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Drawing by Theodoros Pelecanos, in alchemical tract titled Synosius (1478).
Engraving by Lucas Jennis, in alchemical tract titled De Lapide Philisophico.

The Ouroboros (Greek Ουροβόρος, from ουροβόρος όφις "tail-devouring snake", also spelled Uroboros 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.[1]


[edit] Historical representations

[edit] 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.[2]

"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.[3]

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.

[edit] 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.

[edit] 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:[4]

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 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:

[...] 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,

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:

All things began in order so shall they end, so shall they begin again according to the Ordainer of Order and the mystical mathematicks of the City of Heaven.

[edit] Non-western traditions

It is also present in some Hindu folk-myths,[citation needed] as a snake (Adisesha) circling the tortoise Maha kurma that supports the eight elephants which support the world on their backs.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

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.

[edit] 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.[clarification needed]

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.

[edit] In Modern Popular Culture

[edit] Movie

[edit] Television

  • In Millennium, the Ouroboros is used as a logo for the secret group preparing for the Millennium.
  • In The X-Files, Agent Dana Scully gets an Ouroboros tattoo on her lower back in the 4th season episode "Never Again".
  • In the anime/manga Fullmetal Alchemist, the Ouroboros is used as the symbol of the Homunculi.
  • On the British Sci-Fi comedy, Red Dwarf an episode of the seventh series is titled "Ouroboros." In it, Dave Lister explains that he was abandoned as a6-months old in a cardboard box underneath the pool table at the Aigburth Arms pub. A patron who finds the infant Lister, incorrectly believes that the name on the side of the box, Ouroboros, was an attempt by the baby's parents to name him as "Our Rob or Ross". It's only after Lister gives a sperm donation to an alternate version of his former girlfriend Kristine Kochanski in exchange for some needed supplies, that he discovers a box containing 'Ouroboros' everlasting batteries and realizes that he is in fact his own father and that he abandoned himself at the pub.
  • The final episode of the sci-fi Canadian/South African produced television series Charlie Jade is titled "Ouroboros".
  • In the anime series Noein, a large ouroboros appears when different dimensions of the multiverse begin to converge.
  • In the anime/manga series Katekyo Hitman Reborn, whilst fighting Baishana in the future arc, Gokudera comments on how the ouroboros is one of the animals he has always wanted to meet. He makes this comment whilst fighting a serpent eating its own tail, a further reference to the ouroboros.
  • Episode 12 of Season 2 of Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda is entitled "Ouroboros". It features a rift in space time that allows a character from the future (Trance Gemini) to take the place of her younger self to correct a future gone wrong.
  • In The Invisible Man Darien Fawkes wears an Ouroboros-like chemically-sensitive tattoo on his wrist to indicate when he will need his next dose of Quicksilver antiserum.
  • In The Pretender, the symbol is used to symbolize the "universal symbol of cannibalism."
  • In Lost the mysterious Mrs. Hawking wears an Ouroboros on her cloak.

[edit] Music

  • NON's album Blood and Flame sports the Ouroboros on its cover art, and on the CD face.
  • Canadian progressive rock band Rush used a depiction of a snake eating its tail on various album artwork for their 2007 album Snakes & Arrows.
  • The Alan Parsons Project 1985 album Vulture Culture featured an ouroboros-like figure on its cover.
  • On Earth's LPs Extra-Capsular Extraction and Hibernaculum, there is a track titled "Ouroboros is Broken".
  • The album The Way of All Flesh by French death metal band Gojira includes a track titled "Oroborus", and a drawing on the CD itself that resembles that by Theodoros Pelecanos, above.
  • A song on the album The Bedlam in Goliath by The Mars Volta is named "Ouroboros". Another track on the same album, entitled "Askepios" contains the lyric "Might of a serpent swallowing tail."
  • The song "I Palindrome I" by They Might Be Giants references the Ouroboros: "I am a snake head eating the head of the opposite side."
  • Meshuggah's 2005 album Catch Thirtythree has three snakes eating each others' tails on the album cover.
  • Japanese metal band Dir en grey have titled their 2008 album Uroboros.
  • There is a Black Metal band from Finland named Circle of Ouroborus.
  • Psychedelic sonic overlords Mugstar have entitled their forthcoming album Ouroboros, due 2009.
  • The album Spirit the Earth Aflame by Irish metal band Primordial features an Ouroboros on its sleeve artwork.
  • Turbonegro employ a variation of the theme on the cover of their 2003 album Scandinavian Leather.
  • On the album We Sing of Only Blood or Love by Dax Riggs, the lyric 'the serpent is eating itself' is heard in the song "Ouroboros".
  • An ambient composition by Dietmar Bonnen is titled "ouroboros".
  • A song on the album Focus by American technical metal band Cynic is called "Uroboric Forms".
  • Deathgrind band Cattle Decapitation often use this symbol in their art work, but the symbol depicts a cow's skull and spinal cord.
  • American post-punk band nickname: Rebel released a single "Ouroboros" in 2009 to celebrate Pi Day, March 14.

[edit] Games

  • In the 1999 Konami game Silent Hill, the player must collect 5 talismans to unlock a door, one of which is the Disk Of Ouroboros.
  • In the MMORPG City of Heroes, Ouroboros is an area that deals with time travel themed missions.
  • In the Yu-Gi-Oh! trading card game, there is a card called "Cyber Ouroboros" that, when requirements have been met, allows you to discard one card in your hand to draw one card from your deck.
  • In the Playstation 3 game, The Eye of Judgment, the Ouroboros Dragon is a summonable Biolith monster.
  • In various Capcom fighting games, Strider Hiryu has a special named "Ouroboros" where he has two robotic devices circle around him and attack the enemy. A robotic Uroboros was also the first boss of the original Strider arcade game from 1989.
  • The Legend of Dragoon features an early boss named Uroborus, a giant serpent living in a cavern. During the battle Uroborus will withdraw into a boulder then re-emerge with its head protruding from the hole in the boulder where its tail had been formerly and vice-versa, then repeat several times throughout the fight.
  • The Squaresoft RPG Xenogears features a monster called Urobolus as its final boss. Urobolus looks like a woman with a snake's tail instead of legs and angel wings growing from her back; the human portion of its body resembles the character Miang, whose mind and personality would be reborn in a new woman's body every time she died. Also figuring heavily in Xenogears's story is the Urobolus Gene, a genetic property required for Miang to be able to possess a woman.
  • In Thief: The Dark Project, Garrett is required to steal a bracelet known as the Serpentyle Torc, which appears to be in the form of an Ouroboros.
  • In Mega Man ZX Advent Ouroborous is the Ultimate Biometal, also named Model W, created by the Sage Albert. It appears as a colossal segmented serpent with the head and tail touching.
  • Ouroboros appears as symbol of Moebius, The Time-Streamer in Crystal Dynamics Legacy of Kain game series
  • In the Warhammer 40,000 universe, the Ouroboros is the symbol of the Thousand Sons Legion, a group of Chaos Marines devoted to the worship of the Chaos god of change.
  • In the Playstation 2 game, Shadow Hearts, an item that restores all MP [Mana Points] and all SP [Sanity Points] is called the Eye of Ouroboros.
  • In the Capcom game Devil May Cry 2, the main antagonist's company is called Uroboros.
  • In the Playstation 2 game, Soul Calibur III, the character Tira has an Ouroboros as one of her unlockable weapons.
  • In Haunting Ground, The Ouroboros symbol is on the floor of the sliding block puzzle.
  • The last boss fight in No More Heroes takes place inside an Ouroboros, representing the cycle of revenge.
  • In Resident Evil 5 Chris Redfield and Sheva Alomar pursues the mysteries behind the latest bio-organic weapons development named the Uroboros project.

[edit] Literature

  • The satirical play Androboros is named after it.
  • In the novel The Neverending Story (and film adaptations), a variation with two snakes is featured as the talisman "AURYN".
  • In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, in an episode entitled "The Secret", it is revealed that Marguerite Krux came to the plateau in search of the other half of a medallion, the Ouroboros, which she needed to trade with a criminal called Shanghai Xan, who in return was to give her her birth certificate so she could learn her true identity.
  • In the Wheel of Time series, by Robert Jordan, the ring worn by the Aes Sedai is an Ouroboros.
  • Raymond Khoury's book The Sanctuary deals heavily with Ouroboros related history.
  • The Worm Ouroboros (1922) is a heroic high fantasy novel by Eric Rücker Eddison
  • In Magyk, a book by Angie Sage, the main character, Septimus Heap finds an Ouroboros ring. A picture of the Ouroboros ring is on the front cover of the book. Also, in the book, there is mention of a giant snake residing in the lake who is so long, it circles the entire island ending up with it's tail next to it's head.
  • Garet Garrett's book, Ouroboros or The Mechanical Extension of Mankind deals with the cycle of humanity.
  • It is referenced in Dean Koontz's novel, The Darkest Evening of the Year.
  • The comic series Bone by Jeff Smith, has the dragon queen Mim being an Ouroboros that kept the world in balance until being possessed by the evil spirit, the Lord of the Locusts, a catastrophe that led to the creation of the valley the series is set in.
  • In William Gaddis's first novel, The Recognitions (1955), there is an Ouroboros depicted on the title page of the hardcover and paperback editions.
  • The short story collection Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds contains a story ("Great Wall of Mars") in which a planetary defense system based on autonomous, self-repairing, worm-like robots are called Ouroboros.
  • It is referenced in Paulo Coelho's book, The Witch of Portobello.
  • Appears as the 'World-Worm', a dormant world-circling snake god, whose body has turned to stone from lack of magic to sustain it, in Larry Niven's "The Magic Goes Away".
  • Appears in Evermore as a tattoo on the main character Ever's best friend.
  • Used in Kurt Vonnegut's book, Breakfast of Champions. The reference is located on page 205, and it goes: "What is time? It is a serpent which eats its tail...".

[edit] Theatre

  • [title of show], an original Broadway musical that chronicles its own creation, is sometimes referred to as "the musical that eats its own tail."[5] The show's cast and creators dedicated an episode of their video blog, the [title of show] show, to explaining the musical's "snakeeatstailness," using the concept of the ouroboros throughout the episode.[6]

[edit] Other

  • By scientists the Ouroboros may be viewed as a symbol for the flow of energy and entropy in living beings.[7] In this context it is used as logo and namesake by Oroboros Instruments.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Neumann, Erich. (1995). The Origins and History of Consciousness. Bollington series XLII: Princeton University Press. Originally published in German in 1949.
  2. ^ Plato, Timaeus, 33 [1]
  3. ^ The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology - NGA
  4. ^ Carl Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 14 para. 513
  5. ^ , September 12, 2007, "'the [title of show show' - Episode 3"]
  6. ^ , February 14, 2008, "'the [title of show show' - Extra"]
  7. ^ Gnaiger E, Gellerich FN, Wyss M, eds (1994) „What is Controlling Life? 50 Years after Erwin Schrödinger's What is Life?“ Modern Trends in BioThermoKinetics 3. Innsbruck Univ. Press, Innsbruck, ISBN 3-901249-17-6: p. 316.

[edit] External links

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