On the Origin of the Ourobouros Symbol

by Bryce Self (Onesimus@ix.netcom.com)

The Ourobouros can be traced back to the Greek philosophers who used it as a symbol of their understanding of the nature of time as cyclic and, "plus la meme", could very well be used to symbolize the closed-system model of the universe of some physicists today.

Christians early adopted the Orobouros as a symbol of the limited confines of this world (that there is an "outside" being implied by the demarcation of an inside), and the self-consuming transitory nature of a mere this-worldly existence (following in the certainly non-Masonic footsteps of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes).

Symbols, however, are not signs. A sign points in one, unmistakable direction through a meaning authoritatively invested in it by its establisher. A symbol bears a built-in ambiguity, and will be interpreted pretty much at will by observers according to their own personal predilections, mindsets, experiences, etc. So it is no surprise that the Orobouros symbol should be viewed as both innocuous and pernicious by Christians from differing life-contexts. Even the unitary meaning and authority of a sign often require explication in order to be grasped (as provided in the Gospel of John's narration structured around Jesus' various manifestations of Himself as The Sign).

As I've shared with you before, I'm especially leery of making any direct use of Jung myself, since I now understand as demonic powers the "spiritual guides" who were the source of many of his ideas. That said, it is true that his ideas have wide currency, acceptance and influence in our culture. To engage our culture we, of course, do not plumb the "deep things of Satan", but we must be aware and familiar with the issues and worldviews of those whom we engage on behalf of God.

That is the apostolic example of a Paul who could quote poetry dedicated to pagan deities to meet the Greeks on their own ground without worrying about sullying himself or polluting the Gospel. Not to mention the supreme example in Christ who took on "flesh" (not just a body, "sarx", but fleshy-flesh "carne"!!!). What a scandal that God would allow himself to be so degraded-but that was the point.

And that's the scandal about God - He insists on loving and accepting and welcoming and approving of all those other people who are so much worse and undeserving than I am! Sure, he put out the welcome mat, but He couldn't REALLY have meant that we're supposed to let ALL of them in through the front door without even so much as wiping their feet. What kind of respectable God would let Himself get walked all over like that? Our God, that's who!

The Jews of old sought to put a fence ("massorah">>>"Massoretic Text") around the written Word of God in order to protect it. The Living Word of God becomes fleshy-flesh and hangs around in smoke-filled honky-tonks with all sorts of disreputables to show how little He wants or needs their protection, then He goes and gets Himself nailed to a tree just to prove the point.

He then calls this the Good News and sends His best friends to go and do likewise. God doesn't need us modern Jews to protect the Gospel from unsavoury cultural elements either and, sure enough, every time the Church just about gets her cozy little exclusive circle drawn around herself, God comes along from OUTSIDE the circle to smash it and say, "That's not what I meant!" That's how we got Reformers after the Catholics, and Anglicans after the Reformers, and Methodists after the Anglicans, and Pentecostals after the Methodists, and you can be sure the Pentecostals are gonna get their comeuppances before very much longer at all.

Not only does God (and His Gospel) not need our protection, He won't have it. If anything, He challenges us to profligate in fling His Good Seed onto ALL sorts of ground, even BAD ground. Then we just sit back and watch to see what will grow. I f He doesn't want fruit from any particular field, we can plant and water and fertilize until we're dead, but He won't "give the growth" (we tend to forget that that's His department).

Oh, yes, symbols...

Symbols are ambiguous, signs are authoritative. The rainbow is a SIGN instituted by God. When the New Agers use it as a mere symbol of unity-in-diversity, or whatever, we can counter with in apostolic authority with the significance invested in it by its Creator: that the earth once destroyed by water will again be destroyed by fire in which you will come into personal accountability before the Lord Jesus Christ, with whose proven claims to exclusive salvation and ultimately irresistible power you now dare to trifle.

However, we have no such authoritative interpretation for an ambiguous symbol, since no such authority was invested in the symbol by whoever thought it up. The Orobouros certainly does not come in under the heading of "foods sacrificed to idols". That's not merely my own opinion, but that of men much holier than I am, and who lived much closer to the fountainhead of the Gospel than we do.

I think your correspondent has revealed much more of his own bias-background-woundedness than he has shown any good reason for you to change such an inconsequential thing as an ambiguous picture illustrating a secondary essay in a rarified cultural medium.

Note: This article has been added after an email correspondent wrote insisting I remove the Jacob Boehme illustration from my article on the Uroboros symbol---Lambert Dolphin, April 30, 1998

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