This study examines a well-established idea in normative Egyptological discourse, that there exists in the inventory of Egyptian symbolism a distinct and unique symbol called sed-em-ra (‘tail-in-mouthʼ) in Egyptian, though usually referred to today by the Greek term ouroboros (‘tail-devouringʼ), being the image of a serpent arranged in a circle with the tip of its tail in its mouth, and expressive of specific meanings such as “endless time” and “eternity,” among others. However, a close examination of relevant iconographic and textual sources reveals that this Egyptological ouroboros is largely an illusion, and one that distorts understanding of Egyptian material by importing into it ideas that properly belong to the history of the post-pharaonic reception of the ouroboros icon, such as the idea that the ouroboros was primarily a symbol of the recurrent solar year, which had its origin with Latin authors, or the idea that the ouroboros symbolizes time and eternity, which is a tradition no older than the Italian Renaissance. Yet it is this latter ouroboros of the Renaissance iconographers and emblem books, an unquestioned part of the intellectual environment in which the discipline of Egyptology historically emerged, that induced nineteenth and twentieth century Egyptologists to unhesitatingly single out the ouroboros for special notice as the “serpent of eternity,” an interpretation not supported by Egyptian sources. A fresh hermeneutical approach requires the abandonment of such preconceptions, starting with rejection of the idea that the Egyptian ouroboros is a distinct symbol with specific meanings attached. Once the term ‘ouroborosʼ is used only in a limited and purely descriptive sense, it becomes possible to understand what the icon may be intended to express within the larger conceptual and iconographic context in which occurrences are embedded. This approach makes it clear that the icon was never a discrete symbol in Egypt, but rather a possible variant amongst related iconography that might convey similar meanings. A detailed reassessment of relevant primary sources shows that the icon is primarily associated with the idea of protective enclosure, conceived of as a divine force functioning on multiple levels: cosmic, solar, funereal, and individual.
For other uses, see Ouroboros (disambiguation).
The ouroboros or uroborus (; from Greek οὐροβόρος from οὐρά, "tail," and -βορος, "devouring") is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragoneating its own tail. Originating in ancient Egyptian iconography, the ouroboros entered western tradition via Greek magical tradition and was adopted as a symbol in Gnosticism and Hermeticism, and most notably in alchemy. Via medieval alchemical tradition, the symbol entered Renaissance magic and modern symbolism, often taken to symbolize introspection, the eternal return or cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself. It also represents the infinite cycle of nature's endless creation and destruction, life and death.
The first known appearance of the ouroboros motif is in the Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld, an ancient Egyptian funerary text in KV62, the tomb of Tutankhamun, in the 14th century BC. The text concerns the actions of the godRa and his union with Osiris in the underworld. In an illustration from this text, two serpents, holding their tails in their mouths, coil around the head, neck, and feet of an enormous god, who may represent the unified Ra-Osiris. Both serpents are manifestations of the deity Mehen, who in other funerary texts protects Ra in his underworld journey. The whole divine figure represents the beginning and the end of time.
The ouroboros appears elsewhere in Egyptian sources, where, like many Egyptian serpent deities, it represents the formless disorder that surrounds the orderly world and is involved in that world's periodic renewal. The symbol persisted in Egypt into Roman times, when it frequently appeared on magical talismans, sometimes in combination with other magical emblems. The 4th-century AD Latin commentator Servius was aware of the Egyptian use of the symbol, noting that the image of a snake biting its tail represents the cyclical nature of the year.
In Plato's Timaeus (33c-), the character Timaeus describes the self-sufficiency and perfection of the created cosmos, which may have been inspired by the image of the Egyptian ouroboros.
The living being had no need of eyes because there was nothing outside of him to be seen; nor of ears because 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 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 which was designed by 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.
The Timaeus describes the perfection of the created world and the status of all living beings, which participate in creation and embody some different aspect of the Good, with each being individually contributing to the universe's overall perfection and essential completeness.
Alchemy and Gnosticism
The famous ouroboros drawing from the early alchemical text The Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra (Ἡ χρυσοποιία τῆς Κλεοπάτρας) probably dating to third century Alexandria encloses the words hen to pan (ἓν τὸ πᾶν), "the all is one". Its black and white halves represent the Gnosticduality of existence, leading some to see it as an analog of the Taoistyin and yang symbol. The chrysopoeia ouroboros of Cleopatra the Alchemist is one of the oldest images of the ouroboros to be linked with the legendary opus of the alchemists, the philosopher's stone.
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 and 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, ...
In Gnosticism, a serpent biting its tail symbolized eternity and the soul of the world. The Gnostic Pistis Sophia (c. 400 AD) describes the ouroboros as a twelve-part dragon surrounding the world with his tail in his mouth.
The "world serpent" in mythology
In Norse mythology, the ouroboros appears as the serpent Jörmungandr, one of the three children of Loki and Angrboda, which 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 kingHerraud 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.
It is a common belief among indigenous people of the tropical lowlands of South America that waters at the edge of the world-disc are encircled by a snake, often an anaconda, biting its own tail.
Connection to Indian thought
Ouroboros symbolism has been used to describe the Kundalini. According to the medieval Yoga-kundalini Upanishad, "The divine power, Kundalini, shines like the stem of a young lotus; like a snake, coiled round upon herself she holds her tail in her mouth and lies resting half asleep as the base of the body" (1.82).
Storl (2004) also refers to the ouroboros image in reference to the "cycle of samsara".
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 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 Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. The Ouroboros has been said to have a meaning of infinity or wholeness. In the age-old image of the Ouroboros 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 Ouroboros 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 Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself. He symbolizes 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 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 German organic chemistAugust Kekulé described the eureka moment when he realized the structure of benzene:
I was sitting, writing at my text-book; but the work did not progress; my thoughts were elsewhere. I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by the repeated visions of the kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold conformation: long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together; all twining and twisting in snake-like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke; and this time also I spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis.
- ^The Codex Parisinus graecus 2327 in the Bibliothèque Nationale, France, referred to in "alchemy", The Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2012, ISBN 0199545561
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- ^Soto-Andrade, Jorge; Jaramillo, Sebastian; Gutierrez, Claudio; Letelier, Juan-Carlos. "Ouroboros avatars: A mathematical exploration of Self-reference and Metabolic Closure"(PDF). MIT Press. Retrieved 16 May 2015.
- ^ abDeciphering the Lost Symbol: Freemasons, Myths and the Mysteries of Washington, D.C, Christopher L. Hodapp, p.62
- ^Hornung, Erik. The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife. Cornell University Press, 1999. pp. 38, 77–78
- ^Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Egypt: The One and the Many. Cornell University Press, 1982. pp. 163–64.
- ^Servius, note to Aeneid 5.85: "according to the Egyptians, before the invention of the alphabet the year was symbolized by a picture, a serpent biting its own tail, because it recurs on itself" (annus secundum Aegyptios indicabatur ante inventas litteras picto dracone caudam suam mordente, quia in se recurrit), as cited by Danuta Shanzer, A Philosophical and Literary Commentary on Martianus Capella's De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii Book 1 (University of California Press, 1986), p. 159.
- ^Plato, Timaeus, Jowett, Benjamin, trans, Hermetic
- ^Plato, Timaeus, Perseus
- ^The Lessons of Nature in Mythology, Rachel S. McCoppin, p.200
- ^Lambsprinck: De Lapide Philosophico. E Germanico versu Latine redditus, per Nicolaum Barnaudum Delphinatem .... Sumptibus LUCAE JENNISSI, Frankfurt 1625, p. 17.
- ^Roe, Peter (1986), The Cosmic Zygote, Rutgers University Press
- ^"When Shakti is united with Shiva, she is a radiant, gentle goddess; but when she is separated from him, she turns into a terrible, destructive fury. She is the endless Ouroboros, the dragon biting its own tail, symbolizing the cycle of samsara." Storl, Wolf-Dieter (2004). Shiva: The Wild God of Power and Ecstasy. Inner Traditions / Bear & Co. p. 219. ISBN 978-1-59477-780-6.
- ^Carl Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 14 para. 513
- ^Neumann, Erich. (1995). The Origins and History of Consciousness. Bollington series XLII: Princeton University Press. Originally published in German in 1949.
- ^Read, John (1957). From Alchemy to Chemistry. pp. 179–180. ISBN 9780486286907.
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- Hornung, Erik (2002). The Secret Lore of Egypt: Its Impact on the West. Cornell University Press.