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About the Author
Andrew Fenner is a musician, electronic composer, and writer of poetry and prose. He currently lives in Cincinnati. He delivers his writings to Mistress McCutchan on the back of a domesticated dragon, which he rides through the night wind following the magnetic field of the Earth. Just kidding, he actually had his cat deliver the stuff.
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Andrew Fenner
Ouroboros, uroboros, Jörmungandr... there are a myriad other names from nearly every region of Earth, intertwined through many cultures and belief systems, from Oriental, Greek, Indian, Egyptian, European, even Aztec. Though many of you, dear morbid readers, may not be readily familiar with the term, ouroboros(pronounced oo-ro-BOR-os), those of you who are more than casually acquainted with mystic symbols with know of the “serpent devouring its own tail”; it is one of the oldest and most arcane of all esoteric signs. Its influence and presence are overtly implied in many of the more familiar designs, such as the yin/yang, the pentagram, the zodiac, magic circles, the whorl, the Wheel of Fortune, the Mandala, et al. If you are aware of the great significance of even small details of mystical symbols, you will be able to note the less obvious presence of ouroboros where you might not have noticed it before; such as in the ankh, the swastika, the sideways figure 8 symbol of infinity, the tree of life, the star of David, perhaps in the Eye of Horus that adorns the pages of this ‘zine at the end of each article.
The immense antiquity of ouroboros is without question. It first showed up in Western culture via Egypt of 1600 B.C. From there is was picked up by the Phonecians and then the Greeks, who named it ouroboros, meaning, more or less, “tail devourer”. Its presence in Eastern symbology goes back even further than 3600 years. It is interesting that in a common variant of the Western version the serpent is half-black (tail end) and half-white (head end)...very much like the yin/yang, and with approximately the same interpretation.
It is quite possible that an early ouroboros was, in fact, the source of the yin/yang symbol. In more modern times the classic snake ouroboros, as well as the serpent-wound-around-the-world-egg symbol, shows up prominently in many of the seals, pennants, aprons, etc. of the famous secret society, the Freemasons. Those advanced in the mysteries of this society claim roots that go all the way back to ancient Egypt, from where many of their symbols derive. They also claim to be descended from, and even to be the modern version of, the Druids.
The classic ouroboros is depicted as a snake or a dragon, forming a complete circle with the tail entering directly into the mouth, where it appears to be swallowed. Some versions have two snakes swallowing each other’s tails (another yin/yang parallel?) and there is also a Nordic version which is a great worm, rather than a serpent.
In yet another variant, which is usually in the form of a dragon, the tail is not being swallowed – instead the dragon has grasped it crossways in its mouth with the tip end sticking out the opposite side – the beginning has apprehended the end and seized it. This seems to imply a conscious act of will, thereby suggesting a living being, a powerful spiritual force or presence, rather than an abstract principle such as you get in the more common ouroboros. It is this willful version that is most often alluded to where magic circles are involved, especially those of protection.
As for the meaning(s), this symbol generally refers to eternity – to the cyclic process of regeneration;“oneness” – to the autonomous nature of “reality”, devouring itself in the act of continually recreating itself. From the beginning to the end, from everlasting to everlasting, etc. There are also many secondary meanings associated with various cultures in which the symbol occurs. For Phonecian and Greek civilizations it was often associated with the sea which surrounded much of the land they knew.
To alchemists of Egypt and Europe, and probably to the Gnostics as well, for all of whom it had great significance with regard to spiritual transformation, it sometimes represented a merging of chthonian and celestial realms. Conduct a brief study of a typical alchemical drawing depicting the figure of a spread-eagle man with three great intersecting circles superimposed; one over the loins, one over the solar plexus region, and one over the upper body/head. It is not at all difficult to see how this corresponds exactly to the various paths of the Qabala and the three great trines of the “tree of life”, which is a principal in the foundation of the Tarot. If you study the progression of the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck you will discover that it is all about a journey of spiritual transformation.
For certain sects of Gnosticism ouroboros is even identified with the Christ. One of the major aspects of Christianity is, of course, the transformation of the mere “quick soul” into the higher form of a “quickening spirit”. In other words, from terrestrial human into a true “child of the living God”.
A less frequently contemplated interpretation of ouroboros has to do with darkness. Consider the yin/yang (which is actually a trinity, not a duality) or another such symbol, with the ring around it seen as the serpent swallowing its tail. One’s mind is usually led to think of the circle as containing that which is within it, but it can also be seen as the border of that which lies beyond the inner meaning. In the case of the yin/yang for example, since it symbolizes the oneness of all things, the yin and yang seperate-yet-as-one (call them love and will... will loves to will and love wills to love...they are part of one another and are even as one) and representing all the universe/reality that exists. In this light the ouroboros becomes the edge of the outer darkness; the potential of all that is not or is not yet concieved and created; the “surface of the deep”;the great mystery; the unknown.
When God willed “let there be light, and there was light”, where was the light? In the darkness of course. It is perhaps through this rather oblique aspect of ouroboros that Lucifer, the “light bearer”, the Prince of Darkness, first came to be associated with the serpent or “great dragon of old“. This is not to imply that ouroboros is a Satanic symbol, since it simply is not. For one thing, it is as representative of that which is within as that which is without; for another, Lucifer did not become Satan “the accuser“ untill the fall. It is merely a possibility that this aspect of the tail devourer led to the Luciferian association with the serpent.
Okay, you might ask, but why a serpent/dragon? Why not just a golden ring, or a swan, or the arms of God encircling everything? Because it is serpentine. In other words, it is perhaps only in symbolic representation that ourobolos is circular. In actuality, it is involuted and entwined into and throughout the fabric of reality, and yet it still embodies the nature of the all encompassing circle. Take the sideways figure 8 symbol of infinity. Is it not simply an ouroboros twisted in the middle... a serpentine belt like the Mobius strip which is often depicted as a figure 8. Or the whorl, which probably originated from the great serpent-wound-around the-world-egg symbol for the creation of the universe, and is certainly linked with ouroboros. One might assume that the depicted outer end of the whorl ultimately terminates back at the depicted center, where it swallows its tail; that the two ends meet in some higher mystic manner forming a macrocosmic/microcosmic serpentine circle.
A good representation of this concept can be found among the engravings of M.C. Escher (a great fan of the Mobius strip). He has one that is a dragon ouroboros which twists and convolutes its body through all manner of contortions yet winds up with the tail clasped surely in its maw. This idea does not, however, negate the notion of a perfectly circular ouroboros (or a perfectly spherical whorl). Since the advent of Einsteinian physics many modern thinkers have been tantalized by the possibility that the physical universe which we inhabit is spherical. This possibility is fed by the proven fact that light waves, of which everything in the space-time continuum is made, when unhindered by refraction or reflection, will travel in a curved arc. This arc is so huge that we tend to percieve it as a straight has been proven conclusively that it is, nevertheless, an arc. An arc will, of course, eventually form a perfect circle; in this case one of incredible macrocosmic vastness...and it is also expanding.
Turning toward the microcosmic, another implication of Einstein’s theories is that matter (other than black holes) cannot exist beyond a certain density in the form of a perfect sphere, the ultimate proof of this being the atom bomb. If you take an element which is already so dense that part of it is reverting to light energy in the form of radiation (uranium 232 would be the lightest of such density, followed by u235 and plutonium), form it into four quarters or two halves of a perfect sphere, then slam the sections together and compress them beyond critical mass with a perfectly spheroid implosion, all the matter of which the substance is comprised will revert instantaneously to its basic form of pure light energy; from microcosmic sphere to macrocosmic sphere in a flash. The serpent has devoured its tail –talk about a powerful whorl!!
It is also interesting to note here that the process of plutonium being derived from the fission of uranium in an atomic pile is not unlike the mythic alchemical goal of lead or another baser metal being transmuted into gold. Such ruminations tend to make one wonder just how deep the knowledge and understanding of the ancients actually ran and what powers might have been unleashed by by their manipulations of this wisdom. We can only guess at this from a great distance, informed only by the remnants of once great civilizations, remnants such as the ouroboros.