Primordial Symbols: Uroboros

From “Maps or Meaning”, by Jordan Peterson, Ph.d.

The primordial theriomorphic serpent-god is endless potential; is whatever comprises being prior to the emergence of the capacity for experience. This potential has been represented as the self-devouring dragon (most commonly) because this image aptly symbolizes the union of incommensurate opposites.

The uroboros is simultaneously representative of two antithetical primordial elements. As a snake, the uroboros is a creature of the ground, of matter; as a bird (a winged animal), it is a creature of the air, of the sky, of spirit. The uroboros symbolizes the union of known (associated with spirit) and unknown (associated with matter), explored and unexplored; symbolizes the juxtaposition of the “masculine” principles of security, tyranny and order with the “feminine” principles of darkness, dissolution, creativity and chaos.

Furthermore, as a snake, the uroboros has the capacity to shed its skin – to be “reborn.” Thus, it also represents the possibility of transformation, and stands for the knower, who can transform chaos into order, and order into chaos. The uroboros stands for, or constitutes, everything that is as of yet unencountered, prior to its differentiation as a consequence of active exploration and classification. It is the source of all the information that makes up the determinate world of experience – and is, simultaneously, the birth-place of the experiencing subject.

The uroboros is one thing, as everything that has not yet been explored is one thing; it exists everywhere, and at all times. It is completely self-contained, completely self-referential: it feeds, fertilizes and engulfs itself. It unites the beginning and the end, being and becoming, in the endless circle of its existence. It serves as symbol for the ground of reality itself. It is the “set of all things that are not yet things” – the primal origin and ultimate point of return for every discriminable object, and every independent subject. It serves as progenitor of all we know, all that we don’t know, and of the spirit that constitutes our capacity to know – and not know. It is the mystery that constantly emerges when solutions to old problems cause new problems; is the sea of chaos surrounding man’s island of knowledge – and the source of that knowledge, as well. It is all new experience generated by time, which incessantly works to transform the temporarily predictable once again into the unknown. It has served mankind as the most ubiquitous and potent of primordial gods:

“This is the ancient Egyptian symbol of which it is said, “Draco interfecit se ipsum, maritat se ipsum, impraegnat se ipsum.” It slays, weds, and impregnates itself. It is man and woman, begetting and conceiving, devouring and giving birth, active and passive, above and below, at once.

As the Heavenly Serpent, the uroboros was known in ancient Babylon; in later times, in the same area, it was often depicted by the Mandaeans; its origin is ascribed by Macrobius to the Phoenicians. It is the archetype of the [greek phrase], the All One, appearing as Leviathan and as Aion, as Oceanus, and also as the Primal Being that says “I am Alpha and Omega.” As the Kneph of antiquity it is the Primal Snake, the “most ancient deity of the prehistoric world.” The uroboros can be traced in the Revelation of St. John and among the Gnostics as well as among the Roman syncretists; there are pictures of it in the sand paintings of the Navajo Indians and in Giotto; it is found in Egypt, Africa, Mexico, and India, among the gypsies as an amulet, and in the alchemical texts.”