Indra's Net: Alchemy and Chaos Theory as Templates for Transformation
The following article is excerpted from Indra's Net: Alchemy and Chaos Theory as Templates for Transformation (available from Quest Books).
The symbol of the uroboros is very ancient indeed (figure 3.1). As early as 4200 BC, the Chinese created jade images of the zhulong (literally, "dragon-pig"). This odd creature, a cross between a snake and a pig, wrapped around itself to form a circle. Over time the figure became more graceful and, scholars speculate, evolved into the Chinese dragon, which is regarded as a figure of power and luck.
Figure 3.1. "One is all," from Codex Marcianus.
In the West, the uroboros first appeared in Egypt as early as 1600 BC. It served as a symbol of the eternal cycle of death and resurrection, in which each is inseparable from the other. But the uroboros was hardly confined to China and Egypt, and in fact appeared in a wide variety of cultures-African, Norse, Aztec, Native American, and Hindu, among others (figure 3.2).
Figure 3.2. Aztec uroboros.
From Egypt, the symbol passed into Greek culture, much as other alchemical and prealchemical ideas did, as we've seen. The word uroboros (one of several spellings) comes from the Greek for "tail-eater." In the Timaeus, Plato described the first living being in terms strikingly similar to the uroboros. He said that this first being had neither eyes nor ears because it was totally self-contained, with nothing external yet in existence. Its waste was also its food, which in turn became waste, in a closed ecological cycle. It was perfect in its self-sufficiency.
For Christian Gnostics, the uroboros represented the limits of the material world and a life based on material goals. An early Gnostic document, Pistis Sophia, puts it this way: "The outer darkness is a great dragon, whose tail is in his mouth, outside the whole world and surrounding the whole world," and this: "The disk of the sun was a great dragon whose tail was in his mouth and who reached to seven powers of the Left and whom four powers in the form of white horses drew."
It was intrinsic to alchemy that the final product of the opus-the philosopher's stone-was already contained in its beginning-the prima materia. Thus the uroboros served as the perfect alchemical symbol to express the idea that "one is all." Because it fit so perfectly the alchemical ideal, we encounter the uroboros not only as a symbol of the total opus, but also in variations used to symbolize a wide variety of alchemical truths. For example, in an extensive series of eighteenth-century woodcuts by Johann Conrad Barchusen, the tail-eater occurs at virtually every stage of the alchemical process. In the selection of images shown in figure 3.3, the snake begins as a tail-eater, then unwinds and burrows into the philosopher's egg to fertilize it. Within the egg, it then bites its tail again, forming a new unity. In a number of pictures, corresponding to stages in the alchemical process, the snake is hidden within the egg. Eventually it emerges and bites its tail to form a circle around the egg. In some of these stages, the egg transforms into an alchemical vessel, the better to make an explicit point that this series of images is symbolizing an actual physical process performed by the alchemist.
Figure 3.3. Barchusen woodcut.
This set of pictures of the uroboros (and I stress that there are many more pictures, both with and without the uroboric image, within the total series) goes out of its way to stress that the end of the process is already contained at the beginning. Nevertheless, without the process, the final product cannot be created. There has to be an incubation, a fertilization, and then much work before the philosopher's egg becomes the completed philosopher's stone. The final pictures in Barchusen's cycle show the final product contained within the boundaries of the uroboros.
In alchemy, Hermes Trismegistus (i.e., "Thrice Greatest Hermes") is known as Mercurius. Mercurius presides over every step of the opus and serves as a symbol of the transformative power that connects opposites. Since everything in alchemy has both a symbolic and a literal meaning, Mercurius also represents the chemical element mercury, also commonly known as quicksilver, the only metal found in nature in liquid form. Mercury was known to early civilizations and was found in Egyptian tombs as early as 1500 BC. It combines with gold and silver (and with most other metals, except iron) to form a soft amalgam, that is, an alloy that contains mercury. A common ancient way to extract gold from crushed crude ore was to add mercury, so that the gold formed an amalgam with the mercury. Further processes were then used to extract the mercury from the amalgam, leaving the gold. Mercury thus seemed a perfect symbol for all alchemical transformation. As such, it fascinated those who discovered it, much as it still does the child who encounters it for the first time. The alchemists stress, however, that their mercury is not the normal mercury known to others.
In alchemical imagery, Mercurius is often combined with the uroboros in subtle ways. In some of the alchemical drawings, the snake that fertilizes the philosopher's egg is three-headed to indicate that it is actually Mercurius who is the transformative agent (figure 3.4). For alchemists this image was a shorthand way to indicate that mercury was necessary to begin the process.
Figure 3.4. Mercurius as uroboros.
One of many variants on the uroboros in alchemy is the bird who eats itself. Images show a pelican pecking away at its own chest, often with drops of blood showing, to demonstrate the difficulty experienced in the alchemical work (figure 3.5). This particular image also represented a particular kind of alchemical vessel, called the pelican, in which a tube led back from the top of the vessel into the middle of the vessel. When heated, this shape created a circulation of the mixture within.
Figure 3.5. Pelican pecking its chest and a pelican vessel.
The twentieth century has given us perhaps the most perfect image of the circulatory process represented by the pelican: the mathematical object known as a Klein bottle (figure 3.6). The outside of a Klein bottle is also the inside. If you filled a Klein bottle with water, the water would flow along the outside of the bottle onto the floor. Or you could just as easily dip the outside into a pail of water to fill up the inside. Unfortunately, a Klein bottle cannot exist in our three-dimensional world; we would need a fourth spatial dimension to create it. This is, however, the impossible situation that the alchemists were trying to capture in their uroboric images.
Figure 3.6. Three-dimensional projection of a Klein bottle.
Still another variant on the figure of the uroboros was to have the snake form a figure eight, with one circle above another, before biting its tail. In this way, the uroboric image also conveys "as above, so below." A mathematical equivalent of this image is a Möbius strip (named after its discoverer, nineteenth-century German mathematician August Möbius). To make a Möbius strip, take a long, narrow strip of paper. Bring the two ends together and glue them to make a circle; however, just before you glue them together, give one end a single twist. That single twist transforms a two-dimensional figure-a circle-into a one-dimensional figure-a Möbius strip! Let's say you want to color the outside of the strip red and the inside blue. Take a red felt‑tip pin and start coloring the outside. Keep sliding the strip along as you color it. Unless you've seen a Möbius strip before, you should be very surprised when you eventually arrive back at your starting point. "Both" surfaces of the strip are colored red, because there is really only one surface. There's no inside left to color blue.
Magicians perform a trick called the Afghan Bands that is based on the principle of the Möbius strip. Instead of paper bands, they use strips of cloth, which are easy to tear along their length. One strip is joined into a simple circle. A second is given the twist that transforms it into a Möbius strip before its ends are joined. Both look like simple circles of cloth. When the true circle is torn in half lengthwise, two circles of cloth result. However, when the Möbius strip is torn, you end up with one circle that has a diameter twice the size of the original circle. An anonymous limerick says it this way:
A mathematician confided
That a Möbius strip is one‑sided.
You'll get quite a laugh
If you cut it in half,
For it stays in one piece when divided.
In one further variant of the alchemical uroboros, the figure eight was formed by a single tail biter above and two tail biters biting each other's tail below (figure 3.7). Not only does this show the idea of "as above, so below," but we might speculate that there are three tail biters to show Mercurius in some intermediate process in which, while joined, he is also split in some complex way.
Figure 3.7. Uroboros combining two and three.
As we will discuss at length in the final chapter of this book, the later alchemists were quite aware that the opus was as much a transformation of the alchemist as it was a physical transformation in the laboratory. "In the age‑old image of the uroboros lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself."
Robin Robertson holds his Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is currently teaching graduate level students as an Associate Professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies. He has published fifteen books as well as numerous articles and white papers. Dr. Robertson holds a position as an officer in the Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology and the Life Sciences. He is also a life-time amateur magician, and a member of the Order of Merlin of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.
 The philosopher's egg is a frequent image in alchemy for the developing philosopher's stone, which is the final product of the opus.Tweet