The Light Fantastic
by Mike Ives
As any school children will tell you, light is made up of a spectrum of colours, ranging from Red to Violet and more that cannot be seen with the unaided human eye. The very act of shining light through a prism or a clear class of water splits the light into its basic colours.
Pretty and low key as this is, we can witness this in a more much grand and dramatic scale in the form of Rainbows.
One of the earliest mentions of a rainbow is in the flood stories, which appear in virtually all old texts; Noah from the Bible to Gilgamesh in the Epic tales of Gilgamesh.
The rainbow was God’s pact to the surviving mankind that this would not happen again. Surely after such a worldwide catastrophe, we would see much more in the way of symbols, texts or monuments as a reminder of this monumental event, than we see today.
Or is that we are just not looking correctly and in fact, they are there right under our very noses. To understand what I mean we have to not only understand what a rainbow is, but also other effects associated with them.
So, what is a Rainbow?
Rainbows result from refraction of sunlight in falling water droplets and reflection of the light from the back of the droplet.
We normally see the Primary Rainbow, but in good conditions we can see the Secondary bow above it – The secondary rainbow is about 10° further out from the antisolar point than the primary bow, is about twice as wide, and has its colours reversed.
We also need to remember that light bends when going from a light or fast medium, such as air into a slow or denser medium, like water or glass.
The amount of bend depends on the frequency of each ‘beam’ or colour of light and hence the splitting up of white light into its constituent colours when shone through a glass prism.
We do not need it to rain in our local area for a rainbow to occur, we can see them so long as there is moisture i.e. water droplets or ice crystals in the atmosphere and you are standing at the correct angles in relation to the Sun.
A rainbow is actually a full circle and this can be seen from the air (i.e. in an aircraft – see below) or from a high place like a mountain top. Normally the horizon stops us seeing the full effect. It is all to do with the angle you are on Earth (from a viewing point) in relation to the angle of the Sun behind you. For example, if you were to spray water from the 1st floor window of your house on a sunny day, you can, depending on your view point, create and see the full rainbow circle.
I was able to snap this photograph out of an aircraft window on the way to Glasgow. It was a wet miserable day until we broke through the first layer of cloud cover. This could have easily been from a hill or mountain top looking down a misty valley.
Another feature is the familiar 22° halo around the Sun or Moon, this occurs because of refraction in tiny hexagonal ice crystals in the air.
At the points on the 22° halo which are on a horizontal line with the sun, the arc commonly broadens to two bright spots, reputedly referred to by Arctic people as the Sun’s Dogs (parhelia). The refracted light at these points is so much more intense than the remainder of the 22° halo that they are often seen when the remainder of the arc is not. The parhelia often show rainbow colours from the dispersion in the ice crystals. While appearing on the 22° halo when the sun is at the horizon, they appear to be slightly outside it at higher altitudes and will flare into a white tail leading away from the 22° halo. Under appropriate conditions the tail may extend far outward on the horizontal “parhelic circle”. This extension of the sun dogs is reflection from the vertical sides of the flat hexagonal ice crystals.
Sun pillars are caused by reflection from falling ice crystals, unlike the 22° halo and sun dogs which are refraction phenomena.
Rays or beams of light may appear to fan out radially from a low sun when the cloud structure is right. The rays from the sun, 93 million miles away, are parallel – but in the setting of the crepuscular rays they appear to diverge because of perspective narrowing over the long path on which they are visible. Under rare conditions the crepuscular rays extend all the way across the sky and appear to converge back together on the horizon opposite the sun.
Below is a beautiful example of an Ice Halo with all the corresponding points.
[ Note from the Editor: Sauli Koski, a photographer in Finland, was at the right place at the right time and got to experience a very rare sight. Most of us have seen sun pillars, or sundogs, or even a halo around the sun... well this man saw 13 different optical phenomena all at once.
Ice crystals that create colored or white arcs/spots in the sky produce these types of atmospheric phenomena. Many are usually near the sun but others are scattered elsewhere. The particular shape and orientation of the crystals are responsible for the type of halo that is being observed. The crystals act like prisms and mirrors, refracting and reflecting sunlight and sending beams of light in different directions. ]
These can be very spectacular and may have resulted in the pictorial Halo around the wise or spiritual man’s head; often how we depict Saints both modern and in times gone by. If you know the basic science, then you could impress those less enlightened than your self with some simple optical displays.
Solar glory and Spectre of the Brocken
More examples of solar glories >>
The Sacred Tree
Now that you have grasped the basic science of rainbows and some of the effects associated with them, let’s move on.
The First Mentioning
The Rainbow was first mentioned as a sign from God (in many ancient texts) after the great flood which destroyed most of the Earth somewhere around 4500BC. After the waters had subsided somewhat; those that survived took the rainbow as a pact with their deity that this would not happen again.
Maybe we do not see the rainbow depicted in many obvious ways – largely because we normally see a rainbow from ground level and then only see the bow or arc. So why bother with something that would happen on a regular basis – unless this was a very different rainbow and we’re not looking properly.
Take the possibility that the first time anyone ‘really’ saw a rainbow was after the great deluge, where they would have to be in a high place as the ground level was flooded or becoming very water logged and so sought shelter on higher ground. The atmosphere would have been supersaturated with water vapour. Now with the sun behind them, looking out across the rain swept and misty plains they might have seen an incredible sight.
They might have seen the Mother of all Rainbows with Primary, Secondary rainbows and Supernumerary Arcs. BUT they might have possibly seen the ‘full’ rainbow i.e. the full circle. When they looked back towards the sun, they might have even seen the Higher Order Bows, 22° Halo with Sun Dogs, Pillars and Crepuscular Rays.
Add to this image; possible reflections on the flood water or misty surface below and then you would have a Rainbow to write home about.
At this point; is it not curious to note that the symbol for ‘Totality’ is indeed the circle, in some cases one with a dot in its centre.
Maybe this is why we don’t see rainbows depicted as the normal arcs we normally see, but as the circle which as far as we are concerned; are only seen in very exceptional circumstances.
The Sun Disk
The following image has always been described as the Sun Disc with Wings.
This is a very curious symbol indeed and I have often wondered about its origin. Let’s see what happens when we dissect this image into it basic elements.
The Sun disc in the middle represents the Sun itself.
The bodies of the two serpents represent the two Sun Dogs (don’t be fooled by the name ‘Sun Dogs’; cultures name things in relation to their own environments).
The two sets of feathers might then represent the arcs of the rainbows – both Primary and Secondary (remember the secondary rainbow is about twice as wide as the primary).
The two serpents’ tails: start as the 22° Halo and finish as the Crepuscular Rays.
Maybe a long shot I grant you, but ask yourself – is it?
Maybe the original obelisk was created to represent something more dramatic in the early morning desert sun. An obelisk is generally made up of two sections; the dark heavy capstone or BenBen stone (which was reputed to be a dark iron meteorite stone), and the rest of the pillar was usually made of limestone – a lighter stone (in colour and density).
This is important as, a bit more science for you, dark surfaces are excellent absorbers of heat, excellent radiators of heat and bad reflectors (they warm up and cool down faster) – light coloured surfaces are the opposite.
During the night; the top cools faster – water vapour condenses on it and during the morning as the sun warms up the cool landscape; the capstone heats up faster and so the water on it evaporates creating a mist like halo around the tip, with the Sun shining through it; this could create a similar effect to the picture over the page, admittedly on a much smaller scale.
Certainly not necessarily the only function of an obelisk granted, but the Egyptians were fond of making monuments multi purposeful. Especially if you encapsulate a number of important concepts into one picture, so even if we don’t understand its full meaning we get an idea of others.
Why stop at the obelisk? Why not look at the pyramids themselves? After all, the base was made of white limestone and the capstone top was black.
The subterranean chamber of the Great Pyramid was found to have had water present in it. If this was filled with water, as indeed according to Herodotus accounts from Egyptian priests; the ground around the base was covered in water, then as the Sun heated the water during the day it would form a mist round the white pyramid (casing stones) possibly causing a rainbow or halo around the monument and possibly Sun Dogs and the black capstone; producing the Crepuscular Rays.
The effect you would get is very similar to the water mark on American dollar bills. Maybe this is the reason for the symbol of the eye looking from the top of the pyramid with a rainbow like rays spreading out from it.
The Myth of the Phoenix
Could the Obelisk be the story behind the myth of the Phoenix? After all, if the deluge was created by a meteor crashing into the earth as a pillar of fire creating worldwide havoc, destruction and causing the atmosphere to be come supersaturated with water. When the clouds eventually parted again, you would possibly have had the most beautiful spectacle of all with rainbows and associated effects due to light refraction and reflection on the water saturated atmosphere – in fact a full kaleidoscope of shimmering, dancing light. It would indeed seem like a glorious rebirth from the dark, catastrophic day’s just past – like a dazzling vision of God himself. The Light Fantastic?
Food for thought
All this may seem purely coincidental, but applying what we know about the ancient Egyptians (and of other cultures) and the extraordinary lengths they used to go to incorporating multiple meanings into their work (art, writings and monuments), might it seem plausible?
After all, rain was quite common in Egypt (according to historical records as opposed to the modern day desert picture we have now). Water was very special to the Egyptians and indeed all cultures in the ancient world; let’s face it, Water is a fundamental key to life itself as well as the Sun, Air and Earth.
Combining the four elements together (Earth, Fire, Air and Water), like in an Obelisk, to create a wonderful display like a rainbow and its lesser seen components would be the perfect way to symbolise this glorious unity and maybe remind us of great catastrophe in our past.
Copyright Michael Ives
Created: 19th November 2002, Re-edited: 4th March 2012
A few further points of interest
- The angles of the slopes of the Great Pyramid are 51° – the same as the angle measured from the Anti Solar point for the Secondary Rainbow.
- The Red Pyramid slopes are 43° which is one degree off the 42° of the Primary Rainbow – and one degree off the refraction of Red light which is also 42°.
- The Bent Pyramids sloping angles are 52° and 43°, not too far off the 51° of the Secondary Rainbow and the 42° of the Primary respectively.
Credit for some of the Diagrams used: The Georgia State University