The Ouroboros, also spelled Ourorboros, Oroborus, Uroboros or Uroborus (pronounced /ˌjʊəroʊˈbɒrəs/ or /ʊˈrɒbɔrɔs/), is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon swallowing its own tail and forming a circle. It has been used to represent many things over the ages, but it most generally symbolizes ideas of cyclicality, unity, or infinity. The ouroboros has been important in religious and mythological symbolism, but has also been frequently used in alchemical illustrations. More recently, it has been interpreted by psychologists, such as Carl Jung, as having an archetypical significance to the human psyche.
The name ouroboros (or, in Latinized form, uroborus) is Greek ουροβóρος, "tail-devourer". The depiction of the serpent is believed to have been inspired by the Milky Way, as some ancient texts refer to a serpent of light residing in the heavens. 
Plato described a self-eating, circular being as the first living thing in the universe — an immortal, perfectly constructed animal.
- "The living being had no need of eyes when there was nothing remaining outside him to be seen; nor of ears when there was nothing to be heard; and there was no surrounding atmosphere to be breathed; nor would there have been any use of organs by the help of which he might receive his food or get rid of what he had already digested, since there was nothing which went from him or came into him: for there was nothing beside him. Of design he was created thus, his own waste providing his own food, and all that he did or suffered taking place in and by himself. For the Creator conceived that a being which was self-sufficient would be far more excellent than one which lacked anything; and, as he had no need to take anything or defend himself against any one, the Creator did not think it necessary to bestow upon him hands: nor had he any need of feet, nor of the whole apparatus of walking; but the movement suited to his spherical form was assigned to him, being of all the seven that which is most appropriate to mind and intelligence; and he was made to move in the same manner and on the same spot, within his own limits revolving in a circle. All the other six motions were taken away from him, and he was made not to partake of their deviations. And as this circular movement required no feet, the universe was created without legs and without feet."
This, however, probably refers to the outermost planetary sphere rather than to any form of serpent.
In some representations the serpent is shown as half light and half dark, echoing symbols such as the Yin Yang, which illustrates the dual nature of all things, but more importantly, that these opposites are not in conflict. In alchemy, the ouroboros symbolises the circular nature of the alchemist's opus, which unites the opposites: the conscious and unconscious mind. It is also often associated with Gnosticism, and Hermeticism.
The Ouroboros often represents self-reflexivity or cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself, the eternal return, and other things perceived as cycles that begin anew as soon as they end (See Phoenix (mythology)). It can also represent the idea of primordial unity. The Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann writes of it as a representation of the pre-ego "dawn state", depicting the undifferentiated infancy experience of both mankind and the individual child.
The ouroboros has several meanings interwoven into it. Foremost is the symbolism of the serpent biting, devouring, eating its own tail. This symbolises the cyclic Nature of the Universe: creation out of destruction, Life out of Death. The ouroboros eats its own tail to sustain its life, in an eternal cycle of renewal.
The Ouroboros could very well be used to symbolize the closed-system model of the universe of some physicists. The organic chemist August Kekulé claimed that a ring in the shape of Ouroboros that he saw in a dream inspired him in his discovery of the structure of benzene. As noted by Carl Jung, this might be an instance of cryptomnesia.
The notion of a serpent or dragon eating its own tail can be traced back to Ancient Egypt, circa 1600 BC. From ancient Egypt it passed to Phoenicia and then to the Greek philosophers, who gave it the name Ouroboros ("tail-devourer").
In Norse mythology, it appears as the serpent Jörmungandr, one of the three children of Loki and Angrboda, who grew so large that it could encircle the world and grasp its tail in its teeth. In the legends of Ragnar Lodbrok, such as Ragnarssona þáttr, the Geatish king Herraud gives a small lindorm as a gift to his daughter Þóra Town-Hart after which it grows into a large serpent which encircles the girl's bower and bites itself in the tail. The serpent is slain by Ragnar Lodbrok who marries Þóra. Ragnar later has a son with another woman named Kráka and this son is born with the image of a white snake in one eye. This snake encircled the iris and bit itself in the tail, and the son was named Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye.
In Gnosticism, this serpent symbolized eternity and the soul of the world.
Christianity adopted the ouroboros as a symbol of the limited confines of the material world (that there is an "outside" being implied by the demarcation of an inside), and the self-consuming transitory nature of a mere "worldly existence" of this world, following in the footsteps of the preacher in Ecclesiastes 3:9-14. G. K. Chesterton, in The Everlasting Man, uses it as a symbol of the circular and self-defeating nature of pantheistic mysticism and of most modern philosophy.
Snakes are sacred animals in many West African religions. The demi-god Aidophedo uses the image of a serpent biting its own tail. The ouroboros is also seen in fon or dahomean iconography as well as in yoruba imagery as Oshunmare.
The flag of the short-lived Italian Regency of Carnaro featured the Ouroboros on it.
In alchemy, the ouroboros is a purifying sigil. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung saw the ouroboros as an archetype and the basic mandala of alchemy. Jung also defined the relationship of the ouroboros to alchemy:
The alchemists, who in their own way knew more about the nature of the individuation process than we moderns do, expressed this paradox through the symbol of the ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. ouroboros, has been said to have a meaning of infinity or wholeness. In the age-old image of the ouroboros lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself. The ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This 'feed-back' process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilises himself and gives birth to himself. He symbolises the One, who proceeds from the clash of opposites, and he therefore constitutes the secret of the prima materia which [...] unquestionably stems from man's unconscious.
The famous ouroboros drawing from the early alchemical text The Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra dating to 2nd century Alexandria encloses the words hen to pan, "one, the all", i.e. "All is One". Its black and white halves represent the Gnostic duality of existence.
As a symbol of the eternal unity of all things, the cycle of birth and death from which the alchemist sought release and liberation, it was familiar to the alchemist/physician Sir Thomas Browne. In his A letter to a friend, a medical treatise full of case-histories and witty speculations upon the human condition, he wrote of it:
[...] that the first day should make the last, that the Tail of the Snake should return into its Mouth precisely at that time, and they should wind up upon the day of their Nativity, is indeed a remarkable Coincidence,
It is also alluded to at the conclusion of Browne's The Garden of Cyrus (1658) as a symbol of the circular nature and Unity of the two Discourses:
All things began in order so shall they end, so shall they begin again according to the Ordainer of Order and the mystical mathematicks of the City of Heaven.
Appearance in popular culture
- In Sony Computer Entertainment's Legend of Dragoon video game, you fight a dragon-like creature called "Uroboros".
- In the television series Red Dwarf, Dave Lister is placed inside a box with the word "Ouroboros" on it; in this case, "Ouroboros" reflects a cyclical aspect of Lister's existence, as by a time paradox he is his own father. It was thought at one time that his parents couldn't decide whether to call him "our Rob" or "Ross".
- The Ouroborus appears in the anime series Noein as the Dragon Torque, an entity that can manipulate time-spaces.
- The "Circle of Ouroboros" is the leading council of the fictitious "Time Corps" organization, which appears in Robert A. Heinlein's Future History novels most notably including To Sail Beyond the Sunset.
- In the television series The X-Files, Dana Scully gets an ouroboros tattoo in the episode "Never Again". This was something of an in-joke, as Chris Carter's Millennium featured the ouroboros in its title card.
- In the Sci-Fi series The Invisible Man, the main character gets an ouroboros tattoo that indicates how long he can remain invisible without suffering from side effects.
- In the anime and manga series Fullmetal Alchemist, the Ouroboros symbol as a tattoo was used to identify the homonculi. The symbol's meaning in the show was "No beginning and no end", that is, eternity.
- On the cover of the Vulture Culture album by The Alan Parsons Project, there is a clear depiction of an Ouroboros, albeit with the head of a vulture, eating its own tail. This represents the artist's depiction of a culture that is devouring itself with greed.
- In Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, Kurt states "What is time? it is a snake which eats its own tail, like this." It then contains a drawing of the ouroboros.
- Neil Peart's (of Rush) drum kit for the Snakes & Arrows Tour features the ouroboros on the drum shells and heads.
- In The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, a symbol which incorporates the Ourobouros and the Chinese Yin-Yang symbol appears as the Auryn both on the cover of the book, and worn by Atreyu and Bastian as a pendant throughout their travels. The Auryn depicts two snakes, one silver, the other gold, intertwined and biting each other's tails.
- In the James Bond novel Live and Let Die, Mr. Big uses a company front known as "Ourobouros" that supposedly deals with bait and rare fish trade to cover up his gold-smuggling schemes.
- In The Wheel of Time saga by Robert Jordan, the reprinted covers of his books depict an ouroboros serpent coiled in a figure of eight around a wheel, which represents the world's on-going cycle of time. Additionally, the ring of the Aes Sedai is a snake swallowing its tail, presumably because of the aforementioned on-going cycle of time of the world.
- In the MMORPG City of Heroes, Ouroboros is a mysterious organization that uses time travel to "fix" the timeline and recruits players to help them by sending them into the past and into possible futures in order to change the outcome and learn how it changed. The organization's symbol is a stylized infinity symbol turned into a sort of ouroboros by the addition of a head.
- In the film Adaptation., Charlie Kaufman and his brother Donald discuss the Ouroboros and Charlie finishes by saying that he is the Ouroboros.
- In the Lost TV Series, a guest character named Ms. Hawking wears a pin with an Ouroboros figure on it.
- The Mars Volta have a song (incorrectly) spelled "Ouroborous" on their 2008 album The Bedlam In Goliath.
- In Capcom's Megaman X video game, two sea-serpent mid-bosses appear in Launch Octopus' stage, their name 'Utoboros' is a pun on Ouroboros.
- Anarcho punk band Crass (and their label Crass Records) used a double headed Ouroboros in their logo. It appeared in all their artwork, sleeves, record releases and posters.
- In Capcom's Megaman Zero 2 video game, is a boss called Hewleg Ourobockle, a pun on Ouroboros, which, as stated in the Japanese manual, is also the name of the Snake Mechaniloid that you fight the boss on.
- In Capcom's Megaman ZX Advent video game, the true completed form of Model W is also referred to as the Ourobouros.
- The plot of the book The Worm Ouroboros by Eric Rücker Eddison is based on cyclic events.
- In the Warhammer 40K universe, the Thousand Sons Chaos Space Marine legion uses the Ouroboros as their post heresy symbol
- In the anime television series Noein, the Ouroboros symbol appears acting as a gate which alters the time-space continuum as well and creates a passage between multiple quantum universes.
- In The Riddles of Epsilon by Christine Morton-Shaw a chant mentioning the Ouroboros is overheard.
- In the anime Katekyo Hitman Reborn, Mammon's (aka Viper's) pet frog can transform into a yellow salamander, and by biting its tail like an Ouroboros it allows Mammon to fly.
- In the Vampire: The Masquerade role-playing game by White Wolf Game Studios, the Ouroboros is the modern symbol of the Tzimisce Clan.
- American drone metal band Earth have a song called "Ouroboros Is Broken", which is one of their most popular songs.
- In the book The Sanctuary by Raymond Khoury the mystery of the Ouroboros symbol is the central topic.
- Strider Hiryu, a character from CAPCOM, uses a move/attack called Ouroboros.
- The band Throwdown has an Ouroboros symbol on the CD artwork of their album Venom and Tears.
- In the book Gravity's Rainbow Thomas Pynchon refers to chemist August Kekulé's claim that a ring in the shape of Ouroboros that he saw in a dream inspired him in his discovery of the structure of benzene.
- The graphic novel series Bone has a character known as Mim that was an Ouroboros before a malevolent spirit took over her mind.
- Also the symbol of the Yale University senior secret society, Book and Snake, many of which are sculpted onto the building's surrounding gate.
- In Square's 1998 RPG video game Xenogears, the final story-related fight is with a large snakelike creature called Urobolos, which is a being passed down through all generations of human females genetically.
- The album Scandinavian Leather by Norwegian death punk band Turbonegro features a skull Ouroboros designed by Klaus Voorman.
- In the Soul Calibur video game series, the Soul Edge of the character Tira resembles an Ouroboros.
- In the anime JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Cream, the stand of Vanilla Ice, consumes himself feet first like the Ouroboros dragon to create a void that disintegrates and sends anything in its path to another dimension.
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