Today we continue our early winter theme, “Beginnings”, with Annika Garratt as she explores the history and meaning of the symbol of the Oroboros. For discussion in the comments: What role does the concept of perpetual cyclic renewal of life play in your Naturalistic Paganism? How is this concept related to monism or pantheism for you? What symbols do you employ to express this concept?
The Ouroboros represents the perpetual cyclic renewal of life and infinity, the concept of eternity and the cycle of life, death and rebirth. It can also represent the idea of primordial unity. In the Book of the Dead, which was still current in the Graeco-Roman period, the self-begetting sun god, Atum, is said to have ascended from chaos-waters with the appearance of a snake, the animal renewing itself every morning. Plato described a self-eating, circular being as the first living thing in the universe. 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 is the all”. 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. The Ouroboros symbol appears in both 14th- and 15th-century Albigensian-printing watermarks and tarot cards. The Ouroboros is displayed on numerous Masonic seals, frontispieces and other imagery, especially during the 17th century. The Ouroboros is featured in the seal of Theosophy, along with other traditional symbols. Carl Jung interpreted the Ouroboros as having an archetypal significance to the human psyche. The Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann writes of it as a representation of the pre-ego “dawn state”.
The Egyptian god Atum was known as the “complete one”. As creator of the Universe he was seen as the underlying substance of the world, the deities and all things being made of his flesh or his ka. In the Heliopolitan creation myth, Atum was considered to be the first god, having created himself. He is the self-creating and self-sustaining Universe; he is the Totality of Being. The Gnostic Basilides called the “Great Archon” ΑΒΡΑΣΑΞ. The name occurs in the Refutation of all Heresies (vii. 26) by Hippolytus, who says that “their great archon” is Abrasax, because his name contains the number 365, the number of the days in the year. Epiphanius designates Abrasax more distinctly as “the power above all, and First Principle,” “the cause and first archetype” of all things. E. A. Wallis Budge describes Abrasax “as a Pantheus, i.e. All-God,” in Amulets and Superstitions (1930).
“A curious evidence of the consciousness of the unity of the divine is afforded by the amalgamation of different deities into a ‘Theos pantheus’, or ‘Thea pantheus’, which might be regarded either as an abstract conception or a new deity according to the fluidity of pagan theology. Usually one deity was chosen, prominent for his merits in the votary’s estimation, and the epithet ‘pantheus’ (‘all-God’) added to the personal name as representative of the totality of the divine. Thus we find in Latin inscriptions ‘Serapis Pantheus’ ….” S. Angus, The Mystery Religions, Dover Publications, 1975.
The Ouroboros represents the Pantheus, the All-God of Pantheism. H.P. Owen (197) wrote that “Pantheists are ‘monists’…they believe that there is only one Being, and that all other forms of reality are either modes (or appearances) of it or identical with it.” The process of uniting all to a single “oneness” (hen) as a form of salvation is called “henosis”. Plotinus defined henosis in his works as a reversing of the ontological process of consciousness via meditation. Plotinus words his teachings to reconcile not only Plato with Aristotle but also various world religions that he had personal contact with during his various travels. In Neoplatonic henology, the individual is absorbed back into the primordial substance and returned to the infinite non-sentient force—the Source or One—and reamalgamated back into the Universe. Since consciousness is an emanation and is not created, Neoplatonism takes the concept of primordial unity (henosis) as rational and deterministic emanating from an uncaused cause. According to the Pythagoreans, “Monad” was a term for Divinity or the first being, or the totality of all being. Some Gnostics also used the word “Monad” for God, the Supreme Being, The Absolute. The 17th century philosopher Benedict de Spinoza referred to the oneness of reality as Deus sive Natura, “God as Nature”.
Annika is an artist/illustrator from Bournemouth UK. She produces colourful mixed media artwork on canvas as well as fluid ink illustrations, often based on folklore and mythological themes. Annika sells original paintings on canvas as well as fine art prints. If you have any questions about Annika’s work, feel free to contact her by email. You can also find Annika at:
This Wednesday, Musings of a Pagan Mythicist by Maggie Jay Lee: “Step to the right: religion and the divided mind”.