The Ouroboros (or Uroborus)[1] is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. The name originates from within Greek language; οὐρά (oura) meaning "tail" and βόρος (boros) meaning "eating", thus "he who eats the tail".[2]

The Ouroboros often represents self-reflexivity or cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself, the eternal return, and other things perceived as cycles that begin anew as soon as they end (the mythical phoenix has a similar symbolism)[citation needed]. It can also represent the idea of primordial unity related to something existing in or persisting before any beginning with such force or qualities it cannot be extinguished[citation needed]. The ouroboros has been important in religious and mythological symbolism, but has also been frequently used in alchemical illustrations, where it symbolizes the circular nature of the alchemist's opus[citation needed]. It is also often associated with Gnosticism, and Hermeticism[citation needed].

Carl Jung interpreted the Ouroboros as having an archetypal significance to the human psyche.[2] The Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann writes of it as a representation of the pre-ego "dawn state", depicting the undifferentiated infancy experience of both mankind and the individual child.[3]


Historical representations



The Ouroboros is contained in the Egyptian Book of the Netherworld.[4] The Ouroboros was popular after the Amarna period.[5]

In the Book of the Dead, which was still current in the Graeco-Roman period, the self-begetting sun god Atum is said to have ascended from chaos-waters with the appearance of a snake, the animal renewing itself every morning, and the deceased wishes to turn into the shape of the snake Sato ("son of the earth"), the embodiment of Atum.[5][6][7]


Plato described a self-eating, circular being as the first living thing in the universe—an immortal, mythologically constructed beast.

The living being had no need of eyes when there was nothing remaining outside him to be seen; nor of ears when there was nothing to be heard; and there was no surrounding atmosphere to be breathed; nor would there have been any use of organs by the help of which he might receive his food or get rid of what he had already digested, since there was nothing which went from him or came into him: for there was nothing beside him. Of design he was created thus, his own waste providing his own food, and all that he did or suffered taking place in and by himself. For the Creator conceived that a being which was self-sufficient would be far more excellent than one which lacked anything; and, as he had no need to take anything or defend himself against any one, the Creator did not think it necessary to bestow upon him hands: nor had he any need of feet, nor of the whole apparatus of walking; but the movement suited to his spherical form was assigned to him, being of all the seven that which is most appropriate to mind and intelligence; and he was made to move in the same manner and on the same spot, within his own limits revolving in a circle. All the other six motions were taken away from him, and he was made not to partake of their deviations. And as this circular movement required no feet, the universe was created without legs and without feet.[8]

In Gnosticism, this serpent symbolized eternity and the soul of the world.


Ouroboros symbolism has been used to describe Kundalini energy. According to the 2nd century Yoga Kundalini Upanishad, "The divine power, Kundalini, shines like the stem of a young lotus; like a snake, coiled round upon herself she holds her tail in her mouth and lies resting half asleep as the base of the body" (1.82). Another interpretation is that Kundalini equates to the entwined serpents of the Caduceus, the entwined serpents representing commerce in the west or, esoterically, human DNA.


The god Quetzalcoatl is sometimes portrayed biting its tail on Aztec and Toltec ruins. A looping Quetzalcoatl is carved into the base of the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, at Xochicalco, Mexico, 700-900 AD.

Middle Ages

Engraving by Lucas Jennis, in an alchemical tract entitled De Lapide Philosophico.

The Ouroboros symbol appears in both 14th- and 15th-century Albigensian-printing watermarks[9] and is also worked into the pip cards of many early (14th-15th century) playing cards and tarot cards.[10] Watermarks similar to those used by the Albigensians appear in early printed playing cards, suggesting that the Albigenses might have had contact with the early authors of tarot decks.[11] A commonly used early symbol—an ace of cups circled by an ouroboros—frequently appears among Albigensian watermarks.[12] It is conceivable that this is the source of some of the urban legends associating this symbol with secret societies,[13] because the Albigenses were closely associated with the humanist movement and the inquisition it sparked. Because the Albigenses came from Armenia, where Zoroastrianism and Mithra worship were common, it may be that the symbol entered their iconography via the Zoroastrian Faravahar symbol, which in some versions clearly features an ouroboros at the waist instead of a vague disc-shape. In Mithran mystery cults the figure of Mithra being reborn (one of the things he is famous for) is sometimes seen wrapped with an ouroboros, indicating his eternal and cyclic nature,[14] and even references which do not mention the ouroboros refer to this circular shape as symbolizing the immortality of the soul or the cyclic nature of Karma, suggesting that the circle retains its meaning even when the details of the image are obscured.[15]

In Norse mythology, it appears as the serpent Jörmungandr, one of the three children of Loki and Angrboda, who grew so large that it could encircle the world and grasp its tail in its teeth. In the legends of Ragnar Lodbrok, such as Ragnarssona þáttr, the Geatish king Herraud gives a small lindworm as a gift to his daughter Þóra Town-Hart after which it grows into a large serpent which encircles the girl's bower and bites itself in the tail. The serpent is slain by Ragnar Lodbrok who marries Þóra. Ragnar later has a son with another woman named Kráka and this son is born with the image of a white snake in one eye. This snake encircled the iris and bit itself in the tail, and the son was named Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye.[16]


Drawing by Theodoros Pelecanos, in alchemical tract titled Synosius (1478).
Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra

In alchemy, the Ouroboros is a sigil. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung saw the Ouroboros as an archetype and the basic mandala of alchemy. Jung also defined the relationship of the Ouroboros to alchemy:[17]

The alchemists, who in their own way knew more about the nature of the individuation process than we moderns do, expressed this paradox through the symbol of the Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. The Ouroboros has been said to have a meaning of infinity or wholeness. In the age-old image of the Ouroboros lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself. The Ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This 'feed-back' process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself. He symbolizes the One, who proceeds from the clash of opposites, and he therefore constitutes the secret of the prima materia which [...] unquestionably stems from man's unconscious.

The famous Ouroboros drawing from the early alchemical text The Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra dating to 2nd century Alexandria encloses the words hen to pan, "one is the all". Its black and white halves represent the Gnostic duality of existence. As such, the Ouroboros could be interpreted as the Western equivalent of the Taoist Yin-Yang symbol.

The Chrysopoeia Ouroboros of Cleopatra is one of the oldest images of the Ouroboros to be linked with the legendary opus of the Alchemists, the Philosopher’s Stone.

As a symbol of the eternal unity of all things, the cycle of birth and death from which the alchemist sought release and liberation, it was familiar to the alchemist/physician Sir Thomas Browne. In his A letter to a friend, a medical treatise full of case-histories and witty speculations upon the human condition, he wrote of it:

[...] that the first day should make the last, that the Tail of the Snake should return into its Mouth precisely at that time, and they should wind up upon the day of their Nativity, is indeed a remarkable Coincidence,

Allegoria della vita umana, by Guido Cagnacci (1601–63). The Ouroboros forms a halo in the upper left.[18]

It is also alluded to at the conclusion of Browne's The Garden of Cyrus (1658) as a symbol of the circular nature and Unity of the two Discourses:

All things began in order so shall they end, so shall they begin again according to the Ordainer of Order and the mystical mathematicks of the City of Heaven.


The ouroboros is displayed on numerous Masonic seals, frontispieces and other imagery, especially during the 17th century.

19th century Haiti

In 1812, the Republic of Haiti under President Alexandre Pétion issued its first locally minted coinage which featured an image of a serpent biting its own tail.

Emblem of the Theosophical Society (Adyar)
Ouroboros on the flag of Gabriele d'Annunzio's short-lived Italian Regency of Carnaro at the city of Fiume (now Rijeka, Croatia)


The Ouroboros is featured in the seal of Theosophy, along with other traditional symbols.

Non-western traditions

Snakes are sacred in many West African religions. The demi-god Aidophedo uses the image of a serpent biting its own tail. The Ouroboros is also seen in Fon or Dahomean iconography as well as in Yoruba imagery as Oshunmare.

It is a common belief among indigenous people of the tropical lowlands of South America that waters at the edge of the world-disc are encircled by a snake, often an anaconda, biting its own tail.[19] The Kirtimukha myth of Hindu tradition has been compared by some authors to Ouroboros.[20]


The band Gojira has a song named Oroborus in their album "The Way of All Flesh"

The figure of the Magician (Suit of Trumps, card 1) in the 1909 Rider-Waite-Smith deck, the deck upon which most modern Tarot decks are based, features an ouroboros at his waist instead of a belt.

In the 1984 film The NeverEnding Story, Bastion is given a magical medallion that resembles two Ouroboros entangled.

In the television series Red Dwarf, episode "Ouroboros", the word Ouroboros gives Dave Lister the clue that, through time travel, he is his own father.

The homunculi in the series "Fullmetal Alchemist" all have an Ouroboros tattoo somewhere on their body, representing the neverending circle the homunculi are in, where they can never die, but aren't really alive either.

In Robert Jordan's "The Wheel of Time" series, this symbol is used by Aes Sedai, as a ring (depicted as a serpent eating its own tail. It is worn by all Aes Sedai and Accepted.

The ouroboros appears on the cover and page 49 of The Human Core of Spirituality (State University of New York Press, 1996) by Daniel A. Helminiak. He interprets it as a symbol of consciousness in its two simultaneous and concomitant modes. In that the serpent does eat itself, koan-like the ouroboros suggests the nature of consciousness as conscious, as non-reflecting, as the subject’s awareness “of” or presence “to” him- or herself as the aware subject, fully one with self apart from all subject-object duality; and in that the serpent in physical reality could never succeed in eating itself, the ouroboros suggests the inanity of understanding consciousness, as is most commonly done, as only intentional, reflecting, ever directed toward some object and essentially defined by such engagement—thus, precipitating an irresolvable epistemological “problem of the bridge” in a subject-object dualism.[original research?]

The "Ouroboros Society" is depicted in the novel, "The Eternal Ones" (2010) by Kirsten Miller.

Uroboros is a virus in the videogame Resident Evil 5 that the main antagonist, Albert Wesker attempts to release into the world.

In the TV series Millennium (FOX, 1996–1999, c. Chris Carter) the ouroboros is used for the title image, and as the symbol for the fictional Millennium Group.

In the MMO game City of Heroes, Ouroboros is a zone where players can revisit missions or play missions that have otherwise become inaccessible during regular play via time travel. The zone is the headquarters for the Menders of Ouroboros.

In the manga Psyren the Ouroboros is a planet eating comet which is called to earth by the antagonist Mithra.

In the TV series Tiger & Bunny (Sunrise/T&B Partners MBS) Ouroboros is the name of the crime syndicate that killed Barnaby's parents.

Ouroboros was the name of the regional effigy from Austin, TX that was burned at the 2011 Burning Man festival in Nevada. It was a wooden structure, depicting the snail eating its tail.

Ouroboros is a 10th track on the album The Bedlam in Goliath by the band The Mars Volta.

The Ouroboros is used for the design of the Goldman Prize trophy.

Uroborus is the final boss in the video game Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm. He is constantly threatening to end all human life and is re-sealed away every time he's freed in an endless cycle.


  • The organic chemist August Kekulé claimed that a ring in the shape of Ouroboros that he saw in a dream inspired him in his discovery of the structure of the benzene ring.[21]
  • In 2009 a West Sussex snake owner found that his pet snake had tried to digest its own tail, becoming a real life ouroboros before a veterinarian separated the snake's tail from its mouth.[22][23]

See also


  1. ^ Greek Οὐροβόρος or οὐρηβόρος, from οὐροβόρος ὄφις "tail-devouring snake", also spelled Uroborus, pronounced /jʊərɵˈbɒrəs/ or /ɔˈrɒbɔrəs/ in English
  2. ^ a b Carlos M. N. Eire (21 October 2009). A very brief history of eternity. Princeton University Press. p. 29. ISBN 9780691133577. http://books.google.com/books?id=vhE0AHdBmxUC&pg=PA29. Retrieved 25 April 2011. 
  3. ^ Neumann, Erich. (1995). The Origins and History of Consciousness. Bollington series XLII: Princeton University Press. Originally published in German in 1949.
  4. ^ Hornung, Erik; Lorton, David (1999). The ancient Egyptian books of the afterlife, p. 78. ISBN 9780801485152. "The head and the feet of the huge divine figure are each surrounded by an ouroboros-serpent, which in each case is called Mehen; this is the earliest known representation of the ouroboros, and the entire figure, with its captions, refers to the genesis and the end of time."
  5. ^ a b Bernal, Martin (2006). Black Athena: the Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization, p. 468. ISBN 9780813536552. "...identification of Atum with serpents...Further on...Hornung relates the Oroboros to Apopis, the evil serpent who attacks the sun every day and is daily defeated by Ra and Horus." "Hornung presents the Ouroboros as set on two lions, indications of Atum." p.669.
  6. ^ K. van der Toorn, Bob Becking, Pieter Willem van der Horst (1999). Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible 2nd edition, p. 121. ISBN 9789004111196.
  7. ^ Ellis, Normandi (1995) Dreams of Isis: A Woman's Spiritual Sojourn p. 128. ISBN 9780835607124. "They are the double aspects of Atum as depicted by the ouroboros....Long a symbol of unified beginning and end, the ouroboros who creates the universe also devours it....He is Atum."
  8. ^ Plato, Timaeus, 33; translated by Benjamin Jowett [1]; (original text at Perseus)
  9. ^ Bayley, Harold S. New Light On the Renaissance. Kessinger, 1909. Page 24.
  10. ^ e.g. Place, Robert M. The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination. Penguin, 2005. p 21
  11. ^ van Buren, Anne H. and Edmunds, Sheila. Fifteenth Century Playing Cards and Manuscripts. The Art Bulletin, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Mar., 1974), pp. 12-30. See watermark on p 15 of the article, and cf. Bayley 24-27, 45.
  12. ^ Waite, Arthur Edward. The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Rider, 1909.
  13. ^ Wilson, Robert Anton and Shea, Robert. The Illuminatus Trilogy. Dell, 1975.
  14. ^ http://www.crystalinks.com/mithraism.html
  15. ^ http://altreligion.about.com/od/symbols/a/faravahar.htm
  16. ^ Not a full reference, but corroborating: http://www.crystalinks.com/ouroboros.html
  17. ^ Carl Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 14 para. 513
  18. ^ Spike, John T.. "The Italians : Three Centuries of Italian Art / Allegory of human life". National Gallery of Australia. http://nga.gov.au/theitalians/Detail.cfm?IRN=161279&ViewID=2. Retrieved 2011-02-21. 
  19. ^ Roe, Peter 1986 The Cosmic Zygote, Rutgers University Press
  20. ^ The Theosophical Society - The Predator, turning back on itself
  21. ^ Ribeiro, S.; Simões, C.; Nicolelis, M. (2008). "Genes, Sleep and Dreams". In David Lloyd and Ernest L. Rossi. Ultradian Rhythms from Molecules to Mind. Springer Netherlands. doi:10.1007/978-1-4020-8352-5_17. ISBN 978-1-4020-8352-5. 10.1007/978-1-4020-8352-5_17. 
  22. ^ Snake in a bind after eating its own tail By Claire Bates, Daily Mail
  23. ^ Snake in a bind after eating its own tail, By Waleed Fakhroo, Lite News

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