Rainbows – a natural beauty, a colourful arc appearing in the sky. Where do rainbows come from? What do they mean to you? What do they mean to other people? And who is Iris?
For the ancient Greeks, rainbows were created by Iris - the rainbow goddess. Iris is a messenger goddess. She carries messages from one god to another, especially messages from Zeus and Hera. She has wings so that she can fly fast and far. When she flies, she leaves rainbows in her wake, streaking across the sky.
Rainbows are caused when raindrops split sunlight, spreading the white light out into its separte colours. That's why we see rainbows only when it's wet and sunny. In northern Europe, where it's often a bit rainy and grey, rainbows are often seen as a sign of hope – the bright feeling of 'hooray – the sun is out!' has made people feel very positive about them. In ancient Greece, where it was usually sunny, rainbows were not always seen so positively – it was a sign that storms had arrived or were on their way.
For that reason, some ancient Greeks thought of rainbows as a sign of trouble. Iris was called 'storm- footed' or 'wind-footed', because the storms come with her. In the Iliad, the great god Zeus sends rainbows as a sign that war is coming or that a storm will come and frighten the farm animals (Homer, Iliad, 17.547).The poet Hesiod even said that Iris was a sister of the terrible Harpies (Theogony, 265). Still, her messages were helpful, sometimes even for mortals. She called Achilles to help Patroclus (Iliad, 18.165). Later she called the winds to help Achilles light Patroclus' pyre (Iliad 23.198). In an age when we can send messages near and far so easily, it's good to be reminded how magical fast moving messages would seem.