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Why the Ouroboros Symbol?

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by Sarah Dorrance

The serpent eating its own tail is not an image specific to vampires, or even associated traditionally with vampires.

It is a very old symbol. First seen in alchemy, as a semiotic motif representing the never-ending process of refining prima material into gold, it reappears in European heraldry and in works of art.

Let's look at the two components of the ouroboros: the beast itself, and the fact that it is self-devouring to make a circle.

The serpent, sometimes depicted as a snake and sometimes as a dragon or as a worm, stands for knowledge, wisdom, discipline, power, awareness -- and the world itself. In the West, because of Biblical interpretation, this beast (whether in ouroboric form or not) is associated with Satan, and thus can be seen as embodying the dichotomy of truth vs. lies, humility vs. pride, independence vs. rebellion, innocence vs. experience, despair vs. the Fortunate Fall. Prometheus stealing the fire from the Olympian heights. (This doesn't even touch on the dragons and snakes that are found in Oriental astrology and mythology, the concept of the "world serpent," the Celtic concept of dragons, the snake found in North American and Mesoamerican art, etc. There's simply too much material, especially if you think of the ouroboros as a sort of shorthand version of the labyrinth motif, which is nothing if not serpentine.)

The circular "O" can have multiple meanings as well. It can be the what the Taoists refer to as "mu," the glyph that unasks a question; or a symbol of Zen emptiness, the emptiness that invites and embodies satori. It can be the magic circle -- forever spiraling, forever creating cycles of power. It can represent the eternal feminine, the yoni in Tantric yoga. It can represent the earth. For those of us who have one track minds, we might see in it the promise of orgasmic rapture in the "little death," or the vampire's sine qua non, the Universal Donor (please, if you want to make snide comments from the peanut gallery about Type O's, please restrain them, it's an old joke). This latter is interesting because serpents are often considered male -- thus, by devouring itself, and creating a female glyph, the serpent effectively warps gender. The "O" can also represent an open, hungry mouth, or openness in general; it can be a shorthand version of the mandala, symbol of individuation, or of the yin/yang; it can, finally, represent the cycle of life.

I like all of these associations, of course, because I see a little of all of these in the act of feeding, to a certain degree -- but I especially like the reference to the life cycle. I want to call attention to it for a second because I think I need to point out something crucial, something I frequently see missing in the vampire subculture. All things are interconnected and interdependent. The food chain is less a spiraling ladder than it is a roundabout. Even those of us who see ourselves at the top will die eventually, and become food for worms and bacteria. We are all equal in the impersonal eyes of Nature. How silly it suddenly seems to regard the vampire (or any other human being -- oh, surely you don't consider vampires to be other than human?) as alone and superior. Those of us who are completely aloof do not feed. And predators will someday be food themselves. You can't escape the chain.

I can't think of a symbol more fitting.

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