Rich with cultural significance and religious meaning, the ouroboros symbol embodies rebirth, eternity, self-reliance, immortality, and nature’s cyclic character. Commonly known as “the snake eating itself”, the ouroboros is among the most prominent ancient symbols found in the history of different cultures, religions and civilizations.
One surely does wonder how a single symbol managed to endure the test of time and make its mark on so many civilizations and cultural beliefs.
Let us get right into it and have a closer look at its meaning, symbolism, origin and uses throughout history.
Ancient Egyptian Tombs: The First Appearance of The Ouroboros Symbol
The ouroboros first appeared on a golden shrine in King Tut’s (Tutankhamen) tomb in Egypt in the 13th century BC. The tombs featured two ouroboroi engraved on the gilded shrine along with some strange text. These ouroboroi appeared as serpents wrapped around the head and feet of a mummified figure, which is believed to have been King Tut himself, or the sun god Ra, or perhaps an amalgamation of both.
According to expert Egyptologists, the symbol was to “refer to the mystery of cyclical time, which flows back to itself”. Since the ancient Egyptians saw time as repetitive, constantly evolving cycles instead of a linear path, the ouroboros represented the immortality of human beings and its interconnection to nature’s cycles.
Ouroboros Meaning and Symbolism
The ouroboros symbol has appeared on temples, ancient artifacts, tombs, and artwork throughout history. Pronounced as ‘oo.ruh.bo.ruhs’, this symbol represents how everything in this universe is interconnected, going back to nature and becoming one with it once again after death. The unbroken circle of the snake eating itself represents universal unity, rebirth, and renewal through death.
The term ouroboros is derived from two ancient Greek words – ‘oura’ and ‘boros’. ‘Oura’ refers to tail while ‘boros’ means eating. When we combine the two words, it results in the meaning ‘he that eats his own tail’ or even just simply ‘tail eater’.
Believed to be based on serpents shedding their skin to make place for a new one, the ouroboros is an ancient symbol of eternal life and infinite growth. Although historians are unsure of the exact origins of the ouroboros symbol, it is believed to be inspired by snakes, serpents, and lizards that curl up to protect themselves.
With numerous different interpretations, some claim it represents the cycle of life and death, with the universe remaining central to it all. Others believe it represents the recreation of life through death or even the rebirth of the dead to reach an immortal state.
Snake Eating Itself: Association with Ancient Mythology and Civilizations
Being one of the most popular ancient symbols, the ouroboros has appeared throughout history in different ancient civilizations and cultures. Like the ever-rising sun, this symbol is believed to have gone through its own journey from Egypt to the ancient Greek alchemists and eventually making its way to the modern era.
After being featured predominantly in Egyptian civilization, the ouroboros slithered out to ancient Greek mythology through the Phoenician culture, where it received a new representation.
For Plato, the ouroboros represented self-reliance and showed a perfect being that needed nothing but itself. He further believed the symbol showed a dark side with self-destruction and the tendency to devour itself.
Historians also draw a parallel between the ouroboros and the Greek myth about Sisyphus. According to the myth, Zeus punishes Sisyphus by making him roll a boulder up a hill. As soon as he gets to the top, the boulder inevitably falls back down, and he has to roll it up once again.
The ouroboros symbolized infinity for the Romans. They also associated the symbol with the god Saturn who controlled the cycles of each year. Roman philosophy states that Saturn connected each year to the next, forming an endless loop that is depicted by the snake eating its own tail.
Norse Mythology: Manuscripts and Jörmungandr
Vikings told stories of a giant serpent called Jörmungandr, who guarded Midgard (their name for Earth). Jörmungandr was one of Loki’s three children and was thrown into the great ocean by Odin.
There, he grew into a size so big that he could eventually encircle the whole world to reach and devour his own tail. It was said that if the World Serpent, or Jörmungandr, released his tail, Ragnarok would begin. The World Serpent was closely associated with the ouroboros symbol.
Ouroboros Symbol in the Modern World: Becoming The Infinity Symbol
In recent times, the ouroboros has undergone significant reinterpretation to become the infinity symbol. This concept was initiated in the 20th century with Mobius strips, the Droste Effect, and numerous paintings depicting the symbol reproducing itself. It is commonly worn as bracelets, rings, and even tattooed on the body to serve as a constant reminder of life’s cyclic journey.
An early 20th-century psychotherapist, Carl Jung, saw the ouroboros as a symbol of the human psyche. Jung had studied the symbol in alchemy and claimed that it represented the human ability to regenerate through self-reflection, just as a serpent sheds off old skin to become anew.
He justified it through a perspective that believed humans can only become whole after integrating our conscious selves with our shadow selves.
Moreover, the ouroboros often appears in the field of cybernetics, the study of feedback loops and circular causality. Cybernetics is based on the theory that inputs create certain outputs, which are then used as inputs for further outcomes – completing the circle.
Mathematicians and philosophers both appreciate the symbol similarly, applying the cybernetics theory to justify concepts in psychology, biology, computer science, and even engineering.
Outside of the research and STEM fields, people use the ouroboros symbol to represent the constant flow of creation, symbol of destruction, and recreation that makes our world come to a full circle. It instills the belief that every part of life is connected, with joy following sorrow and failure, eventually leading to success.
We may be worlds apart from the early Egyptian civilizations and the alchemists that ran experiments in their shabby workshops, but the ouroboros continues to light our paths with wisdom.
The Snake Eating Itself, Ouroboros Tattoo Meaning
Ouroboros tattoo meaning may differ according to the shape and form of the symbol drawn. It is a rebirth symbol, that is why a person who has overcome difficulties and troubles recently might want to have an ouroboros tattoo.
On the other end, it is also the symbol of infinity, so the person carrying an ouroboros tattoo might have had it to represent something that is ‘eternal’ for them.
In that sense, when seen next to a date, an ouroboros tattoo represents the idea that something that happened on that date is eternal, e.g. getting married or meeting someone special.
And if you believe in reincarnation, an ouroboros ink is obviously just the perfect choice for you.
Did you know that this ancient symbol heavily inspired similar artwork that appeared in the immensely popular Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood series with many symbols created by brilliant Japanese artist Hiromu Arakawa?
This wraps up our piece on the ouroboros symbol, the snake eating itself, its origins, symbolism and meanings.