Thursday, October 15, 2009

Ouroboros: Eternal Symbol of Endings and Beginnings

The symbol of a snake curved in a circle and eating its own tail is goes back to Ancient Egypt, appears in old Alchemy drawings and can be found today on album covers and tattoos. Secret societies have also used this symbol throughout the centuries.

In the simplest of terms, the Ouroboros symbolizes the eternal cycle of life. In many traditions, the circle represents wholeness, or One-ness, because a circle has no beginning or end. (This is part of the symbolism behind the wedding band, but that's another topic for another day). The Ouroboros snake appears to have a beginning (head) and an ending (tail), but since these are joined together, it points to the fact that the two are actually one in the same. Here, the "ending" is really a new beginning and the cycle starts over again.

The Great Cycle of Life that shows up time and again is one of the most significant aspects of Nature itself. All living things, as well as planets and stars, have their life cycles. In the case of an apple tree, the dead apple that falls to the ground and starts to rot is actually the fertilizer that nourishes the seeds inside, which in turn grows into a new apple tree, and so on. The death of the apple makes it possible for the birth of a new tree. Some spiders do the same thing; the mother guards over the egg sac and when the babies are hatched they will consume the mother to help in their survival.

So what about humans? Most everything we eat, including vegetarians, was once alive and then killed for our consumption so that we may survive. Symbolically, the Ouroboros can represent the "death" of the child so that the adult can be born (aka puberty), or, that the death of the bachelor heralds the birth of the husband as he takes the vows of marriage. Generally speaking, we want to "kill" the lesser so that the greater may emerge. In mythology, the Mentor or teacher must die at some point (actually or symbolically) so the Hero or student can then become the master.

Many Near-Death Experiences involve a passage through a dark tunnel where there is light at the end where loved ones are waiting to welcome you into the new world. Is this not the same as our birth, when we move through the birth canal into the light outside, where our parents are waiting for our arrival?

Circles and cycles are not difficult to understand: we see the seasons change and change back again; the death of the night announces the coming day and the death of the Sun brings the night and nocturnal creatures to life. Each month the New Moon begins the waxing phase and the Full Moon begins the waning phase and so on. This cyclical motion of constant change and then starting over again is just about everywhere you look if you care to observe.

In Science, we have the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (or conservation of energy) that states, "Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be transformed." So really, the place where the death becomes the birth is the point of transformation, and in the long view, the transition from one to the other is seamless. That is, even though one form "dies," it doesn't really go anywhere - it just takes on a new form.

In the spiritual tradition of the Phoenix, the bird that lives for 500 years eventually consumes itself in its own flames, only to be born again. [As a side note, it may be that the Bald Eagle of the United States is really a Phoenix in disguise.] This "born again" motif shows up in Christianity, where the old "sinner" self has to die so that the "saved" Self can emerge and thrive. Think of the Ouroboros when you consider what Jesus meant when he said "I am the Alpha (beginning) and the Omega (ending)."

In our own lives, the Ouroboros can be a powerful and practical symbol to conjure up in our minds (or tattoo on our bodies or use as a wallpaper on our iPhones) when we are faced with any kind of ending or new beginning. The lesson from the snake eating its tail is that endings such as death, loss and change can be seen as new beginnings, new life, new love. The circle represents the Eternal; the head and tail the death and rebirth of the Temporal. Most religious traditions and philosophies agree that, while we have only a short finite life in this world, we are part of an eternal existence in the Universe.

Change is perhaps the greatest of fears, and we meet it with such resistance because it often feels like a death. It can feel like we're dying when we make a significant change - even with changes that are for the better, ones that we actually want to change. Actually it IS a kind of death - the death of some part of our way of life that have known up to this point, and often exchanging it for a new way that is unfamiliar and probably scary. This may be the inspiration for the phrase, "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't," and why some people stay in abusive or dead-end relationships because it's the one we know. This relationship between death and change is represented in the symbolism of the Tarot cards as well - the Death card does not mean death; it means Change.

Even when we make it through the first part, accepting and adjusting to the new way can also be difficult. We say "Out with the old; in with the new!" every December 31st as we ring in the New Year. But it's when we don't let go of the old, and try to hang on to some of the same beliefs and attitudes that we get ourselves in trouble. The new way won't allow for the old habits. The security blanket of our childhood needs to be traded for the responsibility of adulthood. Cultivate the Faith that the net will appear WHEN you leap, and not before. Believe that gifts on the other side of the river will worth making the crossing. Let the bachelor pad and womanizing lifestyle die to the past, and don't bring them into your new marriage.

So use the Ouroboros to help you through the changes of life. Know that the ending is really a beginning. Believe that it's better to exchange the lesser for the greater, even if the greater is unknown. If it feels like death, then administer Last Rites. Light the funeral pyre of transformation so the Phoenix can consume itself in the fire and allow a greater one to rise from the ashes. Complete the cycle of living and move from death to life. Nail Jesus to the Cross so that He may rise as the Christ.

So go ahead, and stick your tail in your mouth. Do it now (or not). Better to do that than to stick your head in the sand...or up your ass:)

© Chris Sheridan



  1. Thank you Chris! I experienced a transformation this weekend. I am not afraid of the new, I am afraid the old will return. Maybe I will build a pyre this weekend, as you suggest, and incinerate the old for good!

    Great Article! Best Regards, Penelope

  2. does anyone know what the script says behind the first image?

  3. Thank you so much for this... I am on a creative envisioning pathway with the help of an art therapist - and this symbol came together with the lemniscate... the ourobros under the auspice of the lemniscate

    through your words I am just beginning to see how amazingly powerful these symbols are...

    especially together!!

  4. Thanks man :) that is a very good in-depth description of the power of this symbol. It's been in my mind for years and is helping me through some difficult changes even now :D

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  6. I was researching ouroboros for a painting. This was both helpful and beautiful. Thank you!