Like many words that have ancient etymology, most symbols have their roots in antiquity. One such symbol is the ouroboros which dates back at least to 9000 BC. Ouroboros is Greek for tail-devourer. This image can be found in multiple symbol systems all over the world.
The snake swallowing its own tail combines the symbolism of the circle and the serpent, and, like the Phoenix, represents life, death, and rebirth. The great serpent symbolizes the endless process of cyclical repetition.
In Egyptian iconography the self-sufficient serpent represents the path of sun, the circle of the universe. One image, dating to 1600 BC in Egypt, is the Chrysopoeia ouroboros of Cleopatra. The name indicates the attempts at creating gold, and indicates an advanced knowledge of natural science and the beginnings of alchemy.
In alchemical emblems, the Ouroboros symbolizes a closed cyclical process in which the heating, evaporation, cooling, and condensation of a liquid helps to refine or purify substances. Often there are two snakes, each biting the tail of the other. The upper one has wings to signify the more volatile substances, the lower has no wings to represent fixed elements.
The serpent (or pair of serpents) with tail in mouth communicates self-sufficiency: The creature begets, weds, impregnates, and slays itself with a power that continually consumes and renews. In every end is a new beginning. In some funerary art the ouroboros represents immortality, eternity, and wisdom.
An illustration from 1571 shows an ouroboros with the Roman Saturn, a god of time. In Norse mythology, the serpent Jormungand grew large enough to encircle the world and grasp its tail in its teeth. This ancient Norse serpent holding the universe together is a continually regenerating ouroboros.
The tail-biting serpent is also found in Hindu mythology, circling the tortoise, which supports the four elephants that carry the world. The Great Serpent appears in alchemical, ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Gnostic texts, as well as Aztec iconography.
Like many ancient symbols, the ouroboros has collected layers of esoteric meaning. The never-ending serpent is apparently immobile, yet is in perpetual motion, recoiling on itself. The cyclical nature of this Great Serpent links it to the infinity sign, and to the perfect, never-ending circle which is the constraining factor in Sacred Geometry, as the ouroboros constrains the universe. The continuous movement of the serpent symbolizes well the flow of creation from chaos to order, to chaos again, and the background radiation which continually tumbles through the universe (Duncan-Enzmann).
The symbolic meaning of the Ouroboros is replete with concepts such as:
The alchemists illustrate this serpent wrapped around the cosmic egg, signifying the life span of the universe. Furthermore, the center opening shown in typical uroboros illustrations may also symbolize the egg which speaks of :
This opening upon which the serpent is clenched is also symbolic of the number zero and all it implies.
The serpent itself is symbolic of regeneration and the cycle of time as we observe in the shedding of a snake’s skin.
The eating of it’s own tail declares the statement “The end is the beginning” and reminds us of the eternal nature of energy which cannot be destroyed, only transformed.
I rather like the implication that only by devouring ourselves can we find our true nature. To further this point, I think of the constrictive nature of the snakes feeding pattern; its inner muscles press upon prey (in this case, itself).
This makes me think of the birthing process of diamonds. It takes a lot of pressure to make a diamond from coal. Likewise, it takes a lot of constriction for our best selves to be squeezed out of our false identities.
The uroboros makes its appearance in several cultural myths. Quickie symbolism of the uroboros in cultural myth:
Egyptian: Symbolic of the sun – it’s rising and setting signifying the cycle of the day
Gnostic: Oneness of all life, the constant process of re-recreation and the unity behind all duality
Roman: Eternity, time and associated with Janus the god of the new year
Greece: Death and rebirth as illustrated in the Orphic creation myth – another reference to the cosmic egg symbolism
African: Here it is known as the “rainbow serpent” or Aido Hwedo and is an emblem of sustaining life, protection and creation
The overwhelming message the uroboros provides is “all is one” – the concept of connection and the totality of all. Other thoughts that come to mind with the uroboros include:
Beginnings, endings, and all that’s in-betwix
Life, death and what we do with ourselves in between
Reintegration, disintegration and the phases each of these processes undergoes
No doubt, this symbol is a powerful one – we can easily see how all of its symbolic implications can reap a dramatic effect on our thoughts. I invite you to settle in with your own personal concepts of the uroboros, and see what kind of transformations come up for you!