In a book devoted to explaining why the dragon idea is universal one might reasonably suppose that the most important chapter would be Chapter 5, ‘The ethnology of the dragon’. However, this is not the case. Rather, the most important chapter is concerned with the ethnology of the rainbow, as it is through an understanding of this belief-complex that the dragon idea emerges as a natural consequence of the efforts of preliterate people to explain the features of the natural environment to which all humans have been exposed during the lifetime of our species as thinking beings. And it is precisely the neglect of this approach through more than 130 years of writing about dragons that has led to such a proliferation of often wildly speculative views about why a belief in dragons exists around the world.
The goal of this chapter is to provide a cross-cultural overview of ideas about the rainbow on a global scale, highlighting those views that are widely-shared, and hence likely to be motivated by common psychological responses to the natural environment. Because of the complexity of the subject matter, it is divided into four subparts: 1. How the dragon was born, 2. Mysteries of the rainbow, 3. Sunshowers, and 4. The Rainbow Taboo. The last of these topics is so important and independent that it has been treated in a separate publication (Blust 2021), but is mentioned briefly here, since it is a key element of the ethnology of the rainbow.
Sect. 1. draws together traits of the rainbow that have an uncontroversial observational basis, and shows how these were inherited by the dragon, where their origin is far more obscure. It thus closely follows the overview of ideas in Chapter 5, covering as nearly as possible the list of traits attributed to dragons there in order to highlight similarities or differences between the culturally-mediated perception of the mythic creature, and the natural phenomenon. For ease of comparison each universal trait of the rainbow is matched with the corresponding trait of the dragon. As already seen in Chapter 5, it is difficult to describe the dragon in some parts of the world without invoking the rainbow. While this was a problem in discussing the ethnology of the dragon in isolation, there is now no need to distinguish the two, so the parallels will be discussed openly. In this way the impressionistic, fragmentary, and often highly speculative approach of most earlier attempts to understand the universality of the dragon idea is replaced by an objective, replicable documentation of beliefs about the rainbow, which in the end will prove to be indistinguishable from beliefs about the Rainbow Serpent, and then the dragon.
Sect. 2. continues the ethnology of the rainbow with globally distributed beliefs that do not have a clear observational basis, whether they match traits of the dragon or not. The reason that some of these beliefs are universal is very hard to grasp, as they appear to be arbitrary, yet are found in widely separated parts of the world. However, where they agree with similar beliefs about the dragon, they offer powerful additional support for the view that the dragon idea originated from the Rainbow Serpent, and hence from preliterate attempts to explain the rainbow.
Sect. 3. singles out a special facet of the ethnology of the rainbow, beliefs about sunshowers (rain when the sun is shining), a phenomenon that is closely associated with the rainbow, but is distinguished from it in many cultures, and which has its own set of globally distributed traits, as previously discussed in Blust (1999a).
Sect. 4. briefly documents the universality of the Rainbow Taboo (RT), and sketches the minimal outlines of an explanation for why it exists.
Finally, it cannot be stressed too strongly that the material I have collected for the ethnology of the rainbow is limited by my sources. Published sources on the dragon, and beliefs about the rainbow have proven invaluable, but without the use of questionnaires I would have found far less data on certain topics. I have no doubt that the material I have collected here barely scratches the surface of what is ‘out there’ among the world’s endlessly fascinating peoples. I also have little doubt that much of the lingering animistic mindset that I was still able to tap into some forty years ago is fast disappearing in many places as a result of the ever-increasing pace of globalization and adaptation to a high-tech world.
1 How the Dragon Was Born
The ethnology of the rainbow is a complex topic that has never been properly explored either in cultural anthropology or in folklore. Parts of this topic are directly relevant to the origin of the dragon idea, while others are not. This first section highlights those globally distributed beliefs about the rainbow that closely parallel similarly distributed beliefs about the dragon. In both cases the trait distribution cannot plausibly be explained as a product of diffusion, and so must be due either to ancient inheritance or to repeated independent invention as a result of similar responses to the natural environment.
1.1 Trait 1: The Rainbow Is a Giver/Withholder Of Rain
1.1.1 A Giver of Rain
Among multiple terms for ‘rainbow’ in Irish is tuar ceatha, where tuar = ‘to augur, forebode, presage; sign, omen’ and ceatha = genitive of cith ‘shower’, hence ‘shower prophecy or sign/omen of rain shower’.
Grimm (1844:695) observed of the Romans that the rainbow was believed to drink water from the Earth. This is presumably how it becomes transferred to the sky and falls as rain.
In Russian folklore the rainbow drinks water from lakes, rivers and seas, which then is shed as rain. Sometimes it swallows up fish and frogs with water, and so they also fall from the sky. This resembles the more archaic belief that the rainbow is a giant snake that drinks water from a terrestrial source and spews it out as rain, but the serpent has been eliminated, as throughout the region where Indo-European languages are now spoken rainbow and dragon are rigidly distinguished (Timothy Barnes, p.c., 9/30/17).
188.8.131.52 South Asia
In Nepal (ethnic group not specified), one traditional view of the rainbow is that “it has come to bring the river to the land, to water it, and more rain will come” (Glenys Walker, p.c., 6/9/82, from Chakra Bdr. Shahi).
184.108.40.206 North America and Mexico
The Tolowa of northwest California consider the rainbow a sign of coming rain (Driver 1939:343).
Some Sierra Popoluca of the state of Vera Cruz in Mexico believe “that the rainbow is merely the breath of a giant serpent, and that it presages rain” (Foster 1945:187).
220.127.116.11 Central and South America
The Panare of Venezuela believe that the rainbow causes it to rain (Vicente Diaz, p.c., 4/82).
18.104.22.168 Insular Southeast Asia
Some speakers of Tagalog say that “when a rainbow appears it means rain is coming” (Demetrio 1991:2:380).
The Bare’e of central Sulawesi in Indonesia say the rainbow calls up rain (De regenboog roept regen, zegt men) (Adriani and Kruyt 1950–1951:405).
22.214.171.124 Pacific Islands
The Kwamera people of Tanna Island in southern Vanuatu say that the rainbow is a sign that it will rain (Lamont Lindstrom, p.c., 7/20/85).
Among many Bantu-speaking groups across central and west Africa the rainbow is thought to be formed from male and female intertwining snakes which “stop rain from falling; according to others they cause rain to fall” (de Heusch 1982:35).
The Nyabwa of the Ivory Coast explicitly say of the rainbow that “when it disappears the rain comes (so it precedes the rain)” (Julie Bentinck, p.c., 7/8/82).
Among several names given to the rainbow, the Galla or Oromo of Ethiopia call it ‘a sign of rain’ (Haberland 1963:592).
In some ways this interpretation is hard to process, since rain clearly is needed before a rainbow can appear, which makes it difficult to see it as a sign that rain will come, unless it is a sign that more rain will come. Nonetheless, this view is reported for a number of indigenous peoples.
1.1.2 A Withholder of Rain
126.96.36.199 South Asia
The Muria of Andhra Pradesh state in eastern India, say that “The rainbow is the great snake, Bhumtaras, that rises from its ant-hill to stop the rain” (Elwin 1947:262).
188.8.131.52 Central and East Asia
In Okinawa the rainbow was traditionally believed to be a snake or dragon, and because this snake drank water in the sky, there was no rain (Obayashi 1999, from Hiroko Sato, p.c., 12/16/17).
184.108.40.206 North America and Mexico
Among the Ahtna of southern Alaska the rainbow is called sabiiłe’, lit. ‘sun snare’, from the lexical base biił ‘snare for large game’ (Kari 1990:107); an alternative name is tuslahdzaey ggaal’, lit. ‘spider’s snare’, from the lexical base ggaal’ ‘snare’ (Kari 1990:190).
The Lower Karok of Northwest California say the rainbow is a sign of dry weather (Driver 1939:343).
Among the Maricopa of the Gila River in southern Arizona “The appearance of a rainbow (kwálice’rc) indicated the end of rain” (Spier 1978:150).
The Naskapi of eastern Quebec and Labrador say the rainbow holds back the rain (Speck 1977:64).
To the Assiniboine, located at earliest contact between Lake Superior and Hudson Bay in southern Canada, “the rainbow is called the rain-trap” (native term not provided; Lowie 1909:56). The same idea of the rainbow as trapping or stopping the rain seems to be found among the closely-related Dakota (or Lakota), where wihmuŋke is said to mean ‘rainbow; trap’ (Williamson 1902:164).
In many Ojibwe-speaking communities, traditionally spread across northern Minnesota and adjacent parts of Canada north of the Great Lakes, the word ‘rainbow’ contains the morpheme for ‘snare’, as in ‘thunder snare’, implying that it captures the rain and prevents it from reaching earth (Valentine 1994:822).
The Yuchi of the American southeast believed that “when the rainbow stretches across the sky the rain is prevented from falling through. This stops the rain and brings dry weather” (Speck 1909:110).
To the Muskogee or Creek Indians, who were located at the time of first European contact in what is now Georgia, the rainbow “was believed ... to be a great snake called Oskin-tatcå (“the cutter off of the rain”)” (Grantham 2002:34).
The Tzotzil of southern Mexico say the rainbow is “a cold Chamula female devil that steals corn’s soul ... prevents rain from passing by it, and causes stomach ache. To prevent the rainbow from following a person it is considered effective to spread chewing tobacco around, urinate or exhibit oneself to it” (Laughlin 1975:232).
220.127.116.11 Central and South America
According to the Piapoco on tributaries of the upper Orinoco River along the Colombia-Venezuela border, “A jungle demon makes the rainbow from smoke; it moves unseen, as the wind moves. The rainbow can take the rain prisoner so that it won’t rain, and in some cases this activity can be initiated by the intervention of a shaman” (Jim Klumpp, p.c., 4/15/82).
The Eastern Timbira in east-central Brazil say that “The rainbow (‘person of the rain’) has its two ends resting in the open mouths of sucuriju snakes, which themselves yield rain. It appears as a sign that the rain has ceased” (Nimuendajú 1946:234).
Like the Ahtna, Ojibwe, and Assiniboine of North America, the Sirionó of eastern Bolivia also use the metaphor rainbow = snare (Schermair 1957a: 103, 1957b: 118, 204, noted in Holmer 1966:76, fn. 102). Although the conceptual basis of this expression is not completely clear, the comparison of the rainbow to a snare in several North American Indian languages and in Sirionó at least suggests an ancient New World belief that the rainbow ‘snares’ the rain and thus prevents it from falling. Given this highly distinctive association, which is so far known only in the Americas, we must ask whether this could be an indication of historical continuity from a single ethnolinguistic community ancestral to all native Americans, including the Nadene.
18.104.22.168 Insular Southeast Asia
Speakers of Cebuano Bisayan, of the central Philippines, say that “It will not rain any more if there is a rainbow” (Wolff 1972, sub baláŋaw ‘rainbow’).
The Tuaran Dusun of Sabah say that the rainbow is the fighting scarf of the deity Kinharingan with which he stops the rain (Evans 1923:15).
In the traditions of the Toba Batak people of northern Sumatra the rainbow drinks up the rain, and is a herald of the coming dry season (Sitor Situmorang, p.c., 8/3/83).
The Nage of Flores, in the Lesser Sunda islands of eastern Indonesia, believe that the rainbow lies crosswise in front of the rain and obstructs it so that it can come no further (Der Regenbogen legt sich quer vor den Regen und hindert ihn so, weiterzukommen; Bader 1971:952).
Among the Luang people of the Sermata archipelago, just east of Timor in eastern Indonesia, the rainbow “is considered to be a sign that there will be no more rain that day. So, if someone sees a rainbow, they are free to go out without fear of rain” (Mark Taber, p.c., 1994).
22.214.171.124 New Guinea and Satellite Islands
According to the Iatmul a rainbow is a sign that the rain will not continue to come the same day (Susan Warkentin, p.c. from Joe Mencindimi, 1983).
Among the Duo of the Wewak district, mainland Papua New Guinea, the traditional belief is that the rainbow stops the rain from falling (Richard Sikani, p.c., 1985).
To the Sinasina of interior New Guinea the rainbow indicates that the rain will stop (Malcolm D. Ross, p.c., 6/25/82).
The Yele people on Rossel Island in the Louisiade archipelago to the southeast of New Guinea say that the rainbow is a sign that the rain has finished (Susan Warkentin, p.c., 1983).
As already noted, to the Kakadu/Gaagudju of Arnhem Land in northern Australia, “The rainbow is supposed ... to be the Iwaiyu (spirit) of a Numereji snake. When the latter spits he makes rain and says ... “up above, Iwaiyu, go spittle, my Iwaiyu.” It does so in the form of a rainbow which is supposed to stop the rain” (Baldwin 1914:326).
“The natives of the Pennefeather River, North Queensland, regard the rainbow as a very brightly coloured snake that comes up to stop the rain that has been wilfully made by their enemies; the name both of the rainbow and the snake is Andrénjinyi” (Radcliffe-Brown 1926:19).
The Minyanka of Mali believe that when the rainbow appears it will not rain any more (Lucia Brubaker, p.c., from Edmond Dembele, 12/20/82).
The Ijo of Nigeria say that “If a rainbow appears during a shower, it is believed that the rains will soon cease” (Timitimi 1971:34).
According to one speaker of Kalabari in Nigeria “traditionally we assumed that when the rainbow appears the rainy season is going to end” (Kay Williamson, p.c., from S. Owiye, 1982).
The Hausa of northern Nigeria say that “the rainbow arises from a well of salt, and enters an ant-hill. It drinks up the rain, thus preventing any more from falling” (Tremearne 1968:218).
Among the Izon of Nigeria “The traditional view of the rainbow, whenever it appears, means the dry season” (Kay Williamson, from R.A. Freemann; 1982).
To the Yoruba of southern Nigeria “the ‘great snake of the underneath’ is the rainbow god. It comes up at times to drink water from the sky. A variety of the python is the messenger of this god” (Ellis 1966:81).
The Barotse of northern Nigeria claim that “Pointing a pestle at brilliant rainbows to prevent rain from falling may be practiced by any individual” (Reynolds 1963:128).
The Mofu-Gudur or South Mofu of northern Nigeria tell children that “the rainbow occurs when the ancestors exit the termite holes/nests to go up to the sky/heaven to keep the rain away because someone has asked them to go up and do sacrifices against someone on earth and do something bad to them, i.e. stop the rain” (K. Hollingsworth, p.c. from Abdias Galla, 4/16/82).
Among the Kulere of the northern Nigerian plateau it is said that “the rainbow is the tongue of a great serpent; when the serpent puts out its tongue the rain stops” (Neiers 1979:54, via Tom Cook).
To the Ikwerre of Nigeria the appearance of a rainbow is thought “to be the sign of the ceasing of rain at a time, and the approaching of the dry season” (J.T.N. Wali, p.c., 1982).
The Mündü of the southern Sudan, say that the rainbow is “a giant snake which lives in a hole in the ground, and comes out to chase heavy rain away (drink the rain?)” (Jon Arensen, p.c., 1982).
The Kusaasi of Ghana connect the rainbow with a chameleon, and “believe that the chameleon is driving the rain away, and it will not rain” (Philip Hewer, p.c., 9/2/82).
The Zulgo people in the far north of Cameroon say that “the rainbow stops further rains at the time it appears” (Beat Haller, p.c., 1982).
There is a belief among the Ila of Zambia and Zimbabwe that they can drive off the rainbow by magic, and thereby release the desired rains:
When the bow is very brilliant, they take a pestle (munsha) and point it to the bow, without speaking, to drive it away, for they think it prevents rain from falling (Edwin W. Smith 1920:2:220).
Commenting on the same people, Werner (1933:232) says “They point at the rainbow to drive it away, not with the finger, but with the pestle used for pounding grain. They call it the bow of Leza (God), but none the less credit it with preventing the fall of rain.”
Among many Bantu-speaking groups across equatorial Africa the rainbow is thought to be formed from male and female intertwining snakes which “stop rain from falling; according to others they cause rain to fall” (de Heusch 1982:35). Note the similarity between this statement and the description of Ayida Wedo, the rainbow, and her consort Damballah, the serpent, in the vodoun pilgrimage to the Saut d’eau waterfall in Haiti mentioned in Chapter 3, supporting the view that the Haitian ritual is a carry-over of a West African tradition. This interpretation will receive conclusive support under Trait 21.
These parallels between attributes of the dragon and attributes of the rainbow can hardly be accidental. Various sources report that the dragon is a giver of rain in India, East Asia, North America, and Central America, while the same trait is attributed to the rainbow in Europe, Mexico, Insular Southeast Asia and Africa. Likewise, various reports state that the dragon withholds rain in Europe, the ancient Near East, East Asia and Central America, while the same trait is attributed to the rainbow in India, Okinawa, North America and Mexico, South America, insular Southeast Asia, New Guinea, and Africa. In both cases there is a marked ambivalence, some societies seeing the dragon/rainbow as producing rain, while others believe that it obstructs rainfall. Occasionally, closely-related peoples differ in whether they adopt one of these perspectives or the other, where the rain-giver is generally seen as positive and the rain-blocker as negative. Attitudes toward the rainbow are thus inescapably contradictory, since either position regarding its role in rainfall can be adopted with equally persuasive arguments.
Initially the presence of ambivalent beliefs about the dragon appears arbitrary—why would an invented creature be surrounded with both positive and negative associations? Considered from the standpoint of the rainbow, however, the matter is totally different, since as a giver of rain it has positive associations in many cultures, where rain is necessary for the growth of life-supporting crops, but as a withholder of rain the associations are negative. I cannot stress the point too strongly, but this ambivalence is natural in observations of the rainbow, and has no basis with a purely imaginary dragon. However, if the dragon originated as the Rainbow Serpent its ambivalent character as a giver or withholder of rain finds a straightforward explanation.
1.2 Trait 2: The Rainbow Is a Guardian of Pools or Springs
1.2.1 North America and Mexico
The Totonac Indians of the Mexican states of Vera Cruz and Puebla describe the double rainbow as ‘white’ (the biggest arc), and ‘thin’ (the second arc). Both are associated with a water serpent, and are described as ‘disastrous’, as they suck out the soul of anyone who ventures near their well or pool, especially children. One can recapture the soul by making an offering to the rainbow (Ichon 1969:137).
1.2.2 Central and South America
The Tucuna Indians of the Brazil-Peru-Columbian frontier believe in creatures called dyëʹvaë, which are described as “monsters in the form of gigantic snakes or catfish, which cause treacherous currents. Some are multicolored like the rainbow, which is nothing but one of these demons. One dyëʹvaë owns the fish in the Solimões River, and appears as the eastern rainbow” (Nimuendajú 1952:119–120).
In the mythology of the Toba, Mataco and Lengua Indians of the Paraguayan Chaco four different cataclysms destroyed the world. In one of these a flood was caused by a menstruating girl who approached a spring to fetch water and thus offended a water python (rainbow) (Métraux 1946:29).
1.2.3 Insular Southeast Asia
Among the Kaidipang people of northern Sulawesi, Indonesia, “The rainbow is associated with a subterranean snake that controls water” (Hunggu Tajuddin Usup, p.c., 1981). Whether it is the rainbow or the snake that controls water seems irrelevant here, as any number of accounts cited in this chapter show that these are celestial and terrestrial manifestations of the same phenomenon.
In the belief of the Kédang people on the island of Lembata in eastern Indonesia, the village spring of Léuwajang, represents the life waters of the community:
No snake near the spring may be killed. This is because it may be the guardian spirit of the spring, wei nimon or wei murun—both phrases conveying the meaning of the proprietor or protector of the water … It is not poisonous, but very large.... A rainbow seen near the spring is this snake (Barnes 1974:62).
1.2.4 New Guinea and Satellite Islands
The Feranmin and Mountain Ok at the headwaters of the Sepik River in New Guinea, hold that Magalim, the Rainbow Serpent “is present in ponds of standing water. When he rises the water rises (thus, a victim swallowed by Magalim may appear simply to be drowned)” (Brumbaugh 1987:26).
Among the Tiwi of Melville and Bathurst islands north of the Australian mainland it is believed that the Rainbow Serpents, which are lizard-like, and called ‘Maratji’
live, in one form or another in most of the important water-holes; they are associated with water, the rainbow, lightning, and thunder …. These serpents are usually highly colored (like the rainbow), and have a mane and beard. The aborigines claim that they are dangerous to all strangers who approach the water holes, and even to local aborigines who do not perform the proper rituals before drinking.... Should any unauthorized person interfere with their waterholes, the Maratji become annoyed. They roar loudly, make the water bubble up ... and send a waterspout into the air which, falling as torrential rain, floods the countryside. One of the Maratjis then changes himself into the rainbow and travels over the land seeking to injure the offender or anyone else in his path (Mountford 1958:155).
The Wik Mungkan of the Cape York peninsula in northeast Australia view the rainbow as “A snake that inhabits some waterholes and freshwater streams, and punishes anyone who ventures into them, especially women with young children, and pregnant women” (Chris Kilham, p.c., 11/13/83).
As stated by Frazer (1932, vol. 2:156) in relation to another part of the same continent “Some of the natives of western Australia fear to approach large pools, supposing them to be inhabited by a great serpent, who would kill them if they dared to drink or draw water there by night.”
Among the Uduk of the Sudan, the python is “associated ambivalently with the Rainbow; the python is an earth-creature in its movement and its normal habit, until in the guise of a Rainbow it leaps into the air, or sleeps like a swamp-snake in the watery pools” (James 1988:33).
The Sabaot or Mt. Elgon Maasai say that “A rainbow ends in a river, and then it is very dangerous to come near the river. If you do, you will be eaten by the rainbow, or become sick. One person said he tried it once, but the rainbow moved away. The direction of the moving rainbow is significant—it follows the direction of the rain” (Iver Lerun, p.c., 1982).
The Kikuyu of East Africa say the rainbow “is a ‘wicked animal’ which lives in the water, comes out at night, eats goats and cattle, and has even been known to eat people” (Werner 1933:232).
Among the Zande of Zaire
Ngambue is a big snake. Its skin is covered with white powdery substance, and it possesses a beard. This creature, which has a poisonous bite, may live in any waters. The well at Yambio is said to harbor such a snake. The rainbow wangu lives in bogs, or in cracks and holes near to streams. It is like a snake (Hambly 1931:42).
In the hills near Lake Victoria the local (presumably Bantu-speaking) people believed there were “snakes guarding the wells. Human beings might approach only after making offerings to these guardian snakes.” Similarly, the Bagesu of Uganda “say that there is a snake living in springs where he will attack anyone who goes to draw water” (Hambly 1931:40).
As noted already in Chapter 6, among the Zulu of southern Africa the rainbow in its terrestrial form is said to live with or always be present with a snake, and to reside in waterholes or pools:
When it was seen with its end touching the earth, it was believed to be drinking from a pool. Sometimes it lived in a large pool, and men were afraid to bathe in such waters, for fear that the rainbow might seize and eat them. On dry land it poisoned any man it met, or afflicted him with disease (Hole 1983:2333).
In parts of the world where the dragon and rainbow are clearly separated, as Europe, India, China, or North America, water sources such as springs or wells are guarded by a dragon. In parts of the world where this separation is more tenuous, statements in the literature are relatively indifferent as to whether a spring is said to be guarded by a water snake or a rainbow, as these are regarded as different expressions of the same thing. In each of the above cases a water source is said to be guarded by a snake which is the rainbow, so it seems best to treat them as part of the ethnology of the rainbow. The important point in this survey, of course, is that springs and other water sources are guarded by both dragons and rainbows in different cultural traditions, and that this would be absurd if the rainbow were not conceived as an animate being capable of harming humans.
This takes us back to the logic of an animistic view of nature. The rainbow is a transient thing, which may remain for seconds, minutes, or sometimes longer as a visible arc in the sky, but it is not a permanent fixture of the heavens. Preliterate peoples may not have understood the physical basis for the appearance of rainbows, but once they conceived of them as spirit snakes it became necessary to explain where they were when not in the sky, and the most straightforward explanation is that they reside in the pools, lakes or rivers from which they drink water to create the rain. There they stay during the dry season, and for much of their time during the wet season, and while there they guard the precious water from human intruders.
1.3 Trait 3: The Rainbow Lives in Caves
1.3.1 Central and South America
Among the Chachi or Cayapa of Ecuador the rainbow is said by some to be a bridge used by cave and hill spirits, as well as river spirits (Neil Wiebe, p.c. from Alfredo Salazar, 1982). Here the rainbow itself is not said to live in a cave, but it connects with caves to allow nature spirits that live there to travel to other locations.
While studying the Uduk people of the Sudan, the anthropologist Wendy James was taken to a place called ‘Silak’, where she visited “quite an impressive cave and waterfall where a rainbow was said to live .... It was a hungry meat-eating Rainbow” (James 1988:276).
Among the Murle of the Sudan “The rainbow is a large dragon-like snake which sleeps in a cave when not flying in the sky” (Jon Arensen, p.c., 1982).
As with the widespread belief that dragons live in caves, the connection of rainbows with caves is probably due to the association of rainbows with waterfalls, and therefore with the caves that commonly form at the base of the cascade through natural hydraulic erosion of the rock.
1.4 Trait 4: The Rainbow Can Fly
Although the dragon’s ability to fly certainly merits comment, it may seem unnecessary to discuss the similar ability for the rainbow, which to most modern readers, only exists when it is in the sky. Again, however it would be a mistake to let ethnocentric preconceptions restrict our access to the thinking processes of preliterate peoples. If the rainbow resides in terrestrial water sources in the form of a serpent when it is not in the sky, then it must fly up to the heavens during a rain shower. How the rain can fall when there is no rainbow in the sky is a question that native peoples seem to have left unanswered.
1.5 Traits 5–8: The Rainbow Is a Fusion of Fire and Water, Hot and Cold
One other observation about how various properties of the dragon derive from its origin as the Rainbow Serpent is that dragons are chimerical, combining the scaly body of a reptile with the horns and hair of mammals, or the feathers of birds. Even though rainbows normally have none of these properties, they can only exist by combining the opposites of fire and water, a theme that is described with particular clarity by de Heusch (1982) for a range of Bantu-speaking societies in central Africa. Across this range of related cultures, the mythic cycle of the eternal conflict between lightning and rainbow is reiterated with numerous variations, where lightning represents thunderstorms, rain, and hence water, while the rainbow represents the cessation of rain that is ‘burned up’ by the fire of the sun. The rainbow is thus a blend of hot and cold, and the dragon mirrors this in its animistic fusion of cold-blooded and warm-blooded animals.
There is no need to repeat material that has already been mentioned in support of this statement. The concept of the rainbow in Java as a serpent terminating in the heads of mammals that drink from two different seas clearly shows the rainbow (not the dragon) as a chimera, and the same is true of the Uduk conception of the rainbow as described by James, where the body is that of a python, but with the ears and mouth of a camel, yet the identification is with the rainbow. The Rainbow Serpent of Australia is no different. In the western deserts of central Australia, for example, the Rainbow Serpent (wonambi) is conceived as “a huge, many-colored creature with a mane and beard” (Mountford 1958:154).
1.6 Trait 9: The Rainbow Is Opposed to Thunder/Lightning or the Sun
In Chapter 4 we saw that the dragon is the mortal enemy of thunder and lightning, a fact repeated in different contexts in Europe, the ancient Near East, India, China, and North America. The natural basis for this belief is that a rainbow cannot appear in a thunderstorm, any more than it can appear in a sunny sky without rain. In animistic terms thunderstorms are thus the enemy of the rainbow because they prevent rainbows from forming, or drive them from the sky when the sun is obscured.
1.6.1 Central and South America
The Selk’nam of Tierra del Fuego place the rainbow in opposition to thunder and lightning: “In contrast to lightning and thunder stands the rainbow Čālpe as against Akáinik as a personality in the imaginary world of our Indians” (Gusinde 1931:682–683).
Among the Mang’anja of southern Malawi, a mythical animal called ‘Mbona’ appears to be a water serpent, but one of a special character that links it to a mythic cycle found over much of Bantu-speaking central Africa: “What makes Mbona different from other Bantu deities symbolized by a water serpent? This mythical animal forms one of the great themes of Bantu mythology, namely the eternal conflict of the lightning and the rainbow” (Schoffeleers 1992:155).
Throughout central Africa the rainbow and lightning are antagonists associated respectively with the dry and wet seasons. The anthropologist Luc de Heusch (1982) devotes some 40 pages to describing in detail the mythic struggle between lightning, representing the onset of rainfall, and the rainbow, representing its end. The rainbow is personified in this drama as essentially the Rainbow-Serpent, and the lightning as its mortal enemy.
The essence of this mythic cycle is an unending conflict between the lightning, representing the wet season and the fertilizing rains, and the rainbow, representing the dry season, a time of drought and reduced nourishment for the crops. As in other regions where a feature of the natural environment has been interpreted through an animistic worldview, the lightning and the rainbow in this shared myth cycle have names, no doubt to facilitate reference in a narrative context or instructive tales. At least in its general form, de Heusch’s account of this perennial conflict could easily be an account of the conflict of the Thunderbird and horned water serpent in North America, even though the latter is rarely, if ever identified with the rainbow. Placed in a wider comparative context, however, it is clear that the horned water serpent is a regional variant of the dragon, and hence the terrestrial representative of the rainbow. Its conflict with the Thunderbird is thus no different in essence than the struggle between the rain-bringing thunderstorms and the rain-stopping rainbow in the mythic cycle that has been perpetuated for an unknown number of generations among many Bantu-speaking peoples in west and central Africa.
1.7 Trait 10:The Rainbow Is Bisexual
As seen in Chapter 5, the dragon is conceived as bisexual in at least European alchemy, Taoist metaphysics in China, and classic and contemporary Mesoamerica. While this is startling enough for those who have not examined the ethnology of the dragon in detail, initially it seems absurd to consider the possibility that the rainbow could also have a double-gendered identity.
Undoubtedly the leading proponent of the view that many themes in myth and folklore were inspired by properties of the natural world was the nineteenth century philologist and scholar of comparative religion Friedrich Max Müller. As he put it in his 1891 book, Physical Religion:
It was in these very phenomena of nature that ancient man perceived for the first time something that startled him out of his animal torpor, and that made him ask ‘What is it? What does it all mean? Whence does it all come?’—that forced him to look behind the drama of nature for actors and agents … whom in his language he called superhuman, and, in the end, divine (Max Müller 1891:335).
Max Müller did not write specifically about the rainbow, but he would surely have been pleased to see the correspondence between the physical properties of this phenomenon, the striking cross-cultural agreement in how these physical properties have been given an animistic interpretation, and how this interpretation explains one of the most mystifying traits of dragons, namely their description in radically different cultures as being simultaneously male and female (Blust 2019).
The rainbow naturally occurs as a double arc in which the color sequence of one arc is reversed in the other. Europeans and some others are accustomed to assigning sexes to the sun and moon (Lévi-Strauss 1976a), but the rainbow is generally excluded from gender assignment. This is not true in all cultures. To the Navaho of the American Southwest, for example, “Lightning and rainbow are regarded as allied phenomena; but the lightning, being active, noisy, and destructive, is considered as the male, while the rainbow, being gentle, silent, and harmless, is considered as the female” (Matthews 1902:52).
However, in many parts of the world the rainbow, being double, cannot have a single sex. Rather, the two arcs are called ‘male’ and ‘female’, with cross-cultural variation in whether the male arc is the brighter (lower) one, or the fainter (upper) one.
1.7.1 Central and East Asia
In Chinese folk belief a double rainbow is both male and female, the more colorful inner arc being male, and the fainter outer arc female (Zhou 2001). Although it seldom appears in the literature, this feature of Chinese conceptions of the rainbow was mentioned nearly ninety years ago by Hopkins (1931:609), and over a half century before him by Schlegel (1875:455–456).
1.7.2 North America and Mexico
As already noted of the Tarahumara Indians of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, the bottom arc of a double rainbow is said to be “the woman of the one above” (Thord-Gray 1955:960).
The Totonac Indians of the Mexican states of Vera Cruz and Puebla describe the rainbow as simultaneously male and female (Ichon 1969:137).
The Chontal Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico say that “The full rainbow is a man, whereas a half rainbow is a woman, and very evil. If you show a red cloth to this female rainbow, as to a bull, she comes close to you” (Carrasco 1960:107).
1.7.3 Central and South America
As noted in chapter 3, the Vodoun religion of Haiti features an annual pilgrimage to the Saut d’Eau waterfall on the La Tombe river. While there, believers seek the blessings of the waters watched over by Ayida Wedo, the rainbow, who spans the falls intertwined with her consort Damballah, the serpent. Here the identity of rainbow and dragon is represented as a conjunction of male and female elements in separate, but intertwined bodies (Métraux 1959:329 ff., Davis 1985:170–185).
To the Cuna Indians of the San Blas islands off the east coast of Panama, “When there are two rainbows the brighter one is looked upon as a man and the other one as a woman” (Nordenskiöld 1938:394).
Among the Inga of southwest Colombia, the two bows of a double rainbow are called the male bow and the female bow (S.H. Levinsohn, p.c., 5/15/82).
In discussing the ascribed sex of celestial bodies among the Panare Indians of Venezuela, Dumont (1976:105) noted that the sun is male, the moon female, and the stars and Milky Way are neither. In contrast, the rainbow was consistently described as both male and female, thus manifesting not an ambiguity, but a dynamic ambivalence, represented in terms of the responses he received from informants as follows (where aye = yes, and cika = no):
Although he initially thought the double-gender assignment of the rainbow must have been due to miscommunication, he eventually realized that it was intended by the Panare who answered his questions. Dumont’s further analysis of what might be called ‘astrosexuality’ involves a convoluted Lévi-Straussian exploration of possible symbolic associations that—as often happens in the work of Lévi-Strauss himself—arguably crosses the line between science and art. Remarkably, however, it says nothing about the double rainbow and its likely significance for the issue in question, even though the Panare very likely assign separate genders to the two arcs, like many other indigenous peoples.
1.7.4 Mainland Southeast Asia
The Karen of peninsular Burma and Thailand regard Hkü Te as the lord of the region of death. He is occasionally to be seen as a rainbow in the west, and his wife Teu Kweh as a rainbow in the east. “When two rainbows appear in the east, the upper and larger one is her husband, who is visiting with her” (Marshall 1922:228).
1.7.5 Insular Southeast Asia
In Malay a single rainbow is called pelangi, but a double rainbow is pelangi sekelamin, where se- is a prefix meaning ‘one’ and kelamin is ‘family’ (etymologically meaning husband, wife and any children residing in a single house). To traditional Malays, then, the double rainbow was a married pair, male and female (Skeat 1900:15, fn. 2).
The Balinese myth of the origin of the rainbow was described in Chapter 6 under Section 2.7. In this story the goddess Uma was irresistibly beautiful, but hermaphroditic, and when God Guru snatched off her penis it became the rainbow (Hooykaas 1956:301).
Among the Tiwi on Melville and Bathurst Islands, the Maratjis are serpents that guard waterholes. “The rainbow, as a Maratji ... is universally feared, the aborigines believing that the primary bow is the imunka (spirit) of a male, and the secondary bow, that of a female Maratji” (Mountford 1958:156).
As first reported by W.E.H. Stanner, the Murrinh-Patha of the Northern Territory in Australia say that “the Rainbow Snake is either bisexual or a woman. Sometimes he is described as a male but is portrayed with female breasts” (Mercatante 1988:546).
With specific reference to the Kunwinjku/Gunwinggu people of western Arnhem Land, Taylor (1990:330) observes that a number of scholars working independently “have all drawn attention to the themes of androgyny that pervade the mythology of the rainbow in this region of Arnhem Land.” Needless to say, this has led to both psychoanalytic and Structuralist (Lévi-Straussian) interpretations of some speculative complexity, without any stated awareness of the natural basis for considering the rainbow androgynous.
1.7.7 Pacific Islands
Among the people of Palau in western Micronesia “the clear arc in a double rainbow is female; the indistinct one is male” (Sandra Chung, from Roy Ngirchechol, p.c., 2/23/82).
To the Mortlockese of Pakin atoll in the eastern Caroline islands, Micronesia, a double rainbow consists of a female inner band and a male outer band (Emerson Odango, p.c., 9/8/13).
The Maori of New Zealand regard the upper arc of a double rainbow as male and the lower arc as female (Best 1922:58).
The Hausa of northern Nigeria say that “Gajjimare (the rainbow) is in shape something like a snake, but it is hermaphrodite, or at least double gendered, the male part being red, the female blue” (Tremearne 1968:340).
To many Bantu-speakers across central and west Africa, “The rainbow effectively embodies a contradiction: at once male and female, it unites fire and water, high and low” (de Heusch 1982:37).
Surprising as it may appear at first, then, in widely separated regions of the Earth the rainbow is culturally conceived as both male and female because of the natural fact that it normally appears double, and contrasting/complementary genders are assigned to the two arcs in many animistic cultures. From this universally available natural feature the bisexuality of the dragon emerges as a simple consequence of its origin as the Rainbow Serpent.
Other beliefs about double rainbows have no clear connection with the dragon idea, but these are almost always restricted to a single culture or culture area. For example, the Suau of Milne Bay province on the island of New Guinea say that a double rainbow portends the birth of a baby (John Lynch, p.c., from Michael Morauta, 1987), and the Wishram of southern Oregon saw the double rainbow as a sign of twins (Bright 1990:219).
1.8 Trait 11: The Rainbow Is Colorful/Red
1.8.1 Central and East Asia
From attested words for the rainbow in modern Japonic (Japanese-Ryukyuan) languages Martin (1987:498) reconstructed Proto-Japonic *ni-m(u)si ‘red/beautiful snake’. However, Alexander Vovin (p.c., 9/24/17) points out that -musi is ‘insect’, not ‘snake’. This may be similar to the ‘worm’ or ‘insect’ radical in the Chinese character for ‘rainbow’. In any case, the color ‘red’ appears to be unambiguous in this word.
1.8.2 North America and Mexico
The Yuki of northern California “regarded the rainbow as composed of three colors, white, blue and red: The red was caused by the menstrual blood of all the women in the world, and the rainbow formed a path to heaven of girls who died during their first menstruation” (Foster 1941:208).
1.8.3 Central and South America
Among the Arecuna of northeast South America, dragon and rainbow cannot easily be separated. However, in describing the rainbow in its serpent form, we are told that “Keyeme, the rainbow, when it appears is thought of as a large multi-colored snake that lives in the high waterfalls” (Koch-Grünberg 1924:15).
In a general statement about the Arawakan-speaking Indians of the Guianas, Roth (1915:268) says that “The Arawaks speak of the Rainbow as Yawarri (Didelphys sp.), the reddish color of its fur bearing some fancied resemblance to the coloration of the bow.” Here the dominant color of the rainbow is compared with the color of opossum fur.
1.8.4 Insular Southeast Asia
Among the Bunun of Taiwan it is said that the red color of the rainbow is blood (Chen 1991:66).
The Mamanwa Negritos of northeast Mindanao say that “a very red rainbow foretells death, and is generally considered a bad omen” (Maceda 1964:115).
Some of the Manobo peoples of Mindanao in the southern Philippines say “If red predominates among the rainbow’s colors, the mightier war spirits are engaged in hand-to-hand combat; if the colors are dark it is a sign of slaughter.” (Garvan 1941:224).
In Iban of southern Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, neraja has the double meaning ‘red, inflamed’ (as skin with measles), and ‘rainbow’ (Richards 1981:228).
To the Bare’e of central Sulawesi “The most feared sign was when a rainbow settled down around one and the colors did not maintain their coherence, but spread out, a phenomenon called daa sawu ‘scattered blood’ ” (Adriani and Kruyt 1950–1951:3:406).
Among the Maumere of the island of Flores in eastern Indonesia, the rainbow is a spirit snake that lives in the earth and comes out in heavy rains; it is said to be “striped yellow/green/blue, but its basic color is red” (Bader 1971:950).
1.8.5 New Guinea and Satellite Islands
The Bukawa of the north coast of New Guinea say that the rainbow (gasibueb) is the blood of those slaughtered in battle that rises to the heavens from the forest or the beach (Lehner 1911:3:431).
Among the Kewabi of the southern highlands of New Guinea, “The rainbow is regarded as a mixture of the blood of people slaughtered in tribal warfare” (James Yoko, p.c., 4/20/86).
Given its identity with the rainbow, the Rainbow Serpent of Australia must be a multi-colored creature. This is indicated explicitly in some cases, as where Mountford (1958:154) states that in the western deserts of central Australia “The snake (wonambi) is a huge, many-colored creature with a mane and beard” (Mountford 1958:154).
1.8.7 Pacific Islands
According to Fox (1955:73), among the Nggela of Florida island in the central Solomons the rainbow is called langi gambu (‘sky’ + ‘blood’ = ‘bloody sky’).
The Uduk of the Sudan-Ethiopian frontier say that “if a rainbow is very near you, you will only see a great redness. It transforms the place and people’s bodies; everyone’s bodies, and you too become coloured like the Rainbow …” (James 1988:297).
It is not entirely clear how the widespread belief in the basic redness of the rainbow, and the likely association of this color with blood, relates to beliefs about the color of the dragon. As seen in Chapter 5, the latter is sometimes described as red, but is more often described simply as ‘colorful’ or ‘multicolored’, either of which could apply equally to the rainbow. Nonetheless, both with the dragon and the rainbow, we see a repeated emphasis on red as the basic or most dominant color. In the case of the rainbow this may well be due to associations with blood, associations that were then passed on from the Rainbow Serpent to the dragon.
1.9 Traits 12–13: The Rainbow Points To A Treasure
European dragons, from classical Greece to the mythologies of northern Europe, have always guarded treasures. Similar themes are found with the Indian nāga, the Chinese lóng, and indirectly with the dracontias, or forehead gems of European dragons, and the horns of the North American horned water serpent. One of the first things that English-speaking children learn about the rainbow is that if one can only reach the ever-retreating end he will be rewarded with a pot of gold. This connection of treasure with the end of the rainbow is not limited to European traditions, but is found scattered over much of the world.
“In Ireland it is said that if anyone can find the place where the bow ends and touches the ground, he would discover a pot of gold at its foot” (Radford and Radford 1975:279).
German and Polish speakers in Silesia say that the angels put gold at the end of the rainbow, and that only a nude man can obtain it (Voegelin 1972:922).
1.9.2 Central and South America
The Mam of Todos Santos, Guatemala, say that when a rainbow appears, the god of a particular mountain is pointing down to where gold is hidden under the earth (Richard Reimer, p.c., 1982).
1.9.3 Insular Southeast Asia
To the Malays of Perak “an untold treasure lies at the foot of the rainbow” (Skeat 1900:15).
The Maumere people of Flores, Indonesia, say that a treasure lies hidden where the rainbow touches the Earth (Bader 1971:954).
Among the Kédang of Léuwajang village on the island of Lembata in eastern Indonesia, the village spring is associated with serpents, the rainbow and gold. As stated by Barnes (1974:62)
A rainbow (nado-tado) seen near the spring is this snake. Rainbows are particularly associated with gold, and are one of the forms which may be taken by the snake-like guardian spirit within gold. Therefore, the golden pot at the source of the spring is an origin of rainbows.
The Nyabwa of the Ivory Coast say the end of the rainbow is a place of happiness; gold there marks the end of the year (Julie Bentinck, p.c. from Sely Keipo Marcel, 7/8/82).
Among the Anyi Sanvi of the Ivory Coast and adjacent parts of Ghana,
The rainbow is called nyanngondon. Some say that it is a symbol for a genie or powerful spirit who takes the form of a snake. Some associate it with the spirit of gold. It is thought that it comes out of a termite hill accompanied by smoke. When it comes out the gold in that place disappears (Jonathan Burmeister, p.c. from Aka Amalan, 11/24/82).
A similar association of gold with the rainbow in its serpent (terrestrial) form is found among the Murle of the Sudan, who say
The rainbow is a large snake (dragon-like) which sleeps in a cave when not flying in the sky. It is a bad thing which kills people by means of lightning (the Murle word bɔrɔi includes the rainbow, thunder and lightning), and it has a gold stool which it uses for sleeping in its cave. There are many rainbows that live in various areas and have their own caves (Jon Arensen, p.c., 1982).
Probably also connected with the notion of an elusive treasure at the rainbow’s end is the common belief in tropical South America that the end of the rainbow marks the place where the best potter’s clay is found (Lévi-Strauss 1970:247), and the Ewe tradition that the valuable ‘Aggrey beads’ also appear in this location (Werner 1933:233).
No one has ever found a treasure at the elusive end of the rainbow, so why would this belief be so widespread, and in particular, why should the treasure be gold? One possibility takes us back to the animistic thinking of preliterate peoples. The rainbow is believed to drink water from a terrestrial source in order to produce rain. The end of the rainbow must therefore touch down in a river or other water source. As noted in Blust (2000a: 532)
Unlike most metals, gold is commonly found in small amounts in alluvial river washings, where it can easily be seen with the naked eye. For this reason, there can be little doubt that gold was the first precious metal known to early man long before the advent of metallurgy, a fact which may partially account for its peculiar salience in myth and psychology. Since the rainbow touches down in a spring or river, its end covers a place where gold is found. And since the rainbow is a giant serpent which guards springs and rivers when it does not appear in the sky, it guards the gold found there.
1.10 Trait 14: The Rainbow Lives In Waterfalls
This point requires no explanation, except to say that falls with a small water volume are less likely to have a resident dragon than major falls like Niagara or Iguazu, which produce a constant rising mist that functions like rain in generating rainbows when the sun shines through.
Among examples that have not yet been mentioned, Mead (1933:39) noted that for the Mountain Arapesh of New Guinea, marsalais (bush spirits) include the rainbow, and places inhabited by these spirit beings “are almost all dangerous declivities, waterfalls, quicksands, bogs, or waterholes to which the approach is hazardous.”
Likewise, in east Africa the Kikuyu believe in a rainbow monster that lives in lakes and waterfalls:
At night it comes out to eat goats and cattle, but its tail always remains in the water. Some Masai warriors made their spears hot, then proceeded to attack the rainbow, which is identified with the snake guardian of the water. According to a legend, these warriors speared the rainbow in the neck, which is the only vulnerable part, whereupon it fell dead (Hambly 1931:41).
Finally, in his survey of the Rainbow Serpent myth over most of Australia, the British social anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (1930–1931:343) noted that although the Rainbow Serpent is typically found in deep lagoons and waterholes, “In the New England tableland it is particularly associated with waterfalls, possibly because at such places rainbows may frequently be seen.”
1.11 Trait 15: The Rainbow Is Circular
As will be seen in greater detail in chapter 8, certain atmospheric phenomena resemble circular rainbows, and, given a pre-existing conception of the rainbow as the Rainbow Serpent this could conceivably have provided a natural model for the ouroboros—that is, the dragon biting its own tail or encircling the Earth.
2 Mysteries of the Rainbow
All 15 culturally-assigned traits of the rainbow reviewed in 7.1. match similar traits of the dragon in widely separated regions (Chapter 5, where traits 12 and 13 are combined in considering the rainbow). Importantly, in each case there is an observational basis for the beliefs about rainbows which shows why a similar belief is found with dragons, where it may initially appear arbitrary. These can therefore confidently be called ‘empirically well-grounded’ traits of the dragon.
By contrast, the 31 beliefs about the rainbow in this section show that there are other, globally distributed rainbow traits for which an observational basis is yet to be established, and which are therefore in some sense ‘mysterious’. Despite their unknown motivation, traits 16–27 also closely match those recorded for the dragon, further strengthening the argument that the dragon idea in its classic form (as in Europe or China) evolved from an earlier belief in the Rainbow Serpent. The combination of these two categories yields 27 universal traits of dragons that are inherited from the Rainbow Serpent, fifteen of them plausibly motivated by observation of the natural world, and twelve not. This section reviews these twelve cases, together with 19 other widely distributed beliefs about the rainbow that have no known connection with the Rainbow Serpent/dragon.
2.1 Trait 16: The Rainbow Terrifies Women/Can Impregnate Them With a Demonic Child
2.1.1 North America and Mexico
Among the Southwestern Pomo in the region of Clear Lake, California, it was taboo for young girls, though not boys, to look at a rainbow (Gifford 1967:45).
2.1.2 Central and South America
Among the Tucuna Indians of the Brazil-Peru-Colombia frontier
potter’s clay is accorded a certain respect, since its patron is an aquatic monster, dyëʹvaë (= ‘owner of the clay’), which sometimes presents itself in the form of the western rainbow. It is considered dangerous for a pregnant woman to go to the riverbank to fetch clay, and the clay itself is considered useless for potting if a pregnant woman touches or even approaches it (Nimuendajú 1952:119–120).
The Canelos Indians of eastern Ecuador, a group of uncertain linguistic affiliation, since not long after European contact they gave up their native language for Quechua, say that the rainbow is particularly dangerous to young women. “When the rainbow appears, a woman who is in her menstrual period ought not to go out lest the cuichi supai (rainbow demon) should make her pregnant, in which case she will give birth to a demoniacal child” (Karsten 1926:360–361).
2.1.3 Insular Southeast Asia
The Ngadha of western Flores say that the rainbow may make an innocent woman pregnant. This is vividly illustrated in a bizarre myth related by Bader (1971:949):
There was once an orphan girl named Gena, who was both beautiful and of good breeding. After the death of her parents, she was raised by her neighbors. Although she rejected all marriage proposals, one day she nonetheless found herself pregnant, not knowing how this happened. When she went out a powerful storm arose, and it rained frightfully. However, she gave birth not to a child, but only to fruit peelings. When she heard no birth cry of an infant Gena’s foster mother tore the fruit peelings to bits, and the water sprayed in a curve to the sky.... Shortly thereafter Gena died, and the storm ceased. The rainbow appeared, and it was hot and dry. Everyone then knew that Gena was not impregnated by a man, but rather by the rainbow spirit. Since that time the rainbow in this region has been called bole ne Gena ‘fruit peelings of Gena’.
As already noted more than once, in the Kédang village of Léuwajang on the island of Lembata in eastern Indonesia various prohibitions govern the use of the local spring, which is a physical and spiritual focus of village life. The guardian spirit of this spring is a large snake similar to a python. According to Barnes (1974:62)
A woman must remove all jewellery, bracelets, and similar external decoration before bathing there, and above all she may not get her hair wet. In this regard a woman stands in marked contrast to the man, for there is no restriction on a man washing his hair there. Should a woman do so she stands in danger of being married by the spirit of the spring and therefore being driven insane.
2.1.4 New Guinea and Satellite Islands
The Feranmin and closely-related peoples of the upper Sepik basin in New Guinea believe that
All smells connected with women and child-bearing bring danger from Magalim [the Rainbow Serpent]. He may make women pregnant, eat an unborn child and leave one of his own, or come unseen between a couple having intercourse in the bush to give his child instead: it may then be a contest between the power of the man and the power of Magalim that determines the form of the child (Brumbaugh 1987:27).
The Burarra of western Arnhem Land say “Women and children can’t go to the foot of the rainbow, lest the rainbow kill them; only men and old people can do this” (Kathy Glasgow, p.c., 11/13/83).
The Wik Mungkan of the Cape York peninsula in northeast Australia view the rainbow as “A snake that inhabits some waterholes and freshwater streams, and punishes anyone who ventures into them, especially women with young children, and pregnant women” (Chris Kilham, p.c., 11/13/83).
In the nineteenth century Fon-speaking kingdom of Dahomey in what is now Benin, the rainbow snake was a huge python that guarded water sources. In addition to its other traits
the python appeared in terrifying form to some of the most beautiful girls. They were then obliged to enter the service of the python temple. The people (Saracolais) of Senegambia have a legend to the effect that the prosperity of their country at one time depended on the sacrifice of the most beautiful and accomplished girl to a snake monster. On one occasion the victim had been led to the water hole where the serpent was wont to appear, for it was his custom to drag the sacrifice under the water. At the critical moment, when the sad fate of the girl seemed inevitable, a youth dashed up on horseback and claimed the girl for himself after cutting the snake monster in two (Hambly 1931:37).
The mythology of the Pygmy peoples of central Africa expresses a very similar idea about the rainbow. Among the Bambuti of the Ituri Forest “The rainbow, visualized as a ‘celestial serpent’, plays an important role, not only in the mythology of African Pygmies, but also in their entire religious life. It is regarded as the magical, terror-inspiring, man-murdering snake monster that devours human beings and brings about catastrophes” (Schebesta 1950:156).
As is true elsewhere, young girls must avoid water sources where the rainbow may be lurking in the form of a jealous serpent. In one Bambuti myth
Some girls were out cutting wood. They crossed a stream by a fallen tree. But really the tree was the bad water animal called Klima, the Rainbow. When returning they all crossed except the slowest of the girls, and a man who waited for her. As these two were half-way across, the dead tree which was really a rainbow which was really a water animal suddenly dived down into the water, carrying them with it. Later on, the couple were seen sitting on a rock in the middle of the stream, but never again after that (Turnbull 1959:56).
The predatory nature of the dragon with regard to attacks on young women is a notorious part of European mythology. One of the most common themes of European paintings of dragons shows them pierced by the lance of a gallant knight as they are about to ravish a young woman. Given the common portrayal of the dragon as a monster in the European tradition this behavior is not entirely unexpected. But no one raised with this way of thinking could imagine the rainbow, an inanimate thing of beauty or divine promise, as a similar predatory monster. Yet, in the traditions of many preliterate peoples the behavior of rainbows toward vulnerable young women is no different than that of dragons. Needless to say, the fact that both dragons and rainbows are said to have the power to impregnate a young woman with a demonic child if she should intrude into the water source they guard, is powerful evidence of their common origin.
2.2 Trait 17: The Rainbow Is Offended By Menstruation
One of the most puzzling features of the ethnology of the rainbow is that it is offended by menstruation, and is particularly dangerous to young girls during their menarche. If this belief were restricted to one geographical area or one group of linguistically related people it would not pose such an explanatory challenge, but it is found in several widely separated regions, implying that it is motivated by some external stimulus.
2.2.1 North America and Mexico
The Klamath-Modoc of Tule Lake in northern California and both the Western and Eastern Achumawi in extreme northeast California say that a rainbow is a sign that suckers (kind of fish) are “calling clouds to make it rain, because a girl just after she has had her first menstruation, is walking close to a river or spring ‘where she ought not to go’. After the clouds leave the rainbow appears” (Voegelin 1942:236).
Among the Modoc, if a menstruant dreams of the rainbow, it is an evil sign that a spirit is trying to get her (Voegelin 1942:236–237).
Slightly different is the belief of the McCloud River Wintu that if a mother dreams of a rainbow after giving birth, it is a sign that she will die (Voegelin 1942:237).
As noted earlier, according to Foster (1941:208) the Yuki Indians of northern California
regarded the rainbow as composed of three colors, white, blue and red: The red was caused by the menstrual blood of all the women in the world, and the rainbow formed a path to heaven of girls who died during their first menstruation .... Menstrual blood was the deadliest of all poisons, so even at the great distance of the rainbow it might well have the bad effects described (Foster 1941:208).
To the Foothill, Mountain and Southern Nisenan of central California, “If the end of the rainbow falls near a village, this is a sign that a girl there has recently menstruated for the first time” (Voegelin 1942:236).
The Tulare Lake Yokuts of central California say that “The rainbow is the sister of Pokoh (the Creator), and her breast is covered with flowers. However, some think that a rainbow marks the first menses of a maiden” (Gayton 1948:24, fn. 56).
Although it has been most robustly documented in California, this belief is also found in other parts of North America: “For some southeastern tribes a rainbow means that a girl is menstruating for the first time, or that something evil is about to happen” (Gill and Sullivan 1992:252).
The Shawnee myth about how a horned water serpent was overcome by the deliberate act of men sending a menstruating girl into his watery lair has already been related. Most other accounts suggest that a menstruating girl or woman is in danger if seen by the rainbow, but the Shawnee story reverses the power axis (Gatschet 1899:256–257).
2.2.2 Central and South America
As already mentioned, the Canelos Indians of eastern Ecuador believe that the rainbow is an evil spirit that is especially dangerous to a woman who is in her menstrual period. A similar idea is found among the Toba Indians of the Gran Chaco in Paraguay, in whose mythology a young girl was impregnated by a serpent while bathing in a spring it guarded, and then gave birth to a brood of snakes (recall the dragon of Niagara). According to Karsten (1964:54) “When girls have their first menstruation, they must be careful to cover their bodies well, because evil spirits are trying to enter them through their genitals in the form of snakes, in which case either supernatural conception or disease and death will follow.”
As noted earlier, among these same people and the neighboring Mataco and Lengua Indians there is a tradition that the world was destroyed by four disasters, in one of which a menstruating girl visited a spring to fetch water, thus offending a water python (rainbow), and precipitating a massive flood (Métraux 1946:29, also cited by Lévi-Strauss 1970:305). Karsten’s account of this belief among the native peoples of the Chaco speaks only of snakes that guard water sources, and not of rainbows, but Métraux, who worked in the same area, made it clear that the snakes in question are identified with the rainbow.
2.2.3 New Guinea and Satellite Islands
With regard to the marsalai, or bush spirits (which include the rainbow) among the Mountain Arapesh of New Guinea, Mead (1940:392) says
Menstruating women, men who have approached menstruating women, men or women immediately after sexual intercourse, and pregnant women must not trespass upon a marsalai place. The marsalai is said to be offended by the body odors involved, and will pursue the trespassers, punishing them or their unborn children with illness, deformity or death.
She later varies this slightly: “all marsalais (bush spirits) are hostile to menstruating women, and men and women after intercourse, and the penalties after infringing these taboos are practically standard” (Mead 1940:392).
In a similar spirit, Brumbaugh (1987:25) relates a folktale among the Feranmin of the headwaters of the Sepik River, where “the heroine allowed her menstrual blood to flow near a mountain pool, and the serpent Magalim rose from its depths bringing earthquake and thunderstorm; after successive attempts to escape the woman was swallowed by Magalim.”
As is generally the case, the Rainbow Serpent of Australia may be treated either as a serpent (dragon), or as the rainbow. The following applies regardless of which interpretation we adopt.
The Tiwi of Melville and Bathurst islands believe that the Rainbow Serpent is offended by menstruation: “menstruating or pregnant women should not cross a river, ride a boat, or walk in the rain. The serpent will smell the blood and harm them. Light is the only protection, so such women carry torches or flashlights to ward off the evil spirit” (R. David Zorc, p.c., 9/22/80).
The Gunwinggu in the Daly River area of northwest Australia say that
a menstruating girl, like a woman who has just borne a child, must be careful not to attract the Rainbow’s attention, by staying close to her fire and not going near a billabong: the fire helps to protect her … The people around and south of the Daly river—Ngulugwongga and Madngala, Wogiman and Nangiomeri, also have this belief: Briefly, a girl at first menstruation is secluded in a special hut (afterward burnt by her mother), observes various food tabus and again must be careful of the Rainbow (Berndt and Berndt 1964:153–154).
The same writers note that among the Gunwinggu a girl’s first menstruation is attended by an elaborate ceremony intended to protect both her and the larger community from spirit attacks. She is secluded, made to avoid foods that are associated with water, and her hair and body are covered with red ochre, with a rainbow sometimes also painted between her breasts. Her return to camp is announced by men, especially those of the classificatory category ‘father’, who beat on sticks and blow the didjeridoo. Until the ochre and paint wear off, however
she may not wash in, or drink from, any billabong or stream. If she does so, or if she ever tries to conceal the fact that she is menstruating, she is not the only person who is in danger. The mythology of this region makes much of the power of the Rainbow to swallow or kill people who offend—or attract—it (or her), and babies and young children are especially vulnerable (Berndt and Berndt 1964:154).
Frazer (1922:698 ff.) drew attention to the general restrictions placed on girls at their menarche, and to menstruating women generally:
The motive for the restraints so commonly imposed on girls at puberty is the deeply engrained dread which primitive man universally entertains of menstruous blood. He fears it at all times, but especially at its first appearance; hence the restrictions under which women lie at their first menstruation are usually more stringent than those which they have to observe at any subsequent recurrence of the mysterious flow .... The Dieri of central Australia believe that if women at these times were to eat fish or bathe in a river, the fish would all die and the water would dry up. The Arunta of the same region forbid menstruous women to gather the irriakura bulbs, which form a staple article of diet for both men and women. They think that were a woman to break this rule, the supply of bulbs would fail.
The belief that the rainbow is hostile to young women, and especially to girls in their menarche is surprising. Menstrual taboos are, of course, common in the world’s cultures, but why would the rainbow be perceived as so easily offended, and so aggressive in its reaction when many other features of the natural world are not? The most likely explanation for this culturally-perceived reaction is the revulsion some humans might feel toward a menstruant woman entering the spring from which drinking water is obtained. Since the spring is guarded by a rainbow in its serpent form, the Rainbow Serpent presumably would react to defend the purity of the water it guards, a possibility that is illustrated by the Shawnee legend cited earlier in which a horned water serpent (not connected by the Shawnee with the rainbow) was overcome by the deliberate tactic of asking a menstruating girl to enter the lake in which it lived in order to enervate and subdue it.
In a section called ‘The rainbow snake’, Hambly (1931:40) states with regard to an unspecified ethnolinguistic group or groups near Lake Victoria in east Africa, that there is a python worship in this area, and that the rivers Muzini and Kafu are the abode of sacred snakes.
These are believed to be responsible for sudden rises in the rivers. At Muzini there is a medicine-man in charge of the river and the sacred snakes, to which he makes offerings when people wish to cross .... No man who has spent the previous night with a woman is allowed to cross the river. A menstruating woman is forbidden to cross.
Given its global distribution, the taboo against a woman entering a water source guarded by a Rainbow Serpent during her menstrual period clearly requires an explanation that is independent of individual cultures or culture-areas. Following many others who incorrectly treat the Rainbow Serpent as a uniquely Australian phenomenon, Knight (1983:21) maintains that “the logic generating the Rainbow Serpent myth—universal in one form or another throughout Australia—is the cultural logic of menstrual synchrony itself, which undergoes structural inversion through the agency of male rituals of pseudo-procreation re-enacting the myth.” Since this argument depends for its coherence on ‘male rituals of pseudo-procreation’ one must ask why essentially the same taboo exists in many societies which lack such rituals, or for that matter why the taboo is especially emphasized with respect to menarche, where synchronization is out of the question.
2.3 Trait 18: The Rainbow Is Connected with Hoofed Mammals
One of the strangest features attributed to the rainbow is that, even though it is commonly viewed as a snake (surely because of its shape and coloration), it is also identified with hoofed mammals in various parts of the world, exactly like the dragon. Recall that the dragon can appear as the nixie, or ‘water-horse’ in Scottish legend. Moreover, the Chinese classics say it has the head of a camel, the horns of a deer and the ears of a cow, and according to an ancient Japanese aphorism cited by Huxley (1979:20) “In heaven a horse is made into a dragon, among men a dragon is made into a horse.” Finally, for the Umatilla Indians of eastern Oregon the ‘water elk’ is the equivalent of the horned water serpent elsewhere in North America, and the Warm Springs Apache of New Mexico describe the horned water serpent as ‘feathered’ and ‘buffalo-like’. This is odd enough for a dragon as usually conceived, but how could such physical descriptions apply to a rainbow?
Among speakers of Kovi in the large Zyryan area in what was then the Komi Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of northwest Russia, “the rainbow is called ‘one ox and one cow,’ ” and folkloric traditions explicitly picture these animals as drinking (Alinei 1983:51).
In Slovenian mavrica means both ‘black cow’ and ‘rainbow’ (Murko 1833:577).
2.3.2 South Asia
Among the Baiga of Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal states in India, the rainbow is called ‘the horse of Bhimsen’, where Bhimsen is a rain god (Elwin 1947:262).
2.3.3 Central and East Asia
“Rainbows, other than being described as a snake (head) in the literature, also appear as a donkey head, as exemplified in Huang Xiufu’s and Zeng Cao’s literary works during the Northern Song dynasty” (Zhou 2001).
2.3.4 Insular Southeast Asia
As seen earlier, Javanese folk tradition holds that the rainbow is an enormous snake arching over the island of Java “ending in two heads of deer or cows, one of which drinks the water from the Java Sea, the other from the Indian Ocean” (Hooykaas 1956:305).
In the Balinese myth about the God Guru the rainbow is the penis of a deity that is severed and falls to earth. From this “Fragrant blood appeared, which was the origin of the buffaloes; the blood was wiped off, and that was the origin of the cows” (Hooykaas 1956:301).
Among the Ngadha of western Flores in eastern Indonesia, some people see the rainbow as a combination rainbow-horse, and among many others Gae Dewa is a high god who rides a rainbow horse carrying the souls of the dead to the afterlife (Bader 1971:950).
The Nyabwa of the Ivory Coast say that the rainbow is the rain showing his cow, which he will later eat (Julie Bentinck, p.c. from Sely Keipo Marcel, 7/8/82).
As noted earlier, among the Uduk of the Sudan-Ethiopian borderland the rainbow is identified with the python, but has ears and a mouth like a camel (James 1988:297).
The Sabaot of Kenya consider the rainbow to be always moving, and it will always end up in a river. “When it enters the river it bleats like a sheep, so some think it might be a sheep. It drinks from the water in the river, and must not be disturbed” (Iver Lerun, p.c., 1982).
Among the Ila peoples of Zimbabwe “They have the very curious idea that just below where the rainbow touches earth there is a very fierce goat-ram, which burns like fire” (Edwin W. Smith 1920:2:220).
Some Bantu-speaking groups in southern Africa say the rainbow is “an animal as big as a jackal, with a bushy tail. Others say it is like a many-coloured snake, which is more intelligible. Some Zulus say it is a sheep, or lives with a sheep” (Werner 1933:232).
In Zulu the word -nyama (umnyama) has multiple glosses, one of which is: ‘fabulous animal, said to resemble a sheep, believed to inhabit ponds where the rainbow terminates, and whose fat is said to have the various colors of the rainbow’ (Doke and Vilakazi 1964). The association of a sheep with the rainbow, and the belief that a hoofed animal inhabits ponds should by now be familiar, since the sheep here corresponds to a serpent in many other cultures with strikingly similar beliefs.
Strange as it may seem to people who have not grown up in an animistic society, then, the rainbow is sometimes blended with hoofed mammals, just as the dragon is. The rainbow itself is never shown with scales, horns, hair or feathers, but these properties in the dragon follow as products of its chimerical nature, which combines a basic cold-blooded reptilian body plan with features of warm-blooded mammals or birds. Although it initially appears to lack a natural motivation, then, this shared trait may well stem from the perception that the rainbow (and hence the Rainbow Serpent) is born of the marriage of fire and water, sun and rain, since it appears only when these opposites unite. In any case, the fact that this oddity is shared by dragons and rainbows in widely separated cultures clearly constitutes powerful testimony to their identity.
2.4 Trait 19: The Rainbow Can Start Fires
One of the features of dragons that is hardest to explain if it were inspired by a living creature is its fiery breath, a trait that is particularly well-developed in European dragons, but also has a place in the dragon mythology of China. Again, given Western conceptions of the rainbow, we would have no reason to assume that this trait is connected with weather phenomena. However, this reminds us once again of the dangers of ethnocentrism, even among scholars who are trained to avoid it.
2.4.1 North America and Mexico
As noted earlier, the Chontal Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico say that “The full rainbow is a man, whereas a half rainbow is a woman, and very evil. If you show a red cloth to this female rainbow, as to a bull, she comes close to you. She causes fires, but our informant had not heard of the common Mexican belief that it is bad to point toward the rainbow because it will rot your finger, or that it causes tooth decay” (Carrasco 1960:107).
2.4.2 Insular Southeast Asia
According to the Toba Batak of northern Sumatra, wherever the foot of the rainbow touches down it is likely to cause epidemics, fires, etc. (Sitor Situmorang, p.c., 8/3/83).
In the Lore area of central Sulawesi the West Toraja say that “if a rainbow should approach when one is engaged in the construction of a house he immediately breaks off work, as otherwise the dwelling would later be destroyed by fire” (Kruyt 1938:2:359).
Among certain Bantu-speaking peoples the colors of the rainbow “are sometimes said to be the flow of a destroying fire.” The Luyi or Luyia of Uganda say that if a rainbow settles on the trees, it will burn all the leaves (Werner 1933:231).
As noted already with the association of the rainbow and hoofed animals, among the Ila of Zimbabwe it is believed that “just below where the rainbow touches earth there is a very fierce goat-ram, which burns like fire” (Edwin W. Smith 1920:2:220).
Across a range of closely-related Bantu-speaking peoples in the Democratic Republic of Congo who believe the rainbow is formed by male and female serpents who live in different rivers, it is said that “when the two aquatic serpents join together in the sky the fire they emit burns the earth. That this fire adversely affects rain is evident from a saying reported by van Avermaet, according to which the rainbow “burns” (drives away) the rain” (de Heusch 1982:36).
Since rainbows do not start fires it is unclear why this belief exists in at least southern Mexico, two well-separated parts of Indonesia, and across central Africa. Whatever its motivation, the wide distribution of this idea implies a conceptual basis for it. The most likely possibility is that the rainbow appears just when the sun is ‘burning up’ the rain, causing it to stop, and this observation has been transferred from the sun, which is the causal factor, to the rainbow itself, which is a product of the cause. In any case, the fact that this belief is globally distributed suggests that it was part of an ancient Rainbow Serpent culture complex out of which the idea of the dragon evolved, and the fiery end of the rainbow became the fiery mouth of the dragon.
2.5 Trait 20: The Rainbow Has Fetid or Toxic Breath
As seen in Chapter 5, when the dragon’s breath is not described as fiery it is sometimes described as fetid or toxic, a trait that has been recorded in Europe, China, North America, and North Africa. Although the Western conception of Nature, again, would not lead us to expect a similar trait for the rainbow, it is found among several widely separated tribal peoples.
2.5.1 North America and Mexico
Among the Achumawi of northeast California “If a rainbow likes a person, it allows him to approach near it; the person finds that the rainbow is bad-smelling” (Voegelin 1942:237).
The Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico say that the rainbow “smells worse than a skunk” (Bennett and Zingg 1935:325).
Among the Uduk of the Sudan-Ethiopian borderland the anthropologist Wendy James recorded a story about a character named Nuur, who had an unpleasant confrontation with a rainbow:
Nuur went with his wife when they were newlyweds ... to bring firewood from a place called “Rainbow Hole” .... They were about to drink water, and according to people ... he said ‘Why is this place smelling like a pipe?’ From that ... he got sick. Arum (the rainbow) had seized his Genius there. And the rainbow kept his Genius (James 1988:297).
The Lela of the Democratic Republic of Congo say that the rainbow python “lives in a termite mound from which it emerges only in rainy weather; to escape its deadly breath one must make a noise” (de Heusch 1982:38).
This belief is less robustly reported for rainbows than for dragons, but is found in at least northern California, northern Mexico, and central Africa, suggesting that it could be more widespread than the present sample indicates. It is unclear why it exists, since the rainbow emits no odor, although organic materials that have been struck by lightning may emit an unpleasant scent. Until better data is available all that can be said with certainty is that the rainbow is said to produce a stench, and the same trait is attributed to the dragon’s breath.
2.6 Trait 21: The Rainbow Causes Earthquakes
2.6.1 Mainland Southeast Asia
The Karen of peninsular Burma and Thailand “are stricken with terror when they observe the rainbow arching the western heavens early in the morning, especially if this sign is accompanied by thunder and earthquake” (Marshall 1922:228).
2.6.2 Insular Southeast Asia
Among the Andaman islanders in the Bay of Bengal south of Burma, it was believed that a rainbow causes earthquakes (Radcliffe-Brown 1922:290).
2.6.3 New Guinea and Satellite Islands
As noted earlier, a story told by the Feranmin people of the upper Sepik watershed in New Guinea holds that, when aroused to anger, the Rainbow Serpent Magalim can cause earthquakes and thunderstorms (Brumbaugh 1987:25).
In the nineteenth century Kingdom of Dahomey, in what is now Benin, the Fon people held that
In the beginning Mawu [a culture hero] was carried in the mouth of Aido Hwedo, the serpent, who existed before the earth did. Wherever the two stayed for the night, mountains appeared from the excrement of Aido Hwedo, and as they travelled, the body of the snake outlined the rise and fall of the land. There are two of these Aido Hwedo. The female lives in the sky, and on her tail are carried the thunderbolts hurled to the earth. Some say she is the lightning as well as the rainbow. The male lies curled under the earth, bearing the burden of its overladen surface. When it moves to relieve its position, the earth trembles and quakes (Herskovits and Herskovits 1933:56–57).
Whether earthquakes result from the action of the rainbow or the Rainbow Serpent which is conceptually distinguished from it, is a moot point. One other thing to note here, however, is the clear historical derivation of the Haitian Vodoun cult of Ayida Wedo, the rainbow, and Damballah, the serpent, described in chapter 3, from a Dahomean or very similar West African source. The fact that Ayida Wedo is the rainbow in the Haitian version, but Aido Hwedo is the serpent in Dahomey simply underlines the fact that serpent and rainbow are ultimately the same thing.
With regard to the Ba Thonga people of southern Africa, for unexplained reasons Junod (1927:312) treats beliefs about earthquakes and rainbows together (section 3, Earthquakes and rainbows). However, he does not connect them in any way, and notes that “The rainbow is called shikwangulatilo, viz., the one which removes the danger from the sky.... No one can say what the danger is that is thus removed; it is probable that the tribe had more precise ideas on the subject in former times, and that these have become obsolete.” However, he later adds (1927:313) that “The two great phenomena that most impress South Africans are lightning and rain,” and he makes it clear that rainfall at the wrong time of the year in this area can prevent the planting of crops and prove disastrous for the community due to food shortages. The danger that the rainbow removes from the sky is thus perhaps the lightning, and hence the heavy rainfall that often accompanies it, since it appears when storms have ended. In broader perspective this recalls the conflict of the rainbow and the lightning in other parts of Africa.
Again, we find a puzzling trait of the rainbow that also is found with dragons since, as noted in Chapter 5, a belief that dragons precipitate earthquakes has been recorded in at least Europe, the American Southwest, Mayan-speaking Central America, and the southern Philippines.
2.7 Trait 22: The Rainbow Causes Whirlwinds/Storms or Waterspouts
2.7.1 Insular Southeast Asia
As seen already, the Balinese have a myth in which the rainbow is said to be the severed penis of a hermaphroditic god(dess) Uma. When this organ fell to earth it gave rise to tornados (Hooykaas 1956:301).
2.7.2 New Guinea and Satellite Islands
The Suau of Milne Bay province in southeast New Guinea say that “at the foot of the rainbow are strong whirlwinds” (John Lynch, p.c., from Michael Morauta, 1987).
The Tiwi of Melville and Bathurst islands believe that the Rainbow Serpents (Maratjis) protect their waterholes from human intruders. If an incautious person violates the sanctity of such a spot
They roar loudly, make the water bubble up ... and send a waterspout into the air which, falling as torrential rain, floods the countryside. One of the Maratjis then changes himself into the rainbow and travels over the land seeking to injure the offender or anyone else in his path (Mountford 1958:155).
With reference to an unspecified aboriginal group or groups in the south-central Kimberley mountains of the far north of Western Australia, Kolig (1981:315) observes that
Far beyond the normal behaviour of other mythic characters who react angrily when their names are blasphemed or their sites violated, the water snake can send a deluge to threaten the whole world, or spread endemic diseases, or strike down with enormous numinous power .... Yet it kills also to protect the law.
In illustration, he cites an observed case of an aborigine who had committed murder and fled Mount Anderson station to seek refuge at a site called Malala. The relatives of the victim then persuaded the Rainbow Serpent to pursue the culprit, and it did this “travelling in a terrifying whirlwind that darkened the sky and accompanied by lightning.”
2.7.4 Pacific Islands
As seen earlier, the people of Sa’a and Ulawa islands in the southeast Solomons fear the malevolent Sea Spirits: “A rainbow or a waterspout or a black squall is their inseparable companion .... A canoe out catching bonito will give a wide berth to a rainbow or to a waterspout” (Ivens 1972:201).
The Dehu in the Loyalty Islands near New Caledonia believed that “a rainbow (lewen) was considered quite harmless, unless it appeared too frequently; then, indeed, it might be a harbinger either of a famine or of a hurricane.” (Hadfield 1920:113).
One of several beliefs about the rainbow among the Maori of New Zealand is that whirlwinds spring from the union of a male and female rainbow (Best 1922:60).
2.8 Trait 23: The Rainbow Causes Floods
2.8.1 Central and South America
Among the Inga of southwest Colombia it is believed that a very low rainbow means that “there will be widespread flooding and people drowned” (S.H. Levinsohn, p.c., 5/15/82).
It has already been noted that the Toba, Mataco and Lengua Indians of the Paraguayan Chaco tell how a massive flood was caused by a menstruating girl who went to fetch water and thus offended a water python (rainbow) (Métraux 1946:29).
2.8.2 Mainland Southeast Asia
Among at least some Semang groups in the Malay peninsula, floods are attributed to the activity of the rainbow snake (Maceda 1964:115).
2.8.3 New Guinea and Satellite Islands
According to the Feranmin and Mountain Ok of the upper Sepik basin in New Guinea, the Rainbow Serpent, Magalim “is associated with storm and flood, but also through rain and ground water with fertility and growth” (Brumbaugh 1987:26).
The Tiwi of Melville and Bathurst islands say the Maratji (Rainbow Serpents) cause waterspouts and floods (Mountford 1958:155).
2.9 Trait 24: The Rainbow Is a Sign of War
In many widely separated societies the rainbow is a sign of war, as seen below:
“To the old Greeks the rainbow seemed stretched down by Jove from Heaven, a purple sign of war and tempest” (Tylor 1958:1:297).
The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, who lived in the first century CE “gives a purely naturalistic explanation of the rainbow, denying that it is either wonderful or ominous, yet he admits that it means either war or a fierce winter which will make an end of men’s work and injure the sheep” (Wallis 1918:372).
2.9.2 South Asia
The Sanskrit texts of ancient India indicate that the rainbow was a sign of famine or hostile invasion. If it was seen ahead while on the march it was a premonition of coming defeat (Kern 1913:1:201).
2.9.3 Central and East Asia
Among Chinese in rural Jiangsu province in the 1930s a rainbow in the north was a sign of coming warfare (Hsiang-shun Chang, p.c., 1994).
2.9.4 North America and Mexico
The Tlingit of southern Alaska believed that the rainbow is a bridge for the souls of the dead, especially those who had died in battle (in this respect note the simpler, more frequently cited description given by Swanton (1908) in Chapter 6, Section 2.3):
Those who had been killed in war or who had been murdered went to kee-wa-kow-anne, “above people’s country”, which they reached by means of the rainbow. They were visible to men in the scintillations of the Aurora when the warrior spirits came out to play. This was the highest abode and so greatly to be wished for that the Tlingit had no fear of death in battle (Emmons 1991:289).
2.9.5 Central and South America
Among the Muinane of southwestern Colombia, “a rainbow in the west means evil is on the way; the most widely held view is that it signifies blood, and war or fighting will ensue. It can also precede bad disease” (James W. Walton, p.c., from Andres Paky, 4/82).
According to Grubb (1911:50 ff.), who interpreted the agreements as evidence of contact, the Lengua Indians of the Paraguayan Chaco “greatly fear the rainbow when seen in the west, and the armorial ensign of the Incas was the rainbow.” It is unclear what Grubb meant by an ‘armorial sign’, as the connections with heraldry seem out of place, and the most plausible interpretation is that it was the insignia used on war banners.
Among the Kayapó of Brazil, “a rainbow is a bad or unlucky thing, like a colorful sunset or a red tinge to a cloud. It signifies enemies, wars, killings” (Ruth Thomson, p.c., 6/2/82).
2.9.6 Mainland Southeast Asia
The Sema Nagas of Assam call the rainbow Milesü, or Kungumi-pukhu (= ‘Kungumi’s leg’), “and the place where it touches earth is always a spot where some sacrifice has been made for the fields and crops, but should it fall inside a village, the death in war of one of the inhabitants is imminent and certain” (Hutton 1921b: 195).
2.9.7 Insular Southeast Asia
Among the Manobo peoples on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines
The rainbow, according to the general account, in an inexplicable manifestation of the gods of war. At one end of the rainbow there is thought to be a huge tortoise, one fathom broad. The appearance of the rainbow is an indication that the gods of war, with their associate war chiefs and warriors from the land of death, have gone forth in search of blood. If red predominates among the colors of the rainbow, it is thought the mightier war spirits are engaged in hand-to-hand combat; but if the colors are dark it is a sign of slaughter. If the rainbow should seem to approach precautions are taken to defend the house against attack, as it is believed that a real war party is approaching (Garvan 1941:224).
The West Toraja of central Sulawesi, Indonesia maintained that in setting out on a head-hunting expedition one must not leave on the same day a rainbow appears. When the To Napu went to war if they saw an afternoon rainbow (pinoraa) before them they were happy, as this was the blood of their enemy; but if they saw a morning rainbow (pingfke) behind them they broke off their adventure, for this meant that it was their blood that would flow. With the Koro people a rainbow at any time of day was a bad sign for a war-party, as it meant that much blood would flow, either of the enemy or of the war-party (Kruyt 1938:2:356).
Some of the peoples of Flores Island in eastern Indonesia say that the rainbow arises from the graves of those that have been killed in war or murdered. During a sunshower the blood of these people rises heavenward. It appears white, but in the atmosphere it separates into white-yellow-green. The Ngadha say that a rainbow is formed from a vapor that arises from the corpses of anyone who has died a ‘bad death’, which includes death away from the village, and death by a weapon (Bader 1971:348).
2.9.8 New Guinea and Satellite Islands
Among the Sentani of Indonesian New Guinea the rainbow was called ya ha fela ha (ya = ‘rain, day’ + ha ‘matter or things related to’ + fela ‘arrow’), which is said to mean that it is a sign for war, disease and suffering. If a rainbow appears in the north they know that a war will come from that direction, and this means that all adult men must prepare their spears and arrows to be ready; likewise, for a rainbow appearing in any other direction. Traditionally, when a rainbow appeared women and children were put indoors to avoid seeing it or talking about it, because they do not have the natural power to avoid the bad things it might bring (Andreas Deda, p.c., 11/6/06).
2.9.9 Pacific Islands
The Bukaua of the north coast of New Guinea say that the rainbow (gasibueb) is the blood of those slaughtered in battle that rises to the heavens from the forest or the beach (Lehner 1911:3:431).
To the Chuukese/Trukese of the eastern Caroline islands in Micronesia, the rainbow was not a pleasant thing, as it was regarded as a sign of death (Bollig 1927:12). Elsewhere we find that “The war-god is Rasim. To him prayers are offered before battle. He hates women. Hence no man may have any intercourse with women in time of war, otherwise he would die a sudden death: Rasim would stab him with his spear” (Frazer 1924:3:126). To this we can add that the word resiim is defined as ‘rainbow; traditional god of the rainbow (he lives in the sky, and is also god of war and of red ear decorations)’ (Goodenough and Sugita 1980).
In Samoan La’a maomao ‘the great step’ is one of the names of the rainbow
which was a representative of a war god of several villages. If, when going to battle, a rainbow sprang up right before them and across the path, or across the course of the canoes at sea, the troops and the fleet would return. The same if the rainbow arch, or long step, of the god was seen behind them. If, however, it was sideways they went on with spirit, thinking the god was marching along with them and encouraging them to advance (Turner 1884:35).
Among the Maori of New Zealand personified forms of the rainbow include Kahukura, Uenuku, Haere, and Pou-te-aniwaniwa. The second of these was also called Uenuku-rangi and Uenuku kai tangata. Among other things, he was employed as a war-god (Best 1922:58). The Maori believed as well that a rainbow seen before a war party signals bad luck, and tells them they should return home (Best 1922:73).
Initially this association appears arbitrary, but it may result from an associative chain: red = blood = war, where red is widely perceived as the basic or most dominant color of the rainbow. In fact, a dominant blaze of red may imply war (through its association with blood), whether in the rainbow, or in other weather phenomena such as the red clouds at sunset, as seen in the comment by Musters (1969:222) that among the Tehuelche of the Argentine pampas a red sunset signifies coming war. It thus seems safe to attribute the widespread connection of the rainbow with war to a chain of association linking red with blood, and then with physical conflict that leads to bloodshed.
2.10 Trait 25: The Rainbow Causes Sickness, Disease or Death
In accordance with its generally negative associations in preliterate societies, it is not surprising that a rainbow is thought to bring sickness. In some cases this idea is particularly associated with things the rainbow has touched (as drinking water), hence with the foot of the rainbow.
As noted earlier, in a survey of folk beliefs about the rainbow in Europe, Alinei (1982:52) suggests that the rainbow was traditionally seen “as a daemon, capable of causing diseases and death.”
2.10.2 North America and Mexico
The Creek Indians in what is now Georgia, believed that the rainbow is a great snake that cuts off the rain. More broadly, it was one of a class of mythological figures called ‘Thunder Beings’, and in at least the Mikasuki branch of the Creek confederacy it was believed that “all Thunder Beings could cause sickness” (Grantham 2002:34).
2.10.3 Central and South America
To the Cuaiquer Indians of Colombia “It is not good to walk where the ‘foot’ of the rainbow touches earth, since it makes people sick. They have medicines for it” (Vicente Paskal, p.c., 4/22/82).
The Guambiano of highland Colombia say that “where the foot of the rainbow touches the earth or a river it imparts an effect that can cause rashes to anyone who stands in it afterwards” (Ana Leonor de Velasco, p.c., 4/82).
Among the Paez of Colombia “shamans employ chewed tobacco to blow away the rainbow, so that children may not be afflicted with scabies” (Wilbert 1979:24).
As noted previously, the Muinane of southwestern Colombia say “a rainbow in the west means evil is on the way; the most widely held view is that it signifies blood, and war or fighting will ensue. It can also precede bad disease” (James W. Walton, p.c., from Andres Paky, 4/82).
Among the imperial Incas “A rainbow was generally an evil omen, and comets, eclipses, and meteors were especially bad, the latter foretelling the death of the emperor” (Mason 1957:218).
The Aguaruna of the Peruvian montaña say that wherever the rainbow comes to earth people will die (Jeane Grover, p.c., 4/82).
According to Roth (1915:268) the Island Caribs called the rainbow Joulouca, the Rainbow Spirit, maintaining that
He is the rainbow which we see: the clouds prevent us from seeing the rest of the body. He makes the Carib ill when it finds nothing to eat above. If this fine Iris appears when they are at sea, they take it as a good omen of a prosperous journey. When it appears to them while they are on land, they hide in their homes and think that it is a strange and masterless spirit which seeks to kill somebody.
Among the Sirionó of eastern Bolivia the appearance of a rainbow “presages an epidemic of colds.” According to the principal ethnographer of this group “One of my Casarabe informants, Kénda, told me that the rainbow contained an abačikwaia (“evil spirit”) which causes sickness of the nose and throat” (Holmberg 1969:120).
2.10.4 Mainland Southeast Asia
As noted previously, according to Milne (1924:354), the Palaung of the Shan states of Burma describe the rainbow as formed from tiny spirit-beings called par-yon that live in the sky, but also touch the Earth, where they come in contact with water. In the latter case “One should avoid drinking at the spring where these spirits have been drinking (if you do, the stomach swells up).”
2.10.5 Insular Southeast Asia
Among the Andamanese in the Bay of Bengal south of Burma, “The rainbow is generally regarded as an evil omen, being believed to be a precursor of sickness” (Radcliffe-Brown 1922:146).
As already noted, the Isneg of northern Luzon in the Philippines say that bunglún ‘the rainbow’ is a spirit which can cause sickness, as seen in the derivative word pagbungbunglúnan ‘to inflict the disease of the rainbow’ (Vanoverbergh 1972:182).
The Kankanaey of northern Luzon utter ngális di áso, “a superstitious formula, pronounced when seeing a rainbow, lest it eat one’s soul, and so one become thin” (Vanoverbergh 1933:317).
A dictionary entry for léwés ‘rainbow’ in Tboli of Mindanao in the southern Philippines, contains a sample sentence which translates ‘When there is a rainbow they say someone is murdered’ (Awed, Underwood and van Wynen 2004:390).
Among the Koro Toraja of central Sulawesi, Indonesia, it was said that anyone who is touched by a rainbow will become sick (Kruyt 1938:2:358).
The inhabitants of the island of Bali call the rainbow yanglalah, where yang means ‘deity’, and lalah means ‘infectious, of disease’. It is thus conceived as a deity that brings disease (Barber 1979:314, 779).
2.10.6 New Guinea and Satellite Islands
The Sentani of Indonesian New Guinea believe that “the rainbow can be a sign for disease or a curse. This is related to the supernatural power of certain people in the community who have the power to talk to Nature, so that trees, stones, etc. follow their command” (Andreas Deda p.c., 11/6/06).
As noted earlier, the Mountain Arapesh of New Guinea say that if one should offend a marsalai (a spirit category that includes the rainbow), it will pursue the offenders and punish either them, or their still unborn children with illness, deformity or death (Mead 1933:43).
2.10.7 Pacific Islands
Among the Lau people of northern Malaita in the southeast Solomon Islands, the word mae means ‘to die’, ‘war’ and ‘rainbow’. The combination mae sifolia (‘to die’ + ‘let down’) ‘death from being touched by a rainbow’ states the interconnection of these ideas explicitly (Fox 1974:125).
The peoples on Sa’a and Ulawa islands in the southeast Solomons maintained that among negative omens was the proximity of a rainbow. In a story related by Ivens (1972:197), for example, we hear that “A rainbow was seen to alight on the village, a sure sign of impending trouble”.
Among many of the Bantu-speaking peoples of central and southern Africa the rainbow is feared, because “Anyone who sees it—that is, sees the place where its end seems to rest on the earth—runs away as fast as he can: if he sees you, he will kill you” (Werner 1933:231).
As noted earlier, the Zulus of southern Africa believed of the rainbow that “Sometimes it lived in a large pool, and men were afraid to bathe in such waters, for fear that the rainbow might seize and eat them. On dry land it poisoned any man it met, or afflicted him with disease” (Hole 1995:2153).
Why the rainbow is associated with sickness is unclear, except perhaps as part of the generally negative attitude toward it in traditional cultures. This trait is not commonly associated with the dragon, although, as noted in Chapter 5, it is reported for the horned water serpent among Iroquoian peoples in North America, as where the dragon of Niagara Falls was responsible for a “mysterious pestilence” that had plagued the Seneca villagers on Cayuga Creek above the falls, and the horned water serpent Onyare of the Mohawk brought on sickness through exposure to its breath.
2.11 Trait 26: The Rainbow May Have Human Traits
2.11.1 Central and East Asia
In China the rainbow is sometimes portrayed as a beautiful woman, fairy or goddess, a description that can be dated as early as the Han dynasty. It is also sometimes viewed as a man, a belief that came at a much later time, both possibly derived from the image of a double rainbow (Zhou 2001).
2.11.2 North America and Mexico
Among the Thompson Indians of British Columbia “The rainbow is said to have once been a man, a friend of the Thunder, who was in the habit of frequently painting his face with bright colors” (Teit 1900:342).
The Chontal Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico say that “The full rainbow is a man, whereas a half rainbow is a woman, and very evil” (Carrasco 1960:107).
2.11.3 Central and South America
As noted in Chapter 3, the early twentieth century German explorer Theodor Koch-Grünberg (1924:15) reported that the Arecuna of northeast South America call the rainbow Keyeme, and see it as a large multi-colored snake that lives in the spray of waterfalls, but as a human being when Keyeme sheds his reptilian skin.
2.11.4 New Guinea and Satellite Islands
In her discussion of parallels to the Rainbow Serpent cult of Australia in the New Guinea mainland, where they are called by the Tok Pisin term marsalai (‘bush spirit’), Mead (1933:39) noted that
Marsalais are named, and in some cases the name of the marsalai is used as a place name for its abode, in others the marsalai and its habitat are separately designated. A marsalai is conceptualized as a type of greatly powerful anthropomorphic being, able either to take human form or to clothe himself—or herself—under the form of some animal or reptile species, chiefly those of snakes and lizards, in which it is regarded as typically embodied.
Brumbaugh (1987:26) relates similar stories told by the Feranmin and their neighbors of the upper Sepik River. Among them Magalim is a single ‘father’ representing the Rainbow Serpent in its totality, while
His children are the magalim associated with specific localities. Descendants at still further remove are the various snakes known in the area, each displaying some special characteristics of Magalim .... In form Magalim most resembles the pythons, but his size is enormous. Like all spirits and clever humans too, Magalim can shift form to appear as a man or any animal he pleases. Strange behavior or colors may suggest to people that they are seeing Magalim in animal form. But when he drops his disguise and manifests himself, it is in the form of the great serpent.
The Murrinh-Patha of the Northern Territory of Australia say that
The rainbow represents the Rainbow Serpent, who was originally a man with two children (male and female). When the Bat (also a man at that time) speared him, he took the fire stick out into the ocean with the intent of extinguishing it so that all fire on earth would be finished, but Butcher Bird (a man) was able to get it from him. When he drowned he turned into the Rainbow Serpent, and still appears after showers of rain (Chester Street, p.c. from Gregory Panpawa Mollingin, 11/13/83).
According to Allen (1975:81) “In the northwest region of Port Keats, the Murrinh-Patha people tell of the Rainbow Snake who appeared in the form of the man Kunmanggur. Kunmanggur created the people and taught them to live in peace.”
2.12 Trait 27: The Rainbow Can Be Personified
The treatment of the rainbow as an animate being gives scope to the idea that it can be personified, that is, identified by an individualizing name, much as a person—or for that matter, a dragon—can. Examples noted in passing include the following:
Personal names for the Rainbow Serpent across the Australian continent vary with ethnolinguistic group. The following is a sample: Galeru, Julunggul, Kunmanggur, Langal, Muit, Taipan, Ungur, Wollunqua, Wonambi, Wonungur, Worombi, Yero, and Yurlunggur (Mercatante 1988:546). In each case the name appears to be that of a ‘character’—that is, a well-defined personality functioning in a narrative context.
2.12.2 Pacific Islands
Names for the rainbow among the Maori of New Zealand have already been mentioned under Trait 24 in 2.9.9. It is not known how much more widespread this practice is in the Pacific islands, although one would expect other examples from Polynesia.
The Belgian anthropologist Luc de Heusch provides a rare glimpse into the inner workings of a mythic cycle shared by a number of Bantu-speaking peoples across central Africa, which together form a “pseudohistorical text which constitutes the foundation myth of the State.” One of the heroes of this myth “bears the very name of the rainbow, Nkongolo” (de Heusch 1982:35).
Elsewhere the same writer provides an analysis of a myth among the Mayombe of Zaire which “describes the conflict of the rain and the lightning animal.” The story, which is titled ‘Rainbow and Lightning quarrel’, begins as follows
One day Mbumba the Rainbow left his hole beside the water and went up to the sky where he found Nzazi, the Lightning. Together they built a village. Nzazi, who is the master of the sky, wanted to make Mbumba the guard of the village. But Mbumba refused and returned to earth. He threw himself in the water ... (de Heusch 1982:42).
Here we see the personified rainbow returning to Earth from the sky, and becoming a water serpent, after which, in popular belief he returns to the sky by climbing trees. There is, perhaps, nothing mysterious about the personification of the rainbow. Once it is conceived as animate, even if it is a spirit-being, it becomes capable of participating in activities that unfold in narrative texts. This is particularly clear in the mythic cycle of the eternal conflict of the lightning and the rainbow among Bantu-speaking peoples, but it also emerges in less salient form in other parts of the world.
2.13 Trait 28: The Rainbow Is a Sign of Famine
2.13.1 South Asia
In classical Indian popular belief, the rainbow signalled famine or hostile invasion (Kern 1913:1:201).
2.13.2 Central and East Asia
Among rural Chinese in northern Jiangsu province in the 1930s it was said that a rainbow in the south would result in the selling of one’s children due to famine (Hsiang-shun Chang, p.c., 1994).
An identical belief is also reported for Hebei province (Zhou 2001).
2.13.3 Pacific Islands
As seen in section 22), among the Dehu in the Loyalty Islands of southern Melanesia “A rainbow (lewen) was considered quite harmless, unless it appeared too frequently; then, indeed, it might be a harbinger either of a famine or of a hurricane” (Hadfield 1920:113).
2.14 Trait 29: The Rainbow Is Double-Headed
2.14.1 Central and East Asia
Since depictions of the rainbow commonly describe it as an enormous snake, this implies a head and a tail. However, in some descriptions the rainbow is a giant snake with heads at both ends. In Shang dynasty China (ca. 1600–1046 BCE), for example, the oracle bone ‘script’ (ideograph) for hóng ‘rainbow’ is described “as a snake or dragon with two heads” (Eberhard 1968:246). The image shown is that of an arched figure, curved like the rainbow, but with heads at either end, both with wide-open mouths.
2.14.2 North America and Mexico
The Umatilla of eastern Oregon believed in a possibly double-headed serpent that was seen both in lakes and on the land (Ray 1942:255–256).
2.14.3 Central and South America
The name ‘Yaya-Mama’ has been applied to a religious tradition in the region of Lake Titicaca in highland Bolivia, some 3,500 years ago. A notable feature of this tradition was the carving of stone stelae with interspersed figures of double-headed serpents and male and female human figures. Modern Aymara Indians who were asked to comment on these carvings stated that the double-headed serpents “were really rainbows that united the earth and the sky.” They were also called rainbow-rivers, reportedly because there are two rainbows, the one on the male side of the sculpture being the rainbow in the sky, which brings the rain, and the other being the water that flows from the earth. Stated differently, the second serpent was said to be like a river or a spring, and the entire image was said to be “a prayer for water” (Kolata 1996:93–94).
2.14.4 Insular Southeast Asia
As seen already, to the Javanese of western Indonesia “the rainbow is a giant snake with two heads of deer or cows, one of which drinks from the Indian Ocean, the other from the Java Sea” (Hooykaas 1956:291). Given this description it is clear that each head is found at a different end of the rainbow/snake.
It is unclear what would motivate this representation of the rainbow and, so far as is known, no corresponding figure for the dragon exists—that is, a dragon with heads at both ends of its body. It is possible, however, that the two-headed Rainbow Serpent was conceived as a concise way to represent the belief that the rainbow both drinks water from a terrestrial source, and spews it out in the heavens to cause the rain.
2.15 Trait 30: The Rainbow Causes Category Reversal
One striking belief about the rainbow that has no known connection with traits of the dragon is the idea that by passing under a rainbow a person reverses categories. The theme of reversal is seen in three distinct forms: change of sex, change of race, and change of mental state.
A traditional belief in Romania holds that anyone who drinks water at the end of the rainbow will change sex, while in Serbia it is believed that a similar transformation will occur to anyone who passes under a rainbow (Grimm 1844:421 ff.).
In the Liakkovikia district of rural Macedonia the rainbow is called ‘bow’, “and the belief prevails that if a male child passes beneath it, he turns into a girl; if a girl, she turns into a boy” (Abbott 1903:71).
In Slavic popular belief the appearance of the rainbow forebodes misfortune, and if a person manages to get under the arc a man becomes a woman, and a woman a man (Levkievskaia 2000, via Timothy Barnes, p.c., 9/30/17).
2.15.2 South Asia
Pathāns or Pashtuns in northern Pakistan “think that if you want to change your sex all you have to do is to go and roll underneath a rainbow” (Crooke 1925:46).
2.15.3 Central and South America
In Brazilian folk belief if a man passes under a rainbow he will change to a woman, and a woman to a man (Maria de Lourdes Sampaio, p.c., 1983). This form of category reversal, based on sex, is currently known only among speakers of Indo-European languages, although it is widespread in this language family (Portuguese, Russian, Romanian, Greek, Iranian). However, many Brazilian folk beliefs are of indigenous origin, and it is not known whether that is true in this case. A likely precondition (although not necessarily an explanation) for this shared belief is the conception of the rainbow as being [+male], [+female], because of different gender assignment to the two arcs.
Another variant was reported by Grubb (1914:66–67) for the Lengua of the Paraguayan Chaco: “The Towothlii [Maká, a Matacoan speaking people] are said to have migrated south for some reason or other, and, falling upon bad times, were reduced to great hunger. One day one of their witch-doctors, perceiving a rainbow in the south-west, and not knowing what it was, thought it might be something good to eat. The tribe moved on towards it, and eventually came up with it. They ate a portion of it, and immediately their language became confused, and thereafter they spoke a distinct language from the Lengua-Mascoy” (quote courtesy John Elliott, 12/13/18).
2.15.4 Insular Southeast Asia
A different, but structurally equivalent form of this belief is found in eastern Indonesia, where speakers of Kédang say that if a rainbow is in front of a local person s/he should enter his or her house quickly, or risk becoming a Caucasian. Alternatively, one can call a male dog to make the rainbow disappear (Bader 1971:953). In both this and the Indo-European cases the result is the same: the individual who dares to walk under a rainbow, or experience any close contact with it, undergoes category shift in which one paired member of a category becomes its opposite.
A third variation on the reversal theme involves changes of mental state. The Lio of Flores say that “When it begins to rain the god Guru Giwa mounts his steed and ascends on the bridge of the rainbow. Whoever sees the horse (jara nitu = ‘spirit steed’) loses his mind. His relatives must immediately slaughter a red goat, wrap its skin around a banana plant, and lay this under the rainbow for those who are insane. Then they become normal again” (Bader 1971:951).
Finally, as seen previously, the Kédang believe that a woman who dares to wash her hair at the village spring (which is guarded by a rainbow) is in danger of being married by the resident spirit and driven insane (Barnes 1974:62).
2.16 Trait 31: Nudity Protects
Among German and Polish speakers in Silesia it is said that the angels put gold at the end of the rainbow, and that only a nude man can obtain it (Voegelin 1972:922).
2.16.2 Insular Southeast Asia
The Maumere people of the island of Flores in eastern Indonesia say that if one passes under a rainbow he must immediately undress and lie on the ground so that the rainbow shines away from him. Then he will stay healthy: “Geht jemand unter dem Regenbogen her, muss er sich sofort entkleiden und auf die Erde legen, damit der Regenbogen über ihn hinwegscheint. Dann bleibt er gesund” (Bader 1971:953).
Among the Kédang in eastern Indonesia, where the spring at the village of Léuwajang is associated with serpents, the rainbow and gold, it is said that “a woman should not wash her hair at the spring or get her clothes wet -- though she may bathe there naked” (Barnes 1974:611).
2.16.3 Pacific Islands
Among the Maori of New Zealand, Best (1922:58) reports that the name “Imurangi was applied to some form or forms of celestial glow.” He then cites an elderly Maori who stated that “Should the ‘red demon’ be seen gleaming in the heavens ... know that it is Imurangi, and that the folk of the land near where it is seen are threatened by some evil fate. Let some adept at once discard his garments, and proceed to avert the danger.” Williams (1971:77) gives imurangi as ‘sun-dog, fragmentary rainbow’.
Although this notion can be seen as relevant to the ethnology of the rainbow, it is also known from other contexts, as in the belief among some Celtic tribes in Roman times that a warrior who entered battle unclad was believed to be invulnerable to the blows of his enemy (Ross 1986:50).
2.17 Trait 32: The Rainbow Causes Tooth Decay
2.17.1 North America and Mexico
It is a common Mexican folk belief that pointing at a rainbow causes tooth decay (Carrasco 1960:107).
2.17.2 Central and South America
The early Peruvian historian Garcilaso de la Vega, born in Cuzco in 1539 as the illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman and an Inca princess, is best remembered for The Royal Commentaries of the Inca, his historical account of the Inca empire as it was crumbling before the physical and cultural onslaught of the Spanish. In Book 3, ‘Regarding the temple cloisters, and the situation of the moon, the stars, thunder, lightning, and the rainbow’, he describes the five rooms of the temple complex, noting that
The fourth room was devoted to the rainbow, which they said was descended from the Sun, and which figured on the scutcheon of the Inca kings. It was entirely covered with gold, and the rainbow was painted, in beautiful colors, over the entire surface of one of the walls. They called their rainbow cuichu and revered it very specially. When it appeared they immediately put their hands over their mouths through fear, they say, that it might make their teeth decay (de la Vega 1961:77).
The known distribution of this belief is limited to the Americas, but it is found in sufficiently distant locations to make diffusion an improbable explanation.
2.18 Trait 33: The Rainbow and Shamans
2.18.1 North America and Mexico
The Modoc and Eastern Shasta of northern California believed that whoever ran through a rainbow became a good doctor (Voegelin 1942:237).
2.18.2 Central and South America
Among the Inga of Colombia, the rainbow is traditionally thought of as a giant snake which takes the form of a powerful witchdoctor (S.H. Levinsohn, p.c., 4/82).
With regard to the Central Arawaks of Guyana, Farabee (1918: 151) stated that giant spirit snakes are believed to inhabit many pools along the Essequibo River, and if any of these should become too troublesome the medicine man may kill it, for presumably only he has the power to do so.
2.18.3 Mainland Southeast Asia
To at least some Negritos of the Malay peninsula “The python who has gone into the sky to bathe himself (the rainbow) is also a halak (shaman)” (Evans 1937:206).
Both Radcliffe-Brown (1930) and Elkin (1930–1931) stress the special relationship of shamans to the Rainbow Serpent in aboriginal Australia. As the former writer puts it (1930:343) “Throughout these tribes there is a belief that the serpent will devour human beings who approach its home unless they are medicine-men .... Medicine men derived their power from the rainbow serpent.”
Not only are shamans protected from the malevolence of the rainbow, but they are in close spiritual contact with it: “In parts of the Great Victoria Desert the Rainbow is Wonambi, living in billabongs and rock pools, and playing a major part in the initiation of native doctors” (Berndt and Berndt 1964:209).
A similar special relationship of the shaman to the Rainbow Serpent in Africa is brought out clearly by James (1988:276) in her description of the Uduk of the Sudan-Ethiopian borderland. Among these people members of the Order of Ebony Diviners fulfill the role of magical protectors of the community, familiar with oracles, divination and the like. As noted earlier, at Jebel Silak there is “quite an impressive cave and waterfall where a rainbow was said to live.” New Ebony Diviners are initiated by immersion in the spring at this cave.
But before they enter the water, the meat of a sheep or gao is lowered into it; if the meat is consumed in the water, the Rainbow creature is well pleased, its hunger is satisfied, and the novices can safely enter, and acquire knowledge; they “learn everything.” However, the water which splashes out from the hole of the Rainbow creature ‘kills’ the novices. They are then revived with spice.
Elsewhere, James points out that the fear which ordinary people feel toward the rainbow is not unlike that of the fear of dangerous predators; by contrast members of the Order of Ebony Diviners do not hesitate to ‘fight’ or ‘ride’ their spiritual tutor and adversary.
2.19 Trait 34: Rainbows and Urine
2.19.1 North America and Mexico
Among the Tarahumara of northwest Mexico “A certain yellow stream of water is said to come from the rainbow. Cattle that drink from it drop off in weight and die. Men do not drink it” (Bennett and Zingg 1935:325).
2.19.2 Central and South America
The Inga of Colombia say “It is very bad to bathe when a rainbow is visible, as the rainbow will urinate on you, and you will break out in a rash” (S.H. Levinsohn, p.c., 5/15/82).
According to the Cuaiquer of Colombia there are two rainbows, a small one which shines when it urinates (this one is yellow and very bad), and a large one which also shines when it urinates (Vicente Paskal, p.c., 4/22/82).
The Botocudo of eastern Brazil say that “A great snake is lord of the water, signals to the rain, and makes it fall; the rainbow is called ‘the urine of the great snake’ ” (Métraux 1963a: 540).
2.19.3 Insular Southeast Asia
Without further explanation or illustration, Isneg bárong is given as 1. the urinary bladder, 2. the excrements of the rainbow (Vanoverbergh 1972:145).
During the first half of the twentieth century the Dutch ethnologists Nikolaus Adriani and Albert C. Kruyt collected a wide range of traditional beliefs from individual members of Toraja communities in central Sulawesi, Indonesia. According to them, some people in these communities held the view that the rainbow urinates on the Earth (Adriani and Kruyt 1950–1951:407).
2.19.4 New Guinea and Satellite Islands
Among the Feranmin and closely-related peoples of the upper Sepik basin in New Guinea, rain is called the urine or tears of Magalim, the Rainbow Serpent (Brumbaugh 1987:26).
Why this belief is so widespread is unclear. However, given the idea that the rainbow is a giant snake that usually resides underwater on the Earth it is perhaps natural that some animists saw it as needing to excrete when in the sky. This belief may lead inevitably to the next.
2.20 Trait 35: Rainbows and Feces
Instead of gold, one sometimes finds excrement at the rainbow’s end.
2.20.1 Central and South America
The Toba of the Paraguayan Chaco say that “In the bush there is a black, pink, yellow, or green substance which has the appearance of onions, but is quite soft. The Indians call it Rainbow’s excrement. This stuff has magic power and the Indians are eager to collect it in order to carry it in small bags suspended from their necks” (Métraux 1946:38).
2.20.2 Insular Southeast Asia
It has already been noted that in Isneg bárong means both the urinary bladder, and the excrements of the rainbow (Vanoverbergh 1972:145).
2.20.3 New Guinea and Satellite Islands
The Keweng of New Guinea say “The rainbow is a mixture of rain and sun, which may leave a heap of excrement at its end” (Malcolm D. Ross, p.c., 6/25/82).
Freud (1961:403) drew attention to the association of gold and feces in psychoanalysis, and maintained that the connection “is also supported by copious evidence from social anthropology.” As evidence for this statement, he cites a one-page note (‘Gold und Kot’) published by B. Dattner in 1913 in the Internationales Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse, a one-page follow-up with the same title published in the same journal two years later by T. Reik, some passing remarks in a publication by Otto Rank, and his own ‘Charakter und Analerotik’, originally published in 1908. I have been unable to obtain the publications by Dattner and Reik, but find little in either Rank or Freud (1908) to support the claim of “copious evidence from social anthropology.” Jung (1956:189, fn. 23) reiterates this claim, citing Freud, and maintaining that the association of dung and gold in folklore is supported by de Gubernatis. A search of de Gubernatis (1968), however, has failed to turn up any relevant information.
Whatever the merits of the wider psychoanalytic claim, attention to the larger complex of ideas reviewed here suggests that the psychoanalytic interpretation of feces as an anal-erotic ‘treasure’ cannot be unambiguously supported by data from the ethnology of the rainbow. As will be noted, the end of the rainbow is a locus of powerful spiritual forces able to cause reversals of nature such as changes of sex, race, or sanity. In this context it is perhaps not surprising that gold and waste material also fluctuate in an unstable relationship.
2.21 Trait 36: The Rainbow as a Sign of Blessing, or Good Luck
Although it is rare cross-culturally, the rainbow is sometimes seen as a sign of blessing or good luck. This can perhaps be interpreted to include those cases where a treasure is found at the rainbow’s end, but since this trait is treated separately under traits 12–13) it is excluded here.
2.21.1 North America and Mexico
To the Gabrielino Indians of southern California it is said that a rainbow conferred good luck (Bean and Smith 1978:548).
The Ute of the southern Rocky Mountains in Utah say the rainbow “is a heavenly spirit; it is a good one that is always up there, but manifests itself only sometimes” (Talmy Givón, p.c., 1983).
2.21.2 Central and South America
As noted earlier, among the Island Carib in the Lesser Antilles islands there was a curious idea that if a rainbow “appears when they are at sea, they take it as a good omen of a prosperous journey. When it appears to them while they are on land, they hide in their homes and think it is a strange and masterless spirit which seeks to kill somebody” (Roth 1915:268).
2.21.3 New Guinea and Satellite Islands
Among the Tehit people in the Bird’s Head peninsula of Indonesian New Guinea, the rainbow is regarded as a sign of spiritual blessing. It reportedly has no association with a serpent (Don A.L. Flassy, p.c., 1982). This may be a product of missionary teaching.
A similar idea appears among the Imbonggu of New Guinea, who say that “when someone is sick the rainbow is an indicator of supernatural sympathy” (Malcolm D. Ross, p.c., 6/25/82).
2.21.4 Pacific Islands
Among the Palauans of western Micronesia “It is supposed to be good luck if you can touch the rainbow, but, of course, that’s not possible” (Sandra Chung, from Roy Ngirchechol, p.c., 2/23/82.
2.22 Trait 37: The Rainbow as a Sign of the Death of an Important Person
2.22.1 Insular Southeast Asia
The Malays of Perak in the Malay peninsula say “a broken rainbow in the west means the impending death of a raja (prince, king)” (Skeat 1900:15).
Of various beliefs current about the rainbow among the Javanese in western Indonesia, one is that a rainbow is a sign of the death of an important person (Sriyoso, p.c., 3/80).
Among the West Toraja of Sulawesi in central Indonesia, “A rainbow in the morning means that a prince or shaman shall die” (Kruyt 1938:2:359).
2.22.2 Pacific Islands
In Hawai‘i the rainbow was seen as the sign of a high chief (Beckwith 1976: 152, 209, 366, etc.). More specifically “The rainbow (Ānuenue), sister of Kane and Kanaloa, acts as their messenger, or hovers over the child of godlike rank” (Beckwith 1976:521). In this sense it resembles the classical Greek Iris, female messenger of the gods.
Among the Baoule of the Ivory Coast the appearance of a rainbow is a sign that a great man (chief, king) will soon disappear (Denys Creissels, p.c., 11/20/81).
The Ikwerre of Nigeria consider the rainbow “a bad omen foretelling the death of a very important person” (Kay Williamson, p.c. from J.T.N. Wali; 1982).
To speakers of Khana, in Rivers State, Nigeria “The general belief (in fact the only known one) in my area about the rainbow is that it is a sign that a great man, a hero, is dead or dying somewhere” (Nwinee B. Williamson, p.c., 1982).
The Mundani of Cameroon say “A broken rainbow means that an important man, as a chief, is going to die” (Julie Kuperus, p.c., 4/82).
Other unusual celestial events are also associated with the death of an important figure. The most common of these is the appearance of comets or meteorites (‘shooting stars’), either of which may be seen as the passing of something brilliant into darkness, and easily transferred to the human realm, a globally distributed folk belief captured memorably in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (II, ii: 30–31), where he says:
When beggars die, there are no comets seen;The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.
Why a rainbow would have the same signification is less clear.
2.23 Trait 38: The Rainbow and Work
2.23.1 Mainland Southeast Asia
As pointed out earlier, the Karen of peninsular Burma and Thailand “are stricken with terror when they observe the rainbow arching the western heavens early in the morning, especially if this sign is accompanied by thunder and earthquake. Under such circumstances they will not go to their work, for it is tabu” (Marshall 1922:228).
2.23.2 Insular Southeast Asia
The Isneg of northern Luzon in the Philippines have the derived word ma-bunglún-ān ‘to die shortly after a rainbow has surrounded a house under construction. Said of the owner of the house in question’ (Vanoverbergh 1972:182).
Among the Bontok of the mountains of northern Luzon in the Philippines
The appearance of a rainbow during certain ceremonies, particularly those which precede the harvesting of rice, and which usually require a ritual three-day abstention from work for all the village, results in an extension of the “holiday” by one day. I was told of one case where people were not allowed to go to work for nine days, because of the daily appearance of rainbows. I have also seen the extension called when a rainbow appeared during the “holiday” for the funeral rituals of a person who had been killed and returned to the village for burial (Lawrence A. Reid, p.c., 4/7/2000).
“A general belief among all West Torajas is: if a rainbow appears break off all work in the fields immediately. If one continues working nothing will come of the crops later: they shall be destroyed by all sorts of animals.” In the Lore area people say “if a rainbow should approach when one is engaged in the construction of a house he immediately breaks off work, as otherwise the dwelling would later be destroyed by fire” (Kruyt 1938:2:359).
For the Napu Toraja of the same Lore area “If a rainbow should appear while bark cloth is being pounded one must continue with the work or the bast will become dried out and unsuitable for further working” (Kruyt 1938:2:360).
The Lio of Flores in eastern Indonesia say that on a day when the rainbow appears one must not work in the fields, as one’s labor would be in vain (Bader 1971:953).
Among the Anyi Sanvi of the Ivory Coast, “Most people agree that the appearance of a rainbow is a bad omen. Some believe that it indicates that a genie in the form of a snake has appeared in the direction where the rainbow is seen. They will not go to the fields in that area for one day” (Jonathan Burmeister, p.c. from Aka Amalan, 11/24/82).
2.24 Trait 39: White Rainbows
2.24.1 Insular Southeast Asia
According to the Maumere people of the island of Flores in eastern Indonesia, the rainbow emerges from the graves of those who have died in war or been murdered. When it rains lightly and the sun is also shining, the blood of these people rises upward. It appears white, but in the atmosphere it separates and becomes white-yellow-green (Bader 1971:947).
2.24.2 North America and Mexico
In his painstakingly detailed description of the Navaho ceremony of the night chant, Matthews (1902:208) relates an account of a journey through Navaho country in which the travellers encountered a deity “who dwelt among the rocks in a cave. Inside of his home was a white rainbow.” There is no further context or explanation, leaving the reader to wonder what significance this observation might have to the Navaho people.
The Totonac of the Mexican states of Vera Cruz and Puebla describe the brighter arc of the double rainbow as ‘white’ (Ichon 1969:137).
2.24.3 Central and East Asia
In Chinese folk belief a white rainbow is a fainter or lighter shade; usually above the fog; all the way up to the sky. White rainbows are rare. They are signs of blood and wars, which could mean good or bad (Zhou 2001).
Without further explanation, the author of a Japanese novel that has been translated into English refers to an experience in which he saw a “white rainbow”
I told the manager and the factory hands about the white rainbow I’d seen on my way to Kai. “Well—so you’ve seen one too!” exclaimed the manager, giving the table a great thump. “I saw one too when I was in Tokyo, on the day before the February 6 Incident. A white rainbow, mark you.” His rainbow, like mine, had crossed the sun horizontally (Ibuse 1979:292).
In some cases, as in this Japanese literary example the reference appears to be a solar or lunar halo or a sun dog rather than a rainbow as such, hence the absence of the expected chromatism.
2.25 Trait 40: Broken Rainbows
In various parts of the British Isles “The broken parts of rainbows seen in a cloudy sky, sometimes called ‘Wind-dogs’ or ‘Weather-galls’, denote stormy, blustery weather to come” (Radford and Radford 1975:279).
2.25.2 Central and South America
The Kaiwá of the Brazil-Argentina-Paraguay border region do not consider a broken rainbow a ‘rainbow’. Instead, they say that “It is a more generalized appearance of the spirit carriers of evil” (David Harthan, p.c., 6/2/82).
2.25.3 Insular Southeast Asia
As noted earlier, the Malays of the state of Perak in the Malay peninsula say “a broken rainbow in the west means the impending death of a raja (prince, king)” (Skeat 1900:15).
Among the Malays of coastal Pahang, a broken rainbow is a sign that an important person will die, or that the country will soon be in turmoil (James T. Collins, p.c., 6/12/82).
The Bare’e of central Sulawesi say that a broken rainbow is a sign that a priestess will die (Adriani and Kruyt 1950:406).
Among the Nage of the island of Flores in eastern Indonesia it is believed that a broken rainbow is very dangerous for children and dogs. Therefore, one calls them home when it appears (Bader 1971:952).
2.25.4 New Guinea and Satellite Islands
The Tawala of southeast New Guinea, believe that the rainbow is a bridge to the afterlife, and that a broken rainbow “is a sign that the person who died was a bad person, and thus has an inadequate bridge to the world of the dead” (Brian Ezard, p.c., from Yailo Robert; 1982).
2.25.5 Pacific Islands
According to the people of Eddystone or Mandegusu island in the Solomons, epidemic disease is due to the Ave, a type of being “whose coming is indicated by the presence of broken rainbows, shooting stars, red clouds, and showers of fine rain while the sun is shining. The symptoms of the disease usually produced by the Ave are fever, headache and cough” (Rivers 1924:47).
To the Maori of New Zealand a broken or pale rainbow was an evil omen (Best 1922:72).
As noted in section 37), the Mundani of Cameroon say that “A broken rainbow means that an important man, as a chief, is going to die” (Julie Kuperus, p.c., 4/82).
2.26 Trait 41: The Rainbow Drinks Water from the Earth or the Sky
Because much of the data relevant to this trait was already mentioned in chapter 6 the treatment here will be abbreviated.
Grimm (1844:695) observed of the Romans that the rainbow was believed to drink water from the earth.
In Russian folklore the rainbow drinks water from lakes, rivers and seas, which then is shed as rain. (Timothy Barnes, p.c., 9/30/17).
2.26.2 South Asia
The Birhor, a jungle tribe of Chōta Nāgpur, India, hold that the rainbow “is formed by water which the Baṇḍē-lēlē snake gurgles out of its mouth” (Roy 1925:497 ff.).
2.26.3 Insular Southeast Asia
As already noted, to the Javanese “the rainbow is a giant snake with two heads of deer or cows, one of which drinks from the Indian Ocean, the other from the Java Sea” (Hooykaas 1956:291).
To the Yoruba of southern Nigeria “the ‘great snake of the underneath’ is the rainbow god. It comes up at times to drink water from the sky. A variety of the python is the messenger of this god” (Ellis 1966:81).
2.27 Trait 42: The End, or Foot of the Rainbow
The end of the rainbow is often associated with unexpected and sometimes bizarre objects, beings, or events. Some of these beliefs are widespread, and so are given separate treatment. Others are more idiosyncratic in their details, but exhibit a common feature: the end of the rainbow is a place of powerful spiritual imbalance, which gives rise to monstrosities of natural form, reversals of nature, and strong physical forces which may rage out of control. There is more than one way to explain this conception. One interpretation is simply that contact with the rainbow is spiritually dangerous, and the end of the rainbow is the only place where contact can occur. Another is that the end of the rainbow is the point where the fundamentally different natures of heaven and earth, the sacred and the profane, meet one another. As such it is a kind of spiritual synapse across which powerful energies may leap and swirl.
2.27.1 North America and Mexico
The Shoshone of the Great Basin in the western United States feared the rainbow. They would say “Someone lost his knife and it is underground. Where the rainbow touches the ground, there is the knife. Don’t point your finger towards it or the rainbow will cut off your finger” (Lowie 1924:293).
2.27.2 Central and South America
As noted already, the Cuaiquer of Colombia consider it unsafe to walk where the rainbow has touched the earth, as this can cause sickness (Vicente Paskal, p.c., 4/22/82).
The Guambiano of Colombia say that whoever stands at a place where the rainbow has recently touched the Earth will get rashes (Ana Leonor de Velasco, p.c., 4/82).
Among the Candoshi of northern Peru it is believed that if a person goes to the end of the rainbow his scalp and skin will become scruffy or rot away, a reference to skin diseases, which are widely believed in other contexts to result from spirit attacks (Wahacha Tsirimpo, p.c., 1982).
2.27.3 Mainland Southeast Asia
In Nepal (ethnolinguistic group not specified) if the foot of a rainbow touches a house, it is said that someone in that house will die (Kirsti Kirjavainen, p.c. from Harkha Pariyar; 1982).
A British colonial official who lived among the Angami Nagas of Assam in eastern India for some years noted that “The Angami’s belief that whoever approaches the foot of the rainbow will die is explained by them by the statement that the spirit of the rainbow will kill the rash person” (Hutton 1921a: 251).
2.27.4 Insular Southeast Asia
The danger associated with the foot of the rainbow is also seen in a belief of the Bontok of northern Luzon, who hold that “When it settles on a river it kills the crabs in the river. The collecting of crabs is a ritual activity during certain ceremonies, and is referred to in some of the ritual prayers, so I suppose the death of crabs interferes with the successful completion of the ceremonies” (Lawrence A. Reid, p.c., 4/7/2000).
As already seen under traits 12–13, the Malays of Perak state say that “an untold treasure lies at the foot of the rainbow” (Skeat 1900:15).
Also noted earlier, it is the belief of the Toba Batak of northern Sumatra in Indonesia that where the foot of the rainbow touches there will be epidemics, fires, etc. (Sitor Situmorang, p.c., 8/3/83).
Among the West Toraja of central Sulawesi, Indonesia, it is
a very bad sign if the foot of the rainbow comes to rest in a village, buffalo pen, pasture or field. If it should come to rest in a village people formerly believed that the enemy would come and murder them all … If the foot of the rainbow comes to rest in a buffalo pen or pasture the buffalos will sicken. If in a field, the Koro Toraja say that the owner may no longer eat the produce … Anyone who is touched by a rainbow will become sick (Kruyt 1938:2:358).
The same people say that in addition to the general sickness caused by contact with a rainbow, if someone steps on the foot of the rainbow “his leg would swell up. The same would happen for a buffalo” (Kruyt 1938:2:358).
Moreover, in some Toraja groups the end of the rainbow is a place of animal teratogenesis: here one finds buffalos with horns on both the head and hindquarters, strange sorts of snakes, pigs and other beasts (Adriani and Kruyt 1950–1951:3:406).
Further south, the Manggarai people of western Flores Island say that where the rainbow has touched the earth people should avoid washing or combing their hair, or it will fall out (Bader 1971:955).
2.27.5 New Guinea and Satellite Islands
The Iatmul claim one is likely to find snakes, crocodiles, and sometimes if one is lucky, small birds and birds’ eggs at the end of the rainbow (Susan Warkentin, p.c. from Joe Mencindimi; 1983).
The Bukaua of the north coast of New Guinea say that the place where a rainbow rises from the Earth holds a man’s gall, which is sprayed upward, coloring the air (Lehner 1911:431).
As noted earlier, the Suau of southeast New Guinea believe that whirlwinds are found at the end of the rainbow (John Lynch, p.c., from Michael Morauta; 1987).
The Burarra in Arnhem Land say “women and children can’t go to the foot of the rainbow. Only men and old people can do this, lest the rainbow hit (kill) the women and children” (Kathy Glasgow, from Katy Cooper, Margaret Garrnyita, and Michael Bururrbuma, p.c., 11/13/83).
2.27.7 Pacific Islands
The Likum people of western Manus Island in the Bismarck archipelago say “If the foot of a rainbow touches a house, someone in that house will die” (Malcolm D. Ross, p.c., 6/25/82).
Among the Telei of Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea it is said that “If the foot of a rainbow touches a village, someone will die there” (Malcolm D. Ross, p.c., 6/25/82).
The Dida of the Ivory Coast hold that thunderbolts occur at the end of the rainbow (Denis Masson, p.c. from M. Sergui Goston; 1982).
Among the Moru of South Sudan it is believed that the foot of the rainbow causes patches of pigmentation on the skin of people who pass it, or whose house the rainbow covers (Darius K. Jonathan, p.c., 1985).
The Mandari of the southern Sudan believe that contact with the end of the rainbow, sometimes provoked by the mediation of a witch, is regarded as a cause of insanity or serious convulsions (Buxton 1973:37).
As noted several times already, among the Ila of Zimbabwe it is believed that “just below where the rainbow touches earth there is a very fierce goat-ram, which burns like fire” (Edwin W. Smith 1920:2:220).
Among various Bantu-speaking peoples of southern Africa, anyone who sees the rainbow “that is, sees the place where its end comes to rest on the earth—runs away as fast as he can: if he sees you he will kill you” (Werner 1933:231).
2.28 Trait 43: The Rainbow in the Morning/Afternoon
In the British Isles people read weather signs from the jingle ‘A rainbow in the morning is the shepherd’s warning ... but a rainbow at night, the rain is gone quite’. “This is often true, because, as weather normally travels from west to east, a morning bow shows rain coming up from the west, and an evening one shows that the rain has passed away” (Radford and Radford 1975:279).
2.28.2 Mainland Southeast Asia
As noted already, the Karen of peninsular Burma and Thailand “are stricken with terror when they observe the rainbow arching the western heavens early in the morning, especially if this sign is accompanied by thunder and earthquake” (Marshall 1922:228).
2.28.3 Insular Southeast Asia
To the West Toraja of Sulawesi in central Indonesia, “A rainbow in the morning means that a prince or shaman shall die” (Kruyt 1938:2:359).
In general, the Toraja fear the rainbow. However, among some groups only the rainbow in the morning is ‘bad’; the others have no significance (Kruyt 1938:2:356).
As mentioned in another context, when the To Napu Toraja of central Sulawesi, Indonesia went to war and saw an afternoon rainbow (pinoraa) before them they were happy, as this was the blood of their enemy; but if they saw a morning rainbow (pingfke) behind them they broke off their adventure, for this meant that it was their blood that would flow (Kruyt 1938:2:356).
2.28.4 New Guinea and Satellite Islands
The Imbonggu people of the Western Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea, say that a rainbow in the afternoon presages frost (Malcolm D. Ross, p.c., 6/25/82).
2.28.5 Pacific Islands
Among the Palauans of western Micronesia a rainbow in the morning is considered a sign of good weather, or a successful day when one can go fishing. If the rainbow is out in the afternoon, then it is a warning: you cannot go out fishing (Sandra Chung, from Roy Ngirchechol, p.c., 2/23/82).
2.29 Trait 44: The Rainbow in the East/West/North/South
Among Roman folk beliefs that were recorded by classical writers, Seneca “tells us that a rainbow in the south portends a heavy fall of rain; one in the west, a dew or light rain” (Wallis 1918:372).
2.29.2 Central and East Asia
The ancient Chinese poem ‘Di-dong’ (‘Rainbow in the East’), composed about 700 B.C., and included in the Shijing (‘Book of Odes’) contains the line “The rainbow is in the east. No one dares to point at it” (Karlgren 1950:33).
Among rural Chinese in northern Jiangsu province in the 1930s the following associations were connected with the appearance of a rainbow in any of the four cardinal directions: rainbow in the east = upcoming fog, rainbow in the west = coming rain, rainbow in the south = selling of children (due to famine), rainbow in the north = warfare (Hsiang-shun Chang, p.c., 1994).
In Shandong province it is said that the emperor will be killed when there is a rainbow in the north.
In Hebei province there will be riots if there is a rainbow in the north, and one has to sell one’s children (due to famine) when there is a rainbow in the south (Zhou 2001).
In Shaanxi province people say if there is a rainbow in the south heavy rain or hailstorms destructive to crops are coming. In Ningxia province if there is a rainbow either in the south or the north one must sell one’s children (due to coming famine). In Qinghai province a rainbow in the south is a sign of coming harm (Zhou 2001).
2.29.3 Central and South America
As noted earlier, to the Muinane of southwestern Colombia, “a rainbow in the west means evil is on the way; the most widely held view is that it signifies blood, and war or fighting will ensue. It can also precede bad disease” (James W. Walton, p.c., from Andres Paky; 4/82).
To the Inga, also in southwest Colombia, a rainbow in the east indicates the coming of the rainy season, and a rainbow in the west the beginning of the dry season (S.H. Levinsohn, p.c., 5/15/82).
For the Kaiwá of the Mato Grosso region of Brazil, a rainbow in the west is an omen that someone is about to die (David Harthan, p.c., 6/2/82).
The Selk’nam of Tierra del Fuego in southern South America say that “When a rainbow appears in the east bad weather follows; if it appears in the west not only is good weather to be expected, but also the instantaneous storms (typical of this region) almost disappear” (Gusinde 1931:686).
The Lengua Indians of the Paraguayan Chaco “greatly fear the rainbow when seen in the west” (Grubb 1911:50 ff.).
2.29.4 Mainland Southeast Asia
The Karen of peninsula Burma and Thailand say that
Hkü Te is the lord of the region of death, the king of hades .... Hkü Te is to be seen as a rainbow in the west occasionally. At such times, according to one version of the legend, he is lowering a tube through which to drink the liquor provided at wedding feasts.... The people say of the rainbow in the east that at the time Teu Kweh, wife of Hkü Te, became the bow of promise in the sky [as] she was pregnant, and, being now separated from the earth, she is seen from time to time in the east going to draw water for herself. The souls of women who die with child are supposed to have no other means of obtaining drink, except from the rainbow divinity (Marshall 1922:227–228).
2.29.5 Insular Southeast Asia
Among the Toraja peoples of central Sulawesi, Indonesia, a rainbow in the west is feared, as it is a sign of imminent death (Adriani and Kruyt 1950–1951:405).
2.29.6 Pacific Islands
The Suau of Milne Bay province in the tail end of New Guinea say that if a rainbow “appears in the East then there are bad times ahead. If it appears in the West then it seems that fine weather is coming” (John Lynch, p.c., from Michael Morauta.; 1987).
To the Mundani of Cameroon “A rainbow in the west means that someone will die in this village; a rainbow in the east means that someone will die in another area” (Julie Kuperus, p.c., 4/82).
It is noteworthy that in many cultures the rainbow has a different significance depending upon its direction relative to the observer. However, there seems to be little cross-cultural agreement in these associations. Note, moreover, that by its nature a rainbow in the west must be a rainbow in the morning, and a rainbow in the east must be a rainbow in the afternoon or early evening. Rainbows along the north-south axis depend on local conditions of topography and rainfall.
2.30 Trait 45: Cutting the Rainbow
This may seem an odd idea, but it is widespread. The notion evidently is that cutting the rainbow is an effective way either to stop excess rainfall, or to release the rain from the rainbow’s hold. Most citations given here support the first interpretation, but the quotation from Wrigley indicates the opposite intent.
2.30.1 Central and East Asia
In parts of mainland Japan it was traditionally said you should pretend to cut a rainbow with a hand or an ax. Otherwise, the rainbow would chase you (Obayashi 1999, from Hiroko Sato, p.c., 12/16/17).
2.30.2 North America and Mexico
Speaking of one of their Tarahumara informants in northern Mexico, Bennett and Zingg (1935:325) say that the rainbow “sometimes approaches very close, indeed. Lorenzo once tried to cut one with his knife, but it escaped.”
The Sierra Popoluca of the state of Vera Cruz in Mexico say that when seeing a rainbow “If rain is not desired a person can make seven cutting motions with his hand and the rainbow should disappear, but his arm will ache for the rest of the day” (Foster 1945:187).
2.30.3 Central and South America
A somewhat different, but perhaps related idea, is found among the Inga of southwest Colombia, who say that “One can protect oneself from the rainbow by making a cross with a machete. This will make the rainbow go away” (S.H. Levinsohn, p.c., 5/15/82). Needless to say, whatever the original indigenous belief was (cutting the rainbow with a machete?), it has now undergone syncretism with Christian elements.
2.30.4 Insular Southeast Asia
Among the Bare’e of central Sulawesi, Indonesia, there is a belief that if a rainbow appears to someone who is travelling it is a sign that the rain will come. To prevent this from happening he hacks at the rainbow several times with his knife, saying “Strike it machete so that the rainbow dies.” After this the rainbow will disappear, and with it the danger of rain (Adriani and Kruyt 1950–1951:3:405–406).
According to Howitt (1996:398) in the now extinct Turrbal tribe, which lived in the vicinity of Brisbane, Australia
when a rainbow was seen at the river, the medicine-man went to the place to ‘cut the rainbow off where its stem held it down to the river bottom.’ There was only one part of the Brisbane River where this was done, and each medicine man had his own part of the river where he could do this when a rainbow placed itself in a favorable position.
2.30.6 Pacific Islands
Among the Mota and closely related peoples of the Banks islands in northern Vanuatu “Children … when a rainbow is seen, play at cutting off its end, toto gasiosio; if they can cut it short there will be no more rain” (Codrington 1972:341).
The Chaga of northern Tanzania tell a story which relates “how a needy Dorobo set out from his home to ask Iruwa (rainbow deity) for cattle .... He came to the end of the rainbow and uttered his prayer. It wasn’t answered, so in anger he drew his sword and cut the rainbow in two” (Werner 1933:233).
In a general statement about the ethnology of the rainbow and its relationship to lightning in African societies, Wrigley (1988:372) writes
The point about the lightning and the rainbow is that, since the primeval separation, they have been the only surviving links between earth and heaven. Both are highly ambiguous powers. Lightning brings the life-giving rains but is himself a killer. Rainbow, in African thought, is a great snake which lives in water, but when it rears into the sky it holds apart the waters of earth and the waters of heaven, and must therefore be severed, beheaded, to release the rains.
Once again, these divergent interpretations illustrate the inherent ambiguity of the rainbow: does it bring, or obstruct the rain? Early humans clearly were undecided about which choice to make. Most importantly, as shown in Chapter 5, exactly the same attribute is given to the Chinese dragon, which has evolved to the point that it no longer has an explicit connection with the rainbow in the mainstream (courtly) tradition, but must have had such a connection in the past, and still does in at least some regional folk traditions.
2.31 Trait 46: The Rainbow Arises from or Enters an Anthill or Termite Mound
Surprisingly, in at least tribal India, Mexico, the Paraguayan-Argentinian frontier in South America, Insular Southeast Asia, and much of Africa, the rainbow is believed to rise from or descend into an anthill or termite mound.
2.31.1 South Asia
The tribal Muria of Andhra Pradesh state in eastern India, say that “The rainbow is the great snake, Bhumtaras, that rises from its ant-hill to stop the rain” (Elwin 1947:262).
2.31.2 North America and Mexico
Among the Otomí people of east-central Mexico “rainbows originate from the red ant’s anthill. This is the thing we see that has many beautiful colors.” The author of this passage includes a line drawing with the caption ‘rainbow originates from the red ant’s anthill’ (Pedraza 1978:1:185).
2.31.3 Central and South America
The Nivaklé Indians of the Argentinian-Paraguayan Chaco, have a story of how the rainbow was formed by a spirit snake:
The rainbow has a master, who is a snake. The rainbow comes out of an anthill which is round and very high. Inside there is a snake with luminous eyes and mouth. Inside the anthill there is humidity. The snake puts that humidity out into the air. And then, on the other side, another snake takes it up. This one, called Tokloklók, has red ribs and chest, and its back is white and black. It has a large head and a tail of the same thickness, but it is not known where the tail is. This snake takes the humidity that comes out of the anthill, and in that way an arch is formed. Tokloklók is a spirit (Wilbert and Simoneau 1987:80).
2.31.4 Insular Southeast Asia
The Dutch colonial anthropologists Nikolaus Adriani and Albert C. Kruyt observed that the Toraja peoples of central Sulawesi, Indonesia “have fantasized much about the rainbow.” Some individual Torajas reportedly believe that the rainbow emerges from a rotten tree trunk and spreads out over the heavens from there, while others say that it arises from the ground in a spot where the onti lei, a large kind of red ant with a vicious bite comes out of its nest (Adriani and Kruyt 1950–1951:407).
The Mandinka and Wolof people of Senegal say that the rainbow arises from a termitary (Denys Creissels, p.c., 11/20/81).
As noted earlier, among the Anyi Sanvi of the Ivory Coast and adjacent parts of Ghana
The rainbow is called nyanngonndon. Some say that it is a symbol for a genie or powerful spirit who takes the form of a snake. Some associate the rainbow with the genie or spirit of gold. It is thought that it comes out of a termite hill accompanied by smoke. When it comes out the gold in that place disappears (Jonathan Burmeister, p.c. from Aka Amalan, 11/24/82).
In west Africa this belief appears to be fairly common. For the Hausa two separate reports confirm its presence. According to Tremearne (1968:218) “The rainbow arises from a well of salt, and enters an ant-hill. It drinks up the rain, thus preventing any more from falling,” while Bargery (1934) gives gajimari 1. rainbow, 2. a spirit supposed to live in old wells, large dead trees, certain ants’ nests, etc., and to come out in the form of the rainbow.
The Mofu or Gudur of northern Nigeria say “The rainbow occurs when the ancestors exit the termite nests to go up to the sky to keep the rain away” (K. Hollingsworth, p.c. from Abdias Galla, 4/16/82).
The Lela of the Democratic Republic of Congo hold that the rainbow python “lives in a termite mound from which it emerges only in rainy weather; to escape its deadly breath one must make a noise” (de Heusch 1982:38).
A similar tradition is found among the Luba-Hemba: “The rainbow is really the vapor or smoke which comes out of the mouth of a great red serpent called Kongolo. The same black smoke sometimes comes out of termite mounds, takes the form of a cloud, and kills anyone in its path” (de Heusch 1982:38).
Werner (1933:231) notes a similar belief among Bantu-speaking peoples in southern Africa without, however, an explicit indication of the ethnic group intended. “Among a number of Bantu-speaking peoples in southern Africa the rainbow is curiously associated with ant-heaps, in which it is supposed to live” (Werner 1933:231).
The most extensive discussion of this unexpected connection is found in de Heusch (1982:54 ff.), who observes that for the Zela and other closely-related peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the rainbow, Nkongolo
appears in a double epiphany: as rainbow, arising from the terrestrial waters to burn the rain, and as serpent, emerging from the termite mounds to threaten men .... For the Zela, the serpent Nkongolo only shows himself, like the rainbow, during the rains. The deadly breath he produces directly affects the rain, according to a belief of the Luba of Kasai, who make a precise equation between the rainbow and the breath of the serpent nkongolo. This colored breath becomes black smoke among the Luba-Hemba, who say that when the Nkongolo spirit is abroad people see a dense and somber vapor moving about, ravaging everything it touches. One might take this belief to refer to whirlwinds, except that Colle, to whom we owe this information, reports that the same smoke is sometimes exhaled by termite mounds. This “dangerous vapor” rising from the ground toward the sky can hardly be other than the nuptial swarm leaving the termite mound at the beginning of the wet season.
Without this insightful passage the connection between rainbows and termite mounds in at least five widely separated parts of the Earth would remain a total mystery. But, with it we can see that both the appearance of rainbows and the rise of nuptial swarms from termite mounds coincide with the onset of the rainy season in the tropics, and that in some cultures the two are connected in a causal relationship. Most importantly, once again we see a physical explanation for globally distributed beliefs about the rainbow that at first appear arbitrary, and we are forcefully reminded that the long-discredited views expressed nearly 130 years ago by Friedrich Max Müller in his 1891 book, Physical Religion, cannot be dismissed out of hand as having no valid applications. Like anyone else, Max Müller may have made mistakes that caused later, overly zealous critics, to dismiss his entire body of work as misguided. But ethnological puzzles that he never considered, or apparently was even aware of, such as the perceived connection between the rainbow and termite mounds in widely separated cultures, now can be explained by adopting an approach very similar to that which he advocated so insistently, namely, one that sees many mythic themes as reflections of preliterate man’s attempts to explain events in the natural environment.
2.32 Summary of the Ethnology of the Rainbow
These multifarious views of the rainbow clearly differ greatly from the conception of the rainbow in Western cultures, where it is seen as an object of beauty (often with a pot of gold at the elusive end), or in the Biblical account, as marking a new covenant between God and man following the flood that (temporarily) cleansed the world of evil. Rather than embracing the rainbow as an inanimate symbol of hope or beauty, most traditional people fear it as something that is animate, inherently evil, and often capable of attacking and harming humans.
This view of the rainbow as a malevolent supernatural is clearly an ancient idea, and it almost certainly was present in much the same form in the mind of our hypothetical Paleolithic observer who was asking “What is it?”. To him or her it must have been an awe-inspiring presence demanding respect, and given the preliterate human tendency to animate nature it was interpreted as a giant spirit snake that spends part of its time in watery realms on earth, and part in the sky.
Despite the amount of material that has been collected here relevant to the ethnology of the rainbow it is likely that I have barely scratched the surface. In many areas little ethnographically focused work has been done, and in others the intrusions of outsiders have been resisted by native people. The richly detailed work of de Heusch on a range of Bantu-speaking peoples in central Africa gives some idea of how much may have been overlooked in reports of beliefs about the rainbow in other parts of the world, most of which are extremely short and sketchy. He begins his 42-page chapter ‘The Rainbow and the Lightning’ with the matter-of-fact, and certainly true statement that “Bantu cosmogonic thought has rarely been the object of scientific inquiry, either because it has appeared impoverished to hasty observers, or because it has been concealed in initiatory teachings barred to ethnography.” This is surely true of other parts of the Earth as well.
In short, what de Heusch has shown convincingly is that the conflict between the lightning and the rainbow among Bantu-speaking populations in central Africa expresses a total worldview that is central to the mental lives of these people, and not just a random folk belief or two without further connections. These two natural phenomena clash, the lightning representing the wet season and the coming of the life-giving rains, and the rainbow the dry season and a tendency to hold back the rain. The conflict between these celestial adversaries is reflected in myth and folklore, and—most importantly—it is strikingly parallel to the conflict between the Thunderbird (= lightning) and the horned water serpent (= rainbow) among native peoples in North America who do not associate their version of the dragon with the rainbow, strongly suggesting a common underlying belief system that has been transformed from rainbow to Rainbow Serpent to dragon.
In one of the most comprehensive attempts to understand the Rainbow Serpent myth, Lœwenstein (1961) briefly surveyed beliefs about the rainbow in several parts of the world, including the Negritos of the Malay peninsula and Andaman Islands, and the native peoples of Australia, Africa and South America. Although he did not discuss the dragon as such, he noted the striking association of rainbows with serpents in widely separated regions, and sought to find an explanation for why humans had independently struck upon this correlation again and again. His conclusion was that the association of rainbows with snakes happens only in those parts of the world where the largest snakes are found:
Myths of a giant rainbow-serpent are common among tribes inhabiting the tropics. Outside the tropical belt the rainbow-serpent concept is hardly to be found. This points to the fact that the myth must be intimately connected with the occurrence and geographic distribution of a particular family of snakes, the Boidae, which includes the largest specimens in existence, namely the Pythons and the Boas (Lœwenstein 1961:37).
In the latter category he includes the Python reticulatus, extending from eastern India to the Malay peninsula and much of insular Southeast Asia, the Python spilotes of New Guinea and Australia, the Python amethystinus of northern Australia, the Python sebae or Rock Python of the African continent, and the anaconda or Eunectes murinus, of northern South America. From this point on Lœwenstein’s argument simply loses control, as he believes that the Rainbow Serpent complex was inspired by the sight of exceptionally large snakes, which were compared with the rainbow because of their colorful skin. Rather than arising from a desire to understand the nature of the rainbow, then, to him the Rainbow Serpent complex arose from serpent worship, and this could only have happened in tropical areas where large snakes abound. To account for the global distribution of the Rainbow Serpent complex he was then forced into a radical diffusionist argument:
However, zoological evidence alone cannot explain the almost worldwide distribution of the rainbow-serpent myth. In fact, it seems most improbable that this myth, which shows common traits everywhere, should have originated independently in widely separated parts of the tropical world. There is thus ground for believing that this concept was diffused in very early times by Negro and negroid peoples, to whom alone it seems to be truly indigenous (Lœwenstein 1961:38).
The chain of inference then deteriorates rapidly, as Lœwenstein is forced to assume that Southeast Asian Negritos spread their ideas about serpent worship into Australia, and the western Pacific. He refrains from suggesting that a Negrito foraging population could have crossed the Pacific Ocean to introduce the Rainbow Serpent complex into South America, but here he is saved by Africa, if one is willing to follow an even more contorted trail of reasoning:
As far as the rainbow-serpent myths of the New World tropics are concerned, there is nothing to show that these tales are truly indigenous to the South American Indians. On the contrary, the strange mixture with Christian and other beliefs and the striking affinities to myths recorded in Africa and elsewhere suggest a foreign origin. Moreover, it is well known that the South American Indians have all to some degree crossed with other races and that many of them have Negro blood. It thus appears that serpent beliefs were borrowed from Negro ideology at the time of the slave traffic with West Africa, which began in the second half of the 16th century and continued until after the middle of the 19th century (Lœwenstein 1961:40).
Although there is undeniable scholarly merit in this article, its argument is tortured, and in the end falls back on baseless assertions (e.g., that the Rainbow Serpent complex in South America was borrowed from imported African slaves). I do not want to suggest that nothing can be salvaged from it, although it clearly leaves us unable to account for any of the traits of rainbows discussed in this chapter, and never broaches the topic of dragons.
There is no question that the Rainbow Serpent myth is more transparent in tropical areas, probably because exposure to large snakes reinforces an association between the rainbow and a gigantic spirit-snake. It may even be that the Rainbow Serpent idea first originated in our early human ancestors before leaving the tropical cradle of humanity in Africa. But to suggest that the same association never existed in other areas is a fundamental mistake, since wherever dragons are found they must have evolved from the Rainbow Serpent, as already shown in detail, and as will be further summarized in Chapter 9. Lœwenstein’s major contribution may have been to show that the separation of the rainbow from the mythical serpent that was born from it has happened more readily and more completely in areas outside the tropics (which he never mentions) than within the tropics. But because the rise of literacy happened earlier in non-tropical areas than in the tropics, many areas of the world with large snakes (pythons, anacondas) tended to remain preliterate until the past century or two, making it difficult to separate factors of the physical or biotic environment from factors of culture. In any case, scientific theories stand or fall depending only on their ability to explain observations, and Lœwenstein’s theory of the origin of the Rainbow Serpent complex leaves a host of relevant observations (e.g., most of those in this chapter) with no explanation.
Despite these obvious shortcomings, a very similar idea is found right up to the present in Wikipedia, where we read that “four snakes may have served as inspiration for the Rainbow Serpent. These include the Scrub or Amethystine Python, the taipan, and the file snake, each of which possesses a characteristic that was associated with the Rainbow Serpent, however the most likely inspiration for the Rainbow Serpent is speculated to be the Water Python (Liasis Fuscus).” Again in this passage we see a reversal of cause and effect. Animistic thinking ascribes spirit beings or properties to features of the natural world—it does not ascribe features of the natural world to spirit beings. The ethnology of the rainbow shows that across nearly all cultures the rainbow is seen as a spirit being, and no matter how much snakes are feared or revered, they are features of the natural world, not spirit beings.
The error here needs to be emphasized, since it is repeated in different sources. Rather than seeing the self-evident need of preliterate humans to explain the nature of the rainbow, and the choice of a locally available snake as a physical model for this explanation, the writer of this piece offers an inverted argument in which the Rainbow Serpent concept arose because snakes were thought to be like rainbows, rather than rainbows being like snakes. If this reversed causation were correct, why would Rainbow Serpents (and dragons) be controllers of the weather, inhabit waterfalls, be at odds with thunder and lightning in widely-separated regions, or be bisexual, to choose only some of the traits of dragons and Rainbow Serpents that have been discussed so far? These are clearly beliefs about rainbows, not about snakes. Or, to choose the Water Python, which, it is speculated, inspired the fear of aboriginal Australians to approach waterholes, how can the similar fear of approaching ‘dragon springs’ in rural Macedonia early in the twentieth century (trait 2 in Chapter 5), of dragon-haunted wells in China (which are man-made, and clearly free of actual snakes), or of lakes or rivers guarded by the horned water serpent in North America be explained? Or should the detailed similarities in these beliefs around the world just be treated as a massive coincidence?
Two other comparative studies which touch on the Rainbow Serpent idea can be mentioned briefly.
In the first of these Hopkins (1931) discusses the same ideograph in an oracle bone inscription from Shang dynasty China that was mentioned in earlier chapters as having the shape of a rainbow with heads of animals at either end (cf. Hentze 1966 and Eberhard 1968). Hopkins observes correctly that this graphic symbol links the rainbow with the dragon in a way that is far more obvious than in later periods of Chinese history when the writing system had largely lost its connection with pictorial representation, but rather than pursuing a lead that could have been truly enlightening, he spends the rest of this article arguing for the superiority of his interpretation of the double-headed rainbow over that of a Japanese scholar whose views differ from his. In the end, nothing is concluded except that the rainbow and dragon were linked some 3,600 years ago in Shang dynasty China. There is no attempt to explain why this was the case, and none of the traits needed to complete the story of how the dragon evolved from the rainbow receive any further mention.
In the second study Ivanov and Toporov (1970) provide a Lévi-Straussian interpretation of some Lithuanian and Byelorussian myths of the thunder god and his relationship to the serpent in a kind of dualistic upper-world vs. lower-world relationship. In the course of proposing an analysis of these myths they recognize such curiosities as the transformation between the serpent and humans, horses or cattle (1970:1190, 1193), and parallels between the serpent myths of Indo-European speaking peoples and African traditions (1970:1201), but at no point do they propose a theory relating the dragon idea to an evolution from the Rainbow Serpent.
Surprisingly, even experienced scholars have failed to do more than make a tentative beginning in understanding the ethnology of the rainbow. With regard to the indigenous peoples of southern Oregon and northern California, for example, Claude Lévi-Strauss maintained on the basis of myth analysis and the scattered association of the rainbow with birth that “All the tribes in this area that attribute a sinister nature to parahelia would seem to consider them as being in opposition to the rainbow, which connotes life” (Lévi-Strauss 1981:243). However, this conclusion is hardly consistent with the picture one has from the results of the University of California Culture Element Distribution surveys that were conducted over much of the same area in the 1940s, where the rainbow is widely reported as a menace to young women, particularly if they are menstruating (Essene 1942, Voegelin 1942), or as an evil sign (Voegelin 1942 for the Modoc, Western Achumawi or Achumawi Proper, Eastern Achumawi or Hammawi, McCloud River Wintu, Sacramento River Wintu, Foothill Nisenan). Similarly, his remarks on beliefs about the rainbow in South America appear fragmentary and incomplete, as where he says (1970:246) “In South America the rainbow has a double meaning. On the one hand, as elsewhere, it announces the end of rain; on the other hand, it is considered to be responsible for diseases and various natural disasters.” As should be clear by now, and as Lévi-Strauss partially recognized, neither of these ideas is confined to South America, and there are other meanings than these that are widely associated with the rainbow in South America and elsewhere.
In short, the appearance of a rainbow clearly mystified early man, since its causality was obscure. Most things in nature behave according to regular, predictable patterns, and so have been accepted since time immemorial as simply the way the natural world works. Those that break this pattern and challenge the wits of ordinary people became the stuff of the spirit world. This is as true of plants or animals as it is of physical phenomena. Why are mushrooms, which—unlike any other type of plant—appear suddenly overnight, often connected with the realm of spirits? Could it be because their atypical growth pattern baffled the minds of preliterate humans? (Blust 2000b). In much the same way, the sudden appearance (and disappearance) of rainbows challenged the understanding of prescientific minds. Unlike much of what has been written about dragons, this is not empty speculation, but can be documented by informant statements. Walker (1980:71–72), for example, points out that among the Lakota of the northern plains, certain things are considered wakan (sacred/mysterious), and that
They have power over men and things. They are wo wakan (belong to the mysterious). They are taku wakan (things mysterious). The wakinyan (Thunderbird) is one .... The sun, the moon, the morning star, the evening star, the north star, the seven stars, the six stars, the rainbow—these are all wakan.
A similar idea was expressed to the writer in a personal communication from a Hopi man who belonged to a traditional faction of the tribe. He related that as a child he had been warned against pointing at the rainbow, but that he and his playmates had just laughed about it. However, on reaching adulthood, he said, he had begun to see the need to “respect” something “special” like the rainbow.
Sunshowers (rain while the sun is shining) are naturally associated with rainbows, since it is exactly this combination that is needed for a rainbow to appear. However, sunshowers are commonly distinguished from rainbows, since they may occur without chromatic visual effects, and so stand somewhat apart from the other phenomena considered here. In effect a sunshower is an event that typically occurs when a rainbow appears, but in which the focus of attention is on the contact of rain with the human body, rather than on the spectacular colors produced by the contact of the rain with sunbeams overhead.
So far as is currently known, there are two belief systems associated with sunshowers. The first concerns the danger to humans, and especially to children, of being touched by the raindrops in a sunshower. The second is a more widely distributed and puzzling belief that during a sunshower a catlike or doglike animal is getting “married” or is giving birth (Blust 1999a).
3.1 Sunshowers as ‘Hot Rain’
Over much of insular Southeast Asia, and at least parts of the mainland, a sunshower is called ‘hot rain’ (Malay hujan panas), where ‘hot’ (panas) has a double significance. First, it describes the fact that rain is falling while the sun continues to shine, and second it refers to the symbolic hot/cool contrast in which ‘hot’ marks persons, things or situations which are ritually or spiritually out of balance, and thus unsafe to contact until a ritual or spiritual balance has been re-established by ceremonies of ‘cooling’ (James J. Fox 1972:108, Sather 1993:85). During sunshowers people are advised to stay indoors and avoid contact with the ‘hot rain’, and this applies especially to young children, who are perhaps more likely to be outside playing despite the weather. The reason for this belief evidently is that evil spirits are thought to be about in this time of abnormality (sun and rain together), and the raindrops are therefore supernaturally charged with malevolent power. Given the menacing attributes imputed to the rainbow by many traditional peoples this attitude toward sunshowers is perhaps not surprising. The following is a selection of references to sunshowers taken from my larger corpus of beliefs about the rainbow.
3.1.1 Mainland Southeast Asia
Among the Kintak Bong and Menik Kaien Negritos “expectant women must not go out during “hot rain” (i.e., rain when the sun is shining), which is much feared” (Evans 1923:208).
The Jehai Negritos of the Malay peninsula “Believe in Hurā, the rainbow snake, which sometimes scatters the water from its bath and causes “hot rain”, which must be avoided” (Evans 1937:167).
Other unspecified Negritos of the Malay peninsula say with reference to the thunder god Kari that
under the heaven called Tasig, beneath Kari’s seat, begins the gigantic body of the rainbow snake, Ikub Huyā or Hoyā, which extends to the regions of hell. It lets water from the nether deep through to the earth at Ple’s (chief deity) command for the Semang to drink by pushing its head through the flat earth-crust, and thus causing springs of water ... to rise. The light drizzling rain that falls when a rainbow is visible is the sweat of the reptile, and if it happens to fall on anyone who is not wearing a particular kind of armband, it causes the sickness called ‘lininka’ (Evans 1937:206).
3.1.2 Insular Southeast Asia
Among the Manobo of Mindanao in the southern Philippines, “When it is a sunny day and it rains, one should not go out because the evil spirits are roaming around. One can, however, get rid of such evil spirits by tying his hair with a strand of cogon grass (Imperata cylindrica) to scare them off” (Demetrio 1991:2:379, item 6811).
The Tempasuk Dusun of North Borneo dislike and fear ‘hot rain’:
The general idea, both in Malaya and among the Dusuns, is that evil spirits are much in evidence and particularly virulent during showers of this kind .... If ‘hot rain’ comes on, people take pieces of grass, lalang grass (Imperata cylindrica) being preferred if any can be obtained, and set them in the front of their sun-hats or head-dresses. The spirits, seeing the grass, say that the persons wearing it have marks on them and therefore must not be touched. A shrub called patai manok (‘kill bird’) is equally as efficient as lalang grass. (Evans 1953:189).
The Enggano in the Barrier islands west of Sumatra, Indonesia have a story which makes the point that “When people go walking while the sun is shining and rain is falling, they will become ill. They make the demon (of the rainbow/sunshower) responsible for their illness (fever, headache)” (Kähler 1975:122).
Among the Alune of Seram in the Moluccas of eastern Indonesia, sunshowers (ulane ‘abalane) are considered to bear illness—flu-like symptoms. “Young children are strongly discouraged from going out or playing in sunshowers. A piece of ginger may be attached to the child’s clothes to protect him/her” (Margaret Florey, p.c., 2/12/98).
3.1.3 New Guinea and Satellite Islands
The Tambul-Korika of the central highlands believe that “at such times when it rains while the sun shines it is something wonderful, happiness; people enjoy that moment” (John Lynch, p.c., 1987).
The Dedua of the Finschhafen area say that “during a sunshower children must be hurried indoors lest the rain bring sickness to them” (Metone Wamma, p.c.).
Among the Tawala of southeast New Guinea, during a sunshower “It is believed that a person will die, and people, especially babies, should not be exposed to the weather” (John Lynch, p.c. from Gouli Tarumuri 1987).
The Suau of Milne Bay province in New Guinea say with reference to sunshowers that “For children, it is bad for such rain to touch them. It is believed that such rain brings sickness and illness to the children” (John Lynch, p.c. from Michael Morauta, 1987).
3.1.4 Pacific Islands
Among the Arosi of San Cristobal (Makira) island in the Southeast Solomons a sunshower is called utaora, where uta = ‘rain’ and ora = ‘be possessed of a foul ghost, of man or stone’, reflecting the negative ideas the people have about this phenomenon. An alternative term is arito ‘a sunshower; to shine in rainy weather; to clear up, of the weather (people keep indoors at such times for fear of ghosts)’ (Fox 1970).
In Gilbertese of eastern Micronesia, both ririŋa ni moan atu ‘morning sun between two showers’, and ririŋa ni moan wae ‘evening sun between two showers’, are signs of death (Sabatier 1971:320).
To the Chuukese of eastern Micronesia “A sunshower is a bad omen. It is a sign that someone important will die. If the rain from a sunshower touches a pregnant woman she may miscarry, as it is a malevolent spirit trying to kill her unborn child” (John Sound, p.c., 1985).
The known distribution of this belief complex is limited to speakers of Austronesian languages in insular Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands, to Austroasiatic-speaking Negritos that have been in prolonged contact with Malays, and to one Papuan-speaking population (Dedua in the Finschhafen region of New Guinea, where it may have been borrowed from an Austronesian-speaking group). It is likely to have a wider distribution, but this is yet to be determined. The general pattern is clearly negative, and associated with behavioral taboos, although the belief among the Tambul-Korika (a Papuan-speaking group that is not in touch with Austronesian speakers) stands sharply apart from the others.
3.2 Sunshowers as a Sign of Bestial Parturition
Alinei (1983) provides an invaluable collection of terms for the rainbow in European languages, including many normally inaccessible dialect forms. In a section discussing the use of animal names for the rainbow, he notes the occurrence of ‘fox’s belt’, ‘fox’s clothes’, and ‘fox’s wedding’ in Bulgaria and the Ukraine, and of the first and last of these terms in a border area between Spain and Portugal. He then adds (1983:52) “As is known, ‘Fox’s wedding’ is an extremely common name for the ‘rain with sunshine.’ Lack of space prevents us from dwelling on this quite interesting semantic association.”
Although he briefly notes a lexical connection between ‘fox’ and ‘rainbow’ in one Caucasian language (Khvarsh), given the geographical domain with which he is otherwise concerned, Alinei’s aborted reference to the equation sunshower = fox’s wedding as being “extremely common” presumably relates to other parts of Europe. What he does not mention is that a virtually identical belief in found throughout Japan: from Hokkaido to the Ryukyus a sunshower is called by the expression kitsuno no yomeiri, ‘the fox’s wedding’ (Kakuko Shoji, p.c., 2000).
There is a strong temptation to attribute this agreement to diffusion, despite the great distances involved. It is at least conceivable that the equation ‘sunshower = fox’s wedding’ is common to many parts of central Asia and the Near East, but has simply not been reported. What undermines the credibility of diffusion in this case is the discovery that the fox’s wedding is but one of several closely similar beliefs over a wider area which connect a feline or canine animal, usually in the act of giving birth, with a sunshower.
3.2.2 The Near East
As noted by Vaux (1998), a sunshower is called ‘the fox’s wedding’ in Armenian.
3.2.3 South Asia
Over much of India a sunshower is called ‘the jackal’s wedding’ (Kuusi 1957).
3.2.4 Central and East Asia
In Korea a sunshower is said to signal that the tiger is taking a bride, although in some districts the fox’s wedding is also reported (Min-Sun Song, p.c., 1999).
The Japanese tradition of the ‘fox’s wedding’ has been presented cinematically in a particularly memorable form in the opening scenes of Akira Kurosawa’s film, ‘Dreams’ (1990). A young boy is playing in a sunshower, and in great concern his mother hurries him indoors to safety. From there they listen, as a faint sound of festive music comes drifting through the forest, growing ever louder. In a few minutes, accompanied by his retinue the fox appears through the trees, dressed in splendid finery for his wedding. As the startled and incredulous boy watches in wonder, the procession continues past his house until it fades into the distance. The viewer is left believing that this is pure art created by a masterful filmmaker, but as already seen above, it draws on a folk tradition of unknown antiquity.
3.2.5 Mainland Southeast Asia
Evans (1923:208) reports a distinct, but similar belief among the Austroasiatic-speaking Malayan aborigines: “According to the Sakai of Jeram Kawan (Sungkai) … when there comes a shower followed by sunshine, the rainbow springs from a place where a tiger has been sick.”
3.2.6 Insular Southeast Asia
During a sunshower the Toba Batak of northern Sumatra simply say that tigers are roaming about, but the Sundanese of west Java say either that a sunshower is caused by a tiger coming out of the jungle to dry himself in the sun (presumably by shaking his fur) after being dampened by the rain, or that a tiger has given birth (Dudu Prawiraatmaja, p.c., 1983).
In Balinese the expression udan ai ‘sun rain’ is said to be a time when evil spirits that inhabit rivers and quiet places are giving birth (Adrian Clynes, p.c., 1998).
Speakers of Rif and Kabyle Berber in Algeria reportedly call a sunshower ‘the jackal’s wedding’ (Kuusi 1957:233).
According to Philip Hewer (p.c., 1982), the Northern Chumburu of Ghana consider the appropriate comment on seeing a rainbow to be “the elephant has given birth.” Here “on seeing a rainbow” presumably means “during a sunshower.”
Closely similar is the belief among the Ijo of Nigeria that during a sunshower a leopard is giving birth in the forest (Kay Williamson, p.c., 1982).
During sunshowers the Moru of South Sudan say a hyena is giving birth (Darius Jonathan p.c., 1985).
The Haya of the western edge of Lake Victoria in Tanzania believe that during a sunshower a lion is giving birth (Abdul Khamisi, p.c., 1998).
A variant of the connection between sunshowers and animals is found among the Ngaju Dayak of southeast Borneo, where a sunshower is said to be a time when binatang purba (animals from the ancient past) wander about the Earth (Durdje Durasid, p.c., 1983).
3.3 Summary of the Ethnology of Sunshowers
Kuusi (1957) lists no fewer than 145 beliefs associated with sunshowers around the world, and orders them by frequency (cf. Blust 1999a: 496–498 for a detailed summary). The most common of these, which is widespread in the rural southern United States, is ‘the Devil is beating his wife’, although this is reported only in Europe and among European-derived populations in the Americas. The fox’s wedding ranks fifth of the 145 variants in Kuusi’s list, but has a far wider distribution. Other beliefs about sunshowers that seem clearly related to ‘the fox’s wedding’ are ‘the jackal’s wedding’, attested in India and North Africa, and a number of other variants given by Vaux (1998), including ‘the mouse’s wedding’ in Finland, ‘the bear’s wedding’ in Bulgaria, ‘the rat’s wedding’ in Lebanon and Syria, ‘the wolf’s wedding’ among Aramaic speakers in Iran, ‘the monkey’s wedding’ in Zulu, Afrikaans and South African English, ‘the hyena is giving birth’ among Amharic speakers in Ethiopia, and ‘the fox is giving birth’ among Tigrinya speakers in Ethiopia.
The distribution of this apparently arbitrary association raises basic questions about origin. Since it appears to be absent among indigenous peoples in New Guinea, Australia, or the Americas, there is a temptation to assume that its presence over much of the Eurasian landmass is due to diffusion. However, since ‘the fox’s wedding’ occurs from Japan in the east to Finland and Portugal in the west, and extends in a somewhat different form into Southeast Asia and over much of Africa, diffusion alone appears improbable. Folklorists have been willing to assume diffusion for the widespread occurrence of some folktales (Dorson 1968), but these have entertainment value, which presumably would make them easier to borrow, whereas ‘the fox’s wedding’ in popular belief appears to be nothing more than a statement about sunshowers.
There is an intriguing pattern to this belief. In general it appears to involve animal parturition in connection with sunshowers as distinct from rainbows, and the association is with a cat-like or dog-like animal (the hyena is neither, but is common perceived as canine; the mouse or elephant are simply aberrations, but have a restricted distribution). In Europe, the Near East and East Asia we see what in comparative perspective appears to be an ameliorative reinterpretation: the notion of parturition is shifted to that of conjugal union, and hence the reference is elevated from an act of nature (giving birth) to a human cultural construct (marriage). Rather than taking all instances of this surprising agreement as evidence for diffusion, then, the ‘wedding’ variants can more plausibly be seen as parallel reinterpretations of an ancient belief that has survived in more vestigial form in preliterate cultures. But serious unanswered questions remain: how old would such a belief be, and why would it have arisen in the first place?
4 The Rainbow Taboo
As explained in the Preface, the ‘Rainbow Taboo’ (RT) is a globally distributed belief that one should not point at a rainbow with the extended index finger, lest the finger become permanently bent, rot, be supernaturally severed, or just fall off. The reader will recall that I discovered the RT in Indonesia by accident, and it was my efforts to understand the motivation for this belief that led in time to a search for the origin of dragons.
Some scholars have recognized the distribution of the RT on a continental scale. Commenting specifically on the Cherokee Indians, whose homeland was the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and adjacent areas in North Carolina, the anthropologist James Mooney (1970:442), for example, observed that not only do the Cherokee have the RT, but “For some unexplained reason the dread of pointing at the rainbow, on penalty of having the finger wither or become misshapen, is found among most of the tribes, even to the Pacific coast. The author first heard of it from a Puyallup boy of Puget Sound, Washington.” The book from which this quotation is taken was originally published in 1900, and it is to Mooney’s credit that he recognized the wide distribution of the RT among the native peoples of North America. However, he appears to have been unaware that the same belief is found in many other areas, including Europe, and he made no attempt to explain why it exists. Other well-known references to the RT are Thompson (1955–1958:1, C843.1), who gives only “Tabu: pointing at rainbow”, *Fb, “regnbue”, which appears to draw entirely on Feilberg (1886–1914), and hence is limited to Europe, Leach and Fried (1972:922–923), who note that the RT is found among various North American Indians, and appears as Thompson’s folktale motif C843.1, but draw no further conclusions, and Hole (1995:2155), who states more broadly, but non-specifically that “A common tradition, found in many regions, is that it is extremely unlucky to point directly at a rainbow, as indeed it is to point at the sun, the moon, or any star.” None of these statements makes any attempt at explanation.
Because it is a true culture universal, it is important that the RT be documented on a global scale, and that was done in Blust (2021). However, because it is only marginally related to the origin of the dragon idea the treatment here will be limited to providing minimal evidence that it is a culture universal, and to presenting the main outlines of why it exists at all.
Before citing specific cases a word about culture universals will be helpful. Culture universals need not be found in all cultures. Over the past half century linguists have perhaps given more thought to the question of universals than scholars in other social sciences, and the consensus is that a language universal is found with a distribution that cannot readily be explained by chance, contact (borrowing), or common origin from an identifiable ancestral community (Greenberg 1978). Once these potential explanations of a trait distribution are eliminated the only remaining alternative is independent invention, and when this occurs on a massive scale it implies a common cause in the psychological make-up of human beings.
Although my files for the RT are much more extensive, the following data provides minimal evidence that this trait must either have arisen independently countless times in human societies, or that it continues a similar taboo from the beginnings of human reactions to the rainbow with the earliest Homo sapiens some 150,000–200,000 years ago:
In Denmark a little over a century ago the rainbow taboo was still alive and well, as we learn from (Feilberg 1886–1914:2:800), who observed that “Among the country folk of the Jutland peninsula it is said that one should not point at a rainbow, at lightning or at a lunar or solar eclipse with a single finger, or it will become infected and swollen. One may, however, point with the entire hand.”
In eighteenth century Germany the common people held that “It is forbidden to point at a rainbow, for it is regarded as the visage of an angel.” An admonition to this effect appeared in 1754 in the edicts of the city of Braunschweig in Lower Saxony (Grimm 1844:695).
In the nineteenth century speakers of Czech still believed that “If one should point at the rainbow with the finger or the hand it thunders at once, or the finger falls from the hand” (Gaidoz and Rolland 1884–1893:2:16).
4.2 Central and East Asia
The classical Chinese text, the Shijing (‘Book of Odes’) from the eleventh to sixth century BCE, states that it was forbidden to point at a rainbow in the East lest the hand be instantly ulcerated (Grimm 1844:695, Gaidoz and Rolland 1884–1893:216).
In Okinawa and some parts of mainland Japan “it was traditionally believed that you shouldn’t point your finger at rainbows. Otherwise, that finger would get bad and fall off” (Obayashi 1999, from Hiroko Sato, p.c., 12/16/17).
4.3 North America and Mexico
The Thompson Indians of British Columbia “were afraid to point at the rainbow, because, if they did, their fingers would become covered with sores. If they wished to point at it, they wet their little finger in their mouth, or spat on it” (Teit 1900:346).
The Shasta of the California-Oregon border region say that “After painting, the sun sometimes threw out his wash water, which made the rainbow. Should one point at it, his finger would be crooked like the rainbow” (Holt 1946:327).
The Teton Lakota of the northern plains of the United States say that people are “afraid to point at a rainbow with the index finger, though they can point at it with the lips or the elbow. Should one forget and point with the index finger, the bystanders laugh at him, saying “By and by, O friend, when your finger becomes large and round, let us have it for a ball bat” ” (Dorsey 1889:137).
Among the Hopi of northeast Arizona children are told that if they point at a rainbow their index finger will fall off, although they may gesture instead with the lips. If someone forgets and points, he bites the finger to expel the curse (communication from an anonymous staff member of Techqua Ikachi, a newsletter distributed by the traditional faction of the Hopi nation, at Hotevilla, Arizona).
For the Navaho “It is thought unlucky ... to point at a rainbow with any digit but the thumb. If you point with one of the fingers, they say that you will get a felon [whitlow] on it” (Matthews 1902:314.).
According to Mexican folk belief “It is bad to point toward the rainbow, because it will rot your finger or cause tooth decay” (Carrasco 1960:107).
The Otomí of Hidalgo, south-central Mexico say that “Anyone who points out a rainbow will get warts on his hands” (Pedraza 1978:1:184).
For the Tzotzil of Chiapas, southern Mexico, “A child should not point at the rainbow lest his finger rot away, nor should he stare at it, lest his belly button rot away” (Laughlin 1975:232).
4.4 Central and South America
Among the Mam of Todos Santos, Guatemala “Children are told not to point at a rainbow with the index finger, as this could cause the finger to become diseased, or could even cause their death. They may, however, gesture toward it with the lips” (Richard Reimer, p.c., 1982).
The Inga of western Colombia warn children not to point at a rainbow, lest their finger rot. “They may, however, gesture with impunity if they use the lips or chin, the normal way of pointing at anything” (S.H. Levinsohn, p.c., 4/82).
In Brazilian folk culture it is said that one should not point at a rainbow with the index finger, or a wart will appear on it. It is nonetheless permissible to point with the hand, or by a gesture of the lips (Maria de Lourdes Sampaio, p.c., 1983).
The Toba in the Gran Chaco of Paraguay say “Never point at a rainbow, lest your finger remain crooked” (Métraux 1946:39), and in the same area the Enxet Sur (Lengua) say “pointing at the rainbow can cause your finger to burn up or fall off” (John Elliott, p.c., 12/13/18).
4.5 Mainland Southeast Asia
The Lakher on the Burma-Assam border say “It is unlucky to point at a rainbow, and it is believed that a finger that points at a rainbow will get chopped off accidentally by a dao (= machete) or a sharp bamboo. To prevent such an unfortunate eventuality, if a Lakher boy inadvertently points his finger at a rainbow he must put it up his anus; there is no other remedy” Parry (1932:499).
According to many Thai speakers “If you point at a rainbow your finger will be cut off, or the like. If a child should unthinkingly point he/she should stick the offending finger in a heap of carabao dung or, according to some people, up his or her anus” (Lertdow Sayankena, p.c., 1986).
Among the Karen of peninsular Burma and Thailand, “if one should point at ... a rainbow, he would at once thrust his finger into his navel in order to avoid the loss of the offending member” (Marshall 1922:228).
Among peninsular Malays of Pahang “One may not point at a rainbow with the index finger, lest the offending hand rot or fall off, although it is permissible to gesture toward it with the lips or eyes. If one forgets and points, he must spit on his index finger to prevent possible harm” (James T. Collins, p.c., 1983).
4.6 Insular Southeast Asia
Among Ilokano and Tagalog speakers of northern and central Luzon, Philippines “One must not point at the rainbow or one’s index finger will be permanently bent” (Priscilia Reid, p.c., 1986).
Likewise, the Manobo of Mindanao in the southern Philippines hold that “On no account must the finger be pointed at the rainbow, as it might become curved” (Garvan 1941:224).
The Tboli on the same island warn children “Don’t point at a rainbow, as your finger might swell. But if you forget and point, put your finger in your mouth” (Forsberg and Lindquist 1955:49).
The Toba Batak people of northern Sumatra in Indonesia say that it is “bad” to point at a rainbow with the extended finger, although this is possible if the index finger is bent back at the second joint (Sitor Situmorang, p.c., 8/3/83).
The Sundanese of west Java, Indonesia, warn children not to point at a rainbow, or the finger in question will be supernaturally infected by a maggot (Sundanese: hileud-en, from hileud ‘maggot’), and swell up (Dudu Prawiraatmaja, p.c., 1981).
Among the Javanese of central Java there is (or was) a belief “that to point at a rainbow would cause a bent finger, but it was actually a joke, because nothing ever happened. To counter the effect, you should poke the finger in buffalo dung” (Stuart Robson, p.c., 6/29/83).
Among the Wolio on the island of Buton south of Sulawesi “It is forbidden to point at a rainbow with the index finger, but no harm will result if the finger is doubled back at the middle joint while pointing” (J.C. Anceaux, p.c., 1983).
The Manggarai of western Flores, in the Lesser Sunda islands of eastern Indonesia say “Whoever has inadvertently pointed at a rainbow must immediately thrust the finger up his anus so that it does not become permanently rigid, or fall off altogether” (Ndanu of Nekang, in Bader 1971:953).
Among the Kédang of eastern Lembata island in eastern Indonesia, there is a “fear of pointing at a nado-tado, that is a rainbow or any other rising effulgence of a spirit. If one does point, one runs the risk that one’s finger will be permanently bent” (Barnes 1974:216).
To the Buli of southeast Halmahera in the northern Moluccas of Indonesia “The rainbow, rai is charged with magical power. If one points at it, his finger will wither” (Maan 1940:92).
4.7 New Guinea and Satellite Islands
Among the Biak of the Bird’s Head region of New Guinea it is said that one should not point at a rainbow lest his finger become bent (Johsz Mansoben, p.c., 1986).
According to the Imbonggu people of the Western Highlands province, Papua New Guinea, people are told not to point at a rainbow, or their hand will be chopped off. If a young child were to commit this offense its mother’s breast would be chopped off (Malcolm D. Ross, 6/25/82).
Among the Kalam of the upper Kaironk Valley in the Schrader Mountains of New Guinea, “Children are told not to point at a rainbow, or their mother will get a sore on the breast” (Saem Majnep, p.c., 1986).
According to the Tambul-Korika people west of Mount Hagen in the Western Highlands Province of New Guinea, “Children are told not to point at a rainbow, or their index finger will become bent and twisted, or will be cut off” (John Lynch, p.c., 1987).
Among the Keweng or Kewieng of the Finisterre range in New Guinea “Children are told not to point at a rainbow with the index finger, since this may prevent the growth of plants in the garden. One can point with impunity in any other way” (Malcolm D. Ross, p.c., 6/25/82).
The Suau of Milne Bay in extreme southeast New Guinea warn children not to point at a rainbow, or the offending finger will be shortened by accidentally chopping it off, or by illness. If one does point, he must suck his finger to avoid the consequences. It is possible to point at a rainbow with impunity, provided the index finger is not used (John Lynch, p.c. from Michael Morauta; 1987).
Among the Telei of the Solomon Islands “Children are told not to point at a rainbow, or their finger will twist. It is permissible to indicate a rainbow verbally or by a gesture of the head” (Malcolm D. Ross, p.c., 6/25/82). Another source indicates that “Children are told not to point at a rainbow or their mother’s breasts will swell up. It is permissible to point at a rainbow by screwing up the nose in the desired direction, or by looking askance at it” (Susan Warkentin, p.c., 1983).
Among the Burarra in Arnhem Land, northern Australia “If anyone points at a rainbow with the outstretched index finger, the finger will become permanently crooked or the end joint may fall off. However, it is permissible to point with the middle joint of the bent index finger” (Kathy Glasgow, p.c. from Katy Cooper, Margaret Garrnyita, and Michael Bururrbuma, 11/13/83).
According to the now extinct Wotjobaluk of northwestern Victoria
the rainbow causes a person’s fingers to become crooked or contracted if he points at it with a straight finger. This would prevent him from using his hand for making the markings with which the possum rugs are ornamented. Therefore, when pointing to a rainbow, the fingers must be turned over each other, the second over the first, the third over the second, and the little finger over the third, by which the evil is avoided (Howitt 1996:431).
4.9 Pacific Islands
Among the Babatana on Choiseul Island in the western Solomons “Children are told not to point at a rainbow, or the offending finger will be supernaturally cut off. It is, however, permissible to point using the elbow. If a child forgets and points, he may be slapped by an adult” (Malcolm D. Ross, p.c., 6/25/82).
Among the people of Sa’a and Ulawa islands in the southeast Solomons it is said that “a rainbow must not be pointed at lest the finger shrivel” (Ivens 1927:201).
Among the Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) in eastern Micronesia “Children are told not to point at a rainbow, or their finger will become crooked” (Timeon Ioane, p.c., 1987).
The people of Pohnpei in the eastern Caroline Islands of Micronesia, say “If you point at a rainbow, your finger will ulcerate” (Rehg and Sohl 1979:55; cited under the conditional marker ma ‘if’).
The Marshallese say that whoever points at a rainbow gets a bent finger (Erdland 1914:340).
Among the Dehu people of Lifu in the Loyalty Islands, near New Caledonia in southern Melanesia, “Children were strictly forbidden to point at a rainbow, lest by doing so they should cause the death of their mother, as in the case of a falling star” (Hadfield 1920:113).
In Fiji it is said that “If a person points at a rainbow his hand will turn white like a leper’s. In the event that he has already inadvertently pointed, he should spit on the index finger or stick it into his mouth to avoid the consequences” (Paul Geraghty, p.c., 1983).
The Adele of the Volta region of northern Ghana say that you should not point at a rainbow. “If you do so it is believed that your hand will become crippled. There is no acceptable way of pointing at it with any other body part” (Philip Hewer, p.c., Sept. 2, 1982).
Among the Moru of South Sudan children are warned not to point at a rainbow with the index finger, or the finger will rot off, as with leprosy. If someone does point, he must interlace his fingers (pinky over ring finger, ring finger over middle finger, etc.) and point a second time to undo the offense. One can point with impunity using the chin (Darius K. Jonathan, p.c., 1985).
To the Mündü of South Sudan “The rainbow is a giant snake which lives in a hole in the ground, and comes out to chase heavy rain away (drink the rain?). Children are told not to point at it with the index finger, or the finger will turn red. However, this can be washed off. It is permitted to point at a rainbow with the lower lip, or with a bent index finger” (Jon Arensen, p.c., 1982).
The Baganda of Uganda say that “if you point at a rainbow your finger will become stiff” (Werner 1933:232).
Among the Luo of Kenya and adjacent parts of the Sudan, “Children are told not to point at a rainbow with the index finger, or the rainbow will come and get them. It is permissible, however, to point with a closed fist” (Jon Arensen, p.c., 1982).
Since most arbitrary features of culture are likely to undergo change and disappear within a few thousand years, it appears likely that the RT has been reinvented time and time again because it is not arbitrary. To see this, we need to consider attitudes toward 1. the rainbow, and 2. pointing.
As already established, in all major geographical regions the rainbow is associated with the ‘other world’, and hence is greeted with that mixture of fear, awe and reverence generally accorded to spiritual things. In general, attitudes toward the rainbow appear to involve a degree of negative emotional intensity which correlates with such features as 1. degree of urbanization, 2. participation in a major world religion and, of course, 3. understanding of the natural processes which give rise to rainbows. In the more urbanized societies of Europe and Asia the RT may survive, but it is less prominent than in most tribal societies. In African societies which have been Islamized the RT has either disappeared or has been diluted of its spiritual potency, a process which evidently also happened during the Christianization of Europe (Grimm 1844:695, Alinei 1983, 1985). Finally, in a few areas (such as Tuvalu in Polynesia) the RT seems to be entirely absent, although reported negative cases must always be treated with caution.
Wherever explicit information is available the RT applies specifically and emphatically to the index finger, and a number of alternative means for indicating the rainbow have been recorded. In most cases these are nothing more than the customary way to indicate anything gesturally in the culture in question, usually by a thrust of the lips, a slight rise of the chin or some combination of the two.
In other cases, however, alternative means of pointing appear to involve what might be called ‘avoidance deixis’, a form of gesture reserved for situations in which the index finger may not be used because it would be culturally unacceptable. Forms of avoidance deixis include: 1. pointing with the elbow, 2. pointing with the right index finger grasped in the left fist, 3. pointing with the right index finger doubled back at the middle joint, 4. pointing with the tongue protruding between the teeth, 5. gesturing with the eyes, 6. gesturing with the head, 7. gesturing with the nose wrinkled up, 8. pointing with the thumb, 9. pointing with the entire hand, or 10. pointing with the closed fist.
Undoubtedly the most remarkable manifestation of avoidance deixis noted to date is found among the Moru of South Sudan and the extinct Wotjobaluk of southeast Australia, where it is explicitly stated that the rainbow may be indicated by the right hand if each finger is crossed over the one to its left, forming an intertwined unit of four digits. There can be no question that this highly specific agreement, startling as it initially appears, is a product of independent invention.
Although sporadic comments on cross-cultural differences in pointing were noted as early as Sherzer (1973), it was not until the 1990s that a major groundswell of interest in the psychology and etiology of pointing appeared among anthropologists, linguists, psychologists and others. However, it is striking that the major studies produced to date, such as Kita (2003) or Enfield and Levinson (2006), both of which grew out of a Gesture Project hosted by the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Holland, say almost nothing about pointing at people as an act of physical aggression, even though this is strongly discouraged in nearly all cultures. The only reference I can find in the former volume which explicitly mentions that pointing at people at close range is confined to contexts of anger or accusation, is in Kendon and Versante (2003:110), who briefly mention a discussion of this usage in Calbris (1990:128). As a consequence, although the papers in these volumes cover a wide range of topics, including the ontogeny of pointing gestures in young children and their relationship to the development of language, differences between humans and apes in the ability to use pointing gestures meaningfully, and ways of using pointing gestures to indicate objects in a field of reference, none of the participants who contributed to these volumes speaks of ‘avoidance deixis’, apparently assuming that when this occurs it is always an extension of the unmarked means of pointing (with lips, chin, etc.) rather than a substitute for finger pointing. To be sure, the normal means of pointing to indicate objects, directions, etc. in many cultures is by a gesture of the lips or chin with a slight uptilt of the head, but this does not mean that pointing an index finger at another person never occurs, particularly where anger or accusation is involved. Rather, the data I have collected shows that to avoid any suggestion of aggression various substitutes are used for pointing an index finger toward others at close quarters, although these are not needed when pointing toward people at a distance.
Why should the RT apply specifically to pointing with the index finger? Remarkably, virtually no information on the subject is available in the description of individual societies. Although admonitions about pointing are mentioned in practical guides to cross-cultural conduct, such as Peace Corps manuals, even the most detailed ethnographies pass over this topic in silence. In effect, human beings appear to share a tacit understanding that pointing at other people with the index finger is tolerated only in contexts of anger and accusation, and the subject is consequently treated as unstated background knowledge.
To summarize, the RT has arisen repeatedly in human societies, since 1. pointing at other people is considered aggressive, and 2. the rainbow is regarded as sacred. If it is forbidden to point at other people because it is considered an act of aggression, then surely one may not point at a supernatural power without divine retribution. It should also be clear from the previous discussion that the taboo against pointing at a rainbow has nothing to do with the rainbow per se. Rather, it has to do with the rainbow as part of a class of phenomena which must be respected because they are associated with the realm of spirits, and hence of dangerous spiritual power. Other details, such as variation in the form of the RT, are treated in Blust (2021).