The Eternal Science Tattoo

By Carl Zimmer | October 24, 2008 1:53 pm

tattoo_ouroborus.jpgAngela write: “As an Archaeologist, I wanted my first tattoo to be something related to culture. The Ouroborus is an ancient symbol of a serpent biting its tail and has been a part of a number of cultures and beliefs including (but not limited to!) Egyptian, Greek (who “borrowed” it from the Phoenicians and gave it the name “ouroborus” meaning “tail-eater”), Norse, Chinese, Aztec, Hindu, and various Native American Indian mythologies. The snake in my tattoo is a custom piece by my tattooist, but the writing is straight from the earliest-known drawing of the Ouroborus in the Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra drawn around 1600BC. The Ouroborus has carried a number of meanings; the cyclical nature of the universe (the serpent eating its own tail to sustain itself), infinity and eternal unity (the text is translated as both “one is all” and “all is one” or even “the one, the all”), reincarnation, in Alchemy it is a purifying sigil, in Christianity it is a symbol of the confines of the physical world, and the serpent is often depicted with light and dark sides to it (i.e. yin and yang). In many myths, the serpent encircles the world – a myth that may have been inspired by those times of the year during which the Milky Way can be seen winding through the night sky, like a great snake. I chose this for my first tattoo because I have always been fascinated by cross-cultural symbols and one that encompassed so many meanings was particularly interesting to me.”

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Comments (12)

  1. twilightened

    OK, i’ll get one with a dog, chasing its own tail. Pretty much the same concept :)

  2. That is a wicked tattoo!

  3. John Monfries

    Which Cleopatra is that?

    The date doesn’t seem right – she lived well after 1600 BC.

  4. Ouroborus Batteries box. 😉

    I learned about the symbol from Red Dwarf.

  5. Katrina


    Different Cleopatra. Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra is the title of an alchemy book. See this Wikipedia stub:

  6. John Monfries

    Thanks, but I the stub does seem to cast doubt on the date of 1600 BC attributed to it in Carl’s post.

    Did even the name of Cleo exist that early?

    I thought the Cleos were part of the (Greek-origin) Ptolemy dynasty, which only arose just after Alexander the Great (after 320 BC or so). Wiki says the first Ptolemy (Ptolemy Soter I) was one of Alexander’s generals.

    Even 600 BC might be too early.

  7. michelle

    Hey I have the same tattoo, people think its a stamp :( lol

  8. inward

    so im gonna do an ouroborus tattoo, i like the full metal one but not the stuff inside. i like the words in urs. im trying to find a site that has a larger pic so i can have a guy copy em for my tattoo. if any1 has any links that would b way cool, or even what language the text is written in. that might be enough to help me track down a bigger pic

  9. I love the Ouroborus! great choice! Now I just need to work on where I want to get mine.

  10. Tjo

    This is the only other oroborus that I have seen tatood onto anyone, the first being my own. Mine is around my navel because the circle with the navel as a dot is the chemical symbol for hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe. Mine is the Mojave green rattlesnake, the most deadly snake in Western North America, and has the chakra colors in the back pattern. Very symbolic (for me).


  11. I like that tattoo idea… I wonder if I could make it into a fish eating itsel as opposed to a snake. Thanks for the idea.

  12. Thewyvern

    I can’t speak for the arabic, but the Greek text, if it reads το ωαψ does not say anything about a one or an all. το is the singular neuter article in the nominative, but ωαψ does not mean anything at all. Greek words are not allowed to end in ψ (ps), but only vowels, ν (n) and ς (s).


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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