Wondering what ouroboros means? We can help. Read on to discover our complete guide on the word ouroboros and how to use it.
You’re probably familiar with the yin-yang symbol (AKA Tai Chi symbol), but have you heard about the ouroboros? Known as the oldest allegorical symbol in alchemy, the ouroboros depicts a serpent eating its own tail — but what does it mean?
Read on to discover our complete guide on ouroboros where you’ll learn the origin behind this ancient symbol and more.
What Is the Definition of Ouroboros?
To truly understand the meaning of a word, it can be helpful to review multiple definitions as opposed to one. Below, you’ll find the definition of ouroboros pulled from three trusted English dictionaries:
- Dictionary.com says the ouroboros is an ancient symbol of a serpent or dragon eating its own tail, variously signifying the cycle of birth and death.
- According to the Collins Dictionary, ouroboros — or Uroboros — refers to an ancient mythical serpent or dragon used to symbolize perpetuity.
- The Oxford English Dictionary defines Uroboros as a circular symbol depicting a snake or dragon, swallowing its tail as an emblem of wholeness or infinity.
After reviewing the definitions listed above, we can conclude that the word ouroboros refers to a coveted symbol that features either a snake, serpent, or dragon consuming its own tail, thereby forming a circle.
What Is the Origin of Ouroboros?
Also known as the “paradoxical serpent,” the ouroboros is the most ancient symbol of alchemy and represents the circular process of the alchemist’s work. That said, where did it come from?
Our word of the day derives from two ancient Greek terms: “oura” and “boros.” In short, “oura” refers to tail while “boros” means eating. So, when we combine these two words, it results in the meaning “tail-devourer” or “tail eater.”
While ouroboros isn’t attested in English until sometime around the 1940s, the concept is very ancient and has been used across a number of cultures as a symbol of cosmic harmony, eternity, and the cycle of birth and death.
Although the history is a bit blurry, the earliest record of the ouroboros symbol comes from a religious text that was found in King Tut’s (Tutankhamen) tomb in Ancient Egypt in the 13th century BC. The famous symbol appears in a passage about the origin of the sun god Ra through a union with the death god Osiris.
In the 2nd century BCE, the ouroboros was adopted by Gnostic philosophers and symbolized the dual nature of existence, marked by life and death, light and dark, male and female, earth and heaven, or mortality and divinity.
Fast forward to the 20th century when psychotherapist Carl Jung viewed the ouroboros as a symbol of the human psyche. Jung claimed that the symbol represented the human ability to regenerate through self-reflection — just as a serpent sheds off old skin to become anew.
What Does the Ouroboros Symbolize?
Seeing as the ouroboros symbol is one of the oldest ancient Egyptian symbols in history, it’s no surprise that it has a number of meanings that come from a number of different cultures.
- To the Ancient Romans, the ouroboros symbolized infinity. They also associated it with the god Saturn who controlled the cycles of each year.
- In Norse mythology, the serpent Jörmungandr encircles the world with its tail in its mouth (ouroboros).
- The ancient Aztecs portrayed their god — Quetzalcoatl — as a serpent biting his own tail, as seen in the ancient ruins such as the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent.
- In Hinduism or Hindu mythology, the ouroboros forms part of the foundation upon which the Earth rests.
Other Famous Symbols
Now that you know all about the ouroboros, you might be interested in learning about other famous symbols. Here are some of the popular:
- Yin and Yang: a Chinese philosophical symbol that represents the interconnectedness of the world, particularly the natural world.
- Trinity Knot: a popular Celtic symbol that represents the Holy Trinity — the father, the son, and the spirit.
- Peace Sign: the universal symbol for peace.
- Anarchy: a symbol that stands for “society seeks order in anarchy.”
- All Seeing Eye: a symbol that represents divine providence, whereby the eye of God watches over humanity.
- Pentagram: a symbol that is commonly associated with Wicca, Masonry, and Satanism.
- Phoenix: a universally accepted symbol of the sun, rebirth, resurrection, and immortality.
- Labyrinth: a circular maze that was used as a symbol of power in ancient times.
- Ankh: a symbol that represents eternal life in Ancient Egypt.
- Eye of Horus: an ancient Egyptian symbol that represents protection and good health.
- Lotus Flower: a symbol that represents strength, resilience, and rebirth.
The ouroboros — or Uroboros — is an extremely coveted ancient symbol that depicts a serpent, snake, or dragon eating its own tail. It grew in popularity around the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance with alchemists later adopting the ouroboros as the ultimate symbol of the nature of the universe.
We hope our guide has provided you with a complete understanding of the word ouroboros. If you’d like to discover more interesting words and their definitions, head on over to our website where you’ll also find helpful tips and useful grammar tools.