The archetypal power of the circle cannot be overestimated. This is a symbol that is hardwired into our consciousness from before even birth. As a symbol of eternity, wholeness and completion it resonates with a higher aspect that lies within each of us.
In the Ouroboros, we find this divine archetype combined with the snake, the symbol of wisdom, creative life force and transformation.
Although likely a much older symbol, the first evidence of the Ouroboros comes from Egypt in 1400 BC in ‘The Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld’, a funerary text discovered in the tomb of the young Pharoah Tutankhamen.
The text includes sections from what modern scholars call ‘The Egyptian Book of the Dead’ and was to act as a guide for the Pharaoh upon his passing.
The inclusion of the symbol here, two snakes depicted with their tails in their mouths, may well relate to reincarnation and the cyclical nature of time as well as the final return of the soul to a higher plane of being.
The first snake encircles the head and chest while the second snake surrounds the feet of a figure possibly representing the unified Ra-Osiris (Osiris born again as Ra). The two snakes may also be associated with the Ida and Pingala, the channels of serpent fire in our nervous system, here brought into a closed circuit in the perfected being.
Given its modern name of Ouroboros (‘tail eater’) by the Greeks, the symbol was also important to the later Gnostics and is alluded to in mythologies throughout the world, most notably in the Norse cycle of tales. It is also sometimes connected to the Milky Way, ‘the serpent of light’.
In a universal sense, the act of the snake eating its own tail can be understood on a number of levels.
Firstly, there is the material or corporeal level. That of nature continually feeding on itself, giving birth to itself again. In this we can see the cycle of reincarnation and Karma, a closed loop of duality.
But the Ouroboros also embodies a higher octave of meaning which we find in alchemy.
The 2nd century hermetic text ‘Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra’ was attributed to Cleopatra the Alchemist of Alexandria (not the famous queen). This mysterious work includes an illustration of the Ouroboros which is half black and half white, probably signifying stages of the Great Work, Nigredo and Albedo, and possibly channeling the Yin and Yang symbol in another respect.
The document contains the words ‘All is One’ and the meaning of the word Chrysopoeia itself (khrusos ‘gold’ and poiein ‘to make’) gives a clue as to the deeper meaning of the symbolism.
The 19th century Hermeticist Mary Ann Atwood put it beautifully when she wrote: “Our life goes forth into a line at present, it has to be taken up into a circle; in other words life has to be taken back into its first source; the serpent with his tail in his mouth is the chosen illustration of this reduction of the linear into the circular life.”
In other words, in this higher octave of the Ouroboros we have one of the keys of alchemy, the reversal of the Fall within the microcosm.
This powerful concept can also be found in the words of the Anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner. Speaking on reincarnation during one of his many lectures he said:
“The mystic symbol of the snake that bites its own tail is a familiar one. This symbol has several profound meanings but among the many interpretations it contains is the one expressed here in the golden rule… If reincarnation is a fact, then certain efforts made by man that have an effect on his soul cannot be made in vain, but should become the soul’s nature later on.
“One of the great laws of man that must be intimately tried out on his own self, is expressed in an ancient Indian text, ‘What you think today you will be tomorrow.’ He who believes in reincarnation must realize that a quality that he develops within himself, a thought that he imprints in himself by constantly holding it in his mind, becomes something permanent in his soul that will emerge ever again.
“Therefore, a person seeking mystical development must first of all make the attempt to give up certain formerly held inclinations. Then, new inclinations must be acquired by constantly holding the thought of such inclinations, virtues or characteristics in one’s mind. They must be so incorporated into one’s being that a person becomes enabled to alter his soul by his own willpower. This must be tried as objectively as a chemical might be tested in an experiment.
“A person who has never endeavored to change his soul, who has never made the initial decision to develop the qualities of endurance, steadfastness and calm logical thinking, or a person who has made such decisions but has given up because he did not succeed in a week, a month, a year or a decade, will never determine anything within himself about these truths,” – Rudolf Steiner.
And here we find the true alchemy contained within the Ouroboros symbology, the serpent of light within.