Ouroboros

Ouroboros

The Ouroboros (Greek Ουροβόρος, from ουροβόρος όφις "tail-devouring snake", also spelled Ourorboros, Oroborus, Uroboros or Uroborus, in English pronounced /ʊˈrɒbɔrɔs/ or /ˌjʊəroʊˈbɒrəs/), is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon swallowing its own tail and forming a circle.

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 related to something existing in or persisting from the beginning with such force or qualities it cannot be extinguished. The ouroboros has been important in religious and mythological symbolism, but has also been frequently used in alchemical illustrations, where it symbolizes the circular nature of the alchemist's opus. It is also often associated with Gnosticism, and Hermeticism.

Carl Jung interpreted the Ouroboros as having an archetypical significance to the human psyche. 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.

Historical representations

Antiquity

Plato described a self-eating, circular being as the first living thing in the universe—an immortal, perfectly constructed animal.

The living being had no need of eyes when there was nothing remaining outside him to be seen; nor of ears when there was nothing to be heard; and there was no surrounding atmosphere to be breathed; nor would there have been any use of organs by the help of which he might receive his food or get rid of what he had already digested, since there was nothing which went from him or came into him: for there was nothing beside him. Of design he was created thus, his own waste providing his own food, and all that he did or suffered taking place in and by himself. For the Creator conceived that a being which was self-sufficient would be far more excellent than one which lacked anything; and, as he had no need to take anything or defend himself against any one, the Creator did not think it necessary to bestow upon him hands: nor had he any need of feet, nor of the whole apparatus of walking; but the movement suited to his spherical form was assigned to him, being of all the seven that which is most appropriate to mind and intelligence; and he was made to move in the same manner and on the same spot, within his own limits revolving in a circle. All the other six motions were taken away from him, and he was made not to partake of their deviations. And as this circular movement required no feet, the universe was created without legs and without feet.

"Coiled dragon" forms have been attributed to the Hongshan culture (4700 BC to 2900 BC). One in particular, in the shape of a complete circle, was found on the chest of the deceased.

The notion of a serpent or dragon eating its own tail can be traced back to Ancient Egypt, circa 1600 BC. From ancient Egypt it passed to Phoenicia and then to the Greek philosophers, who gave it the name Ouroboros ("tail-devourer").

In Gnosticism, this serpent symbolized eternity and the soul of the world.

Christianity adopted the Ouroboros as symbols 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.

Middle Ages

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 lindworm 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.

Alchemy

In alchemy, the Ouroboros is a purifying sigil. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung saw the Ouroboros as an archetype and the basic mandala of alchemy. Jung also defined the relationship of the Ouroboros to alchemy:

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 is the all". 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:

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:

Non-western traditions

It is also present in some Hindu folk-myths, as a snake (Adisesha) circling the tortoise Maha kurma that supports the eight elephants which support the world on their backs. However, the snake does not bite its own tail, but instead is calling itself into being through what some literary theorists have called a performative speech act. It is telling the tale of its tail, perpetually bringing itself into the world, in a circular fashion.

Snakes are sacred animals in many West African religions. The demi-god Aidophedo uses the image of a serpent biting its own tail. The Ouroboros 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.

Modern

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 flag of the short-lived Italian Regency of Carnaro featured the Ouroboros on it. The Ouroboros has been incorporated into the crests of the Hungarian and Romanian Unitarian churches.

See also

References

External links

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