24 April 2010

Ouroboros Eins

Figure A: Responsible for the fall of Rome?
64th-degree Warden Edward Gibbon secretly thought so!

Good eve, loyal readers. Tonight I tell you of the creature called
Ouroboros, the serpent eating its own tail, also known as the World Serpent, or Jörmungandr. It is a strange history, fraught with mystical intrigues and uncertain prefixes. And maybe a three-way Ragnarök between the Psychologists, Freemasons, and Theosophists for fate of humanity (or at least they thought so).

Disclaimer: This tale involves a lot of inimitable and intimidating German compound jargon words (Deutschezusammengesetztefachsprachewörter) and a fair smattering of umlauts -- may the Prospektivenleser beware!

Figure B: Thor's giant holographic proxy fights his serpentine cousin, Jörmungandr, in rehearsals for the 3 p.m. matinée of Götterdämmerung

Our story begins, as most stories do, in the past -- the very ancient past. The faith of the old Norse peoples included a pantheon of gods, giants, and divers other spirits. Among these was Jörmungandr, offspring of the trickster-god Loki. A snake, little Jörgy grew and grew and grew until he was so big he encircled the whole of Midgard (Earth), with his tail in his mouth.

It is said that that the sky-god and amateur carpenter Thor had three encounters with the World Serpent. An infamous cat burglar, Thor tried to steal his giant-pal Útgarða-Loki's feline friend, only to discover it practically impossible to lift because it was, in fact, Jörmungandr in a catsuit! Once, Thor went on a fishing trip with another giant-friend, and with one of his hand-tied flies caught the World Serpent, but his yellow friend cut the line before he could strike it a fatal blow with his hammer. Now that's a fish story! The final meeting between god and snake will take place at Ragnarök, the end of the world, when Jörmungandr will leave his comfortable Outer Sea to poison the sky, summoned by sky-hater king of the Frost Giants Richard Wagner. Thor will battle the serpent, killing him but dying himself after walking nine paces from the snake's overpowering leitmotif.

Figure C: Guido Cagnacci, "Allegoria della Vita Umana,"
17th century, tastefully censored for young readers

The Ouroboros did not only appear in Norse culture, however. Chinese, Hindu, Greek, Atlantean and Amerindian cultures also had representations of the circular serpent in their literature and art. To many, it represented the cyclical nature of life and the continuity of the world. The Celts just thought they made great earrings.

That great pagan apologist and peritonitist Edward Gibbon, in his great 1776 work The History of the Decline and the Fall of the Roman Empire (later made into a polemic documentary film starring the late Gibbon apologist Sir Alec Guiness) blames the Ouroboros for Rome's decline. He believed that Romans had lost their civic virtue, becoming effeminate and unwilling to live a "manly" lifestyle. They became Christian and abandoned the old pagan customs, looking to the afterlife rather than the present. And, in addition to barbarians, the Empire was regularly attacked by their Gothic allies: giant, angry serpents, not unlike the one responsible for the death of St. Francis Xavier.

But the wick on my candle has almost reached its nadir. Time to close the Cabinet until next time, when I will continue the Saga of the Ouroboros.

Figure D: Fifth-century Roman soldiers being attacked by enraged, Christian-hating serpents, in a woodcut from Decline and Fall: Illustrated Edition (1777)


  1. I came searching for information on the Ouroboros for my paper, and, although I did not find what I needed, I did find your little page very amusing. As well, I never attributed the beast to Jörmungandr, which of course makes sense that the World Serpent would have ties to Plato's conception of the world as a serpent (Timaeus). ahaha
    I look forward to probably going through your pages at a later date when I have more time on my hands. Til then, adieu.


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