In exploring this enigmatic symbol I had the realisation that any search for ‘origins’ is like wandering into a labyrinth. At every turn there is interpretation and mis-interpretation. It is near impossible to pin point a particular single seed-meaning. However the Ouroboros is a very ancient symbol, it’s been around for thousands of years and like a snowball rolling down the hill of Time it gains fresh meaning, gathering weight and presence. Yes, the Ouroboros is a veritable behemoth of the symbol realm.
|Jacob Bohme, 17th c.|
So what is the Ouroboros? As mentioned in the first part of my serpent post, snakes and dragons are associated with waters, especially the cosmic waters of creation. This is one of those reoccurring themes that exists in many cultures, such as ancient Mesopotamia, Vedic India and Greece.
Here I’d refer the reader to my post about the chaos symbol, in relation to the author’s notions on the idea of 'originality of source' and its impact on the meaning.
There is evidence that the Ouroboros has roots in ancient Egypt, featuring in ancient Egyptian cosmological and underworld myths. The design features in much art and sculpture though it probably meant different things or served different symbolic functions. The notion of eternity and continuity are concepts that belong more to the Hermetic traditions, as the tail-biting serpent that surrounded the Egyptian world served a more protective role. In this sense it is a barrier, a container, boundary and protector - thus the ouroboros existed as an amulet, a round of bronze or gold or silver, fashioned into serpent form as a protective token.
Like the world Serpent of Nordic myth, the Egyptian Ouroboros held back the chaotic waters of creation. Similarly in Greek myth Okeanus, the great ocean, girded the earth. In fact the Greek letter Theta was originally conceived as a circle with a dot in the centre. Theta is derived from the Phoenician/Hebrew word Teth, meaning snake, represented by a tail biting serpent. Now the circle was seen as Okeanus, and associated with Omega, while the central point was the centre of the Grecian world, the omphalos at Delphi. Again this aligns with reference to an earlier post about Sun Symbolism in which the same symbol was used to represent the sun god. In this context Helios, the sun god, was called the mid-omphalos of the seven planets.
|One of the so-called Abraxus gems stones.|
|Design from an early ms of St Mark 299 -|
the words in the middle read: "the One is the All"
There are some Ouroboros images in the earliest Hermetic and Coptic texts, conceived in Alexandria, Egypt, during the 2nd century of the Common Era. A tail chomping serpent is also mentioned in the Acts of the Apostle Thomas (3rd century C.E).
By the 5th century C.E. the Egyptian writer Horappollo commented that the universe was represented by a huge serpent that clasped its tail between its teeth, its glittering scales were the stars and planets. Anyone who has wandered on a clear night, away from the light pollution of our cities will have seen this sight. The Milky Way and its glittering scales. And here we have a beautifully intuitive notion, coinciding with themes of death and renewal, the serpent consumes itself, but is reborn, stars super-nova, jettisoning their molecules into space, waiting to be reconstructed in divergent forms. As though each scale will, in time, be sloughed off, shed like the serpent’s old skin.
Earlier references exist in the Amduat, which is the religious handbook of the Egyptian underworld. However this serpent was named at the Many-of-faces or appeared as Apophis, the great serpent of the underworld. Some concepts are kind of indelible. Possibly because they appeal to us at a level we can’t articulate fully - our subconscious is left to grapple that one.
I’ve included a few Ouroboros pictures here from the Hermetic texts of the later middle-ages. These are very powerful images, symbolically rich, pregnant with meaning. The Ouroboros transformed over thousands of years. It was never any ‘one thing’ but the image is like a magnet and it gathers sub-meanings, associations and concepts, becoming layered like history, layered like the strata in our minds. This is how symbols operate in part.
|Theodorus Pelecanos, 1478|
In the mid medieval period the ancient hermetic and gnostic traditions were revitalised. As the tradition flourished ancient symbols were reinstated, sometimes adapted for contemporary usage. Amongst them was the Ouroboros.
It is here that the stamp of eternity and cyclical nature was firmly pressed into the serpent’s round. Indeed some of the earliest images, such as those from the Leyden Papyri, bear inscriptions like “The One Is The All” and it is this notion of cosmic unity that permeates the early gnostic and hermetic texts. These ideas were syncretic mutations of schools of thought that existed in the twilight of Hellenic culture: Orphism, Neopythagorism, Platonism etc. Such philosophical ideas were readily adopted by later alchemists, and adopted to suit. Again the Ouroboros attracted fresh meaning: the Unity of Matter and the great alchemical Work, which had no beginning or end.
|My own design for my webcomic Nu-City Blues|
The Ouroboros and the Unity of Matter in alchemy - H.J Sheppard
The Egyptian Ouroboros - Dana Michael Reeves
Alchemy and Mysticism - Alexander Roob