Monday, August 1, 2011

The Ouroboros

The image of a serpent (snake or dragon) with its tail in its mouth is ancient, pervasive, and arresting. Frankly, it's also one of my favorites. The serpent itself is popular in symbolism in its own right, but something about the ouroboros makes it stand out.  While obviously the circle itself is suggestive and useful, I propose moreover that it is because the ouroboros introduces an irreducible ambiguity that creates tension and narrative.

The Rub: what is the serpent doing?  The Greek name of the symbol tells us literally that "he eats the tail."

But is the serpent eating his own tail?  
Why would the serpent be eating itself?  Is it an expression of the death wish?  The greed or gluttony which consumes itself? Total Self-Sufficiency (or the futility of the notion)?
Certainly, the alchemists were attracted to this symbol (as were Hermeticists and Gnostics) from time of the second century Chrysopoeia ("Gold Making") of Cleopatra, and so it was reproduced throughout the Middle Ages.  In the version in the Chrysopoeia, it is accompanied by the Greek inscription, "One is All."  Yet, the failure of the attempt to transmute base metals into gold by discovering the quintessence, the philosopher's stone, can't help but cast such proclamations in a futile light.  For the quest to have value, once must spiritualize alchemy as Jung and his followers have.

In contemporary tales of alchemy (see the Full Metal Alchemist and FMA: Brotherhood franchise of manga and anime), the symbol might implicitly indicate the tendency of the state to consume the people it uses as weapons and the fundamental ambivalence of power, in contrast to a principle of equivalent exchange.  If the state destroys all its members in the perpetuation of itself, where then is the state?

One final note: if a snake does mistake it's own tail for a meal, the results are disastrous for it apart from human intervention.   If human beings had come across such a snake in an ancient context, the primitive mind would have likely latched on to such a prodigy as a potent omen.  There is at least one more good candidate in nature for the inspiration behind the ouroboros.

Or is he curling up and holding on?
There is a species of lizard in Africa that has adapted a peculiar antipredator behavior:

Armadillo Lizard (Cordylus cataphractus).  Photo by Cindy Shuttleworth
 So the serpent might be protecting itself, rather than engaging in autosarcophagy.  Inscribing something inside the serpent might, however suggests that serpent is protecting something else.  Or is it?  One of the most common instances of the encircling serpent is the Midgard serpent of Norse lore.  Jörmungandr is usually understood as threatening the world with an encirclement of doom.  Are we trapped?  Will we be crushed?  But beside a native hostility to the snake, the encirclement might be an embrace rather than assault.  Perhaps he girds us to guard us.

Or is he shedding his skin?
The snake's shedding of his skin seems to have fired the human imagination early on.  Does he go on shedding his skin, renewing his youth, ever-growing and ever-living?  Oh for the power that we might do so!  So it seems that some have latched onto the ouroboros as a symbol of reincarnation, eternal life, or related concepts.  I don't know that any snake actually engages in biting the tail to assist itself in moulting, but the ancients may well have thought as much.  It fits with the circle as a symbol of infinity or eternity.

Ultimate Ambivalence
Finally, the ambivalence of the ouroboros symbol calls to mind another serpent symbol.  There is a serpent encircling a tree.  How do know it is the serpent tempting you to disobedience, forbidden knowledge, and death?  What if your knee-jerk identification of the serpent as Satan mislead you from the appearance of Christ on his cross (Nehushtan*)?  Is this the wise serpent that poisons or that saves?

Sébastien Bourdon, Moses and the Brazen Serpent, 1653. The Prado, Madrid.

Until the next time our rambles cross, I wish you a merry Mythopoeic Monday!

*Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-15.  Cf. the rod of the healer Aesculapius.


  1. John 3:13-17 (Where Christ says, "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up") is very strongly associated with the Cross and salvation by the Orthodox Church. It is read on the Sunday before September 14 (in anticipation of), a major feast in the Orthodox Church celebrating the Cross. It highlights the counter-intuative logic of the Cross — look upon the very thing that is afflicting you (serpents in the desert/a tortured death) and find salvation (healing of the serpent's poison/everlasting life). We must face our demons in order to conquer them.

  2. Good stuff, FrDave. The first time I saw an orthodox bishop's pastoral staff, I was confused. When someone explained it to me, I said, "Wow." Folks who don't know should give it a Google Image search. :)

  3. The painting is by Sébastien Bourdon, a french painter and engraver (1616-1671). It's called "Moses and the Brazen Serpent" and was painted in 1653. It hangs in The Prado, Madrid. Here's a link and an explanation of the painting:

  4. My reverse image searches failed, but the Marg is the Champion! Also, welcome to the Ramblers. :)

    Thanks, TM! I will edit accordingly. Hopefully the next time I make it to Spain, I will make it to Madrid and the Prado.