The Ouroboros is a design or object depicting a snake or dragon biting its tail. It is an ancient Greek word, οὐροϐόρος / ourobóros, formed from the two words οὐρά (tail) and βορός (voracious, gluttonous), which literally means "biting its own tail"; it was Latinized as uroborus.
The ouroboros is a very ancient symbol found in many cultures on all continents. The oldest known representation is undoubtedly an Egyptian representation dating from the 16th century B.C.: "Attested in Mesopotamia, the ouroboros is found especially in Egypt, and this since a very ancient period: it is already mentioned in the texts of the pyramids ".
The first figurative representations date back to the eighteenth dynasty: there are notably examples on one of the golden chapels of Tutankhamun. Subsequently, the motif was frequently used: it is found on coffins and on the vignettes of so-called mythological papyri. Its circular shape has given rise to various interpretations by the Egyptians.
It would seem that the ouroboros was originally considered to mark the boundary between the Nun and the ordered world; surrounding the totality of the existing world, it naturally came to symbolize the cycle of time and eternity. In addition, the ouroboros is a symbol of the cycle of time and eternity.
In addition, the ouroboros was sometimes represented as encircling the rising sun on the horizon of the sky, to represent the rebirth of the star of the day, each morning, at the exit of the Nun. It was, from then on, perceived as a symbol of rejuvenation and resurrection, hence its presence on coffins.
It seems that it has sometimes been attributed a protective role. On the other hand, since it eats its own tail, it has also been seen as a symbol of self-destruction and annihilation.
However, the dragons of the Chinese Hongshan culture (-4700 / -2600), called pig-dragon (猪龍, zhulong, in Chinese and Pig dragon in English) made of jade may have inspired ancient representations thanks to the exchanges born of the Silk Road.
The Phoenicians probably inherited these representations from the Egyptians, and in turn transmitted them to the Greeks who gave them the name we know.
An ouroboros is integrated in the traditional earring worn by the men of the canton of Appenzell, in Switzerland, a ceremonial earring to which is attached a small cream spoon (Schüefli).
The snake Jörmungand of Norse mythology is one of the four children of Loki. He has grown to the point where he encircles the world and can grasp its tail in his mouth, holding the oceans in place.
In the legends of Ragnar Lodbrok, the king of Götaland Herrauðr gives as a gift to his daughter Þóra a small dragon (lindworm) which, as it grew, encircled the girl's pavilion and swallowed its tail. The snake was killed by Ragnar Lodbrok who married Þóra.
Ragnar will later have a son (from another woman, Kráka), who is born with the image of a white snake in one eye, which will earn him the name of Sigurd Snake Eye; this snake encircles his iris by swallowing its tail.
We can add to the symbolic meaning that it represents the beginning and the end of all things. It is therefore a symbol of hope and renewal.
In Brahmanism, it is presented as a titanic serpent with many heads, a deity called Shesha who represents the succession of universes.
An Indian Ocean tradition, of Vedic and European inspiration, describes the father of the god Kerdik as a serpent-god named Paradise, surrounding the garden of the gods to protect it from unworthy creatures. The word Paradise comes from the Persian pairi daēza, meaning "royal enclosure." This etymology would give an explanation to the name of the god's father.
Ouroboros also appears in Aztec and North American mythologies, in Australia in the Tjukurpa under the name of Waagal, Wagyl or Yurlungur even though the latter does not constantly bite its tail.
The snake (or sometimes the dragon) that bites its own tail symbolizes an evolutionary cycle closed in on itself.
At the same time, this symbol contains the ideas of movement, continuity, self-fertilization and, consequently, eternal return.
This connotation of circularity and undecidability made the Ouroboros snake the symbol of paradoxes that, like it, "eat their own tails", as in the formula "This sentence is false", a variant of the paradox of Epimenides the Cretan (I lie): there is truth in falsehood, and falsehood in truth, an indistinguishable tangle of causes and consequences.
The circular form of the image has given rise to another interpretation: the union of the chthonic world (from the Greek khthôn: "which is born of the earth", a term applied to the infernal gods), represented by the serpent, and the celestial world, represented by the circle.
This interpretation would be confirmed by the fact that the ouroboros, in certain representations would be half black, half white. It would thus signify the union of two opposing principles, either heaven and earth, or good and evil, or day and night, or the Chinese Yang and Yin, and all the values of which these opposites are the carriers.
Another opposition appears in a two-level interpretation: the snake that bites its tail, by drawing a circular shape, breaks with a linear evolution, marks a change such that it seems to emerge at a higher level of being, the level of celestial or spiritualized being, symbolized by the circle; it thus transcends the level of animality, to advance in the direction of the most fundamental drive of life;
but this ascending interpretation is based only on the symbolism of the circle, a figure of celestial perfection. On the contrary, the snake that bites its own tail, that never stops turning on itself, locks itself into its own cycle, evokes the wheel of existences, samsarah, as if condemned to never escape its cycle in order to rise to a higher level:
it symbolizes the perpetual return, the indefinite circle of rebirths, the continual repetition, which betrays the predominance of a fundamental death drive.
In heraldry, we find this blazoned figure: a snake or, more rarely, a dragon folded in the round. The ouroboros is also found in many logos of Masonic obedience: see in particular the logos of the Grand Orient de France, the Grande Loge de France or the Grande Loge Féminine de France.
Even in religious heraldry, we can find some: Adrien de Touron, prelate of the abbey of Coudenberg in Brussels, had for arms an ouroboros.
In alchemy, the ouroboros is a purifying seal. It symbolizes the eternal unity of all things, embodying the cycle of life (birth) and death. We owe to Zosimus of Panopolis, the first great Greek-Egyptian alchemist (around 300) the famous formula:
"One [is] the All, through it the All and to it [returns] the All ; and if the One does not contain the All, the All is nothing (Ἓν τὸ πᾶν καὶ δι' αὐτοῦ τὸ καὶ εἰς αὐτὸ τὸ πᾶν εἰ μὴ ἒχοι τὸ πᾶν ἐστιν τὸ πᾶν). One is the serpent the ouroboros, the serpent that bites its tail], the one who possesses the ios [the dyeing in purple?, the last stage of transmutation after blackening, bleaching] after the two treatments [blackening and bleaching?]. This formula is accompanied by the diagram of the ouroboros. "
According to Michèle Mertens : "Also attested in Mesopotamia, the ouroboros is found especially in Egypt, and this since a very ancient period: it is already mentioned in the Pyramid texts. The first figurative representations date back to the XVIIIth dynasty.
According to Leisagang, it symbolizes "the cycle of all becoming with its double rhythm: the development of the One in the All and the return of the All to the One". Zosimus was the first alchemist to use the ourobore. The formula Ἓν τὸ πᾶν is not by Zosimus. Zosimus himself imputes it to the eponymous founder of alchemy, the mythical Chymès."
The chemist August Kekulé claimed that it was a ring in the shape of an ouroboros that inspired his discovery of the structure of benzene, a model that would have been inspired to him by the dreamlike vision of an Ouroboros. Hence his famous exhortation to his colleagues, "to understand, let us learn to dream!"
Sometimes present in Satanist symbolism, because according to their followers, the snake (or dragon), by biting its tail, inoculates itself with its venom and thus becomes more peaceful by itself, by absorbing the fundamental knowledge of all things and all truths, the venom is the figurative substance.
Moreover, the chthonic character is opposed to the celestial character and thus is assimilated to the opposition: Satan (underworld) and God (celestial world). The ouroboros also represents the demon-god Leviathan, the serpent of the void and initial chaos.
The ouroboros is a symbol used in many written and televisual works, games, paintings and music, whether it is present in the title or appears only as an object or symbol (for example, on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, in Millennium, as a tattoo in the mangas Fullmetal Alchemist and Seven Deadly Sins, as the name of a labyrinth in the video game Golden Sun) or as a thread in Eternalis.
Emperor Constantine II had his coinage with the ouroboros; it is also used on medals given to members of the Council of Elders.