On Rainbows, sex change and marrying a sky god

Relations of Pre-Islamic Berber fertility conceptions with Indo-European mythology 

The appearance of a rainbow in the sky has fired mans imagination to many mythical beliefs. For example, the medieval Scandinavians believed the gods walked across the mythical rainbow bifrǫst (PGmc. < *biƀarastō “trembling road”), which they conceived of as a road to heaven guarded from the giants by the god Heimdall.[1] Folk beliefs surrounding rainbows have proven remarkably resilient to the monoculturizing aspirations of christianity and islam. In premodern Europe, many sub-christian conceptions about the nature of rainbows survived the prescriptivism of the church. The conception concerning a pot of gold falling to the individual who makes it to the end of the rainbow is still widely known, even nowadays in 21st century Europe. Other conceptions have withered; Grimm reported that in 18th c. Serbia people attributed gender changing powers to rainbows, every boy was turned into a girl when he passed under a rainbow (Grimm 1875: 610).[2]

Also in Maghrib Africa some non-Islamic conceptions have survived the cultural steamroller of an institutionalized monotheistic religion, in this case Islam. In Morocco the rainbow is an omen signalling happiness and the much desired rains (Becker 2003: 111). In Middle Atlas Berber the word for rainbow is Tisəlit n-unẓar [3], which means “the bride of the rain” (mariée de la pluie), In Maghrebi Arabic we find ʿārūs s-sḥāb, ʿāṛūst əs-sta (Rabat), l-əʿṛōsa d-əš-šta (Northern Ibala area), laʿṛūsa dyāl əš-šta and ʿāṛūst əs-sma (Cherchell Algeria)“bride of the heaven,” which are all calques from Berber (Behnstedt 2010: 416).[4] The rainbow simultaneously symbolizes the fertility of women and the fertility of the land, with the interrelationship reinforced by female rainmaking rituals. The name “bride of the rain” may originally have been connected to the colourfulness of Berber bridal gowns and the other way around living Berber tradition connects the colourfulness of the wedding dresses with the colours of the rainbow.

However, another connection might be proposed. In ancient Greece the rainbow was called ἶρις, (gen. ἶριδος), a word that could also mean the halo of the moon.[5] The Greeks also believed that rainbows signified coming rain. The deification of the rainbow as the goddess Ἶρις, the divine offspring of Thaumas and Elektra, is therefore interesting since our rainbow goddess is married to Ζέφυρος, the god of the favourable west wind and the foreboder of spring and good weather[6]. Even when Ζέφυρος is called stormy (Gk. δυσαής) and noisy (Gk. κελαδεινός), he fulfills the favourable role of kindling Patroklos’ pyre (Illias II, 200-220). That the word Ζέφυρος may have been connected to primitive Greek conceptions of fertility is suggested by its etymology. The most accepted etymology connects the word to the PIE root *h3i̯ebh“futuere” (cf. Skt. yábhati “copulate”), which is plausible provided we accept the soundlaw PIE *Hi̯- > Gk. *ζ-, i.e. PIE *h3i̯ebh-u-ros > Gk. ζέφυρος (Beekes 2009: 499). We may therefore interpret the theonym as originally alluding to the virility of the West Wind.

In ancient Rome the rainbow was also associated with coming rains, although the rainbow itself was not deified and was simply called arcus caelestis. A bawdy scene in Plautus’ Curculio relates the Roman belief that rainbows sucked up terrestrial waters that later came down in the form of rain, which is confirmed by later Roman authors like Plinius (Arnott 1995: 191). The Romans also believed that rainbows signified the blessing of Juno, a goddess associated with fertility rites (e.g. the lupercalia), indicating a similar connection between rainbows and fertility as in North Africa.

What I am hinting at is the possibility that the mythological “marriage” of rainbows as omens of rain and fertility with a personification of “virile, masculine weather” may have been a shared conception on either side of the Mediterranean. We may note that Ἶρις as the rainbow goddess was clad in an extremely colourful dress for the colours of her dress matched the colours of the rainbow (Parisinou 2005: 34). The same analogy is made of the rainbow and wedding dresses in Berber culture[7]. That the conception of the rainbow as such might be more wide-spread is also suggested by the 18th c. Bavarian folk belief that a deity identified by the farmers as the virgin Mary brings fertile rains (Quitzman 1860: 132). Interestingly this female deity, who might be identified as the Germanic goddess *siƀō (OIc. sif) does so, clad in a colourfull dress who’s seam is perceived by the mortals as a rainbow.

In Scandinavian mythology the goddess Sif, goddess of fertile rains, is married to the thunder god Þor. Here we find the same pairing of “raingoddess” with “virile weather” or even “virile sky god”. In this regard we should also note that the ancient Aryans attributed the rainbow to the god Indra, the dyaus pitar (father of the sky). Although this evidence might suggest an Indo-European basis for the “marriage” between “rainbows” and “sky gods” we might also be dealing with a mythological motive that is not exclusive to any part of the world. A good illustration of the “universality” of the motive can be found accross the Atlantic where the Iroquois guardian of heaven, Hino “the thunderer”, is said to be married to the rainbow. Nevertheless, the Berber image of the rainbow as “the bride of the rain(god)” might very well have originated in the Indo-European cultural sphere, having crossed the Mediterranean as so many cultural items have.


Arnott, Geoffrey W., “The opening of Plautus’ Curculio: Comic business and mime”, in: Plautus und die Tradition des Stegreifspiels, Lore Benz e.a. eds. (Tübingen 1995) 185-192.

Becker, Cynthia, “Gender, Identity and Morroccan weddings”, in: Wedding dress across cultures, Helen Bradly Foster et Donald Clay Johnson eds. (Oxford 2003)

Beekes, Robert S.P., Etymological dictionary of Greek, 2 vols, Leiden Indo-European Etymological Dictionary Series 10/1-2 (Leiden 2009).

Behnstedt, Peter et Manfred Woidich, Wortatlas der Arabische Dialekte; band I: Mensch, Natur, Flora und Fauna (Leiden 2010).

Grimm, Jacob, Deutsche Mythologie (Berlin 1875-77).

Lee, Raymond L. et Alistair B. Fraser, The Rainbow Bridge; rainbows in art, myth and science (Pennsylvania 2001).

Parisinou, Eva, “Brightness Personified; light and divine image in ancient Greece” in: Personification in the Greek world; from antiquity to Byzantium, Emma Stafford et Judith Herrin eds. (London 2005) 29-44.

Quitzman, Anton, Die heidnische Religion der Baiuwaren; erster faktischer Beweis für die Abstammung dieses Volkes (Heidelberg 1860).

[1] On the other side of the globe, the aborigines of Australia believe the rainbow is a manifestation of a bisexual (or female) rainbow serpent.

[2] Apparently this belief was widespread in European cultures, not only found in Serbia but also in the folklores of Early Modern France, Germany, Albania (Lee et Frasier 2001). In the north of Olténie people apparently believed that anyone who hopped under a rainbow was granted a sex change. (see Handbuch des Deutschen Aberglaubens II 753).

[3] The rainbow is also called taməġra n-wuššən in Tamazight which means “the wedding of the jackal”.

[4] See Behnstedt 2004.

[5] Gk. ἶρις (< PGk. *ϝιρις) is often etymologically connected to the PIE root *u̯eh1i- “to bend” and can formally be compared with OIc. vírr “twisted ornament”.

[6] In Roman mythology the attribution of favourable weather to the god of the west wind is also clear from its name, i.e. favonius.

[7] However, the image of the rainbow as a woman clad in colourful cloths is not restricted to the mediterranean. The Arab poet Ibn al-Rūmi (869 CE) who lived and worked in Bagdad also likenes the rainbow as a maiden clothed in a gaily-coloured dress.

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