Everything concrete you can know about the ouroboros – and I mean everything – is contained in the creature’s name, roughly translating as that which eats the tail. Anything else is just speculation. And inspiration.
In the most prevalent images, notably the one made popular by Chris Carter in his short-lived television series Millennium, the ouroboros is a snake eating (or biting) its tail. Historically, it may also be a combination of serpentine beasts consuming one another.
And that’s it. That’s all we can say about the ouroboros itself, although it is important to add that its image shows up globally.
The earliest known version is on a Chinese amphora (c. 5000-3000 BCE), but in the fourth millennium it also appears in what is now modern southwest Iran as well as in ancient Egypt, and apparently in the Pacific Islands and South America as well.
What do we do with the picture of a creature that eats its tail? One that appears all over the world? We try to make sense of it.
The questions break down in three ways:
- How is the snake biting itself (aggressively or passively)?
- What is the significance of the loop?
- What is contained within the loop?
Any given person’s focus might answer some or all of these questions, which explains in part the great variation of results.
This seems to be the most recent of the questions raised. The snake biting aggressively punishes itself; the one merely holding itself suggests complacent narcissism. This strikes me as the least useful of the symbolic analyses, as the representations rarely show the kind of characterization that would let us describe the intent of the serpent. Also; only two states? What about despair? Frustration? Control?
It’s a given paradox that you can’t find the beginning of a circle – unless you’ve got an ouroboros, in which case it’s the end that’s difficult to locate (how much has it already eaten, exactly?). Circularity suggests repetition, such as with a cylinder seal. There is a beginning and an ongoing; the creation and the continuation of the world. In this sense, the looping hearkens to the cosmos (notably in Egyptian artwork) and the persistence of life. The ouroboros becomes another symbol of infinity. It appears in this aspect, for example, as the belt on the Magician in Tarot cards.
No one seems to consider that what is contained within the snake’s coil is nothingness; it is the heavens, the earth, the sun, or “all things known or seen.” Strikingly, the symbolic value of the ouroboros is nearly always positive.
Symbol vs. Serpent
I say “strikingly,” because of the typical negative connotations of the snake as a figure in narrative and folklore. Some traditional stories allow it a place in creation (“How the Snake Got its Rattles”) and some use its dangers to amplify the hero’s fortitude (the American folk hero Pecos Bill uses a rattlesnake as both a quirt and a lasso, an arguable variant on the ouroboros biting-oneself). By and large, though, the danger of the snake suggests, if not evil, at least malevolence.
An Egyptian curse (c. 2300 BCE) disables its victim with the words, “Your tail be on your mouth, O Snake,” and a parchment from 312 BCE suggests that the sun god Ra destroys his foe Apep “by his forced adoption of the circular pose.”
O ‘APEP, thou foe of Re’, get thee back! . . . thou shalt not come against Re’ in his two heavens when Re’ is in his heavens; he shall triumph over thee, thy tail shall be placed in thy mouth, and thou shalt chew thine own skin, it being cut into upon the altar of the gods, of the Great Ennead which is in Heliopolis.
This in particular suggests that the ouroboros is not a unique creature unto itself, but a state of being; potentially, a punitive one.
Although the title “ouroboros” is never associated with it, the most dangerous version of the creature that I have been able to come up with is the Norse Jormungandr, the Midgard Serpent. One of Loki’s three children by the giantess Angrboda (along with the Fenris Wolf and the goddess Hel), Odin threw the snake into the oceans to drown it. Instead, it grew to encircle the entire world. It remained allied to the giants (foes of the Aesir) and fights Thor to their mutual death at Ragnarok.
The fact that Jormungandr surrounds the earth doesn’t seem to have any cosmogonic importance except that releasing his tail signifies the beginning of Ragnarok. Mostly the value seems to come from the fact that the Midgard Serpent is just that big. Unrelated to its ouroboric aspect (I just made that word up), it is also hideously venomous.
There’s More than One Way to Circle a Snake
It’s more than a stretch to say that the ouroboros is all things to all people, but the lack of agreement around it means that an imaginative writer has the world wide open. The ouroboros can be an icon (Millennium); a symbol (infinity); a big snake. For me, the Tarot Magician offers some of the greatest inspiration, where all three of these aspects can come together.
The Magician is not inherently positive or negative, and the ouroboros that circles his waist does not have to be one or the other either. It might be a living tool or an ally, something that illustrates the Magician’s power and enables it alike.
The idea that the ouroboros is not itself a monster but a state-of-being is also powerful. In this case, the encircling snake is merely the iconic representation of infinite repetition. As a curse, beyond Apep, the stories of Tantalus and Sisyphus come to mind. How else could a person embody this idea?
At this point, the question of how the snake is biting itself becomes relevant and interesting. If the action is defensive (i.e. “circling the wagons”), perhaps the action protects the weakest point (Achilles could have used an ouroboros).
The biggest question for me – addressed by the Midgard Serpent – what happens when the snake stops being an ouroboros?
What happens when it lets go of its tail?
Also coincidentally, I’m back on monster patrol on October 24th with Sphinxes.
To find my image sources, simply click on the picture. For the text research, I owe special thanks to Christie Fox for getting me the relevant article (with a ton of sources in it).
van der Sluijs, Marinus Anthony and Anthony L. Peratt. 2009. “The Ouroboros as an Auroral Phenomenon,” in The Journal of Folklore Research, pp. 3-41. Indiana University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40206938