Are you interested in mythology or mythical creatures? Want to dig more than you already know? To know about one of the oldest mythical creatures; “Ouroboros”?
You have come to the right place. This article contains all the information on Ouroboros; its symbol, origin, depiction, and significance in different cultures and contexts.
Ouroboros or Uroboros is one of the ancient mythological symbols featuring a serpent eating its own tail. The earliest record of the Ouroboros was found in the ancient Egypt of 1600 BC. Egyptians used the symbol of Ouroboros to document their understanding of the sun. However, in other cultures, it also represents rebirth, immortality, eternity, protection, self-reliance, unity, and nature’s cycles.
In this article, you will understand:
What is Ouroboros?
The meaning, symbol, and etymology of Ouroboros
Historical mythologies and depiction in different contexts
Ouroboros and the modern world
Ouroboros – Etymology and Symbol:
Ouroboros symbol represents a snake, dragon, or worm biting its own tail.
The term “Ouroboros” comes from the Greek language; “Ouro” meaning tail and “Boros” meaning devourer or eater. And the meaning of Ouroboros becomes “one who devours its tail.”
Ouroboros is an important symbol in alchemy and magic, representing the eternal cycle of life; birth, death, and after birth.
Ouroboros symbol and Geomythology:
Geomythology refers to the pre-scientific cultural study defining astronomical events and natural phenomena through legends and mythical stories.
Ouroboros is related to the following natural phenomena:
Aurorae are a ring-like pattern formed in the sky with the northern lights (or aurora borealis) and southern lights (aurora australis).
Some believe that the fire-breathing dragons were related to green-ringed aurorae. It is also debated that the earliest Ouroboros was found in China – a country with a long history of the dragon.
Today, the aurorae are related to the extreme northern and southern latitudes. But some experts believe aurorae to be visible in other parts of the world.
Rainbows are well-known by everyone. But do you know that Ouroboros are inspired by full rainbows? Probably not. Because ancient people imagined rainbows into full circles.
There is also a myth that a giant rainbow serpent is encircling the earth and provides water and protection to people and crops.
Ancients Egyptians associated Ouroboros with the sun’s path across the sky – the continuous cycle of day and night.
Origin of Ouroboros:
Although we do not know the exact history and origin of Ouroboros, historians believe that the symbol is inspired by real snakes and lizards; which curl themselves for protection.
The earliest Ouroboros symbol was found in ancient Egypt and is inspired by the Chinese Yin-Yang theory. Then it travels west by magical domain ultimately spreading throughout the world.
It is also present in ancient Greece, the Ouroboros in agnosticism and Hermeticism. Hermeticism consists of two schools
- An esoteric doctrine based on manuscripts of Classical Antiquity,
- Development in the field of medieval alchemy, then mostly during the Renaissance. Moreover, it is mainly in alchemy that the Ouroboros flourished.
Meaning of Ouroboros:
Although there are many interpretations of the Ouroboros symbol (based on geographical location, time period, and point of view), here are some meanings of Ouroboros.
- Continuity of life
- Eternity or perpetuity
- Self-sufficiency of nature
- Rebirth of the Earth.
Eternal Cycle Of Life And Death
Ouroboros is a symbol featuring a serpent devouring its tail. It represents that the infinite loop of birth, death, and rebirth. It means that a human is entrapped in an eternal cycle of life and death. This gave the idea of renewal and immortality. And also of unity.
It also represents the preserved nature of the universe; creation from chaos and life after death, featuring an infinite cycle of regeneration. Because a snake regenerates its skin, it is often related to regeneration.
The discontinuous loop of Ouroboros gave the strongest idea of infinity and eternity. It is very difficult to find the starting point in a circle. Hence, it is not easy to find the beginning and the end.
An Ouroboros is a snake and a symbol for the soul. A human following the cycle of life and death but its soul is not limited to the time and death of an individual. Hence, giving the idea of primordial unity.
Primordial unity is linked to something that exists before the beginning and which survives without ever being able to annihilate.
The symbol of yin-yang is represented as a dual-natured, harmony between opposite forces, and responsible for creation and balance of the world.
Although yin-yang is a separate theory in Chinese cosmology, it is sometimes referred as a symbol of Ouroboros. How?
Mouth and tail are two opposite parts of body but the Ouroboros having his tail in its mouth. This concept can be applied on Men and women. For example, the tail of the serpent represents male sex (phallic) and the mouth represents female sex (the uterine). However, they complement each other and represents harmony of the universe.
The Ouroboros is an ancient symbol used universally. It has different meanings. Thus its meaning depends on the one who manages to decipher it.
Significance of Ouroboros in different culture and contexts
Ouroborous is found in many cultures and it is associated with different meanings. It has a wide history which shows meaningful contexts.
The Ouroboros has been incarnated in a multitude of traditions and currents, many of which had absolutely different geographical location, time and thought patterns.
Thus, it has been found in many religions for example in Buddhism, Hinduism, Spiritism (superstition, occult science or doctrine), Theosophy, Mysticism, Kabbalah, Occultism.
Many concepts and historical characters have been linked (or have spoken) to the Ouroboros: Maitreya, Hermes, Guénon.
At times, the Ouroboros has been directly linked to various symbols, such as the Yin Yang of China, the Roman god Janus, or the serpent in the Bible, in the Garden of Eden.
Ouroboros in ancient Egypt
This ancient symbol is also reported to found in the golden chapels of Tutankhamen (KV62). The Egyptian Ouroboros was the first in history and was probably strongly inspired by the Yin Yang. In Egypt, it was associated with following meanings:
The first time the Ouroboros symbol was appeared in the Egyptian religious book called the Other World.
The symbol of the Ouroboros was associated with the tale of the union of two Gods – the God Ra (Sun God) with the God of Death Osiris in the underworld. This means creative destruction.
Ouroboros appears for two times in the tale. First time it appeared surrounding the head and upper chest of Ro-Osiris, (regeneration of Osiris, as Ra). And the second time encircling the feet of Ro-Osiris.
The two snakes are derived from the Mehen deity. Mehen defends Ro-Osiris to his journey to the underworld. The entirety of this divine representation symbolizes the beginning and the end of times.
Since the symbol is showing a serpent eating itself, it has also been associated with self-destruction and annihilation in other Egyptian sources.
In Egyptian images, Ouroboros represented the chaos which encircles the ordered world. However, he participates in the periodic regeneration of the latter.
Ouroboros also represented the concept of rebirth and rejuvenation. Many Egyptian coffins contain the symbol of Ouroboros, hence remarking the role of the protector.
The ancient Egyptians imagined time as a series of repetitive loops, rather than a linear entity in constant evolution. Hence, Ouroboros was also very much associated with the notion of cycle of life, time and season.
The flooding of Nile occurred according to season and it is crucial for agriculture. And the Ouroboros is associated with the seasonal cycles.
Ancient Egyptians perceives Ouroboros as the incarnation of the sun and its movements. And sun was considered the center for all activity and stability of earth.
Ouroboros in China
According to Chinese mythology, the universe was very early separated into two distinct parts:
- Earth below
- Heaven above.
Although both are opposite to each other, these two formed a complementary unit.
For the Chinese, creation of the universe is based on the reproduction. Reproduction involves union of the two complementary opposites: male and female.
Hence, the Chinese believed that Light and Darkness are perfect opposites of each other and generate tremendous creative energy when unified. Their unity was called Chi.
When Chinese alchemy penetrated Alexandria, Egypt, the Yin Yang symbol had such a strong influence that it became the Egyptian emblem of the Ouroboros.
The Ouroboros in India
According to Aitareya Brahmana, the nature of Vedic rituals is compared to "a snake biting its own tail" dating from the beginning of the 1st millennium BC.
Kundalini is a spiritual, cosmic or vital energy. And the symbol of the Ouroboros is used to represent this energy.
Kundalini is believes to shines like the stem of a young lotus. Especially like a snake, coiled upon itself, it holds its tail in its mouth and lies half asleep.
God Shiva often has a materialize body in the form of an entity that revolves around something. The latter symbolizes the duality of life, just like the Ouroboros. Shiva often appears in a circle, embodying the cycle of life:
- Death and rebirth
- creation and destruction
- And eternity in general.
According to Hindu cosmology, the Ouroboros is a dragon that encircles the turtle that supports the four elephants, who are supporting the Earth. In Hinduism, the Ouroboros is one of the foundations on which the earth rests.
Ouroboros In ancient Greece
After its debut in mythology of the ancient Egypt, it was taken over by the Phoenicians. Then the ancient Greeks adopted this mythology and named it “Ouroboros.”
In Greece, Ouroboros was associated with the following
According to Plato, Ouroboros is a circular, immortal, and self-sustaining creature of the universe. He also considered Ouroboros as the first existing entity of the world.
Plato perceives that Ouroboros do not needs eyes and ears, oxygen, and organs for digestion. Because it has nothing to see other than itself and it can feeds itself.
In short, he declared Ouroboros as a total being; the alpha and the omega of the cosmic world; the beginning and the end.
Also, it could not walk as it has no legs, arms, and feet. But it can move in Spherical form, the movement associated with spirit and intelligence.
The legendary Sisyphus is an individual exiled to the hades’ underworld. Sisyphus id believe to climb a mountain with lifting a terribly heavy stone. But every time he reached to the top, the stone moves backward, making his exist as a failure. Hence, he is trapped in this for eternity.
The Ouroboros is associated with the legend of Sisyphus.
Ouroboros and alchemy
In Alchemy, the Ouroboros is used as a graphic representation. Alchemically, the Ouroboros personifies the spirit of Mercury. Mercury is a substance considered to penetrate and unify all matter.
Ouroboros is also the name of the Great Serpent of the World, which surrounds the Earth.
The first Ouroboros found in an alchemical account is in the Chrysopoeia (gold making) of Cleopatra, a 3rd century manuscript from Alexandria.
Chrysopoeia refers to the process in which a "base" metal undergone a "transmutation" into a noble metal, such as gold. This concept id associated with the legend of the philosopher’s stone; a substance related to immortality. Which the Ouroboros represents wonderfully.
Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra includes an Ouroboros design, representing the serpent as half-light and half-dark. Its white and black parts represents the duality of existence (dual nature of all things), such as:
- The conscious and the unconscious,
- Life and death,
- Light and darkness,
- Man and woman,
- Mortality and Divinity,
- Earth and Heaven.
Later, during the Renaissance, an alchemical manuscript entitled The Aurora Consurgens, dating from the 15th century, uses the symbol of the Ouroboros, in conjunction with that of the sun, moon, and mercury.
The alchemist and physician Sir Thomas Browne focused on the timeless unity of all entities in the universe, as well as on the vital cycle: the birth and death of all things. The alchemist sought "to free himself" from this fate, to break the unceasing cycle of the Ouroboros, in order to find immortality.
Thus, for him, the mission of alchemy was to achieve "individual perfection through physical transmutation and spiritual transcendence".
In a medical treatise sent to a fellow adventurer, Sir Thomas wrote that: "it is indeed a remarkable coincidence that the first day is the last, that the tail of the serpent returns to its mouth at precisely that moment, and that they meet again on the day of their Nativity.
Ouroboros in Gnosticism
The Ouroboros was adopted by the Gnostic philosophers in the 2nd century BC.
Gnosticism is a system of ancient religious ideas that deal with knowledge and the real spirit. According to Gnostics, the Divine souls of the humans is trapped in mortal shells, by an evil God.
One of their main beliefs is that salvation can only be found by fighting ignorance. The Ouroboros is a good step towards this.
For the followers of Gnosticism, the cyclical nature of the snake symbolizes the concept of eternity and the very essence of the world.
Ouroboros is a snake that stuck its tail in its mouth and represents the natural cycle of life, which begins again and again. Moreover, the Ouroboros represents eternity and the soul of the earth.
Also, the opposite ends of the Ouroboros (tail and head) are interpreted as being the Divine and the earthly in man, which, although in opposition to each other, coexist together. In short, they are two different entities, the soul and the body, which form a whole Man.
This perception is Manichean. This means that this philosophy leaves no room for nuances, and therefore things are clearly separated: Good and Evil / Soul and Body. Similar to yin-yang. Meaning One part of the soul is Divine (therefore perfect) / the other is human (therefore fallible).
Moreover, around 400 AD, the Ouroboros is depicted as a dragon with twelve parts. With its tip in its mouth, it encircles the globe.
Ouroboros In Nordic Mythology
In Norse legends, the Ouroboros is represented as a gigantic sea serpent Jörmungandr. This colossal dragon snake, also known as the Midgard snake, is one of the three offspring of Loki (God of malice, discord and illusions) and Angrboda (ice giant).
It is considered to be so large that it can encircle the whole plant inserting its tail in his mouth. This allows the Midgard to maintain the stability and balance of the world. Also, when the dragon releases its tip, this will mark the beginning of ragnarok.
The legend of ragnarok is very famous. The Geotian king Herraud gives his daughter Pora Town-Hart a small earthworm. This earthworm evolves and mutates into a big snake that surrounds the cradle of the poor girl. And the snake bites the end of its tail. Ragnar Lodbrok put the snake to his death. And then marries the King's daughter.
A few years later, Ragnar had a son with another lovely lady, who was named Kráka. This child was born with an image of a white snake in one eye. This snake surrounds the iris, and as usual, bites the tip. This poor child was then named Sigurd Snake Eye.
Among the Aztecs,
Among the Aztecs, Quetzalcoatl is a serpent god and benevolent deity which delivers knowledge to his people. Sometimes, in Aztecs tails, he is represented ad biting his own tail, like the famous Ouroboros.
A circular form of Quetzalcoatl is carved, on the base of the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent located in Xochicalco in Mexico. This pyramid dates back to 700 to 900 AD.
Ouroboros in Europe,
According to European concept, the Ouroboros embodies the Milky Way galaxy. A legendary tale refers to a serpent of light that rest in the heavens. The Milky Way is considered this serpent of light, and seen from the galactic center point near Sagittarius, eating its own tail.
Uroboros in the Middle East
Knowing that the Albigensians (followers of Catharism) came from Armenia, where the religion of Zoroastrianism and the cult of Mithras were widespread, it is quite possible that the Ouroboros integrated their culture through Faravahar, a Zoroastrian figure. Indeed, in some representations, he has an Ouroboros on his waist.
In some legends of Mithraism, we can see Mithra reborn, surrounded by an Ouroboros.
This highlights her eternal and cyclical nature. And, even those references that do not mention Ouroboros allude to this circular shape, as embodying the immortality of the soul or the cyclical nature of Karma.
Uroboros in West Africa
In many ancestral traditions and religions of West Africa, the serpent is a sacred animal.
The demi-god Aido Hwedo regularly takes on the appearance of a snake biting its end.
The symbolism of the Ouroboros is found in the imagery of the Fon or Dahomean people, and also in the iconographic representation of the Yoruba people, under the name of Oshunmare.
Ourobors for Christians
For Christians, the Ouroboros is the embodiment of the physical limits of this planet.
It also illustrates the perishable and all-consuming nature of mere existence in this world.
Uroboros in Haiti
In the year 1812, the Republic of Haiti, under the governance of Alexandre Pétion, put into circulation its first locally minted coin, featuring the icon of a snake biting its tip.
Coin of the Republic of Haiti, from the year 1812
In Secret Societies
Knowing that the symbol of the Ouroboros turns out to be very spiritual, with more or less "coded" meanings, and subject to various interpretations, it is logical that secret societies have seized upon this motif.
Thus we find it in myths and occult sciences.
Uroboros in the tarot and watermarks
The Ouroboros appears in the watermarks (a drawing on certain papers, when viewed through the window) of Albigensian prints, during the 14th and 15th centuries.
The emblem of the Ouroboros is also deployed in a multitude of playing cards, as well as tarot cards of the early 14th and 15th centuries.
Furthermore, watermarks similar to those of the Albigensians are found on the earliest printed playing cards. Thus, this suggests that the Albigensians had connections with the inventors of the tarot deck.
On the other hand, one can legitimately wonder if it is not the Albigensians who are at the origin of the legends according to which the Ouroboros is a figure associated with secret societies.
Indeed, the Albigensians are closely linked to the humanist current, which will become the philosophy of the Enlightenment a little later, which will lead to the French revolution. The Albigensians were probably subjected to the inquisition of the Catholic Church at the time.
Ouroboros in the modern world:
Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, claimed that the Ouroboros patterns serves as the basic Mandela of alchemy. The ancient perception of the Ouroboros gives the idea of the subconscious desire to be consumed and reborn perpetually
The Ouroboros symbolizes immortality. Oroboros is considered a total-being, which kills itself, moves itself, fertilizes itself, and gives birth. It is considered a secret of the prima Materia that arises from unconscious of man.
The pattern of oroboros was studied for schizophrenia which represents our psychic continuity with the immemorial past.
In arts and literature
Oroboros is often mentioned in arts and literature as a self-eating serpent. Also, Ouroboros tattoos are very popular.
August Kekulé was a German organometallic chemist who discovered the form of the benzene. According to him, he was trying to find the form of the benzene but fails every time.
He took a short nap and in his dream he saw a snake having its tail in his mouth. From this, he took inspiration to discover the structure of benzene.
The symbol of the Ouroboros is also implied in cosmology. Such as there is a legend that a serpent of light encircles earth with his tail in his mouth. The milky way is considered this serpent of light.
A British scientist, Martin Rees, used oroubous to develop the different scales of universe. The scale is:
- 10-20 cm to the tail (sub-atomic)
- And enlarge up to 1025 cm to the head of the Ouroboros (Supra-galactic)
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