Ouroboros, the World Serpent & Jörmungandr | Symbols from Folklore & Mythology
The depiction of a serpent or dragon consuming its own tail is an old one. A symbol of the cyclical nature of things - and linked to the end of the world and immortality - it's woven its way through time and across cultures for over a millennia.
Origins and influences
Originating in ancient Egyptian iconography, the Ouroboros first seems to appear in the Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld, found in the ancient tomb of Tutankhamun. The symbol persisted into Roman times, often appearing on magical talismans.
The World Serpent is thought to have found its way into Western culture through the Greek Magical Papyri - a body of writing containing a variety of magical spells. It was also adopted as a sign of Gnosticism and Hermiticism.
A famous depiction of the Ouroboros enclosing the words 'the all is one' features in The Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra, an early alchemical text. One of the oldest depictions of the world serpent, it is said to be linked to the Alchemist's goal of procuring the legendary Philosopher's Stone.
Gnostics considered the two ends of the ouroboros to be the divine and earthly in man, which, while being at odds with each another, existed in unison. A concept similar to that of the Chinese yin and yang.
The Ouroboros can be found more widespread still: In Hindu imagery it forms part of the foundations holding up Earth. Fans of the late and great Terry Pratchett's Discworld series may notice the similarities with this cosmogram image, depicting a tortoise supporting elephants upon which the Earth rests, enclosed by the serpent, Asootee.
In the Roman variant of Iranian Mithraism (the worship of the deity Mithra), Zurvan - a primordial entity symbolising ‘boundless time’- has an ouroboros entwined around his body, while the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl (a Mesoamerican deity from Aztec and Mayan mythology) is often depicted as an ouroboros.
Perhaps most famously, In Norse mythology, another example of the Ouroboros is Jörmungandr. Also known as the Midgard (world) serpent, Jörmungandr is a giant sea serpent and the child of the giantess Angrboða and Loki – the trickster of the Norse Gods.
According to the Prose Edda, Odin threw Jörmungandr into the great ocean that encircles the world. He grew so large that he surround Earth, grasping his own tail. It was said that if the World Serpent were to release its tail, Ragnarök (the end of the world) would begin.
A similar belief is held among the indigenous people of the tropical lowlands of South America, who say that the waters at the edge of the world are encircled by a snake biting its own tail.
Symbolism and meaning
Often, the Ouroboros is used as a symbol for the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth. The skin shedding of the serpent is said to symbolise the movement of the soul into another body after death, while a snake biting its own tail is considered a fertility symbol.
The Egyptians considered the Ouroboros to symbolise the formless disorder surrounding the orderly world and it to be a sign linked with the world's periodic renewal, while Servius – a 4th-century AD Latin commentator - noted that it represented the cyclical nature of the year.
What’s evident, is that the symbol of the Ouroboros is one which has left its mark upon the long, diverse and changing histories of humankind. An illustration of the cyclical, changing nature of time, it's a symbol that has endured much change itself; being reborn with different meanings, to different cultures, at different moments across a millennia.