Ouroboros: All About This Symbol And Its Meaning
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Present in different cultures for thousands of years, the Ouroboros is a sign that represents a circular snake that bites its tail. Sometimes found under the name uroboros, the snake symbolism is the most powerful of all animals in terms of meaning and fame.
To better understand why this symbol is so powerful, we have written a comprehensive article about it. After reading it, you will know its origin and meaning, as well as its evolution in ancient cultures.
The Ouroboros is a symbol that represents a snake or a dragon biting its own tail.
Ethymologically, the word Ouroboros comes from the Greek ουροβóρος. The first part "ουρο" means "Tail" and the second "βóρος" means "Devour", literally "One who bites his own tail".
Inspired by the famous Chinese Ying Yang, the oldest trace of the Ouroboros goes back to the iconographies of Ancient Egypt. It was then transmitted to the West, to arrive to Ancient Greece, where they officially gave it its name.
The oldest symbol of the Ouroboros was found in hieroglyphics in the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun. It surrounded the head and feet of the Pharaoh, representing his eternal divinity in the afterlife.
Each civilization had its own Ouroboros. It can be found in Japan, in Ancient Egypt, in India, in Greek alchemy or even in the Amerindian tribes.
This timeless symbol is one of the most mythical in the world. It represents many mythological and spiritual concepts. Although it is known as a snake eating its own tail, it is sometimes simply pictured as a snake in a circle.
It also exists in the form of a much more complex symbol consisting of two coiled snakes. At present, no one knows the origin of this particular symbol, also called Ouroboros Auryn.
Ancient alchemists used this symbol to represent the alchemical volatility of an element.
It can also be represented as a Lemniscate, represented by the number "8" horizontally. If you want to know what this symbol represents, we will develop its meaning below.
Some say that the Lemniscate symbol is actually a derivative of the double Ouroboros, but this is all just a theory.
The Ouroboros is sometimes represented under the symbol of the Lemniscate. Its characteristic shape of the number "8" set horizontally designates a specific concept in mathematics, the infinity. Ꝏ
This representation in the form of the double loop of the snake that bites its tail is the reincarnation of things that change eternally but never die. The Ouroboros Infinity can be found today in fantasy literature and art.
Cyclic Nature of the Universe
The snake biting its own tail is in fact a representation of the eternal cycle of life and death and the idea of perpetual renewal. In this sense, these meanings refer to the conception of existence as a cycle that starts over and over again, that consists of a constant rebirth and where there is no real end. (Like the cycle of the seasons of the year for example).
Moreover, the snake often embodies the cycle of regeneration, shedding and regaining its skin continuously.
Fertility and balance
The snake that bites its own tail is also synonymous with fertility. The snake's tail represents the male sex (phallic symbol) and its mouth represents the female sex (uterine symbol).
These two contradictory and complementary emblems highlight the principle of balance in the universe, as found in the famous Chinese emblem of "Ying Yang".
Ouroboros, which animal represents it ?
It is not surprising that the snake is considered the animal that best represents rebirth. Indeed, its ability to perpetually renew its skin makes it the most suitable totem animal for this concept.
The representation of the snake biting its own tail is not insignificant. Many of these reptiles eat their own tails for two main reasons:
The first is that this very lively animal can sometimes confuse the rapid movements of its own tail with those of its prey, because of its small brain that can not always make the distinction.
The second is that this animal is poikilotherms. Its constant temperature changes to adapt to a new environment can make it believe it is hungry, thus starting to eat its tail to satisfy its subconscious.
Once he starts eating his tail, he is unable to stop and can sometimes die.
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Some cultures represent the Ouroboros as a Dragon, or rather as a Dragon in the shape of a snake. It is easy to differentiate it from the "standard" dragon because its shape is rather long and it does not have wings.
This symbol was particularly used in Norse mythology, where it represented the gigantic sea snake Jörmungand.
The armadillo girdled lizard is a species of saurian of the family Cordylidae. This reptile with a particular behavior curls up on itself when it feels in danger and looks like the Ouroboros, hence the association with the latter.
It can keep this defensive position for more than an hour and protect itself from its predators like the mongoose or the snake.
In spite of its appearance and its scaly armor which can appear dangerous, this lizard is totally harmless to humans.
Ouroboros in Mythology
In Chinese mythology and in Buddhism, the Ouroboros was linked to the Yin-Yang. In Chinese culture, the universe was divided early on between the Earth (below) and the Sky (above).
These two gave the idea of opposites forming a unity. In the Chinese community, reproduction was the basis for the creation of the universe. However, it is well known that reproduction is the union of two complementary opposites: male and female.
This is why they believed that Light and Darkness generate creative energy when they combine.
These two opposites formed the well known Yin Yang motif. This symbol was certainly transformed into the Ouroboros when Chinese alchemy penetrated Alexandria.
To represent the opposite, they used white and black. The upper part of the snake was light in color to refer to the soul while its tail and lower part were dark, representing the body. These two parts, namely the soul and the body, being two opposite parts joined together to become one and form a human being.
In the Scandinavian culture, the Norse Ouroboros is presented under the features of the the Midgard Serpent: Jörmungandr. This one is one of the three offspring that Loki (God of malice, illusions and discord) had with Angrboda (Ice Giant).
According to the legends of the Nordic mythology, this titanic reptile is so big that it can encircle Midgard, the planet of the mortals, by seizing its tail in its mouth. It is said that this "power" keeps the world in balance.
Norse legend also says that when Jörmungandr drops his tail, the world will end and from it will begin Ragnarok.
Also, in the Norse legends of Ragnar Lodbrok, a king gave his daughter Pora Town-Hart a small earthworm that later turned into a large snake that surrounds her cradle biting its tail. This was killed by Ragnar Lodbrok, who then married the King's daughter.
Later he had a son with another woman, named Kráka. This child was born with an image in his eye of a white snake biting its tail, and is thus named Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye.
As we mentioned earlier in the article, the Ouroboros is a very ancient symbol that originated on the golden shrine of Tutankhamen.
Ouroboros Egyptian had several meanings:
The first time this symbol was seen was in the Egyptian religious book called "The Book of the Dead". This book created in the 16th century BC was a funerary manuscript from Ancient Egypt, found in the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun. Moreover, this book was still used during the Greco-Roman period.
In this book, the symbol of the Ouroboros appears twice in a passage that tells the story of the union of the sun god (Ra) with the god of death (Osiris) in the underworld and it represented the creative destruction.
The two Ouroboros surrounded both the head and upper chest Horus (the reincarnation of Osiris) as well as his feet.
The latter were emanations of Mehen, a Snake God, and symbolized the beginning and the end of time.
On the other hand, it also represented self-destruction and self-annihilation because it was shown eating itself.
Moreover, knowing that this symbol was often found on coffins, it could also evoke the notion of rejuvenation and rebirth, as well as a protective role.
The Egyptians saw the cycle of time as a series of loops repeating itself. From this idea came the use of the Ouroboros to represent the seasonal cycle, which was an essential element in agriculture and therefore in the entire Egyptian community.
They also saw the sun as the source of cyclical time, as it made a nocturnal journey to the waters of Nun. This is how the incarnation of the sun and the movements through the Ouroboros were born.
At that time, nobles liked to wear Ouroboros jewelry to represent their gods. More than a jewel, our Ouroboros Ring has a powerful symbolism. Take a few minutes to discover it !
The word "Ouroboros" was created by the Greeks. According to Plato, the Ouroboros was a circular, self-sucking creature and he described it as the first divine being of the universe.
According to him, this primordial being had some particularities:
- This beast had neither eyes nor ears because there was nothing to see or hear around it
- It had neither lungs nor organs because it was self-sufficient
- It had no limbs because there was nowhere to go, no need to defend itself or attack anyone
In short, the Ouroboros is the ultimate being. It is the Alpha and the Omega of the Cosmos, the beginning and the end of all things.
According to the myth, its spherical form was given to him so that he could carry out an infinite movement. The Greek Ouroboros symbolized eternity and the soul of the world.
This snake is also associated with the myth of Sisyphus. In this one, Sisyphus is forced to move a terribly heavy round stone up an extremely steep hill.
Each time he approaches the top, the stone rolls back down. Every day, Sisyphus is thus condemned to move the stone up the hill for eternity.
Remark: Contrary to what one might think, the snake of Aesculapius which wraps itself around the caduceus of Hermes is not associated with the symbol of the Ouroboros but with trade. The same goes for the Staff of Asclepius which is the symbol of medicine.
Ouroboros in Yoga and Hinduism
In Indian culture, a dragon encircled a turtle that carries on its back the four elephants that sustain the world.
In Yoga, the Ouroboros has two meanings:
- The Ouroboros of Kundalini symbolizes the spiritual energy found in the lower spine that influences the Chakras.
- The Ouroboros of Karma symbolizes the eternal cycle of causes and consequences of the acts of Buddhists.
Among the Aztecs, the Quetzalcoatl is a snake god. He was a good god who would deliver knowledge to his people. A circular Quetzalcoatl shape was carved at the base of the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent in Mexico, in Xochicalco.
The meaning of the Ouroboros in this pre-Columbian civilization is not very clear. However, the notion of self-sacrifice to Quetzalcoatl shows that it was probably intended to establish a link between the world of the living and the dead.
Ouroboros in Islam
In Armenia, the Albigensians (people of Catharism) practiced Zoroastrianism (monotheistic religion of ancient Iran) and representations of their God Mithra were common. The Ouroboros seems to have entered their iconography through the Zoeoastrian Farvahar emblem, which in these certain versions features an Ouroboros at its waist rather than a simple disc.
In their cults, Mithra in the midst of his rebirth is depicted with an Ouroboros around him, embodying his cyclical and eternal nature. Even references that do not mention these creatures, mention this circular shape as a symbol of the immortality of the soul and the cyclical nature of Karma.
Ouroboros in the Bible
Christians used the Ouroboros in the Bible as a symbol of the difference between the inner and outer world. In Genesis, the spiritual symbolism of the Ouroboros represented the transient and self-consuming nature of an existence.
Gnosticism is a current of thought present in the Roman Empire in the 2nd and 3rd century. The Gnostic philosophy considered humans as divine souls locked by a malevolent god in a mortal body.
The Ouroboros was very important to them. To oppose its head and tail was considered to be something divine. They compared it to the soul of the body in man. These two completely opposite parts formed a whole: Human being.
In West African religions, snakes were sacred animals. In fact, the demigod Aido Hwedo was represented as a Python biting its tail. The latter would be the origin of the creation of the world.
The Ouroboros is also found in the iconography of the Fon people as well as in Yoruba imagery such as Oshunmare.
In ancient European cultures, the Ouroboros was a symbol used in Astrology that referred to the Milky Way. The myth mentions a snake of light that resides between the stars, called the "Constellation of Ouroboros". According to cosmic legends, this snake would bite its own tail.
In reality, it is the Constellation of Ophiuchus which was located between the constellation of Scorpio and Sagittarius. It was inscribed in the Almagest of Ptolemy and can be seen between 80° North and 80° South. It is represented as a man holding a snake in his hand.
Ouroboros in Psychology
At the end of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung interpreted the Ouroboros as having a powerful hold on the human psyche. According to him, this snake makes its way into our subconscious in different forms.
The Ouroboros represents the integration and assimilation of the opposite. It signifies immortality, as it is said to kill, animate, fertilize and give birth to itself. It also embodies the Unique, which is born from the meeting of opposites.
The psychologist Erich Neumann speaks of the Ouroboros as a representation of the state of the dawn. For him, this serpent is a link between childhood and humanity as a whole.
The cyclical interpretation of this reptile can also be the eternal effort to end the problems of life. But since the cycle never ends, the effort is useless because the problems always come back.
Ouroboros in Alchemy
The oldest appearance of the Ouroboros in Alchemy comes from an alchemical treatise of the 2nd century, written by Cleopatra the Alchemist.
In the alchemical manual Chrysopoeia by Kleopatra, there is a drawing of Ouroboros, both light and dark. This symbol illustrates the dual nature of things, but also shows that the opposites are not in conflict, on the contrary. This book focuses on the concept that "the one is all". This idea is related to the Hermetic wisdom, a concept coming from the world of esotericism.
This manual was found among Greek sources, and a Greek inscription on the parchments was discovered: εν το παν. In other words, "the one is all". This maxim, well known in alchemy, indicates that within every good thing is hidden some bad. And, conversely, that within the evil hides the good.
Ouroboros symbol in alchemy
In esoteric alchemy, this symbol signifies the unity of all things, whether material or spiritual. It also refers to the fact that these things never disappear but are continually renewed, with a cycle of destruction and creation. The snake is often synonymous with resurrection, as this animal seems to be perpetually reborn by shedding its skin and then regaining it. With the snake that turns on itself while biting its tail, this impression is multiplied tenfold.
In alchemy, the Ouroboros can also symbolize the Spirit of Mercury (a substance that absorbs all matter), the conscious and the unconscious, the cycle of life/birth and death, and the eternal unity of all things.
All of these meanings return again to the universal meaning of the snake: the harmony and unity of opposites.
Alchemy in the Renaissance
The Ouroboros remained very popular with Renaissance alchemists. Again symbolizing the infinity of eternity and time, the snake was considered the last obstacle to be overcome in the Opus Magnum.
For them, their first goal (to become immortal) was synonymous with breaking this infinite cycle of the Ouroboros for good. They saw this symbol as a vision they had to escape. This is why they were looking for linear eternity rather than cyclical eternity.
Ouroboros in Chemistry
This symbol has even reached the scientific spheres.
In the 19th century, the German chemist Friedrich Kekulé described the realization of one of his most important works. He explains that he was working with his manual, but that he fell asleep because he could not move forward. While he was sleeping, he spoke of a dream in which the atoms changed before him in the form of a snake in a circle. This vision persuaded him to continue with his hypothesis once he woke up.
He was doing research on the structure of benzene molecules. Thanks to his vision, he deduced that the structure of this molecule was in fact a closed carbon ring. The appearance of the Ouroboros in his dream allowed him to discover the benzene ring.
Ouroboros Tattoo Meaning
The powerful symbolism of the Ouroboros makes it a very trendy tattoo. The meaning of an Ouroboros tattoo is the cycle of life and death, infinity, rebirth and longevity.
Getting a snake tattoo Ouroboros claims the desire to achieve a balance in his personal development. Most people get this tattoo for two reasons: either because the meaning of this tattoo represents something to them, or because of their religion.
This tattoo is even found in the manga Fullmetal Alchemist. We also note that Dana Scully in X-Files got this symbol tattooed on her back because it represents the progression of life.
Now you know everything about the Ouroboros and its meaning in different cultures.
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