The ouroboros — the image of a snake eating its own tail — has been growing, shedding, and consuming its own skin since the dawn of history. It first appeared as a hieroglyph in Egypt but swiftly wound its way to other cradles of civilization. Now it’s one of the most recognizable symbols known to man. Over the course of thousands of years, the serpent has become representative of numerous themes, including introspection and the act of creation, but it’s most commonly seen as a metaphor for the never-ending cycle of life and death in the universe. Because of its profound symbolism, the ouroboros inevitably slithered into the world of tattoos.
The earliest known depiction of an ouroboros comes from a funerary text discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun. The image features two serpentine beasts with their tails in each other’s jaws, locked in a circular pattern. Egyptians believed this insignia to be emblematic of the beginning and end of time. The design was frequently featured on jewelry and other forms of portable fine art, which enabled it to incubate in other cultures along trade routes. Eventually, it was introduced to Greece, where it adapted its modern connotations. In Plato’s Timaeus, for instance, a passage describes the first living being as an ouroboros, using the motif to express Timaeus’ theory of the self-sufficiency and perfection of the cosmos.
Extending from the Greco-Roman world, the ouroboros was adopted by various cultures throughout Europe, becoming associated with gnosticism and alchemy along the way. The most famous example of the dovetailed serpent in its alchemical form is from the Alexandrian text The Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra, in which it is drawn surrounding the Greek phrase for “one is all.” The ouroboros was also adopted into Norse Mythology as the physical embodiment of Loki’s son, Jörmungandr, who is said to have grown so large that he encompasses the entire planet.
In the realm of tattoos, the ouroboros is depicted in a variety of ways. Some artists twist it’s body into shapes like the infinity sign, while others keep it in the traditional circular design, but position other symbols and iconography at its center. Regardless of the different ways the ouroboros devours itself in body art, the self-cannibalizing snake is always evocative of the notion that everything is inextricably connected and will inevitably come full circle.
To see more tattoos of sacred symbols, follow all of these artists on Instagram. If you want an ouroboros, have one of them design a depiction of the serpent for you.
You’ve just experience Deciphering the Sacred, our series where we unpack the meaning of various symbols from the world of tattoos. We hope you liked learning about the Dharma Wheel and how it leads to enlightenment. If you want to learn about more meaningful figures, check out our other posts on Unalomes, Metatron’s Cube, Sri Yantra, Dharmachakras, and The Flower of Life.