The First Rainbow

In myths and legends around the world, the rainbow has played a magical, otherworldly symbol, whether as a bridge linking man to heaven, a messenger from the gods, a promise from God, an archer’s bow used by the gods, or a god-like serpent that could be ridden to the heavens. This story comes from the native American Achomawi Pit River tribe, from what is now  known as north-eastern California in the USA.

Sixty little spider children shivered in the snow. It had snowed for months and months. All the animals were cold, hungry, and frightened. No one knew what to do. 


The Creator of the Universe, Silver Grey Fox, had made the whole world with a song and a dance. So two birds, Blue Jay and Redheaded Woodpecker, sang and danced for her, hoping to get her attention. But the snow kept falling. 


What could they do? One animal had been in the earth almost since The Beginning. That animal was Coyote. So the animals decided to seek Coyote’s advice about how to get in touch with Silver Grey Fox and ask her to stop the snow.


They found Coyote’s cave and asked for help. “Grrrrowwwlll…go away”, grumbled Coyote, “and let me think”. Coyote thought and thought and then caught an idea. How about a song? But a song didn’t work. 


Maybe Silver Grey Fox didn’t want to hear from Coyote. After all, it was Coyote’s mischief when the world was new that had meant Silver Grey Fox left the earth to live in the clouds in the first place. So Coyote thought some more. 


As Coyote was thinking and wondering and imagining, Spider swung down on a silky thread from the top of the tallest tree in the forest. She has been on Earth a long, long time, Coyote thought. She’s very wise. I’ll ask her what to do. 


Coyote went to the tree and lifted his ears to Spider. “Spider, O wise weaver, O clever one”, called Coyote sweetly. “We’re all cold and hungry and everyone’s afraid this winter will never end. Silver Grey Fox didn’t seem to notice. Can you help?”


Spider swayed her shining black body back and forth, back and forth, thinking and thinking, thinking and thinking. Her eight black eyes sparkled when she spoke: 


“I know how to reach Silver Grey Fox, Coyote, but I can’t make it happen on my own. Everyone will have to help. I will give you an idea and my two youngest Twins because they’re little and light as dandelion fluff, and the fastest spinners in my web.” 


Spider called up to her two littlest ones and they came down fast as they could, each spinning on eight little legs, full of curiosity and fun. Spider Woman said, “My dear little quick ones, are you ready for a great adventure?” “Yes! Yes! We’re ready!” they cried. Spider told them her plan, and the Spider Twins set off with Coyote in the snow. 


They hadn’t gone far when they met two White-Footed Mice rooting around for seeds to eat. Coyote told them Spider’s plan. “Will you help?” “Yes! Yes! We’ll help!” they squeaked. 


So they all traveled the trail towards Mount Shasta until they met Weasel looking hungry and even leaner than usual. Coyote told Weasel his plan. “Will you help?” asked Coyote. “Of course”, rasped Weasel, who joined them on the trail. 


Before long they came across Red Fox swishing her big fluffy tail through the bushes. “Will you help?” asked Coyote. “Of course, I’ll come”, crooned Red Fox. Then Rabbit poked her head out of her hole. “I’ll come too,” she sneezed, shivering despite her thick fur. 


When they reached Mount Shasta, the snow stopped, but the sky was still cloudy. It was time to put Spider’s plan into action! Coyote spoke, “Everyone listen. If any one of us is only half-hearted, Spider’s plan will fail. 


“To get through the clouds to Silver Grey Fox, we must each share our powers, our thoughts, our dreams, our strength, and our songs whole-heartedly.” Everyone nodded. They would all do this together, everyone working as hard as they could. Everyone giving their very best effort. 


“Step forwards, our two best archers!” The two White Footed Mice proudly lifted their bows. “Now, you White-Footed Mice, I want you to shoot arrows at exactly the same spot in the sky.” The mice nodded. 


“And you, Spider Twins, spin your spider silk as fast as you can. And while you do that, Weasel, White-Footed Mice, Red Fox, Rabbit, and I will sing and make music. We must sing with all our might or the Spider Twins won’t make it.” 


On the count of three are you ready? Everyone nodded. 

“One!” called Coyote. Everyone got ready. 

“Two!” counted Coyote. The animals drew in deep breaths. The Mice pulled back their bowstrings. 

“Three!” said Coyote. 


The Mice fired their bows and two arrows shot straight up and stuck at the same spot in the clouds. 

“Whiff! Wiff! Wiff Wiff!”, sang the White Footed Mice. “Yiyipyipla!”, sang Red Fox. “Wowooooolll!” sang Coyote. Rabbit shook her magic rattle. Weasel beat his very old and worn elk-hide drum. 


Then the Spider Twins hurled out long lines of spider silk, weaving swiftly with all their legs. The animals sang up a whirlwind of sound to lift the spider silk until it caught on the arrows in the clouds. The Spider Twins scurried up the lines of silk and scrambled through the opening. 


All the while, down below, the animals continued singing, rattling and drumming. The little Spiders sank, breathless, onto the clouds. Silver Grey Fox saw them and called out, “What are you two doing here?” The Spiders bent low on their little legs and answered. 


“Silver Grey Fox, we bring greetings from our mother, Spider Mother, and all the creatures of the world below. We’ve come to ask if you’d please let the sun shine again. The whole world is cold. Everyone is hungry. Everyone is afraid spring will not return, ever.” 


They were so sincere and polite that Silver Grey Fox became gentler, and asked, “How did you two get up here?” The Spider Twins said, “Can you hear the people singing? Can you hear the drum and rattle?” Silver Grey Fox heard the drum and rattle and the people singing. 


When the Spider Twins finished their story, Silver Grey Fox was pleased and told them, “It makes me very happy when creatures use their powers to create together. I’m especially glad to hear that Coyote’s been helping too. Your mother, Spider Woman, made a very good plan. 


“To reward all your hard work, I’ll create a sign to show that the skies will clear. And you may help me, but first I want you to imagine the sun shining bright as bright can be.” Can you do that? 


The Spider Twins thought hard and in their imaginations, they saw the sun sending out powerful rays in all directions. 


“Now, where sun’s rays meet the damp air” said Silver Grey Fox, “I want you to image a stripe of red, as red as Woodpecker’s head. Can you do that? 


“Now add a stripe of blue to that, as blue as Blue Jay’s feathers.” The Spider Twins imagined very hard, great stripes of red and blue. 


Silver Grey Fox chanted, “Now, in between, add stripes of orange, yellow and green!” The Spider Twins thought of this, too. 


“Now open your eyes,” said Silver Grey Fox. And before the Twins’ very eyes, bright and dazzling as they could imagine, was a real, beautiful arc of colours stretching across the sky, high above the clouds. It was the very first rainbow. 


But down below, beneath the clouds, the animals and people were so cold, hungry, and tired that they had stopped singing and drumming. They couldn’t see what had happened up above and were feeling sad, lonely, hungry and cold.


Spider missed her youngest children and every day she missed them more. In her sadness, she blamed Coyote for her pain. So did the other animals. Coyote slipped away silent, lonely and sad. 


But out of sight, above the clouds, the twins rested and recovered their strength. Their legs ached from the journey and their minds were tired from making the rainbow. 


Silver Grey Fox said, “You did what I asked and kept it secret. That’s very difficult, and I am very proud of you and grateful. I’m giving you a special reward. On wet mornings, when the sun starts to shine, you’ll see what I mean. But now it’s time for you to go home.”


The Spider Twins spun back down to Earth, and ran back to their mother as fast as they could. Spider cried for joy and hugged them with all her legs. Their fifty-eight sisters and brothers jumped up and down with happiness. And all the animals gathered around to hear the Spider Twins’ story. 


And when they finished, the Spider Boys cried, “Look up!” 


At that very moment, the clouds had drifted apart. There, like a bridge between the earth and the sky was a shining, beautiful, colourful arch – that very first rainbow. 

The sun began to warm the earth. Shoots of grass pushed up through the melting snow. Meadowlark blew her silver whistle of spring across the valley, calling streams and rivers to awake. Coyote came out of hiding, and racing to a distant hilltop, gave a long, long howl of joy. 


The animals held a great feast to honour the rainbow, Silver Grey Fox, Spider, the Twins, Coyote, and the hard work everyone had done together. 


And if you look very closely when you’re out on a walk after the rain, and the sun comes out, you will see tiny little dewdrops shining on the spider webs. And each one will carry in it a tiny rainbow. And that is the spiders’ special reward.

Let’s Think!
  1. Who wondered how to make a change and make the world warm again? (Jay, Woodpecker, Coyote and, ultimately, Spider)
  2. Who came up with the winning idea? (Spider)
  3. What did she offer? (her idea and children) What did others bring?
  4. How did the team get the attention of Silver Grey Fox?
  5. What did Silver Grey Fox like most about what they did?