Engraving of a dragon ouroboros in the alchemical tract De Lapide Philosophico. The figure serves as a symbol for mercury. Artwork: Lucas Jennis, 1625.
Rich with historical meaning, the ouroboros symbolizes rebirth, immortality, eternity, protection, self-reliance, unity, and nature’s cycles. It’s an ancient circular symbol, dating back to 5000 BC, which depicts a snake or dragon eating its tail. Archaeologists discovered the oldest known example of an ouroboros on a jar that is possibly 7,000 years old. It belonged to the neolithic Yangshao People, who lived along the Yellow River in what is now eastern China.
The ouroboros symbol has appeared on temples, artwork, and ancient artifacts from an array of cultures around the world, including Egyptian, Greek, Nordic, Indian, Amazonian, and others. Indeed, it’s a symbol that has endured the test of time and which still intrigues us to this day. In this post, you’ll learn about ouroboros symbolism, its cultural and natural interpretations, and more.
Table of Contents
- What does an ouroboros symbolize?
- Nature Symbolism and Geomythology
- Ouroboros Symbol in Mythology
- Egyptian Ouroboros
- Ouroboros Symbol in Greece
- Ouroboros in Alchemy
- Ancient Rome
- Ouroboros in Judaism, Christianity, and Gnosticism
- Ouroboros Symbol in Norse Mythology
- Ouroboros in Hinduism
- Ouroboros Symbol in South America
- Ouroboros Symbol in Modern Times
What does an ouroboros symbolize?
- Eternity and Infinity
- Nature’s Cycles
Nature Symbolism and Geomythology
Geomythology is the study of how pre-scientific cultures explained astronomical events and other natural phenomena through creation stories and legends. While the exact origins of the ouroboros symbol are unknown, historians believe the symbol could have been inspired by real snakes, lizards (like the armadillo girdled lizard), or even pangolins, all of which curl up to protect themselves.
Authors Marinus Anthony van der Sluijs and Anthony L. Peratt published another theory in the Journal of Folklore Research. They suggest that the ouroboros symbol may have been inspired by auroral rings. This is a phenomenon that occurs when aurorae – the northern lights (or aurora borealis) and southern lights (aurora australis) – form ring-like patterns in the sky.
Today, we associate the aurorae with the extreme northern and southern latitudes. However, there is evidence that a number of unusual solar storm events that occurred
hundreds of years ago could have made the aurorae visible at times in other parts of the world.
In fact some geomythologists believe that fire-breathing dragons were inspired by green auroral rings. So, it’s an intriguing parallel that the earliest ouroboros symbol was discovered in China, a place where there is a long history of dragon lore.
Another potential source of inspiration for the ouroboros is full rainbows spanning the sky. The assumption being that ancient peoples imagined the continuation of the arc of the rainbow into a full circle.
The Aboriginal Australians have a creation myth about a giant rainbow serpent who crosses the sky, provides water, and is a protector of people and crops.
The Sun’s Path Across the Sky
Finally, the ancient Egyptians associated the ouroboros with another natural phenomenon – the run rising and setting every day, which you can read more about below.
Ouroboros Symbol in Mythology
As mentioned earlier, archaeologists discovered the earliest known ouroboros symbol in China. Some historians believe the Chinese ouroboros could have been inspired by dragons, which represented strength, great power, and good luck.
In addition, the Chinese ouroboros symbolizes the idea of unity, as it does in other cultures. It is sometimes compared to the Ying Yang symbol, which divides the Universe into Heaven and Earth or female and male energy. Although they are separate and opposite, together they form the perfect whole.
The ouroboros figured prominently in Egyptian culture. It symbolized the ancient Egyptians’ views on immortality and the cycles of nature.
In 1922, the archaeologist Howard Carter and his team found an ouroboros in the tomb of Tutankhamun. Engraved on a gilded shrine in honor of the young King Tut were two ouroboroi along with obscure text (not normal hieroglyphics) and illustrations. The shrine is dated to 1300 BC.
The ouroboros engravings on the shrine appeared as snakes wrapped around the head and the feet of a mummy figure. The figure was most likely King Tut, or possibly the sun god Ra, or an amalgamation of the two.
Archaeologists believe the text on the shrine was purposefully cryptic so as not to reveal secret formulas. Hence, they referred to the writings as the “Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld.” Nonetheless, what they did understand is that the ouroboros symbols, along with the text and drawings, depicted how the ancient Egyptians viewed human immortality and its interconnection with the cycles of nature.
The Rising and Setting Sun
The sun rising and setting every day was the center of the ancient Egyptians’ world. They believed that Ra was born every morning. He would then travel across the sky in his boat. And then at sunset, he would die and join Osiris in the underworld. Then the next morning, he would rise again.
Ra’s daily journey across the sky in his boat wasn’t not without its challenges, however. The giant serpent (or crocodile) Apep was always trying to create chaos for him. In fact, Apep was also called the Lord of Chaos. Befitting his nickname, he would create storms, lightning, and other havocs to impede Ra’s progress across the sky.
Luckily for Ra, Mehen “the Enveloper” accompanied him on his journeys across the sky and into the underworld. Mehen, whose name means “coiled one,” was a snake god who protected Ra during his journey. Thus, archaeologists assume the ouroboros symbols on King Tut’s shrine represented Mehen protecting Ra (or King Tut) as he moved through the cycles of life, death, and rebirth.
For the ancient Egyptians, the ouroboros (and snakes in general) symbolized eternal life. In addition, as Mehen battled Apep (aka the Lord of Chaos), the ouroboros symbolized the ability to create order out of chaos.
The Fon People of Benin also told tales of a giant serpent that encircled the Earth holding his tail in his mouth. According to Fon creation stories, when the creation of the world was complete, the Creator realized that it was too heavy with animals, mountains, rivers, and trees. In fact, he feared the world would fall apart and into the sea. So, he created a giant serpent that would wrap itself around the world, holding its tail in his mouth to hold it all together.
Ouroboros Symbol in Greece
Eventually, the ouroboros symbol made its way across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece. In fact, the name ouroboros is derived from Greek words oura, which means tail, and boros, which means eating. So ouroboros loosely translates to the “tail devourer.”
For the philosopher Plato, the ouroboros symbolized self-reliance – a perfect being that needed nothing but itself. However, the symbol had a dark side – self-destruction and the potential to devour itself.
Socrates said that human beings are the opposite of the ouroboros. While the ouroboros is simple and predictable, human beings are not. We are capable of moving in all matter of directions, which can mean moving forward and progressing or flailing and wasting energy.
Some historians compare the ouroboros to the Greek myth about Sisyphus. In the story, Zeus punishes Sisyphus by making him perpetually roll a boulder up a hill. Once he gets the boulder to the top, it inevitably falls back down, so he has to roll it up the hill again.
Ouroboros in Alchemy
An early form of chemistry, the study of alchemy focused on how matter changed. People from a number of diverse cultures, including Egyptian, Greek, Arabic, Indian, and even Taoist monks in China, began experimenting with alchemy hundreds of years ago. Alchemists also sought to understand how all matter, including in the human body, was affected by the cosmos. Essentially, early alchemists were obsessed with the idea of transmutation and taking the state of something and making it better.
Alchemy is best known for the practice of trying to turn metals, like copper or lead, into gold. However, it also incorporated other philosophical beliefs of the times, including medicine, spirituality, magic, and astrology.
The ouroboros symbol appears in a number of ancient alchemical manuscripts and other artifacts. For example, a 15th century manuscript called the Aurora consurgens, contains an illustration of the ouroboros. And even earlier, a 1st century document entitled the Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra, written most likely by a group of Greek alchemists and philosophers, contained an ouroboros with an inscription that said, “One is All and through it is All, and by it is All, and if you have not All, All is Nothing.”
For alchemists, the ouroboros symbol fit in well with their belief in the interconnectedness of the Universe, transmutation, and cause and effect.
For the Romans, the ouroboros symbolized infinity. In addition, they associated the symbol with the god Saturn, who ruled time and the cycles of the year. According to Roman philosophy, Saturn connected one year to the next. In fact, the planet Saturn rules the astrological sign of Capricorn, which connects December, the last month of the year, with January, the first month of the following year. So the ouroboros represented the old year turning into the new in an infinite cycle.
A Storm on Saturn
In a strange example of synchronicity, an actual storm that occurred on the planet Saturn had an ouroboros effect. Where storms that occur on Earth will hit obstacles and subside, on Saturn, there are no such obstacles. NASA scientists observed a storm on Saturn that traveled around the entire planet unabated until it hit its tail end and sputtered out.
Ouroboros in Judaism, Christianity, and Gnosticism
In the Hebrew Bible, a sea serpent called the Leviathan is mentioned a number of times. Some historians believe he was inspired by Apep, the Egyptian snake deity who battled the sun god Ra. Indeed, while the Leviathan is sometimes described as created by God, at other times he is portrayed as God’s arch enemy.
The Zohar, which is a foundational piece of Kabbalistic literature, describes the Leviathan as an ouroboros – a circular serpent holding on to its tail. According to the Zohar, the Leviathan is a symbol for the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment – or enlightenment to defeat ignorance.
In the 1st and 2nd centuries, a school of thought, which came to be called Gnosticism, began to reverberate in Jewish and early Christian philosophy. The name comes from the Greek word gnosis, which translate to knowledge or knowing.
Essentially, Gnostics believed that we have a direct relationship with God, or a Higher Power. And getting closer to God was not a matter of sinning and repenting for our sins, but a matter of not living in illusion and becoming more enlightened.
For the Gnostics, the ouroboros symbolized a unity with the divine. The head represented God, the Higher Power, or the spiritual realm and the tail represented human beings and the physical world. Nonetheless, the two are interconnected in unity and for eternity.
Ouroboros Symbol in Norse Mythology
In another part of the world, the Vikings told tales of a giant serpent named Jörmungandr who guarded Midgard, their name for Earth. Jörmungandr was one of the Norse god Loki’s three children. (The other two were the goddess Hel and the wolf Fenrir.)
In Nordic engravings and other artwork, Jörmungandr is depicted as a giant serpent who has his tail in his mouth and encircles the world.
One has to wonder if the dragon-like Jörmungandr was inspired by the same auroral rings that could have inspired the people in China. Indeed, the Vikings would have certainly observed the Northern Lights.
Ouroboros in Hinduism
The ouroboros symbol also made its way to India. According to Hindu mythology, the world is held up by four giant elephants who stand on an enormous turtle. And surrounding this massive assemblage is a gigantic snake holding his tail in his mouth.
In Hinduism, the ouroboros symbolizes kundalini, or primal, energy. When kundalini energy is awakened, it moves divine energy through the chakras. Starting at the root chakra at the base of the spine, it flows up to the crown chakra, creating a more enlightened state of consciousness.
In the Vedic philosophical text the Yoga Kundalini Upanishad, kundalini is compared to the ouroboros in this way: “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.”
Hindus also associated the ouroboros with the concept of samsara, which is the cycle of life, from birth to death to reincarnation and rebirth. On the one hand the ouroboros explains the concept of karma – that everything you do has an effect, which will eventually circle around and come back to you. Obviously, this can have both positive and negative connotations. Yet in both Hinduism and Buddhism, the goal is to get off of this wheel (or ouroboros.) We do so when we reach a state of total enlightenment, called Moksha or Nirvana in Buddhism.
Off the western coast of Sumatra, the local people on the island of Nias also told tales of a giant serpent who encircled the world holding his tale in his mouth. The Niasians call the serpent Pane na Bolon, the underworld serpent. Like the Aborigine’s Rainbow Serpent, Pane na Bolon sends the rain. He also creates thunder, lightning, and ocean waves. And like the Rainbow Serpent, he brings life to crops.
Ancient Mesoamerican cultures depicted a feathered serpent deity on their temples and in other artwork. In some cases, he had his tail in his mouth like an ouroboros. The Aztecs called their serpent god Quetzalcoatl. He was a creator deity who ruled the wind, air, and knowledge. So, Quetzalcoatl shares symbolic meaning with the ouroboros in other cultures in that he was associated with higher wisdom.
Ouroboros Symbol in South America
In South America, the Kogi People of Colombia and the Shipibo-Conibo People of the Peruvian Amazon share a similar story of a giant black serpent named Hahuba, or the Snake of Being. Hahuba’s body encircles the world, which is a giant disc that floats in the never ending sea. Hahuba’s body contains the essence of life and her breathing regulates the tides.
Ouroboros Symbol in Modern Times
The psychologist Carl Jung saw the ouroboros as an archetypal symbol of the human psyche. For Jung, it symbolized our ability to regenerate ourselves through self-reflection. Jung was well aware of the ouroboros symbol in alchemy and how it represented wholeness and unity. From Jung’s perspective, humans can become whole when we integrate our shadow selves, or the unconscious aspects of our personalities, with our conscious selves.
The ouroboros has also been applied to the field cybernetics, which is the study of circular causality or feedback loops. The basic theory is that inputs create outcomes and those outcomes are used as inputs for further actions. Cybernetics theory can be applied to psychology, biology, anthropology, computer science, engineering, and other fields.
Today, we may feel like we are worlds apart from the Yangshao People, the ancient Egyptians, or the early alchemists running experiments in their workshops. But the ouroboros shows us that studying the seekers of wisdom from the past can give us new insights into ourselves and where we might be going in the future.