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The Egyptian Ouroboros: An Iconological and Theological Study

  • Author(s): Reemes, Dana Michael
  • Advisor(s): Dieleman, Jacco
  • et al.

This study examines a well-established idea in normative Egyptological discourse, that there exists in the inventory of Egyptian symbolism a distinct and unique symbol called sed-em-ra (‘tail-in-mouthʼ) in Egyptian, though usually referred to today by the Greek term ouroboros (‘tail-devouringʼ), being the image of a serpent arranged in a circle with the tip of its tail in its mouth, and expressive of specific meanings such as “endless time” and “eternity,” among others. However, a close examination of relevant iconographic and textual sources reveals that this Egyptological ouroboros is largely an illusion, and one that distorts understanding of Egyptian material by importing into it ideas that properly belong to the history of the post-pharaonic reception of the ouroboros icon, such as the idea that the ouroboros was primarily a symbol of the recurrent solar year, which had its origin with Latin authors, or the idea that the ouroboros symbolizes time and eternity, which is a tradition no older than the Italian Renaissance. Yet it is this latter ouroboros of the Renaissance iconographers and emblem books, an unquestioned part of the intellectual environment in which the discipline of Egyptology historically emerged, that induced nineteenth and twentieth century Egyptologists to unhesitatingly single out the ouroboros for special notice as the “serpent of eternity,” an interpretation not supported by Egyptian sources. A fresh hermeneutical approach requires the abandonment of such preconceptions, starting with rejection of the idea that the Egyptian ouroboros is a distinct symbol with specific meanings attached. Once the term ‘ouroborosʼ is used only in a limited and purely descriptive sense, it becomes possible to understand what the icon may be intended to express within the larger conceptual and iconographic context in which occurrences are embedded. This approach makes it clear that the icon was never a discrete symbol in Egypt, but rather a possible variant amongst related iconography that might convey similar meanings. A detailed reassessment of relevant primary sources shows that the icon is primarily associated with the idea of protective enclosure, conceived of as a divine force functioning on multiple levels: cosmic, solar, funereal, and individual.

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