Codex Marcianus offers one of the best Ouroboros representations. This tail devourer symbolizes Sun and Moon unions in all their meanings and is the rendition of more than one Alchemy axiom.
Codex Marcianus, San Marco manuscript, Marcus Graecus or MS 299 X-XI century. Biblioteca Marciana, Venice. The most ancient and complete among greek manuscripts examined by Marcelin Berthelot in his “ Collection des Anciens Alchimistes Grecs” Paris 1887, Collection of Ancient Greek Alchemists. In the treatise on Chrysopeia, namely by Cleopatra, Berthelot found an entire page with symbols together with the Ouroboros we are examining. The image primarily available for public use is a white-black ink copy. At the same time, the original one in Codex Marcianus seems to have been the upper part (or Sun part) inked in red.
Of course, primary black ink appears to have gone brown-reddish, but it is pretty clear that the original filling has been made in another type of ink, red, which has kept quite an acceptable tone. On the left, you can see evidence of the original red coloration from symbols directly above Ouroboros. Take notice of the subtle white laminar texture of the volatile Moon and the puffy consistency of the fixed upper Sun.
Berthelot states that Ouroboros is the very symbol of the entire work, without either starting or ending. Perhaps it means to reveal his detrimental thinking about Alchemy: a fool-around practice of trying to get gold. “C’est le symbole de l’œuvre, qui n’a ni commencement ni fin” that’s the Work symbol, which has no beginning and no end. Rule of three ( every symbol stands for at least three different concepts) is gorgeously working in Ouroboros: first, coming out of Quintessence and its power; second, active fixed male Sun prevailing on passive volatile female Moon; third, repetitions in alchemical work.
All this, of course, from the point of view of laboratory alchemy. Indeed, the one mentioned by Berthelot. The French chemist does not hint at the philosophical implications of the famous snake eating its tail. So let’s spend a few words about it: Homer (l., XVI, 201, 246, 342) wants Okeanos as the “origin of everything” and “origin of the gods”: with its incessant flowing in circular form on the edge of the world, it means that with its uninterrupted flowing “boundaries”, and speaks of his “powerful force” that holds the world together while flowing in itself with a calm and slow flow. The image is that of a slow rotation, of a regular circular movement “genesis” of all the gods and everything, which wants the creative act to be perpetually renewed and never concluded. For these attributes, it has been compared to a snake that bites its tail. We thus find ourselves having a symbol that simultaneously includes the macrocosm and the microcosm.
This symbol of “unity of matter” is hardly used by alchemists. I discussed it more extensively in Cesare Ripa & Hot Frozen Ouroboros World Machine concerning a functional meaning. Here I want to examine the chemical part, as Berthelot calls it. Still, I define it as the coming out of Secret Fire/Quintessence and its power, our Magnet breathing or Density Stairs, representing how the active fixed Sun and passive volatile Moon act on each other. And Solve et Coagula rotations too.
This long serpent-like animal, half white laminar stripped and half colored and puffy, is eternally gorging itself on its end. Ουραβσρσς. End – Ουρα and devourer – βσρσς. Be aware that the devourer is devouring and not biting its tail. The actions involved are a bit more complicated than simply tending to restart again. Operations involved are closer to the motto inside: εν το ϖαν, one the whole.
Alchemical movements two, and they are called Sun and Moon. Our Sun and Moon (see an exhaustive Sun and Moon listing of meanings). Secret Fire differentiates alchemy from chemistry: a strange undetected substance whose massive container probably is an atomic electronic cloud though not being a known detected particle. It is a common belief among alchemists that Secret Fire is the main constituent of time.
Let’s start with the third meaning: Repetitions or Rota. In the Labors of Hercules, Mercurius is achieved through repeated operations. Hence Rota or rotations. We are before a chemical Solve et Coagula. As you can see on the left, Aurora Consurgens, codex Rhenovacensis, provides an excellent specimen on the topic, with a serpent Ouroboros devouring its tail inside a vessel. Of course, the presence of birds inside would expect a well-stoppered vessel not to lose any vapor. But here, man is adding some Secret Fire salt from outer to improve operation.
The picture above has been taken from “The book of Abraham the Jew”, which is traditionally said to be discovered by Flamel. It shows these continuous rotations from black to white to red to black (see an Opus Magnum scheme). Secret Fire/Quintessence has finally come to light in the main work. It can perfectly operate by itself or the alchemical or philosophical Solve et Coagula performed by Secret Fire. And vessels can be opened during phases when putrefaction is over: white is no more volatile Spirit but already an unripe Soul. This is essentially what Artephius’s Secret Book and Kamala Jnana Great Work Photographed are about. It will be interesting to know that these operations repeatedly repeat themselves. Hence they are called color rotations or, again, Rota.
The second and most applied Ouroboros, from the eighteenth century on, is about fixed dominating volatile, which is not so different from the previous aforementioned. But let’s hear from Fulcanelli, Dwellings of Philosophers 1929: “Philosophers have represented the union between fixed and volatile, Soul and Spirit, with this serpent devouring its tail allegory.”
We have to be volatile and fix raw matter salts to reach Mercurius, a volatile to be fixed to become Mercurius Philosophorum. This is volatile compared to unripe Soul, White Sulphur, etc. In every alchemical step, there is a volatile to be fixed and a fixed to be made volatile. Ouroboros represents an active/fixed upper part fixing a passive/volatile inferior part which, in turn, dissolves and feeds the upper part. Not only once but countless in a never-ending story. Active/fixed is male and Sulphur and Sun and Coagula. Its contrary is easy to understand. The Ouroboros circle has been defined as the alchemical marriage ring.
At a certain point, we have Active/Fixed/Soul enveloping Passive/Volatile/Spirit to start a new being by rotating around it. But will be another Spirit/Light from outer to counter-rotate around this Soul-Aión αιών (4) to give it immortality.
But why has passive/volatile assumed feminine association and active/fixed masculine? Because of the very male domination in our society. So when alchemists would point to this relationship, they did not find a better way to express it than to use a mere social and cultural affirmation.
French Fulcanelli is mindful never to employ such a lexicon when explaining fixed domination over volatile, limiting himself to a romantic: male embraces female. Another french, Canseliet, is less romantic but daring as usual: fixed greedily pumps up his volatile. While Italian Arturo Reghini in “ Origine del Simbolismo muratorio” Origin of masonic symbolism 1923, does sanction the same operation with a crude: Sulphur is kept to male function, and thus more worthy, and Mercurius to female, for Sulphur is full grown, and Mercurius does not coagulate but with Sulphur. Ancient Iranian Ostanes is much more modern and mysterious: One nature delights in another nature, one nature conquers another, and one nature dominates another. Mary the prophetess, does not mean to delude us: It is like a marriage. Pernety, Dictionnaire Mytho-Hermétique” 1758, goes to the point: Philosophers have called enemies fixed and volatile, for they seem to fight against each other perpetually. Till one won the other and turned it into its nature. When fixed has fixed (coagulated) volatile after being volatilized in its turn, adepts say that they made peace and become one; they (Sun and Moon) are now unable to be separated again. This goes without saying that Pernety, monk and priest, had a clear opinion about marriage. Here he introduces the Union or Double or Mercurius Duplicatus. The Alchemical Marriage, indeed.
It’s time to pass to the first one of Ouroboro’s aforementioned meanings: coming out of Quintessence and its power. Like breathing, there is an inherently repeated closed operation here. Labors inside vessels are similar in Microcosm and Macrocosm. Secret Fire/Quintessence is always the same, but how does this enormous alchemical power come out on earth?
As said by Solve et Coagula, our engine is represented by Ouroboros. Fixed dominates volatile. Which in turn dissolves and feeds fixed. This engine applies to Astronomical stars and suns, which are Secret Fire/Quintessence massive vessels because Secret Fire travels in a fixed state from Stars towards us to enter matter-mass. To be then extracted by alchemists in a volatile state to be fixed. Fixed Secret Fire from Cosmos – volatile alchemical Mercurius and volatile Sulphur in vessels – Fixed Philosopher Stone – alchemical volatile Mercurius Sulphur, and so on. The previous volatile turns and becomes fixed to the next volatile. And a woman turns into a male.
That’s our Solve et Coagula engine, our Magnet breathing from the beginning. But a never-ending story does not have a beginning or an end like a ring. Indeed Secret Fire, in turn, returns to Stars and Suns. In density, Stairs work as mirrors. Mind that the devourer is devouring and not biting its tail. There is a Nature and a Counter Nature as well. Michael Maier states that natural fire coagulates while counter-natural dissolves. The vision by Fluddus in Utriusque Cosmi Historia, on the right, seems too romantic to fit into a possible alchemical reality.
Density Stairs are applied to all Ouroboros meanings. For active and passive, fixed and volatile, man and woman, and Sun and Moon are only different densities of the same thing.
- Sun & Moon at the Turn of the First Millennium ;
- Artephius, Secret Book and Secret Fire ;
- Kamala Jnana, Introduction to a Live Secret ;
- Aiòn, Light & Spirals of Immortality ;
- Ostanes, One nature, etc… ;
- Atalanta Fugiens and Mercurius Duplicatus ;
- See also Cesare Ripa & Hot Frozen Ouroboros World Machine ;