Codex Marcianus offers one of the best Ouroboros representations. This tail devourer symbolizes Sun and Moon unions in all its meanings and is the rendition of more than one Alchemy axiom.
In more recent times Ouroboros has been interpreted in a nonsensical “unity of matter”. This is why it is hardly used by modern alchemists, but conversely still catching common attention. And not without an unconscious reason. Coming out of Secret Fire/Quintessence and its power, our Magnet breathing or Density Stairs.
As well as representing how 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 devourer is devouring and not biting its tail. That is: 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.
Codex Marcianus or San Marco manuscript or Marcus Graecus or MS 299 X-XI century. Biblioteca Marciana, Venice. The most ancient and complete among greek manuscripts examinated 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 mostly available for public use is, nowadays, a white-black ink copy. While original one in Codex Marcianus apparently seems to have been upper part (or Sun part) inked in red. Of course basic black ink appears to have gone to brown reddish, but it is quite clear that the original filling has been made in another type of ink, red indeed. Which has kept quite an acceptable tone. On the left you can see evidence of the original red coloration from symbols directly above Ourobors. Take notice of white subtle laminar texture of volatile Moon and puffy consistence of fixed upper Sun.
Berthelot states that Ouroboros is the very symbol of the entire work, without neither starting nor ending. Perhaps it means to reveal his detrimental thinking about Alchemy: a fool around practice 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.
Alchemical movements are two and they are called Sun and Moon. Our Sun and our Moon (see a quite exhaustive Sun and Moon (1) listing of meanings). Secret Fire is what differentiates alchemy from chemistry: a strange undetected substance whose massive container probably is atomic electronic cloud though not apparently being a known detected particle. It is a common belief, among alchemists, that Secret Fire is the main constituent of time.
Let’s start from the third meaning: Repetitions or Rota.In Labors of Hercules Mercurius is achieved by means of 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 a nice 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.
In the Main work Secret Fire/Quintessence has finally come to light and is perfectly able to operate by itself on 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 Secret Book (2) and Kamala Jnana Great Work Photographed (3) are about. It will be of some interest to know that these operations have the tendency to repeat themselves over and over again. Hence they are called color rotations or, again, Rota. The picture on the left has been taken from “ The book of Abraham the Jew”, which is traditionally said to be discovered by Flamel, and shows these continuous rotations from black to white, to red to black (see an Opus Magnum scheme).
The second, and most applied Ouroboros meaning from eighteenth century on, is about fixed dominating volatile. Which is actually not so different from previous aforementioned. But le’s hear from Fulcanelli, Dwellings of Philosophers 1929: “Philosophers have represented the union between fixed and volatile, Soul and Spirit, with this serpent devourating its tail allegory.”
We have to volatile and fix raw matter salts to reach Mercurius. Which is a volatile to be fixed to become Mercurius Philosophorum. Which, in turn, is volatile in comparison to unripe Soul or White Sulphur and so on. In every alchemical step there is a volatile to be fixed and a fixed to be made volatile. Ouroboros represents active/fixed upper part fixing a passive/volatile inferior part which, in turn, dissolves and feed 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. 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 on this relationship they did not find out 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 romatic 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 (5) in another nature, one nature conquers another nature, one nature dominates another nature. 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 perpetually fight against each other. Till one definitely won the other and turned it into its own nature. When fixed has fixed (coagulated) volatile after having been volatilized in its turn, adepts say that they made peace and become at one, they (Sun and Moon) are now unable to be separated again. This goes without saying that Pernety, monk and priest, had very clear opinion about marriages at large. Here he introduces the Union or Double or Mercurius Duplicatus. The Alchemical Marriage (6) indeed.
It’s time now to pass to the first one of Ouroboros aforementioned meanings: coming out of Quintessence and its power. Like a breathing, there is an inherently repeated closed operation here. Labors inside vessels are similar in Microcosm and in Macrocosm. Secret Fire/Quintessense is always the same but…..how on earth does this huge alchemical power come out?
As said Solve et Coagula, our engine, is represented by Ouroboros. Fixed dominates volatile. Which in turn dissolves and feeds fixed. This engine is also applied to Astronomical stars and suns, which are Secret Fire/Quintessence huge 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 – alchemical volatile Mercurius and volatile Sulphur in vessels – Fixed Philosopher Stone – alchemical volatile Mercurius Sulphur and so on. The previous volatile turns and becomes fixed to next volatile. And a woman turns into male.
That’s our Solve et Coagula engine, our Magnet breathing from the beginning. But a never ending story does not have neither a beginning nor an end. Like a ring. Indeed Secret Fire, in turn, returns to Stars and Suns. In density Stairs working as mirrors. Mind that 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 to be too much romantic to fit to alchemical possible reality.
Density Stairs are applied to all Ouroboros meanings. For active and passive, fixed and volatile, man and woman, Sun and Moon are only different densities of the same thing.