In modern times, the Ouroboros, the serpent swallowing (gr. bor-) its own tail (gr. oura), was popularized by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who took the imagery and name from achemical works. For him, the meaning was one of circularity (rightly enough), and the real referent was the human being, which “individuates” by re-integrating its “shadow” into itself. This, to be blunt, is not what the symbol meant to anyone prior to Jung, and if there is any ancient wisdom, this interpretation leads us away from, not towards it.
On this page, I will not reveal the true meaning of the serpent swallowing its own tail either, because there is no such thing. Rather, if Kmēf aid me, I will show the diversity of meanings generated by the interaction of curious thinkers with a suggestive ancient Egyptian symbol.
2 Origin and early use of the imagery
The earliest known appearance of the classical figure – a snake biting its own tail, with the body forming a circle and the head/tail at the top of the circle – is in the so-called Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld as written and illustrated on a golden shrine in the tomb of Tutankhamun. Coming after the iconographically very distinct and restrictive period Amarna period, this motif is part of “a veritable flood of new visual ideas and an explosion of iconographic creativity” in the post-Amarna period, as Jan Assmann writes (in the article Ouroboros. The Ancient Egyptian Myth of the Journey of the Sun, which also includes an image of said shrine image as fig. 6; also see fig. 34 of Reemes’ dissertation, cited below). One such serpentine circle surrounds the head, one the feet of a mummiform figure that may be Rē–Osiris. The serpent is thought to be Mḥn, ‘the coiled one’ (conventionally called Mehen), who also appears in various other shapes (spiralled, etc.) in Egyptian funeral texts.
In the 10th century BCE, again according to Assmann, a different configuration appears. To focus only on those elements which retain currency into the Roman imperial period, it features the serpent (presumably Mḥn) enveloping a red-colored solar disk, within which sits the god Sun (Rē) in the form of a child. The two hands to either side of the serpent belong to the goddess Nwt (Heaven), and are extrinsic to the serpentine icon.
However, in his powerful 2015 dissertation The Egyptian Ouroboros: An Iconological and Theological Study, Dana Michael Reemes has cautioned that such images do not represent “a distinct and unique symbol” “in the inventory of Egyptian symbolism”, and do not represent the solar year or eternity, as had generally been claimed (p. ii). “[T]he icon was never a discrete symbol in Egypt, but rather a possible variant amongst related iconography that might convey similar meanings […] primarily […] the idea of protective enclosure” (p. iii).
In a literal sense, Reemes’ claim is clearly wrong, since the serpent biting its tail did become a distinct iconographical symbol in late antique Egypt. But his argument that there was no specific Egyptian term for the image, as earlier scholars thought they had found in the expression sd-m-rꜣ, seems conclusive. He also rightly points out that depictions of Mḥn either biting his tail or not vary freely, without apparent difference in meaning – while on the other hand, virtually identical depictions can carry different meaning (e.g., depicting the destructive Apophis instead of the protective Mḥn). As such, “to look for the ouroboros […] in the Egyptian material” is indeed a mistake, if by “Egyptian” we mean only pre-Hellenistic Egypt.
+Reemes, p. 90;223fff; 296-315; Mḥn no longer used later? Protection+eternity not mutually exclusive
3 As iconography or hieroglyph
Name? Reemes p. 303
Reemes figs. 116-118, 122-125
Horapollo: oura-, ophi-
Other discussions like Philo of Byblos, Porphyry
Martianus Capella, Servius, Claudian
CH 8: „4. This undifferentiated state exists in respect of earthly beings. The bodies of the celestials have one order which was assigned to them by the Father in the beginning; and this indestructible order is kept unbroken by the periodic return of each body in the cosmic cycle. Within that cycle earthly bodies are formed, returned and dissolved into bodies that are indestructible, that is immortal. Thus there is deprivation of the senses but no destruction of bodies.“
Cf. Kronos (Servius; Sallustius?)
-Great Dragon of the Outer Darkness: 102, 105, 106, 126(!), 127, 131(!), 146
4 In “magic” or practical priestcraft
Gems, PGM 12.274, etc.
5 In alchemy
Olympiodorus seems almost to quote Horus Apollon?
Theophrastus: ouran esthiei pasan
(?)Zosimus, Stephanus, De magna et sacra arte 2.214
“For this mystery is the serpent biting its tail (ho ourobóros drákōn), that is, the mixture is consumed and melted down, levigated(?) and altered in fermentation. And it becomes dark olive-colored, and from it is produced ‘gold flower’ (khrysánthion); and from it (in turn) is produced cinnabar-like red, as they say, and this is the cinnabar of the philosophers.
“Its belly and back is saffron-colored; and the head is dark olive-colored; its four feet are the four-metal alloy (tetrasōmía); and its three ears are the three vapors.
“One bleeds (? haimeteúei) the other; and one produces the other. Nature gladdens nature, and nature delights nature; nature conquers nature, and nature rules nature; and not as one and another, but one itself from itself by arrangement, with labor and much toil.
“But grasp the meaning in these things, my dearest, and do not go wrong; but by contending earnestly and without carelessness, you may investigate it to the end.
“A certain serpent is laid up guarding this temple and […] ”
Τοῦτο γάρ ἐστιν τὸ μυστήριον ὁ οὐροβόρος δράκων, τουτέστι συμφαγώνεται καὶ συγχωνεύεται, λειώνεται καὶ μεταλλάττεται τὸ σύνθεμα ἐν τῇ σήψει· καὶ γίνεται μελάγχλωρον, καὶ ἐξ αὐτοῦ γίγ- νεται χρυσάνθιον· καὶ ἐξ αὐτοῦ γίνεται ἐρυθρὸν κινναβαρίζον, ὥς φησιν, καὶ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ κιννάβαρις τῶν φιλοσόφων.
Ἡ δὲ κοιλία καὶ ὁ νῶτος αὐτοῦ κροκοειδής· καὶ ἡ κεφαλὴ μελάγχλωρος· οἱ τέσσαρες αὐτοῦ πόδες ἐστὶν ἡ τετρασωμία· τὰ δὲ τρία ὦτα αὐτοῦ εἰσιν αἱ τρεῖς αἰθάλαι.
Καὶ ἓν τὸ ἄλλο αἱματεύει· καὶ ἓν τὸ ἄλλο γεννᾷ· καὶ ἡ φύσις τὴν φύσιν χαίρει, καὶ ἡ φύσις τὴν φύσιν τέρπει, καὶ ἡ φύσις τὴν φύσιν νικᾷ, καὶ ἡ φύσις τὴν φύσιν κρατεῖ· καὶ οὐχ ἑτέρᾳ καὶ ἑτέ- ρᾳ, ἀλλ‘ αὐτῆ μιᾷ ἐξ αὐτῆς δι‘ οἰκονομίας, μετὰ πόνου καὶ μόχθου πολλοῦ.
Σὺ δὲ ἐν τούτοις ἔχε τὸν νοῦν, ὦ φίλτατε, καὶ οὐχ ἁμαρτήσεις· ἀλλὰ σπουδαίως <οὐκ> ἐν ἀμελείᾳ ἀγωνιζόμενος, ἕως τὸ πέρας ἴδῃς.
Δράκων τις παράκειται φυλάττων τὸν ναὸν τοῦτον <καὶ> τὸν χειρωσάμενον. Πρῶτον θῦσον καὶ ἀποδερμάτωσον, καὶ λαβὼν τοὺς σάρκας αὐτοῦ ἕως τῶν ὀστέων, πρὸς τὸ στόμιον τοῦ ναοῦ ποίησον αὐτῷ βάσεις, καὶ ἀνάβηθι, καὶ εὑρήσεις ἐκεῖ τὸ ζητούμενον χρῆμα· τὸν γὰρ ἱερέα τὸν χαλκάνθρωπον μετετέθη τοῦ χρώματος τῆς φύσεως, καὶ γέγονεν ἀργυράνθρωπος· ὃν μετ‘ ὀλίγας οὖν ἡμέρας, ἐὰν θελήσεις, εὑρήσεις αὐτὸν καὶ χρυσάνθρωπον.
“This mystery is the serpent bitings its tail, that is, the levigation of the metals (sṓmata) by this work. The lights of the mystery of the art is its yellowing; the green color is its refinement, that is, its fermentation; its four feet are the four-metal alloy of the art of its mixture; its three ‘handles’ are the three vapors and the 12 mixtures; and its venom, that is vinegar.
“But grasp the meaning in these things, etc.”
Τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ μυστήριον ὁ οὐροβόρος δράκων, τουτέστιν ἡ λείωσις τῶν σωμάτων ‹ἐκ› τῆς ἐργασίας αὐτοῦ. Τὰ δὲ φῶτα τῶν μυστηρίων τῆς τέχνης αὐτοῦ ἡ ξάνθωσις. Τὸ δὲ πράσινον αὐτοῦ ἐστιν ἴωσις, τουτέστιν ἡ σῆψις αὐτοῦ· οἱ δὲ πόδες αὐτοῦ οἱ τέσσαρές εἰσιν ἡ τετρασωμία τῆς τέχνης τοῦ συνθέματος· τὰ δὲ τρία ὠτία αὐτοῦ εἰσιν αἱ τρεῖς αἰθάλαι καὶ τὰ ιβʹ συνθέματα· καὶ ὁ ἰὸς αὐτοῦ, τουτέστιν τὸ ὄξος.
Σὺ δὲ ἐν τούτοις τὸν νοῦν ἔχων, κ.τ.λ.
6 Some unrelated things that have been falsely connected to our serpent
Contra Celsum 6.25