Throughout history, symbolism has played an important part in architecture, myth, and folklore. Many symbols have had widespread cultural influence, but the meaning varies as much as the geographical location. The Ouroboros is one of those symbols.
What is the Ouroboros?
The Ouroboros is a symbol typically depicted in the circular form of a serpent consuming its own tail. One variation of the symbol shows the serpent eating its tail but in a figure eight formation. It is believed that the earliest depiction of the ouroboros dates back to Ancient Egypt around 1600 B.C. However, the name Ouroboros is Greek and means tail devourer. According to the Greek philosopher and scholar Plato, the Ouroboros was the first living creature on Earth. The creature was also thought to be a dragon rather than a snake.
Meaning of the Symbolism
While no one can say with absolute certainty what the symbol originally meant, scholars usually equate circular motifs with infinity or eternity. Circles also represent the cyclical nature of the universe as well as the creation of life out of death. In some scholarly circles, the serpent biting its own tail is also viewed as a symbol of unity, similar to the black and white yin/yang symbol which represents the union of the male and female principle.
In ancient alchemy, the Ouroboros represented the element Mercury, which was believed to exist in all forms of matter. The serpent was also symbolic of resurrection because the snake sheds its skin in a cycle of renewal. It represented the unification process of the conscious and subconscious mind.
Modern scholars are slowly discovering more about the enigma of time. However, ancient people knew what we are now learning – that time is cyclical rather than linear. Therefore, a few scholars have suggested that the ouroboros may have represented the cyclical nature of time.
Myth and Legend
According to Norse mythology, a serpent called Jormungandr, (also known as the Midgard serpent) encircled the world and guarded the tree of life, known as Yggdrasil. The serpent was depicted as an ouroboros and also as a sea serpent. The Ouroboros symbol has been associated with the solar god Abraxas and the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl who was depicted as a serpent. The Ouroboros was also associated with Chinese legends of dragons.
Serpent symbolism is often viewed in a negative light due partly to the religious association with evil and the devil.
Serpent symbolism is often viewed in a negative light due partly to the religious association with evil and the devil. However, symbols are only representative of the meaning ascribed to them. Dragons are one example of such opposite perspectives. Many myths and legends regarding dragons view them in both a negative and positive manner. The same could be said for most symbols including the ouroboros. We can only speculate at the true nature of the Ouroboros. Perhaps, it is all a matter of myth, legend, and perspective.