What is Ouroboros ?
Present in all cultures, the symbolism of the snake 🐍 surpasses that of all other animals. This is in large part due to the fact that it sheds its skin, symbolizing among other things the rebirth of body and soul.
But there is one snake that surpasses all others in terms of meaning and fame. This founding animal of many myths is none other than the Ouroboros. The famous snake that bites its tail has been present in all human cultures for millennia.
In this simple and detailed article you will learn the origin and meaning of the Ouroboros, and the symbolism of the Ouroboros in different cultures.
After reading this article, Ouroboros will no longer hold any secrets for you !
1) THE OUROBOROS AND ITS MEANING
A) OUROBOROS: DEFINITION
The Ouroboros is a symbol representing a dragon or a snake that eats its tail. It usually forms a circle and is also called Ourorboros, Oroborus, Uroborus or "an Ouroboros".
The Ouroboros and its etymology are very old. The origin of the word Ouroboros comes from the Greek ουροβóρος . "Oura" meaning "tail" and "boros" meaning "to eat".
So literally, to the question "what does Ouroboros mean in English ?", the correct answer is: "he who eats his tail". Ouroboros is thus the explanation of the expression "it is the snake that bites its tail".
B) THE OUROBOROS: A TIMELESS SYMBOL
It is one of the oldest mystical symbols in the world. It is most often represented by a snake biting its tail. But it happens that the Ouroboros is imaged by a simple snake or dragon of circular shape.
It is sometimes represented under the features of an Ouroboros Lemniscate. The lemniscate refers to the famous "infinity" symbol, an inverted horizontal 8 ♾️. It is also found in the form of two snakes coiled between them, as we will see below.
The snake biting its tail is a symbol representative of many philosophical, spiritual and mythological concepts.
C) MEANING OF OUROBOROS
What does Ouroboros symbolize?
The Ouroboros represents the infinite cyclic nature of the universe: the eternal cycle of life and death, creation and destruction ... It eats its own tail in an eternal renewal 🔁. What Ouroboros means is the concept of eternity, and that of perpetual change. Ouroboros symbolizes a cycle.
This symbol refers to the ideology that existence is a cycle of constant rebirth. Therefore, there is not really death, but a continuity of life. This is why there is a link with the cyclical nature of time: the future devours the present to create an infinite chain of moments that die and are reborn at every moment.
Ouroboros also symbolizes balance. It is the key to the harmony of the cosmos. A symbol of the primitive and anarchic dynamism that preceded its creation and the emergence of order. It is comparable to the Chinese yin and yang ☯️, which represents the balance of opposing forces: fire and water, light and darkness, good and evil, ...
It is very important in the religious and mythological symbolism of many civilizations. The Ouroboros is also an alchemical symbol ⚗️. It represents the circular nature of the alchemist's work. Its meaning is also often associated with Gnosticism and Hermeticism.
2) THE INFINITE OUROBOROS
It is therefore not surprising that the serpent Ouroboros is the current mathematical symbol of infinity, in its lemniscate form. These representations of the double loop, like a snake eating its tail, are also common today in art 🖼️ and fantasy literature.
3) THE DOUBLE OUROBOROS
Also called Ouroboros Auryn, we do not know exactly who invented this symbol, nor at what time. But the symbols forming the royal cartouche of Pharaoh Rameses III already contained a double ouroboros.
Some researchers suggest that the infinite sign (the mathematical lemniscate) is derived from the double Ouroboros. It was also used by ancient alchemists and some used it to symbolize the alchemical volatility of an element.
The Ouroboros of the Endless History is also a double. This "amulet of the dawn" is moreover at the center of the film's plot. It is following the popularity of the film in 1984, that the two snakes eating their tails became a symbol much in demand by tattoo artists.
4) THE OUROBOROS : ANIMAL... OR ANIMALS ?
A) THE OUROBOROS SNAKE, THE MOST FAMOUS ONE
The representation of the snake eating itself comes from the Greek and Egyptian cultures. As this animal-totem symbolizes the cyclic rebirth because of its ability to moult, it is not surprising that the Ouroboros is represented as a snake.
There are many cases of actual snakes eating their own tails. There are two reasons for this:
- Snakes have small brains and are more reactive than proactive. Thus, they sometimes confuse the rapid movements of their own tail with prey.
- Snakes are poikilothermic, their body temperature varies with their environment. If they are too hot, they can become disoriented. They then mistakenly think they are hungry and start to want to eat at all costs. It can happen that they swallow their own tail.
Unfortunately, once the snake bites its tail, it cannot stop. Although it cannot eat itself whole, it can die trying. And form a real and macabre Ouroboros snake.
B) THE OUROBOROS DRAGON, A MYTHOLOGICAL CREATURE
In Nordic mythology in particular, the dragon Ouroboros Jörmungand is represented as circling the world by biting its tail.
C) AN OUROBOROS LIZARD ?
The Ouroborus Cataphractus, also called Armadille's lizard or Cordyle Cataphractus, is a species of lizards from the South African desert. Its particularity is its armor of scales which covers it entirely. This reptile curls up on itself when it feels threatened, reminiscent of an Ouroboros.
Once it is in this position, the other parts of its body act as a protection for its vulnerable belly. The Ouroboros lizard can stay in this position for up to an hour. This unique defense in the world protects it from predators such as snakes and mongooses.
Even if it can look dangerous, apart from its formidable scales this Ouroboros-reptile is completely harmless to humans. However, it is threatened by poaching and illegal trade.
5) ORIGINS OF OUROBOROS
A) THE OUROBOROS OF TUTANKHAMUN
The oldest traces of Ouroboros and its origin having been discovered date back to 1600 B.C. in Egypt. The symbol would then have been transmitted to the Phoenicians and then to the Greeks, who gave it its name.
The oldest known symbol of Ouroboros appears on a golden shrine in the tomb of Tutankhamun ⚰️. It was found in the hieroglyphs in the chamber of the sarcophagus. The mythical serpent surrounded the feet and head of the pharaoh, symbolizing his status as an eternal deity in the afterlife.
B) THE OUROBOROS, A UNIVERSAL LEGEND
This symbol has been seen in ancient Egypt, Japan 🏯, India, Greek alchemical texts, European woodcuts, Native American tribes and pre-Columbian temples.
Ouroboros has sometimes been directly associated with symbols as diverse as the Roman god Janus, the Chinese Ying Yang, and the biblical serpent in the Garden of Eden. There is even an Ouroboros on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789!
6) OUROBOROS IN MYTHOLOGY
A) THE OUROBOROS IN EGYPT: THE SERPENT OF ATUM
The Ouroboros appears in the Egyptian Book of the Other World, also called the Book of the Dead 💀. The Egyptian Ouroboros was popular after the Amarna period.
In the Book of the Dead, it is said that the sun god Atum came out of the waters of chaos with a snake. The animal was immortal because it renewed itself every morning. Ouroboros in its original Egyptian context symbolized repetition, renewal, the eternal cycle of time, and sometimes even the sun itself.
The symbol refers to the "mystery of cyclic time". The ancient Egyptians understood time as a series of repeating cycles, rather than as something linear and constantly changing. At the center of this idea was the flooding of the Nile and the journey of the sun.
A famous drawing of the Ouroboros also appears in the alchemical text The Chrysopoeia, by "Cleopatra the Alchemist" (an Egyptian, different from the queen goddess Cleopatra). It is a very ancient treatise on alchemy dating from the 2nd century in Alexandria, which deals with the subject of the Philosopher's Stone 💎. We will come back to this point in the section on alchemy.
B) THE GREEK OUROBOROS : THE PRIMORDIAL BEING
It is the Greeks who gave its name to Ouroboros. The Greek philosopher Plato described a circular, self-phasing being as the first divine being in the universe. As it was absolutely alone in the cosmos, this primordial being had some peculiarities:
- He had no eyes because there was nothing to see outside of him...
- No ears because there was nothing to hear
- No lungs because there was no atmosphere to breathe.
- No organs to eat or drink because there was no food or water.
- No members because there was nowhere to go, no one to defend oneself against, and nothing to catch.
Given his condition, he was given a spherical shape by the creators so that he could make an infinite circular movement on himself ⭕. The Greek Ouroboros thus symbolized eternity and the soul of the world.
The essence of Ouroboros is also present at another level in Greek mythology. It is the representation of natural forces. Like the sun, the moon 🌙, the waves of the sea, ...
This snake is also linked to the myth of Sisyphus and Helium. In this legend, Sisyphus is forced to push a heavy, perfectly round stone up a steep slope 🏔️. But before reaching the top of the hill, the stone rolls all the way down. Sisyphus is thus condemned to start over from the bottom of the hill every day for eternity.
C) JÖRMUNGAND: THE VIKING OUROBOROS AND ITS MEANING
In Scandinavian culture, the SerpentJörmungand (or Jormungandr) is one of the three children of the deities Loki and Angrboda. This titanic monster is so large that it can encircle Midgard, the world of mortals, by grasping its tail between its teeth.
Jörmungand the Ouroboros guards Yggdrasil. Moreover, it is often represented as the Ouroboros of the Tree of Life.
According to the legend, when the Ouroboros Jormungandr lets go of his tail, he will come to destroy the world during Ragnarok.
Thor himself, fought against the northern Ouroboros but failed to kill it.
In the Scandinavian legends of Ragnar Lodbrok, a king gives a gift to his daughter Pora Town-Hart 🎁. After which he turns into a large snake and surrounds the girl's tent by biting his tail. Ragnar Lodbrok then kills him and marries Pora. Ragnar later has a son with another woman named Kraka. This son was born with the shape of a white snake biting its tail in one of its eyes, and is named Sigurd Snake Eye 👁️.
Today it is common to combine Ouroboros with a Viking or Celtic rune. This trend is rather modern, as these symbols were rarely merged in the time of the proud Vikings and Celts.
The Ouroboros Vegvisir and the Ouroboros Valknut are very popular among lovers of snake tattoos and Viking jewelry. The Vegvisir rune symbolizes guidance and protection, and the Valknut or "Fallen Knot" refers to the proud warriors of Odin who fell in battle.
D) ASIAN OUROBOROS : THE YIN-YANG
The Ouroboros in Buddhism and Chinese mythology is assimilated to the symbol of Yin-Yang and the connection of opposites. In Chinese culture, the universe was divided between Earth (below) and Heaven (above). These gave the idea of opposites forming a unity.
Each of the opposites is powerful, and so is their final unity. For the creation of the universe, the creators imagined reproduction to design new things. Today, reproduction results in the union of two opposites: man 👨 and woman 👩.
The Chinese believed that Light and Darkness, as ideal opposites, produced creative energy when they were united 💫. The two opposites were Yin and Yang, and their unity was called Chhi. The Chinese Ouroboros symbolizes this unity.
The Yin-Yang was probably transformed into a symbol called Ouroboros when Chinese alchemy reached Alexandria 🗺️. It is a serpent, so it is the symbol of the soul. The head and the anterior part of this Ouroboros Yin Yang are as clear as the soul. Its tail and back part are dark, representing the body. The soul and the body being two opposites uniting to form a whole: Man.
The Ouroboros is represented here in white and black. It is the cosmic soul, the source of all creation. We find this symbolism of what is similar to the Ouroboros of Japan in Japanese mythology and Reiki.
E) MESOAMERICA: MAYAN AND AZTEC OUROBOROS
Pre-Columbian civilizations had similar gods. For example, it is probable that the serpent god Quetzalcoatl, worshipped by the Aztecs and Toltecs, was worshipped by the Mayans as Kukulkan.
This Kukulkan Ouroboros is sometimes depicted biting its tail on Mayan ruins.
Quetzalcoatl was a good god, who brought knowledge to his people. An Aztec Quetzalcoatl Ouroboros is carved on the base of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid dating from 650, in Xochicalco, Mexico.
The meaning of the Ouroboros is not clear regarding Aztec society. But the practice of human sacrifice in Quetzalcoatl, indicates that it probably symbolized the link between the world of the living and the world of the gods and/or the dead 💀.
F) OUROBOROS IN YOGA AND HINDUISM
In Sanskrit Indian mythology, a dragon surrounds the tortoise which carries on its back the four elephants supporting the world. It is sometimes artistically illustrated as Ouroboros Mandala.
In Yoga, the snake eating its tail has two meanings:
- The Ouroboros of the Kundalini symbolizes the concentrate of spiritual energy located in the lower spine and influencing the Chakras. This is how the Kundalini is described by Buddha in the Hindu sacred texts: "The Kundalini shines like the stem of a young lotus; like a snake, coiled up on itself, it holds its tail in its mouth and rests half asleep as the base of the body".
- The Ouroboros of Karma in Sanskrit symbolizes the infinite cycle of causes and consequences of Buddhist acts. And the consequences of this on his cycle of reincarnation.
G) OUROBOROS IN ISLAM AND ZOROASTRIAN FARVAHAR
The Albigensians (followers of Catharism, not to be confused with the Albigensians who are the inhabitants of the city of Albi in France) came from Armenia. In this region, Zoroastrianism (a monotheistic religion of ancient Iran) and representations of the Iranian god Mithra were common. It is possible that Ouroboros entered their iconography through the emblem of the Zoroastrian Farvahar, which in some versions clearly shows an Ouroboros at the waist rather than a simple disc.
In the cults, the figure of Mithra being reborn is sometimes depicted wrapped in an Ouroboros, indicating its eternal and cyclic nature 🔁. Even references that do not mention these creatures, attest to this circular shape as a symbol of the immortality of the soul or the cyclical nature of karma.
H) OUROBOROS IN EUROPEAN ASTROLOGY
In ancient European mythologies, the Ouroboros is also an astrological symbol representing the Milky Way 🌌. The myth refers to a "Constellation Ouroboros", a serpent of light residing in the heavens between the stars. According to cosmic legends, this snake would eat its own tail.
It is in fact the constellation of Ophiuchus also called Serpentary or Serpentarius, located between the constellation of Scorpio and that of Sagittarius. This constellation is inscribed in the Almagest of Ptolemy and is visible between 80° North and 80° South. It represents a man holding a snake in his hand.
I) OUROBOROS IN THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION AND THE BIBLE
Christians have adopted the Ouroboros in the Bible as a symbol of the difference between inside and outside the world, according to the closed system view of the universe 🌀. In Genesis the spiritual symbol of Ouroboros also personifies the transitory and self-consuming nature of a simple existence, following in the footsteps of the preacher in Ecclesiastes (book of the Hebrew Bible).
J) THE AFRICAN OUROBOROS: AIDO HWEDO
Snakes are sacred in many West African religions 🌍. The demigod Aido Hwedo is often represented by the image of a python biting its tail. He is said to be the originator of the creation of the world.
Ouroboros is also present in the iconography of the Fon people or the Dahomeya people, as well as in Yoruba imagery such as Oshunmare.
K) OUROBOROS IN GNOSTICISM
Gnosticism is a movement of thought taking place in the 2nd and 3rd century in the Roman Empire. According to Gnostic philosophy, humans are divine souls, enclosed in mortal bodies by a malevolent god.
The Ouroboros were important to the Gnostics. The opposition between the head and the tail of the Ouroboros was interpreted as divine. They transposed this to the soul and the body in man. Two components that were a priori contrary, but which between them formed a whole: Man. This Manichean vision (clear distinction between soul and body), echoes the Zoroastrian philosophy of the farvahar.
7) OUROBOROS IN ALCHEMY
A) ORIGIN OF OUROBOROS IN ALCHEMY
The oldest appearance of this symbol in alchemy is found in an alchemical treatise dating from the second century, written by Cleopatra the Alchemist.
Kleopatra's alchemical textbook Chrysopoeia (the chrysopoeia being the manufacture of gold 💰 by transmutation) contains a drawing of ouroboros representing the snake half light and half dark. This sign illustrates the double nature of things, but above all that the opposites are not in conflict, quite the contrary. The book is mainly centered on the idea that "one is everything". A concept that is related to hermetic wisdom, a concept belonging to the world of esotericism.
Like the sun, Ouroboros has made its own journey. From Egypt, it found its way to the Greek alchemists of Alexandria.
This treatise on the chrysopoeia having also reached us via Greek sources, we were able to discover on the parchments the famous Greek inscription εν το το παν: hen to pan, "one is all". This well-known maxim in alchemy teaches that inside everything that is good 😇, there is something bad 😈. And within evil, there is always something good.
B) THE OUROBOROS AS AN ALCHEMICAL SYMBOL
In the esoteric practice of alchemy, this symbol expresses the unity of all things, material and spiritual. It expresses the fact that these never disappear but change form in a continuous renewal, and an eternal cycle of destruction 💥 and creation 💫. A snake is often a symbol of resurrection, as it seems to be continually reborn by shedding its skin as it sheds its skin. This is multiplied tenfold with the Ouroboros spinning around in circles on itself while eating its own tail!
The Ouroboros in alchemy also symbolizes :
- The spirit of Mercury, the substance that permeates all matter: the Prima Materia.
- The cycle of life and death
- The conscious and the unconscious
- The eternal unity of all things
- The cycle of birth and death, the secrets of which the alchemist was trying to unravel 🔎
We find here again the universal meaning of this snake: the harmony and unity of opposites. In alchemy, the Ouroboros symbolize the work of the alchemist who unites opposites.
Alchemically, the snake winding on itself is also used as a purifying glyph ✨.
C) THE ALCHEMY OF REBIRTH
The Ouroboros continued to enjoy great popularity among Renaissance alchemists. Representing once again the infinity of time and eternity, this symbol of the serpent was considered by alchemists as the ultimate obstacle to overcome in the Opus Magnum 📕.
For to become immortal (their primary goal) meant breaking once and for all the incessant cycle of the Ouroboros. Possessing the precious philosopher's stone, which would bring them unprecedented wealth, was just the icing on the cake 🍒.
The Renaissance alchemists therefore saw the Ouroboros as a vision to escape from. They were looking for a linear rather than cyclical eternity.
8) OUROBOROS IN SECRET SOCIETIES
A) OUROBOROS AND ALBIGENSIANS
The Ouroboros symbol appears in the printed albigensian watermarks of the 14th and 15th centuries, and is also used in playing cards and tarot cards of the time 🃏. A commonly used ancient symbol : an ace of cups surrounded by an Ouroboros, frequently appears among the albigensian watermarks. It is conceivable that this is the source of some urban legends associating this symbol with secret societies, since the Albigensians were closely associated with the humanist movement and the inquisition it gave rise to 🤔.
B) OUROBOROS AND FREEMASONRY
The Ouroboros is a Masonic symbol represented on many seals, frontispieces and other images, especially during the 17th century. It is always represented together with other symbols of Freemasonry.
This sign is also present in the seal of the Theosophical Society, along with other traditional and spiritual symbols.
C) AN OUROBOROS ILLUMINATI ?
The image of the snake winding itself appeared centuries before the official formation of the Illuminati.
In the Illuminati initiation rituals, the Ouroboros represents the circle of life: the passage of humanity through the generations that begin and end, in a constantly renewed cycle. It shows the path of physical mortality, the inescapable truth that all life begins with nothing and ends in the same place it began 😕. All humans are born from dust, and to dust they will return...
D) OUROBOROS, SATANISTS AND OCCULTISM
The Ouroboros is present in certain satanist rituals. They divert its primary meaning in order to turn it into an Ouroboros of Satan and to draw the evil potential from it. Indeed, as a symbol of balance, this snake contains an occult part because it represents both good and evil.
One thus finds it in incantations to the glory of Satan and demons. The devil is then represented by Ouroboros Hexagram or Ouroboros Leviathan. He appears on pentagrams, Sigils and pentacles that are supposed to open passages to the underworld. But also in all kinds of magical occult rituals.
9) OUROBOROS IN PSYCHOLOGY
The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung has interpreted Ouroboros as having a powerful meaning in the human psyche 🧠. This snake makes its way into our conscious mind over and over again in various forms. Jung defined the relationship of the Ouroboros to alchemy: "In the image of the Ouroboros is the idea of devouring oneself and reincarnating psychically in a new light".
The Ouroboros is a symbol of integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the dark side. This process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that it kills and animates itself, fertilizes itself and gives birth to itself 🤯. It symbolizes the Unique, which is born from the meeting of opposites. In this, this imaginary reptile is the secret of the prima materia. In psychology the prima materia refers to the unconscious.
The Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann speaks of this snake as a representation of the State of Dawn. For him, the Ouroboros makes the link between the childhood of humanity as a whole and the childhood of a single individual.
The cyclic symbolism of this snake can also be interpreted in psychology as the eternal effort to put an end to life's problems. But since the cycle begins again, the effort is useless because the problems keep coming back ☹️.
10) OUROBOROS IN CHEMISTRY
And yes, the symbol of the Ouroboros is present even in the scientific spheres! 😮
The German chemist of the 19th August Kekule described the day when he realized one of his most important works of chemistry. He said he was working with his manual, but as he could not move forward, he fell asleep 💤. In a dream, he saw how the atoms changed before his eyes in the shape of a snake in the shape of a circle. When he woke up, this vision encouraged him to work the rest of the night on his hypothesis.
His research focused on the molecular structure of benzene 🔬. Thanks to his dream, he understood that the structure of this molecule was a closed carbon ring. This was the breakthrough he needed. So a chemist discovered the benzene ring thanks to an illumination from Ouroboros!
11) OUROBOROS, TATTOO AND SIGNIFICANCE
The Ouroboros is a very fashionable tattoo because of its deep symbolism. The meaning of an Ouroboros tattoo is infinity, the cycle of life and death, rebirth, duality, longevity, and wholeness. It is a retrospective tattoo inviting introspection into oneself, one's life and spirituality.
Doing an Ouroboros tattoo means reaching a balance in your personal development. Most people get an Ouroboros tattoo because the meaning of the tattoo evokes something to them. But some may do it in connection with their religion.
There are many forms of Ouroboros tattoos :
- Classic Ouroboros tattoo or lemniscate tattoo
- Ouroboros Black or in drawing
- Tribal Ouroboros with a warrior look on the forearm
- Ouroboros in tattoo for women
- Ouroboros in wrist tattoo
- Infinite tattoo in the shape of Ouroboros
Dana Scully, in the X-Files series, chose to get an Ouroboros tattoo.
12) OTHER FAMOUS REFERENCES TO OUROBOROS
- Many Crop Circles (shape of gigantic circles appearing in the fields 🌽) are in the shape of Ouroboros
- "Ouroboros: the bloody imprint", a novel by Franck Thilliez
- Ouroboros Full Metal Alchemist : in this famous manga the homunculus have a tattoo in the shape of Ouroboros.
CONCLUSION: THE OUROBOROS IN JEWELS
The Ouroboros is a timeless piece of jewelry. True figurative creations, the Ouroboros SNAKE INTUITION jewelry combines deep meaning and majestic minimalism. Symbols of energy and balance, they are charming companions for everyday life.
The uniqueness of Ouroboros suits the most daring jewelry boxes. The elegant circularity of this lucky totem imitates the continuous rhythm of the universe, its association with the infinite, and therefore eternal love.💕
- Wear an Ouroboros Bracelet and find your inner balance.
- Express your self-confidence with an Ouroboros Ring for Men.
- Materialize the liveliness of your spirit with a Silver Ouroboros Pendant.
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