I’m sure that, even if you don’t know the name, you’ve seen the image of the snake biting its own tail. It’s used a lot as a symbol for infinity and the cycle of death and rebirth, and it’s even been proposed that the infinity symbol is based on an alternate depiction of the snake.
What I have to wonder when looking at the symbol is where the rebirth comes in. A snake eating its own body is ultimately self-destructive, right? It brings to mind a question I remember thinking about as a kid, which was how much of yourself you could eat before you’d no longer exist. Obviously I’m disregarding the intense pain that would come with such a thing. Do snakes ever actually bite their tails? I think of that as more a trait of kittens who haven’t yet figured out that the wiggling thing that makes such tempting prey is attached to them.
Apparently it does happen with snakes as well, though. There have been reports of snakes trying to eat themselves, but I don’t know how reliable these are.
The image is thought to have first originated in Egypt, where it was used to represent the daily cycle of the Sun, as well as the primordial chaos that surrounds the orderly universe.
It later made its way to the Phoenicians and the Greeks, and it was the latter who gave the image its name. “Ouroboros” literally means “tail-devourer,” although I’m sure the fact that the word is only slightly off from being a palindrome didn’t escape the minds of its namers. I guess it’s difficult to come up with a perfect palindrome in a language that usually puts endings on words. Plato wrote of such a creature as the first living being created, self-sufficient because it ate its own waste. Even putting aside how disgusting that sounds, this was obviously before the discovery of entropy. In Norse mythology, the serpent Jormungandr, a child of Loki and the giantess Angrboda, has its tail in its mouth as well. The story has it that the serpent was banished to the ocean that surrounds the mortal world of Midgard, only to grow so big that it ended up wrapping itself around the world.
As such, the Midgard Serpent came to form a border, and I’m not sure what would happen if someone were to try to venture past the creature.
There are indications on the Internet that the Norse thought the world would end when Jormungandr let go of his tail, but I’m not sure how much credence to give this. One of the most famous stories involving the serpent involves Thor‘s catching him while on a fishing trip, pretty much requiring his mouth to have been open.
This began a rivalry between the god and the snake, which will culminate at Ragnarok with the two killing each other. A snake serving the same function as Jormungandr is also said to exist in South American mythology, and is sometimes regarded as an anaconda.
The ouroboros came to be used in Gnosticism and alchemy, and still appears quite frequently in more modern works. In The Neverending Story, the mystical amulet AURYN is based on a variety on Ouroboros with two snakes instead of one. The snakes are said to represent Fantastica and reality.
The Jenny and Johnny song “My Pet Snakes” refers to Ouroboros by name. And I’m sure the serpent inspired the line “I am a snake head eating the head on the opposite side” in the They Might Be Giants song “I Palindrome I.” Of course, the Ouroboros typically only has ONE head, but there are a lot of mythical snakes with multiple heads. The mention of “the head on the opposite side” makes me think of a creature with a head at either end, sort of like the pushmi-pullyu from the Doctor Dolittle books.
Society has certainly managed to get a lot of mileage out of a creature that itself probably just moves in circles.