One of the oldest symbols, the Ouroboros, the Greek word for ‘tail-devourer’, depicts a snake devouring its own tail in a full circle. Tail devouring is at once self destructive and self generating. The circle represents everything and the infinite.
The Ouroboros devours oneself and turn oneself into a circulatory process. A symbol of integration and assimilation of the opposite i.e. the shadow. This “feedback” process is a symbol of immortality – he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilises himself and gives birth to himself. It is therefore the prima materia of the alchemical process. This symbol has its origins in ancient Egypt signifying the eternal cycle of time, destruction, regeneration and renewal.
The circle refers to the primordial universe, the womb, the beginning, dawn of civilisation when there was nothing. In Chinese philosophy, an empty circle – Wuji translates as the ultimate and represents nothingness. The world begins from nothingness so the circle also represents the beginning of the world.
The serpent is used as a symbol across cultures, often to link to divinity. In fact, entwining serpents as a symbol like the caduceus existed across cultures. Its earliest incarnation could be traced back to the Sumerian civilisation as depicted on a vase offered to a Mesopotamian deity c. 2000 BC.
In the far East, the image of entwined snakes evokes this ancient painting depicts Nüwa and Fuxi. They are the original creators of the world and humanity according to ancient Chinese philosophy. Nüwa represents the Earth and Fuxi represents Heaven. This is depicted by the circles above and below the figure. The half-human, half-serpent figures intertwine signifying the unification of heaven and earth, the feminine and the masculine. divinity and humanity, reproduction and the creation of life.
Some has compared the shape of the entwined snakes to the double helix of the DNA, is this simply a coincidence? Or did the ancient people have sources of wisdom pertaining to the source of life?
In the next post, we will dig deeper into the serpent as a symbol and its representations across cultures.