"'Ouroboros' is a Greek word meaning 'tail-devouring,'" Richard P. Martin, Antony and Isabelle Raubitschek professor in Classics at Stanford University, explains via email. While the image of a snake with its tail in its mouth can be found in tomb paintings and on small objects dating all the way back to the time of Tutankhamun, who reigned from 1333 to 1323 B.C.E., Martin says the ouroboros picked up steam in the era known as Late Antiquity — in this case, approximately the 4th or 5th centuries C.E.
But even during this period, there were only a few abbreviated Greek and Latin allusions to the image. "Maybe there was a continuous tradition passed down for those thousands of years in between, one transmitted from Egypt to Greece and Rome," Martin says. "Most likely, what happened was a kind of guesswork by much later ancient people looking at much earlier pictures and speculating on what they meant. And the speculation still continues."
Even the original Egyptian meaning of the ouroboros is hotly debated in academia, according to Martin, with some scholars arguing that the later interpretations were probably not what the original Egyptian contexts contained. So, in short, the origin of the self-eating snake is still somewhat ambiguous.
Even though the ouroboros popped up in ancient Greece, Martin says the symbol is not a significant part of any specific myth and it's not directly associated with any particular god or goddess. "It exists as a floating symbol, with no known story (besides what we might guess at concerning Egyptian associations," he says. "This happens, although pretty rarely, in the realm of mythology. It's closer to the sort of handed-down ore and allegories attached to the legendary phoenix (also a tale first associated with Egypt)."
What Does the Ouroboros Symbolize?
If the origin of the ouroboros is a mystery, what it represents is even more of an enigma. "What it originally symbolized is pretty much a matter of educated reconstructions — we don't know for sure," Martin says. "Yet what it is taken to symbolize now ranges all over the place, from ideas of eternity to regeneration and destruction and even recycling."
Martin says some speculate the ouroboros may have begun as a symbol for the Egyptian sun god, Ra. "This complex of myths was extremely important as it connected with further beliefs about the nature of time and the cosmos, the rise and fall of the Nile, and life after death," he says. But there are also theories that ouroboros is tied to other Egyptian gods, like the sky goddess, Nut. "In some pictures, where she is arched over almost into a circle and shown giving birth to the sun in the East and then consuming it at day's end, looks a bit like the ouroboros circling around the earth or around figures of divinities, in other depictions," Martin says. "But the texts in Egyptian never explicitly say what is going on with this self-consuming snake."
In the Western world, the ouroboros picked up popularity around the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance thanks to two particular traditions, Martin says: alchemy and emblems. "The first was a body of semi-scientific lore and practices aimed at turning lower substances (like lead) into higher (like gold)," he says. "Alchemists adopted the ouroboros as the symbol of the nature of the universe. One of their dogmas was 'one is all'; in other words, all of nature is interconnected and interchangeable. So the wrap-around endless snake seemed fitting."
Martin says that much of the ideas in alchemy leaned on semi-mystical interpretations of Plato's philosophy while Renaissance scholars also pulled from the school of Neoplatonic thought. "One of them, Marsilio Ficino of Florence, in the 15th century refers to the Egyptian ouroboros as a symbol for the nature of time itself," Martin says. "Pumping up the ouroboros boom, a few decades before Ficino's birth, an Italian traveler discovered in a Greek island monastery a manuscript about Egyptian hieroglyphs that was a distant copy of a treatise written in Greek by an author called Horapollo, who lived in the 5th century C.E. in Egypt. The manuscript was brought back to Florence (where it still remains). Horapollo claims that the ouroboros was one of these pictures in the Egyptian writing system, and that it meant 'world.'"
Symbolism played a major role in the Renaissance and Martin says people "devoured so-called 'emblem' books that had just such tidbits of knowledge (and Aesop's fables and all kinds of other lore) printed alongside woodcuts of the objects or symbols being interpreted." Through these books, a much wider audience came to discover the ouroboros image and centuries later, psychologists like C.G. Jung ended up discussing the ouroboros as "some sort of deep archetype in human consciousness," Martin says. "But many of these meanings were just arbitrarily layered on through those years of earlier reception of an enigmatic autophagous ('self-eating') snake."
And as for its popularity among the tattoo community? Oakland ink artist and owner of OTattoo Studio, Sirimontra (aka @avantgarde.ink on Instagram), says she understands the fascination. "It's a frequent image that many have a connection with," she says via email. "A symbol of renewal and rebirth much like moths or Phoenix. I decided instead of giving my studio name, it would be a circle, to represent the cycle of life and faith in its process, there is nothing to rise above if nothing to rise against. It is a world of chaos that need all of its ever-changing personalities to make up the physical experience."
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Now That's Interesting
While the ouroboros is often pictured as a snake, it can also take the form of a dragon devouring its own tail. Artist M.C. Escher put his signature touch on this symbol in his 1952 piece, "Dragon."
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