Somewhere over the rainbow...

Chagford rainbow 1

Rainbows are proliferating in Chagford, as in many other parts of the world as well. Primarily drawn by children, they are a means of spreading cheer during the global pandemic, of expressing gratitude to our health workers, and of reaching out to friends and neighbours when social restrictions keep us physically apart.

The rainbow response to Covid-19 was begin by a group of mothers in northern Italy and then quickly spread to other virus-stricken nations, helping children to deal with all the stresses and changes that a medical lock-down has brought to their lives. In the UK, much of the rainbow art is addressed to our National Health Service, valiantly struggling to keep up with pandemic's demands despite years of underfunding (and may that finally change). The NHS was already associated with rainbow symbology due to the Rainbow Badge initiative begun last summer, affirming support for the LGBT community in hospitals all across Britain. The rainbow badges worn by health service staff now have double meaning, both of them poignant.

Here in Chagford, our days of pandemic lock-down have been brightened by two young artists who live down our road, creators of the gorgeous rainbow drawings pictured in this post. This wonderful artwork makes me smile every time I go past on my walks with Tilly -- and thus the rainbows are doing exactly what they're intended to do: lifting spirits, and reminding us that even in Covid-19 isolation we are still a community.

Chagford rainbow 2

Chagford rainbow 3

Chagford rainbow 4

In myth and folklore, the symbolism of rainbows shimmers with elusive enchantment. Mysterious and ephemeral, appearing and disappearing in the blink of an eye, rainbows in stories around the globe are magical pathways to Somewhere Else: the spirit world, the Faerie realm, the lands of the dead or the palaces of the gods.

Rhinemaidens by Arthur Rackham

In Norse myth, Eddic Bifröst is a rainbow bridge built by the gods themselves, leading to their home in Asgard. Heimdallr, with his Gjallarhorn ("yelling horn") stands guard at the place where the flaming rainbow bridge meet the clouds. Its heat is what keeps the frost giants out -- but at Ragnarök the tri-coloured flames will cool, and the bridge into Asgard will stand open.

In Greek myth, the rainbow is personified as Iris, daughter of Thaumus (an ocean god) and Electra (a sea nymph), married to Zephyrus (god of the west wind). Iris prefigured Hermes in her role as the messenger of the gods, moving swiftly and easily between the mortal, immortal, and deathly realms. She has golden wings, which light the way on her passages through the underworld, and a coat of many colours, with which she creates the rainbows she travels on. Accordingly, the sight of a rainbow tells you that Iris is passing by. 

Rainbow Nymph by Arthur Rackham and Rainbow Fairy by Willy Pogany

The "rainbow serpent" is a sacred figure in disparate cultures around the world, from the indigenous peoples of North and South America to equatorial Africa, Australia, Malaysia, and ancient Persia. In Arabian tales, various gods, djinns, and culture heroes carry bows or swords made of the rainbow's colours; in Siberian lore, all rainbows belong to the thunder god, forming his hunting bow; while in Slavonic myth, rainbows make up the tri-coloured belt of the Mother Goddess (or, later, the Virgin Mary).

The Rainbow Serpent  a design from Aboriginal rock art

In Irish folklore, following a rainbow to its end leads to a pot of faery gold, while here in Devon it leads into Faerie itself -- but this is rarely depicted as a wise journey for a mortal man or woman to make. Leave it to the hares, who are quick enough to carry the Faerie Queen's messages on an unreliable road made of magic, raindrops, and light. Or, if you must travel over the rainbow and into the Good Folks' realm, be sure to carry salt or hawthorn berries in your pocket to bring you back home again.

Waterfall by Brian Froud

In addition to traditional stories and legends, we all have our own personal lore and symbolism, accumulated throughout lives. Rainbows are part of my own mythic iconography, and this is the tale:

When I was 15, I sat in despair one day in a creaky old bus that was winding its way through central Mexico (that's another story), trying to decide if I truly believed in God. Not necessarily God with a big white beard looking down from a Biblical heaven, but some kind of sacred spirit above, beneath, and within all things. I'd aways had a deep, instinctive faith, even as a small child, in a sacred dimension to life, a Mystery I didn't need to fully define in order to know it, feel it, experience it. But recent gruelling events had shaken my faith and closed that connection.

I realize that sitting and railing at God is a perfect cliche of teenage angst -- but that doesn't make the experience any less urgent at age 15, and I was in a dark place. "Okay," I said, throwing the gauntlet down to whatever out there might be listening, "if there is something more than this, then prove it. Just prove it. Or I quit."  The bus turned a corner on the narrow, dusty road, and a gasp went up from the people around me. Above us, a rainbow arched through a bright blue, cloudless, rainless desert sky.

Rainbows have been special to me ever since. I know the scientific explanation, of course, water and air and angles of sunlight and all that. But to me, they are always a message. They say: "The universe is a Mystery and you're part of it."

And sometimes that's all I need to hear; that's all the answer I need, no matter what the prayer.

Rainbow over Chagford

Rainbow heart

The rainbow drawings on our road were photographed by Lunar Hine (editorial assistant here at the Bumblehill Studio) -- all except for the fourth photograph, which was taken by Claire-Shauna Saunders. I'm grateful to both of them for allowing me to use their pictures.

Lunar's daughters are the street artists -- and I'm grateful to them as well, for creating such beauty in troubled times, and sharing it with all of us.

The illustrations, in order, are: Rhinemaidens (under the rainbow bridge to Asgard) and a rainbow nymph by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). A rainbow fairy by Willy Pogany (1882-1955). The Rainbow Serpent in a design from Aboriginal artwork (artist unknown). And a rainbow image of our local Dartmoor trolls by Brian Froud -- who knows them better than anyone. 

Wild prayer

Rainbow 1

After weeks of rain storms, yesterday there was blue sky and a rainbow over our village. In a long, dark season of water-soaked fields and foot trails ankle-deep in mud, it felt a blessing.

Today, it is clear over Meldon Hill,  though a bank of dark clouds hovers over the moor. Sun or rain, I am ready for both. Rainbow-blessed and vision restored, I'm reminded to love the earth's full palette: the delicacy of winter blue, the wet vibrancy of green and gold, but also the spectrum of color that gives us grey days, comfortless as they sometimes seem. Grey is the color of mist, mystery, mythic entrances to the Otherworld. Grey is the hidden and the unseen -- which we sometimes need to be ourselves.

Meldon Hill

In her essay collection Wild Comfort, Kathleen Dean Moore takes sorrow and the hardships of life into nature, seeking clarity, solace, and a form of prayer unattached to the religion she was raised in and no longer practices. Alone in her kayak on a small mountain lake, she is enclosed in the grey world of falling snow, cut off from sight of the land by the storm. In the thick of the snow squall, she writes:

"a frog began to sing. It must have been a tree frog, Hyla regilla. Of course I couldn't see it; I couldn't see anything but snow beyond my vanished bow. But I knew that song, and I could imagine the tiny frog up to its eyes in water, snowflaked falling on its head fiery green enough to melt the snow.

 "As long as the frog sings, I will not be lost in the squall. The song tells me where the cattails are, and the cattails mark the shore. I am sure of this much, that Earth lights these small signal fires -- not for us, but among us -- and we can find them if we look. If we are not afraid, if we keep our balance, if we let our anxious selves dissolve into the beauties and mysteries of the night, we will find a way to peace and assurance. Signal fires burn all over the land."

Rainbow 2

Here is the prayer Moore finds in the middle of the storm, and that she offers to us:

"May the light that reflects on this water be a wild prayer. May water lift us with its unexpected strength. May we find comfort in the 'repeated strains of nature,' the softly sheeting snow, the changing seasons, the return of blackbirds to the marsh. May we find strength in light that pours under the snow and laughter that breaks through the tears. May we go out into the light-filled snow, among meadows in bloom, with a gratitude for life that is deep and alive. May Earth's fires burn in our hearts, and may we know ourselves to be part of this flame -- one thing, never alone, never weary of life."

May it be so. Mitakuye Oyasin.

Rainbow 3

Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore

The two passages quoted above are from Kathleen Dean Moore's essay "Never Alone or Weary" in Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature (Trumpeter Books, 2010); the poem in the picture captions is from The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (New Directions, 2013); all rights reserved by the authors. I wrote about rainbows in my own personal symbology here, back in 2010.

A quiet morning in the studio

Rainbow 1

Bird Girl by Terri WindlingSong of the Sky Loom

an ancient Tewa prayer/poem

Oh Mother Earth, oh Father Sky,
Your children are we all.
With tired backs we bring you song,
we bring you the gifts you love.

May the warp be the white light of the morning.
May the weft be the red light of evening.
May the fringes be the falling rain.
May the border be the standing rainbow.
Weave for us this bright garment
that we may walk where birds sing
and animals raise their young,
where water flows
and grass is green.

Oh Mother the Earth, oh Father the Sky,
your children are we all.


The Deer's Cry
an extract from an ancient Celtic prayer/poem

Robin, photographed by Derek Stackey for Devon BirdsI arise today
through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.

A birdchild from my sketchbook
Rainbow over Chagford Commons

Studio 4The Tewa prayer comes from Songs of the Tewa, edited by Herbert J. Spinden; the Celtic prayer and the passage in the picture captions comes from Anam Cara by John O'Donohue. The later prayer is translated by Kuno Meyer. The robin was photographed by Derek Stacey for Devon Birds. The other photographs are of an early morning rainbow arched over our house, viewed from my studio on the hill behind; and Tilly in her usual spot on the studio sofa as the day begins. The "Bird Girl" and "Bird Boy" drawings are from my sketchbooks.

Re-shaping reality

Nattadon Rainbows

From an article on fantasy literature for children by Lloyd Alexander (The Horn Book magazine, 1968):

"All art, by definition of the word, is fantasy in the largest sense. The most uncompromisingly (shall I say sordidly?) naturalistic novel is still a manipulation of reality. Fantasy, too, is a manipulation, a re-shaping of reality. There is no essential conflict or contradiction between literary realism and literary fantasy, no more than between science and humanism. Technical details aside, most of the things you can say about fantasy also apply to realism. I suppose you might define realism as fantasy pretending to be true; and fantasy as reality pretending to be a dream.

"Of course, for practical reasons -- and librarians and teachers understand these better than anyone -- we are obliged to catagorize and separate. Like it or not, we become specialists. The best we can do is make sure we are not nearsighted specialists. We can always keep in the back of our minds the idea that whatever our specialty, it is still an integral part of the whole. Literature for children is not a quiet backwater, but a current of the mainstream."

Nattadon Rainbows 2

From Ursula K. Le Guin's acceptance speech for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature (received for the third of her "Earthsea" books, The Farthest Shore, 1973):

"We who hobnob with hobbits and tell tales about little green men are used to being dismissed as mere entertainers, or sternly disapproved of as escapists. But I think perhaps the catagories are changing, like the times. Sophisticated readers are accepting the fact that an improbable and unmanageable world is going to produce an improbable and hypothetical art. At this point, realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence. A scientist who creates a monster in the laboratory; a librarian in the library of Babel; a wizard unable to cast a spell; a space ship having trouble getting to Alpha Centauri: all these may be precise and profound metaphors of the human condition. Fantasists, whether they use ancient archetypes of myth and legend or the younger ones of science and technology, may be talking as seriously as any sociologist -- and a good deal more directly -- about human life as it is lived, and as it might be lived. For after all, as great scientists have said and as all children know, it is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception, and compassion, and hope."

Nattadon Rainbows 3

From Alison Lurie's collection of essays on children's literature, Don't Tell the Grown-ups (1990):

''The great subversive works of children's literature suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of shopping malls and the corporation. They mock current assumptions and express the imaginative, unconventional, noncommercial view of the world in its simplest and purest form. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change. This is why such literature is worthy of our attention and will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten.''

Nattadon Rainbows 4

From Andre Norton's The Book of Andre Norton (1975):

"There is no more imagination-stretching form of writing, nor reading, than the world of fantasy. The heroes, heroines, colors, action, linger in one's mind long after the book is laid aside. And how wonderful it would be if world gates did exist and one could walk into Middle Earth, Kavin's World, the Land of Unreason, Atlantis, and all the other never-nevers! We have the windows to such worlds and must be content with those."

Tilly at the window