The Paradox of the Ouroboros and the Eternal Return

The paradox of the ouroboros represents a logical approach connected to the idea of infinity. In fact, various religions, philosophers and, more recently, top-level physicists have spoken about it.
The Paradox of the Ouroboros and the Eternal Return

Last update: 04 November, 2021

The paradox of the ouroboros is quite a popular concept. However, many religions, philosophers, and physicists have spoken out against it. It refers to an idea that’s been worked on by various intellectuals, that of infinity.

In Ancient Greece, infinity was represented by a picture known as an “ouroboros”. It’s the picture of a serpent with its tail in its mouth. In fact, it’s devouring itself.

From this figure, the paradox arises which is expressed in the following way: “if a snake first eats its tail and then ends up swallowing its entire body, where is the snake?”

This ‘feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself, and gives birth to himself. He symbolizes the One, who proceeds from the clash of opposites, and he therefore constitutes the secret of the prima materia which […] unquestionably stems from man’s unconscious.”

-Carl Jung-

The relationship between the finite and the infinite

The paradox of the ouroboros refers to that tense relationship between the finite and the infinite. Also, to the cyclicality of existence and everything that exists. It challenges the concept of linear time, in which we move forward, leaving everything behind.

The figure of the ouroboros is a metaphor for the encounter between the beginning and the end, at the same point. From this perspective, there’s no real beginning and end, but an eternal repetition of cycles in which everything returns to its origin. Therefore, time isn’t linear, so the paradox exists of moving backward, of progressing by going back to the beginning.

At the same time, this refers to the concept of “infinity.” This is defined as that which has no end. Indeed, it can be understood as something so extensive that it has no limits. However, according to the paradox of the ouroboros, the reason it’s understood as having no beginning and no end is that the beginning and end are realities that always end up meeting.

Infinity symbol

The paradox of the ouroboros and infinity

Time is represented as a cycle in the paradox of the ouroboros. It suggests that every moment of the present is devoured by the future. The snake is biting its own tail and devouring itself. This is illustrated in human life itself: it comes from nowhere and returns to nowhere, with death.

The way we measure time represents this reality. The arrows of the clock start from one point and make a circular route until they return to that same place. The cycle’s then repeated, eternally. The same thing happens with every week, every month, and every year. The fact that a number is changed from one year to the next is merely a cultural process. In essence, they’re never-ending cycles.

One interesting aspect of all this is that, although the ouroboros was a Greek symbol, which later became universal, a version of it also existed in the Aztec culture. The only difference was that it was a feathered serpent. However,  the concept was exactly the same. Without a doubt, it was a curious coincidence.

Infinity clock

The eternal return

Most of the oriental cosmologies are based on this principle of the cyclical passing of reality. In the West, Friedrich Nietzche postulated the idea of the “eternal return”. His idea became popular but found little continuity in the thinking of other philosophers. Such a principle can be stated in two ways: one quasi-mathematical, and the other, ontological.

From a mathematical point of view, it would be something along the lines that time is infinite. However, the matter and energy of the universe are finite. If this is so, the way that matter and energy combine is finite. Therefore, in the infinity of time, the same combination will be repeated several times.

In other words, what has been will be again. It’s the belief that, for example, the molecules that make up your body, at some point, will combine again in the same way and will produce another being just like you.

On the other hand, from the ontological point of view, the eternal return is a reaffirmation of the transience of life. We move towards our own nothingness. Carl Jung, for his part, speaks of “regeneration”, the process of killing oneself, figuratively, to give oneself life. This is the root of our unconscious processes.

An alternative explanation

Finally, it must be said that physics hasn’t been alien to the issue of the paradox of the ouroboros and the eternal return. As a matter of fact, two physicists, Turok and Steinhardt, believe that there’s an alternative explanation for the origin of the universe and that it’s cyclical. In their hypothesis, the so-called “dark energy” is the key to everything and generates endless cycles whereby the universe starts over and over with a “bang”. Perhaps this is, indeed, the case.

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  • Barbieri, J. H. (2011). Physis frente a Nómos: el eterno retorno. Díkaion: revista de actualidad jurídica, 20(1).