Ancient symbols: The Ouroboros in Alchemy, Gnosticism and Hermeticism

THE OUROBOROS SYMBOL

The ancient symbol known as the ouroboros is a snake, serpent, or dragon with its body looped in a circle. Its mouth is open, and its tail is adjacent to its mouth.  It is not easy to tell if the snake is biting, eating, regurgitating, or even giving birth to itself.  Interpretation depends on the culture and situation where it appears.  Usually, it is considered a symbol of renewal – the eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth, and immortality, but there are other interpretations. 

The name “ouroboros” comes from Greek.  The “oura” part means tail, and “boros,” meaning “eating,” so together, it becomes “tail devourer,” or ouroboros.  It entered Western tradition and symbolism from ancient Egyptian and Hellenic iconography and conventions.  It later became adopted into the mystic symbols of alchemy, Hermeticism, and Gnosticism.

THE OUROBOROS THROUGH THE AGES

Remarkably similar versions of this motif have occurred worldwide throughout history.  Despite the vast distances that sometimes separate it, the symbol carries similar connotations, though may be known by other terms.  It is not known if there was a central origin for the image from which it spread or if it evolved independently in various places.  The distance and the different human cultures where the ouroboros appears indicate a degree of independent evolution.  However, it could also spread from one place to another through trade, invasion, or the movement of people.

In certain ancient cultures, because snakes shed their old skins and grow new ones, they are symbols of the renewal of life.  There is also the idea that the snake’s tail is a phallic symbol, with the mouth representing a womb, associating it with fertility.  Mystics also linked the ouroboros with metempsychosis or transmigration of the soul.

The ouroboros differs from other representations of serpent-like entities being a positive and necessary force for good.  In other religions such as Christianity, snakes and serpents represent evil and other religions may have different associations not mentioned here.

The first known use of the image is an artistic decoration on Chinese pottery belonging to the neolithic Yangshao People, who dwelt from 5000-3000 BC along the Yellow River in what is now eastern China.  However, its use as a motif or symbol seems to have evolved later independently in other places.

ANCIENT EGYPT

The ancient Egyptians associating the symbol with time and the universe.  They considered time to be a succession of recurring cycles rather than a linear, constantly manifesting line of events.  They were greatly influenced by the annual flooding of the Nile and the daily recurrent movement of the sun across the sky.

A 14the BC funerary text, usually referred to as the “Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld,” inscribed on the second shrine of the sarcophagus in the tomb of Tutankhamun depicted a prominent figure, possibly representing the mummiform body of Tutankhamun, which is titled, “He who hides the Hours.” Alternatively, some archaeologists see it representing a union between Ra and Osiris.  The ouroboros motif encircles the head of the figure while another encircles the feet.

Experts deem the text refers to the functioning of time.  In this case, the circular serpent motif signifies the deity, “Mehen, the Enveloper,” guardian of Ra on his journey underground. It also appears in other Egyptian works and may represent the chaos surrounding the orderly world is considered a form of the ouroboros.

Engraving of an wyvern-type ouroboros by Lucas Jennis, in the 1625 alchemical tract De Lapide Philosophico. The figure serves as a symbol for mercury – Public Domain – Source

GNOSTICISM

Mystics and scholars of Gnosticism, Hermeticism, and alchemy adopted the symbol because of its associated meaning. Gnosticism developed from Jewish and Christian religious and philosophical thinking in the first and second centuries.  It sought to develop and use specialized knowledge to achieve salvation.  Gnostics saw the head of the serpent as the spiritual world, while the tail represented the physical world, both being eternally united.  While both worlds appear to conflict, they exist in unison and are necessary for a unified universe.

ALCHEMY

In alchemy, the ouroboros is considered one of the oldest symbols representing the idea of eternity and continuous return. Alchemy was a predecessor form of medieval chemistry and philosophy that sought to achieve the Magnum Opus or great work.

This great work might include achievements such as the transmutation of matter, a panacea to cure all ills, the philosopher’s stone, and the achievement of immortality, depending on the interests of the individual alchemist.  It was a discipline rich in allegorical expression and many of its terms and goals are metaphorical.  However, the true purpose of alchemy was the evolution of the human soul through its study and practice. 

The alchemist also used other related disciplines, including astrology, Hermeticism, mathematics, geometry, Gnosticism, and other early sciences and mysticism.  One of the most highly desired but challenging aims for an alchemist was to discover a way to turn a base substance such as lead into gold, an activity known as “chrysopoeia” in alchemy.

A short alchemic text called “Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra,” by Cleopatra, the Alchemist, shows a version of the ouroboros.  This author is not Cleopatra VII – the Egyptian queen who wooed Julius Caesar and Mark Antony even though later works refer to her as Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt.  The identity of Cleopatra the Alchemist is murky, and to complicate matters her identity became conflated by scholars with Cleopatra, the Physician.  However, the name Cleopatra the Alchemist may be an alias for an anonymous author or school of alchemists.

Cleopatra, the Alchemist, was a Greek author and physician who lived about 3 AD and was one of the founders of alchemy.  She was also one of four female alchemists able to generate the philosopher’s stone and the inventor of special apparatus used in the alchemic distillation process.

HERMETICISM

In the Chrysopoeia, an ouroboros, with the words, “the all is one,” is seen.  This idea is associated with a philosophical system based on the traditions of the legendary Hermes Trismegistus known as Hermeticism.  The Chrysopeoia also described the ouroboros as,

“One is the Serpent which has its poison according to two compositions, and One is All and through it is All, and by it is All, and if you have not All, All is Nothing.”

The ouroboros expressed many of their beliefs in a visual symbol recognized and understood by other alchemists.  But the world is mutable, and alchemists of the Renaissance began to consider time as linear rather than cyclical.  Therefore, instead of looping back and repeating, eternity became a neverending stream of events that may have had any cycles unrolling as they happened. This new viewpoint makes it very relevant to how the present moment is understood.

©10/03/2022 zteve t evans


REFERENCES, ATTRIBUTIONS AND FURTHER READING

Copyright March 10th, 2022 zteve t evans


Further Publications by zteve t evans

Tales of the Lost, the Drowned and the All-Seeing Eye – Vengeance Will Come!

Available as a Kindle Ebook And Large Print Paperback – Dimensions : 21.59 x 0.48 x 27.94 cm All Images Non-color



Havelok the Dane: Hero-King of Two Realms

Available as Kindle EBook


3 thoughts on “Ancient symbols: The Ouroboros in Alchemy, Gnosticism and Hermeticism

  1. Pingback: Ancient symbols: The Ouroboros in Alchemy, Gnosticism and Hermeticism – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  2. I find the Chinese origin to be very interesting. The serpent and dragon has ancient roots in China and are more symbolized there than in any other culture including Africa.

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