The Ouroboros, also spelled Ourorboros, Oroborus, Uroboros or Uroborus (IPA: [ˌjʊərəʊˈbɒrəs]), is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon swallowing its own tail and forming a circle. It has been used to represent many things over the ages, but it most generally symbolizes ideas of cyclicality, unity, or infinity. The ouroboros has been important in religious and mythological symbolism, but has also been frequently used in alchemical illustrations. More recently, it has been interpreted by psychologists, such as Carl Jung, as having an archetypal significance to the human psyche.
The name ouroboros (or, in Latinized form, uroborus) is Greek ουροβóρος, “tail-devourer”.
In some representations the serpent is shown as half light and half dark, echoing symbols such as the Yin Yang, which illustrates the dual nature of all things, but more importantly, that these opposites are not in conflict. In alchemy, the ouroboros symbolises the circular nature of the alchemist’s opus, which unites the opposites: the conscious and unconscious mind. It is also often associated with Gnosticism, and Hermeticism.
The Ouroboros often represents self-reflexivity or cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself, the eternal return, and other things perceived as cycles that begin anew as soon as they end (See Phoenix (mythology)). It can also represent the idea of primordial unity. The Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann writes of it as a representation of the pre-ego “dawn state”, depicting the undifferentiated infancy experience of both mankind and the individual child.
The Ouroboros could very well be used to symbolize the closed-system model of the universe of some physicists. The organic chemist August Kekulé claimed that a ring in the shape of Ouroboros that he saw in a dream inspired him in his discovery of the structure of benzene. As noted by Carl Jung, this might be an instance of cryptomnesia.
The Ouroboros is one of the oldest mystical symbols in the world. The serpent or dragon appears in Aztec, Middle East, and Native American mythologies, among others.
The serpent or dragon eating its own tail can be traced back to Ancient Egypt, circa 1600 BCE. From ancient Egypt it passed to Phoenicia and then to the Greek philosophers, who gave it the name Ouroboros (“tail-devourer”).
In Norse mythology it appears as the serpent Jörmungandr, one of the three children of Loki and Angrboda, who grew so large that it could encircle the world and grasp its tail in its teeth. In the legends of Ragnar Lodbrok, such as Ragnarssona þáttr, the Geatish king Herraud gives a small lindorm as a gift to his daughter Þóra Town-Hart after which it grows into a large serpent which encircles the girl’s bower and bites itself in the tail. The serpent is slain by Ragnar Lodbrok who marries Þóra. Ragnar later has a son with another woman named Kráka and this son is born with the image of a white snake in one eye. This snake encircled the iris and bit itself in the tail, and the son was named Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye.
In Gnosticism, this serpent symbolized eternity and the soul of the world.
Christianity adopted the ouroboros as a symbol of the limited confines of the material world (that there is an “outside” being implied by the demarcation of an inside), and the self-consuming transitory nature of a mere “worldly existence” of this world, following in the footsteps of the preacher in Ecclesiastes 3:9-14. G. K. Chesterton, in The Everlasting Man, uses it as a symbol of the circular and self-defeating nature of pantheistic mysticism and of most modern philosophy.
Additionally, the ouroboros has been incorporated into the crests of the Hungarian and Romanian Unitarian churches.
It is also present in some Hindu folk-myths, as the dragon circling the tortoise that supports the four elephants which support the world on their backs.[dubious ]
Snakes are sacred animals in many West African religions. The demi-god Aidophedo uses the image of a serpent biting its own tail. The oroburus is also seen in fon or dahomean iconography as well as in yoruba imagery as Oshunmare
The god Quetzalcoatl is sometimes portrayed as an ouroboros on Aztec and Toltec ruins.
In alchemy, the ouroboros is a purifying sigil. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung saw the ourobouros as an archetype and the basic mandala of alchemy. Jung also defined the relationship of the ouroboros to alchemy:
The ouroboros may have been the origin of ∞ (a lemniscate, the symbol used for infinity in mathematics.)
The alchemists, who in their own way knew more about the nature of the individuation process than we moderns do, expressed this paradox through the symbol of the uroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. ouroboros, has been said to have a meaning of infinity or wholeness. In the age-old image of the uroboros lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself. The uroboros 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 uroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilises himself and gives birth to himself. He symbolises the One, who proceeds from the clash of opposites, and he therefore constitutes the secret of the prima materia which […] unquestionably stems from man’s unconscious.
The famous ouroboros drawing from the early alchemical text The Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra dating to 2nd century Alexandria encloses the words hen to pan, “one, the all”, i.e. “All is One”. Its black-and-white halves represent the Gnostic duality of existence.
As a symbol of the eternal unity of all things, the cycle of birth and death from which the alchemist sought release and liberation, it was familiar to the alchemist/physician Sir Thomas Browne. In his A letter to a friend, a medical treatise full of case-histories and witty speculations upon the human condition, he wrote of it:
[…] that the first day should make the last, that the Tail of the Snake should return into its Mouth precisely at that time, and they should wind up upon the day of their Nativity, is indeed a remarkable Coincidence,
It is also alluded to at the conclusion of Browne’s The Garden of Cyrus (1658) as a symbol of the circular nature and Unity of the two Discourses:
All things began in order so shall they end, so shall they begin again according to the Ordainer of Order and the mystical mathematicks of the City of Heaven.