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Ouroboros, The Infinity Symbol


Etymology of Ouroboros, the Infinity Symbol

The term ouroboros is derived from two words in ancient Greek language. The first word is “oura” which means “tail” and the second is “boros” which means “eating”. Combined, these two words give the meaning “he /it that eats his/its own tail” or “tail eater”.  A serpent eating its own tail has been depicted in different versions of the infinity symbol throughout the history.

There are a few interpretations regarding the meaning of ouroboros symbol. One of them suggests that the serpent in the symbol represents the cycle of life and death that the Universe maintains.

The snake eating its own tail simply represents the recreation of life through death by the Universe. It is interpreted as some kind of a rebirth of the dead reaching an immortality of sorts. Therefore, it is assumed that the infinity symbol was derived from the original symbol of ouroboros.

The Infinity Symbol in Different Cultures

Alchemists of the old ages were using the infinity symbol as a purifying glyph and they referred to it as “the name of the Great World Serpent surrounding the Earth”.  It also represented the element of mercury (which is known as an element that can run through any kind of matter).

Snakes being animals shedding off their old skin periodically in a cyclic manner to renew themselves/their physical existence is the perfect analogy for life being recreated out of death, in other words, for rebirth through death.

Representing “the unity of all” was another reason why the alchemists of the times considered the ouroboros symbol important.

In The Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra, one of the most important works written by alchemists during the earlier ages (the texts comprising the work in question were written in the 2nd century to be exact), ouroboros is depicted in black and white halves, just like the Yin-Yang symbol of eastern culture.

In addition to that, the words meaning “hen to pan” were used beside the symbol of serpent eating its own tail.

“Hen to pan” means “one is all”, “the one is the all”, e.g. unity of opposite sides of one’s being, the duality in one’s nature. Ouroboros the infinity symbol represents two different phenomena such as life and death which cannot exist without one another.

All beings are created/born out of/come from the nature, they exist and live by becoming a part of the nature. At the end, they return to the nature through death and become whole with it again until they are reborn in some different form.

The infinity symbol, Ouroboros, the snake eating its tail is depicted in this picture.

Ouroboros is a symbol which has been used widely in many different cultures throughout the world during the course of history.

In the Middle Eastern culture, Mithra, a divine being (or a God according to some beliefs), which was believed to be reborn, was sometimes depicted with an ouroboros around his waist or encircling his whole body.

In China, it was believed that the Universe was created by the union of the two opposites, the Earth and the Heaven. As two powerful realms, the Earth and the Heaven united to deliver the creation of the universe. This opinion goes in line with the Chinese belief suggesting that the union of the two opposites, light and darkness, produces creative energy.  Just like the symbol of Yin-Yang with the duality of opposite sides existing in harmony, the infinity symbol has also been used as a representation of unity in Chinese culture.

In the artworks of the ancient Hindu culture, the serpent in ouroboros symbol was depicted encircling the tortoise holding on its back the four elephants carrying the world.

In the North American culture, the infinity symbol was seen in some carvings in the ruins left behind by the Aztecs. Quetzalcoatl, “the feathered serpent God” of the ancient North American culture, was sometimes depicted as a serpent eating its own tail.

The sign and symbol of infinity, the Ouroboros dragon, serpent, snake is depicted in this picture.Ouroboros in Europe and Norse Mythology

In Europe, the infinity symbol was used more prominently in Norse mythology compared to other beliefs and cultures.

Jormungandr, the serpent child of Loki and Angrboda, grew into a size that it could eventually encircle earth and reach and devour its own tail.

Also, in one of the tales regarding Norse hero Ragnar Lothbrok, one of Ragnar’s wives, Pora Town-Hart is given a present, a small worm by her father, Herraud the Geatish King.

Growing very large, the worm becomes a snake and bites its tail. Ragnar Lothbrok kills the snake (The snake in question was also believed to be the protector of the Tree of Life in some of the stories).

Later, Ragnar has a son with another woman, Kraka (Aslaug), and their child has a white snake image surrounding the iris of one of his eyes. Just as the serpent slain by Ragnar, the snake in his eye bites its own tail. According to the story, this is why Ragnar named his son “Sigurd the Snake in the Eye”.

When it was used by the Egyptians for the first time in the history around 1600 B.C., ouroboros was considered as the symbol of the sun and it was believed to represent Aten’s travels (Aten is the sun disk in the Egyptian mythology).

Through Egyptians it was passed on to the Phoenician culture and through their relations with Phoenicians it was moved to the culture of Ancient Greek people, who named the infinity symbol in their language as it is used in the present day – ouroboros.

It is also believed that the Milky Way galaxy is the source of inspiration for the infinity symbol. Some of the myths regarding the infinity symbol tell us of a serpent of light living in Heaven. The Milky Way galaxy, which has the shape of a circle, was considered as the serpent in these myths.


21 Comments

  1. Laura George April 16, 2014 at 6:23 pm - Reply

    Can you tell me where you got permission to use the black and white ouroboros above. We would like get permission to use that image in a book and are looking for the owner. Many thanks – Laura George, Oracle Press

    • Met_Ozer May 19, 2014 at 8:20 pm - Reply

      Hello there, Laura. It is not always possible to find the copyright owner, although one might try very hard for it. I will e-mail you a few details for a detailed search though. Regards.

      • Tim Eck September 12, 2014 at 3:18 pm - Reply

        Could you please email me a few details too about the pictures to be used. Thanks

        • Met_Ozer September 29, 2014 at 8:01 am - Reply

          Hi Tim,
          I will definitely send you an e-mail with all the details regarding image searches. Glad to help.
          Regards

      • Emanuele Scialpi September 25, 2017 at 6:34 pm - Reply

        Hi. Could I use the image in my book? Send me the details of the owner, please. To scialpiantonio@ymail.com

        • Metin October 2, 2017 at 7:22 am - Reply

          Hi Emanuele, I tried hard but could not find the artist in question. So I do not have the information, forgive me.

  2. Chase Barron October 2, 2014 at 1:22 am - Reply

    Hi, third time is a charm. I am also seeking copyright owner permissions. Could you also forward me details? Thank you.

    • Met_Ozer March 25, 2015 at 4:17 am - Reply

      Hi Chase, of course I will e-mail you the details.

  3. Jay December 8, 2015 at 9:25 am - Reply

    Would you please send me the info too, I’m wanting to use symbols and copyright info would be very much appreciated if you don’t mind
    Thanks in advance

    • Met_Ozer February 16, 2016 at 5:58 am - Reply

      Hi Jay, sorry for replying so late. Sending you the info right now!

      • patt foad May 4, 2016 at 12:49 pm - Reply

        Hi Met, Would it be possible to send me the owner copright information of the snake image too? Many thanks

        • Metin May 6, 2016 at 4:46 am - Reply

          Hi Patt, unfortunately I do not have the copyright info for the image despite my dense efforts to find it. I will send you a little info about how you “may” find it for other images you might encounter.

  4. Anya April 8, 2016 at 5:44 am - Reply

    Hi thank you for the article. i was wondering if i may ask your opinion as you are an expert in the symbol, do you think is appropriate to use the ourobos as a sign for love and devotion towards someone?  I find some things that make me believe so, like in
     “Hen to pan” “one is all”, “the one is the all” i know is referring one as to “itself ” but one is all could be maybe thr person you consider your all is all.

    Or “Chinese belief suggesting that the union of the two opposites” can i interpret it as 2 different people that are opposites yet together?

    I read on another article ” It can also represent the idea of primordial unity related to something existing in or persisting from the beginning with such force or qualities it cannot be extinguished.” I think the my love for my husband is this way.

    I  hope you can shed some light to me im wanting to get a tattoo for my husband and i was thinking this could work but i do not want to misuse or use incorrectly the Ourobos. Many thanks in advance.
    I looj forward to your reply

    • Metin April 8, 2016 at 7:24 pm - Reply

      Hello there Anya, I will try to give some ideas as much as I can. The “hen to pan” angle is about the cycle of life and death, underlining that “all returns to where it comes from” and “something new which will also return to the origin point comes again from that ceases to exist”.

      Ouroboros is also used to symbolize the concepts of evil and good counterbalancing each other – which cannot exist without each other (or from another point of view, the existence of which cannot be determined without the existence of the other, e.g. we consider something bad because we know what goodness is). These two angles would not work that well into your idea. So, I would go for/think of a tattoo which would reflect the eternity/infinity of your love. That being said, just use the symbol without the dragon heads and/or scales, maybe. Just a simple idea, you might do a tatto something which includes the date when you first met him next to the infinity symbol (e.g. 23.4.2010 – ∞ ) or a beating heart engraved with the ouroboros and your initials, maybe. This “date version” is already being used in many themes to symbolize a certain person actually never passed away for his/her loved ones. I am glad you liked the article and that I could be of help. Feel free to brainstorm if it helps 🙂 Thanks for droping a few lines and showing your appreciation.

      • Anya April 9, 2016 at 6:04 am - Reply

        Dear Metin, thank you very much for taking the time to reply to my comment. I really appreciate it, now i definitely understand this symbol. The ideas that you gave me are amazing!! i will definitely tell the heart idea to my tattoer i am sure it will turn out great and i am very happy.
        i really enjoy reading your page especially about the furies, they are quite scary and new for me i didnt know about them.
        Thank you again for your help. I hope you have a wonderful weekend.?

        Regards,

        Anya

  5. Felix Robinson August 16, 2016 at 11:40 pm - Reply

    Hi there, I’m looking to use this symbol on packaging for a tattoo aftercare, it’s 100% organic I have other ranges but not for tattoo, do you think it’s appropriate, I just like the look of it

    • Metin August 21, 2016 at 3:15 pm - Reply

      Hi Felix, I looked a great deal into it but could not find the copyright owner. I do not think it is going to be a problem for anyone.

  6. Jacob September 24, 2016 at 3:23 am - Reply

    Searching for answers. Could u recommend a book on the subject named above?

    • Metin September 26, 2016 at 7:17 pm - Reply

      Hi Jacob, I compiled this information from many resources a long time ago so I cannot give you a specific name for any book but I suggest you get a subscription to Questia as it is a great source of knowledge when you need more than one resource. Thanks for dropping a few lines.

  7. ponncky September 4, 2017 at 2:21 pm - Reply

    I’ve a question, I saw an ouroborus picture and the autor presented the image with the snake not eaten its own tail, but as if the tail has “scaped” the last second and moved away of the mouth of the snake. I kept wondering if this particular variation of the ouroborus has a different meaning than the classical ouroborus?

    • Metin September 4, 2017 at 3:35 pm - Reply

      Hi Alfonso, that is interesting. I kept reading about ouroboros after I wrote this post – I will actually update it soon. But I have never encountered such use during that research. What does the author write about ? It could be interpreted as “breaking the cycle of infinity”, maybe even some “dark end of universe/everything” but we must look at the context he/she used it within. I will keep you updated personally if I find out anything about this. Thanks for dropping a few lines.

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