For every end there is a beginning.
This is only one of the several positive and powerful meanings of the ouroboros which is one of the most ancient symbols known to man. It’s depicted as a snake eating its own tail to sustain its life in an eternal cycle of renewal and it usually forms a full circle. It occurs in many cultures, religions and beliefs. The psychologist, Jung, called it an archetype which is best described as
‘a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.’
The ouroboros appears in Victorian cemeteries as a symbol of resurrection. The snake is reborn as it sheds its skin and this fine example is on each of the 4 sides on top of the columns at the imposing entrance to Nunhead Cemetery, London. Victorian visitors would have understood its meaning. As a resurrection image it can be very positive as some of its other attributes are immortality, eternity and wisdom. However, as with most symbols , it can have several meanings. These include the Universe’s cyclic nature and life out of death. It constantly appears to return as it sheds its skin and, Phoenix-like, has a cycle of life, death and rebirth.
There is also a magnificent ouroboros on the gates of Sheffield General Cemetery and one in Highgate Cemetery West on the doors to a mausoleum. It inspired the tattoo worn proudly by Jeane Trend-Hill a photographer and fellow cemetery explorer.
But the ouroboros’ origins lie in either ancient Greece or Egypt as both cultures have claimed it. In Greece, Plato described it as ‘the first living thing, a self-eating, circular being’. In fact, the Greek translation of ouroboros is ‘tail devouring snake’ and it’s associated with something constantly recreating itself and the eternal return.
In Egypt, the ouroboros reputedly appears for the first time in the 14th century BC in Tutenkhamen’s tomb on an ancient funerary text. This depicts the Sun God Ra and his union with Osiris in the underworld and is illustrated with two serpents , holding their tails in their mouths, coiled around hands and feet. This may be a representation of the unified Ra-Osiris. Both serpents are reputedly the manifestation of the god Mehen, who in other funerary texts protect Ra in his underworld journey. I haven’t been able to find an image of this particular representation but I did find this one which purports to be even older.
It’s from a papyrus dated 1077 – 943BC, from the papyrus of Dama and is of the ouroboros surrounding the Sun-Ra.
The ouroboros appears in Hindu, Norse, Aztec and Chinese religions. It’s also a significant alchemical symbol as well and features in Cleopatra the Alchemist’s work. There are also Masonic associations from seals dating from the 17th century.
In fact, on a recent edition of BBC TV’s Antiques Roadshow shown on Sunday 1 May 2016, a triangular Masonic clock was shown and among its several motifs was an ouroboros. In China it can also take the form of a dragon. In the Waite deck of Tarot cards it features on the Magician card.
I found this quote online:
‘In other myths the ouroboros encircles the whole world, a circumference of the waters surrounding the earth. It can support and maintain the world and also inject death into life and life into death. Although apparently immobile, it’s actually in perpetual motion, forever recoiling upon itself.’
Here is a selection of ouroboros representations from other cultures:
One of the many fascinating myths surrounding the ouroboros is the experience of the chemist, August Kekule, who was trying to discover the structure of benzene. This is how he described his Eureka moment :
‘I was sitting, writing at my text-book; but the work did not progress; my thoughts were elsewhere. I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by the repeated visions of the kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold conformation: long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together; all twining and twisting in snake-like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke; and this time also I spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis.’
As I said earlier, Jung would see this dream as evidence of the ouroboros and its effect on the collective unconscious.
Although the ouroboros is usually depicted as a full circle, this is one that I found in my local church. On first glance, it merely looks like an attractive, rippling border around the name Harriet and It dates from 1815. But on a recent visit, I looked closer and realised that it was actually composed of 2 entwined snakes, each biting their own tail. When I spoke to a churchwarden, she had always thought that, due to the patterning on the snakes’ bodies, that it was two entangled pieces of rope. It is a memorial to a young wife who died aged 25 after suffering the ‘most acute and lingering pains.’ So it would have been a potent reminder of resurrection.
The ouroboros is one of the most intriguing and interesting symbols that I have researched so far. A universal image of rebirth and hope.
Douglas Keister – Stories in Stone
Clare Gibson How to read symbols .
What is the Ouroboros – youtube
An Illustrated Encyclopedia of traditional symbols J C Cooper, Thames & Hudson originally pub 1979, reprinted 1993
©All photos and text Carole Tyrrell unless stated otherwise.