rainbows_and_gay_pride_how_the_rainbow_became_a_symbol_of_the_glbt_movement_.html

Yosemitebear Mountain Double Rainbow 1-8-10, retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQSNhk5ICTI


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