Why is the ouroboros – an image of a serpent swallowing its own tail – so alluring?

To understand this, we need to consider why the image is so potentially alarming.

Looking at the ouroboros, we see an animal engaged in an act of self-destruction. Is this a deliberate act or an unwitting act? Does the snake not recognize its tail as a part of itself? Will it feel the pain and release itself before the process of cannibalism is complete?

These are the questions that might come to mind if we interpret the image literally. But if we allow for some magic in our view, we need not be sure the snake is pursuing its own demise. We might also imagine that the snake is giving birth to itself. At the point where the tail seems to enter the snake’s mouth, we could see it emerging from that same mouth, as if the mouth appeared first and spit out the rest of the snake.

We could also imagine that these processes of consumption and emergence are concurrent – that as the snake swallows more of itself, more is generated.

If the ouroboros were intended as a literal depiction of a snake devouring itself, we should expect to see the snake’s body enlarged in the place where it contains the swallowed portion of the tail, but that’s not how it is typically drawn.

The fear of snakes – ophidiophobia – is not without foundation. Snakes move quickly and some carry a deadly venom. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent carries the venom of temptation. 

But the ouroboros is a symbol that dates back to ancient Egypt: it can be seen on Tutankhamun’s tomb. Surely it is not the serpent of the Book of Genesis: it’s too preoccupied to threaten or tempt. If a person is afraid of snakes, perhaps they could take some small comfort in seeing that the ouroboros is in no posture to attack. 

Considering all of this, a viewer might still feel unsettled by an ouroboros when the symbol is presented all alone. But another remarkable quality of the ouroboros is the way its circular structure allows it to enclose another image, so that it functions as a picture frame. In this case, the ouroboros absorbs some of the character of what lies within.

Sometimes the ouroboros is used as a frame around the mythical Tree of Life. In a new image I have commissioned, the botanical features of the Garden of Eden lie outside the ouroboros – a double one – and a rosette window, offering a view of the cosmos, is enclosed within. ■

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