Those looking into the mystery of the Ouroboros symbol meaning and history will certainly find themselves delving into the ancient past and secret knowledge. Humans have been using the symbol of a snake biting its own tail for more than 3000 years. Here, I will exploring some of the history of the symbol, what it means, and take you into my studio during the creation of my own ouroboros design.
Designing my own Ouroboros
As part of an ongoing series paying homage to old alchemical and gnostic illustrations, I did my own ouroboros symbol. I decided to base the design on the knotted patter from the very first memory I have of the symbol. It was the Auryn from the “Never Ending Story” where I first saw the ouroboros. It was one of those symbols I just understood by looking at it even as a child. In the following video, you can watch the inking process in awesome time lapse video with some questionable commentary.
History and use of the Ouroboros
The use of the Ouroboros symbol spans many cultures throughout history. Although the first image of a snake biting its tail comes from Egypt, we can find the symbol being used by a number of cultures all over the world. I have complied several historical cultural examples of the use of the symbol.
Ouroboros in Egypt
The Ouroboros symbol’s oldest appearance was found in Egypt in the tomb of King Tutankhamun from 1323 BCE. Within the bounty that was plundered from the tomb of King Tut was a gilded shrine. Upon the shrine is a unique type of book called an “Amduat” which means it deals with the Netherworld. This book is written mostly in code and is yet to be cracked so we can only know a small amount of what the text is all about.
Scholars have dubbed the book “The Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld” as it speaks of the journey of the sun through the underworld and the creation of a sun disc. The section including the ouroboros symbol involves a pair of them. In the center of a panel is a large figure (some say Osiris, some say Tutankhamun) with a snake biting its tail around his head and another around his feet. It is theorized that this was a way to depict Mehen, the serpent protector deity of the sun god Re.
The Papyrus of Dama Heroub from the 11th-10th centuries BCE has an illustration in which Horus the child god rides the sun disc surrounded by the ouroboros and riding on the backs of lions. Not only is he the crowned and conquering child, but Horus knows how to ride in style. Most likely, the ouroboros symbol used here is also meant to represent Mehen.
Next, we find the symbol used in a work coming from a 3rd century alchemical text known as the Crysopoea of Cleopatra. The ouroboros symbol is found surrounding the greek word “ἕν τὸ πᾶν”, (hen to pān) which means “one is the all”. The other illustrations from Cleopatra’s Crysopoea (which means “lead into gold,” by the way) are a set of cryptographs which appear to be about distillation and astrological dating, in my opinion. It is said that Cleopatra the Alchemist actually knew how to create the legendary Philosopher’s Stone.
The use of the serpent biting its tail as a symbolic image must have been in somewhat common use during the times before and after King Tut. If the first use was sealed into King Tut’s tomb, it would not have been seen by humans again until 1928 and therefore could not be copied from that source.
Ancient Greece and the Ouroboros
In the land in which we get the word “ouroboros” meaning “tail-devouring”, we find more of an allegorical ouroboros within the writings of none other than Plato. In his Timaeus, 33, Plato describes a universal animal that encompasses the concept of the ouroboros. He writes:
“Now of the four elements the construction of the Cosmos had taken up the whole of every one. For its Constructor had constructed it of all the fire and water and air and earth that existed, leaving over, outside it, no single particle or potency of any one of these elements.
And these were his intentions: [32d] first, that it might be, so far as possible, a Living Creature, perfect and whole, with all its parts perfect; and next, that it might be One, inasmuch as there was nothing left over out of which another like Creature might come into existence; and further, that it might be secure from age and ailment, since He perceived that when heat and cold, and all things which have violent potencies, surround a composite body from without and collide with it they dissolve it unduly and make it to waste away by bringing upon it ailments and age. Wherefore, because of this reasoning, He fashioned it to be One single Whole, compounded of all wholes, perfect and ageless and unailing. [33b] And he bestowed on it the shape which was befitting and akin.
Now for that Living Creature which is designed to embrace within itself all living creatures the fitting shape will be that which comprises within itself all the shapes there are; wherefore He wrought it into a round, in the shape of a sphere, equidistant in all directions from the center to the extremities, which of all shapes is the most perfect and the most self-similar, since He deemed that the similar is infinitely fairer than the dissimilar. And on the outside round about, it was all made smooth with great exactness, and that for many reasons. [33c] For of eyes it had no need, since outside of it there was nothing visible left over; nor yet of hearing, since neither was there anything audible; nor was there any air surrounding it which called for respiration; nor, again, did it need any organ whereby it might receive the food that entered and evacuate what remained undigested. For nothing went out from it or came into it from any side, since nothing existed; for it was so designed as to supply its own wastage as food for itself, [33d] and to experience by its own agency and within itself all actions and passions, since He that had constructed it deemed that it would be better if it were self-sufficing rather than in need of other things. Hands, too, He thought He ought not to attach unto it uselessly, seeing they were not required either for grasping or for repelling anyone; nor yet feet, nor any instruments of locomotion whatsoever. For movement He assigned unto it that which is proper to its body, namely, that one of the seven motions1 which specially belongs to reason and intelligence; wherefore He spun it round uniformly in the same spot and within itself and made it move revolving in a circle; and all the other six motions He took away and fashioned it free from their aberrations. And seeing that for this revolving motion it had no need of feet, He begat it legless and footless.”
Despite the greek origins of the etymology of the word ouroboros, I was unable to find any further example from ancient Greece. It seems that the concept survived through Greek culture to some extent to carry on to other cultures.
The Jörmungandr, a Norse ouroboros
In Norse mythology, the Ouroboros appears as the serpent Jörmungandr. The mighty beast was so large that it wrapped around the entire sphere of the Earth and bite its own tail. It seems that the tail biting serpent of the Norse ends it similarities to the other cultural uses of the ouroboros in form alone. The great and terrible beast was attributed with all sorts of maleficent deeds and was enemy to Thor. According to the Norse, when the Jörmungandr releases its tail, the Ragnarök will begin. The Ragnarök is a time in which the current world is submerged and a new one arises from the waters.
Ouroboros Symbol use by European Alchemists
Around the 8th Century AD, the arrival of Islam into Spain brought with it the ancient secret knowledge of alchemy and hermeticism. The knowledge of alchemy had been carried through all of the major ancient cultures since Egypt (and maybe before?). It was in Medieval Europe that the use of the ouroboros symbol really blew up. I would be hard pressed to even begin to scratch the surface of the numerous uses since its arrival into the West. Alchemy brought the rise in western secret societies who continue to use the ouroboros symbol to this day.
What does the Ouroboros symbol mean?
Lastly, I will discuss the mystery of the ouroboros symbol meaning. The fact that the symbol is sometimes called the infinity snake reveals part of the meaning to us. In short, we can say that the symbol means endless return or rejuvenation. There is more to it than just that.
In order to better understand the ouroboros, it is helpful to consider the hermetic principle of correspondence. The phrase “As above, so below” is most commonly associated with this idea. If we look at Plato’s description of the universe as a living animal that sustains itself, it provides an illustration of the concept very nicely. The same idea can then be applied to other studies.
In alchemy, the ouroboros is a symbol of the relationship between the science and the scientist. The purpose in creating the philosopher’s stone, other than to turn base metals into gold, is to make the elixir of life. The elixir is a distilled substance in which the alchemist extracts pure life energy. This elixir of life can supposedly be consumed to regenerate the body of the alchemist. The base material to create the elixir is made from the alchemist’s own body fluids. The ouroboros symbol is used to indicate the self generation and purification of alchemy.
The process of distillation itself used by alchemists also relates to the ouroboros symbol. For this reason, we see the increase in popularity of the dual snake or dragon ouroboros. The use of the two serpents better illustrates opposing forces. In the alchemical process, the elixir is distilled by heating and cooling to various degrees of intensity over a long period of time. The opposition of the forces of hot and cold drive the cycle central to the distillation process.
In later years, the ouroboros symbol is used by psychologist Carl Jung to illustrate the relationship of a person with their shadow.
“The Ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This ‘feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself.”
– Carl Jung
That’s it yo.
With understanding, we can see how and why the ouroboros symbol has endured the ages. In many ways, it relates to all of us as modern people using our life energy to sustain ourselves. Just by living our lives, we emulate the universal model. On a personal note, I feel life becomes more perfect the closer we each get to true self sufficiency. The ouroboros is the perfect symbol for how humans should be living in the future.
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