Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Representations of Heaven and the Afterlife in Fairy Tales and Saga: The Rainbow

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(Vandana's Rainbow)

The appearance of the rainbow in the sky has been explained by many different myths. In the Edda, the curved arc is a celestial bridge, over which the gods tread. That is why it is called Asbrû or more commonly Bifröst (or Bilrost, Old-high German: piparasta). Translated this means the trembling, shaking path. Röst expresses a certain length of time or distance, comparable to our hour or mile. It is the best of all bridges, made from three sturdy hues. But one day it will collapse when the world ends and Muspell's sons travel over it. The tail of this bridge extends into Himinbiörg, Heimdallr’s residence (or Himmelsberg = mountain of heaven). It is the link between the realm of the gods and Midgardr (realm of humans). Heimdallr has been appointed guardian of the bridge and consequently, is heaven's guard. He protects the bridge from Hrimthursen and mountain-giants so that they cannot enter heaven via this bridge (Hrimthursen = giant, demonic beings with large ears, capable of causing both physical and mental illness). In this function as celestial road, the rainbow brings to mind the wagon, chariot and path the gods use to travel across the sky. The bridge is purported to make a rattling sound when the horses and wagons of dead men cross it. Christianity spread the belief expressed in the Old Testament that the heavenly arch or rainbow is a sign of the covenant God made with mankind after the great flood. But here folkloric and Christian traditions mingle. Folkloric tradition also adds the motif of a golden key or treasure marking the spot where the rainbow touches the earth. Gold coins or Pfennig pieces fall from the rainbow and are found on earth. These golden coins are called regenbogenschüsselein or patellae Iridis; it was thought the sun dispersed them by means of the rainbow. In Bavaria the rainbow is called heaven’s ring or sun ring and the golden coins are called heaven’s ring bowls or cups. Romans saw the rising arc of the rainbow as something that actually sucked water out of the earth: “bibit arcus pluet hodie”. Superstition dictated that one must never point to the rainbow (or for that matter, the stars in the sky). Building or making something on top of a rainbow signifies a vain, fruitless undertaking. A Finnish song tells of a maiden sitting on the rainbow and weaving a golden robe. The pagans told the same story about the piparasta. Serbian folk tradition says that everything masculine passing under the rainbow becomes feminine and everything feminine becomes masculine. The Welsh tradition sees the rainbow as a chair for the goddess Ceridwen. The Lithuanian tradition refers to the rainbow as Laumes josta or the belt of Lauma (Laima = goddess of fortune), dangaus josta (heaven’s belt) and kilpinnis dangaus (heaven’s arc). Folk belief in the Polish region of Lithuania describes the rainbow both as messenger and advisor after the flood. In some regions of Lothringen it is called the courier of Saint Lienard or couronne of Saint Bernard. According to Estonian folk tradition, the rainbow represents the sickle of the thunder god.

The Greeks mention a demi-goddess, Iris, who is dispatched as messenger from heaven over the rainbow. Indian tradition recognizes the goddess Indra in the colorful arc of heaven. And according to the belief of Germanic tribes, after death the souls of the just are accompanied by their guardian angels over the rainbow and into heaven.