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The Ourobros as an Auroral Phenomenon

Author(s): Marinus Anthony van der Sluijs and Anthony L. Peratt


Source: Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Jan. - Apr., 2009), pp. 3-41
Published by: Indiana University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40206938
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L. Peratt
van derSluijsand Anthony
MarinusAnthony

as an
The Ouroboros

AuroralPhenomenon

Abstract: This articletracesthe spread and developmentof the motifof


the ourob&roSy
or circularserpent,and proposes thatitoriginatedin descriptionsof an intenseaurora. The earliestartisticexamples of the ouroboros
date to 5000-3000 BCE. The themeproliferatedin Egyptand spread to
the classicalworldduringthe Hellenisticperiod. In the earliesttraditions,
emphasiswason theouroboros' associationswiththesun god, thecreation
of the world,the circularocean, darknessor underworldthoughtto surround the earth,and a mythicalcombat. From late antiquityonwards,the
ouroboros acquired more sophisticatedmeanings,includinga link with
the eclipticband or the zodiac, the lunar nodes, the alchemical process,
In China, theouroboroslargelyremaineda purelydecorative
and eternity.
its
most common role in the equatorial regionsof America,
while
motif,
Africaand Oceania was as a formof the cosmic ocean.
In reviewing
we consider
hypothesesconcerningtheoriginofthemotif,
the antiquityof the theme, its near-universality,
its geographic link with
the outermostboundaryof the visibleworld,and aspects of the dragon's
- such as itsprecious orb,itsfilamentation,
itstwinaspect,
prosopography
and itsradiantcolor scheme. It is proposed thatthearchetypewas inspired
by a surge of intense auroral phenomena including a plasma instability
witnessedbyhuman beings towards
typeknownas a diocotroninstability,
the end of the Neolithicperiod.

ofworldmythology
Since the beginningof history,fewcharacters
as muchas thedragon.One ofthemost
havecapturedtheimagination
theserpent
conspicuousformsassumedbythedragonis theouroboros,
- "devours
itstail"(LiddellandScott1940:1274).
that- as thenamesays
3

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Vol.46, No. 1

The presentinquiryoffersa surveyof ouroboros traditionsworldwide


and fromthe earliesttimesonwards,followedbya novel theoryto explain its emergence. In the course of this investigation,the narrow
definitionof the term,whichrequires the tail to be actuallyplaced in
themouthofthesnake,is extendedto theconceptofenclosingserpents
in general.
The earliestknown examples of the ouroboros, which are purely
artistic,antedate the age of writingand are concentrated in China
and the ancient Near East. More than twodozen artifactsincorporating the motifand ranging over a largelycontinuous period of time
have been uncovered in China. The earliestis a terracottaamphora
discoveredin 1958 at Gangu,Wushan,Gansu. This amphora belonged
to the Neolithic Yangshao culture,which was located along the Yellow Riverfrom5000-3000 BCE (Elisseeffand Bobot 1973:40). This
snake-likecreature,withitshead approaching its tail,is suggestiveof
"the incipience of the dragon motif,though hind feet are lacking"
(Mundkur 1983:75). The motifis also found on a significantnumber
ofotherobjectsfromChina (the earliestfromtheNeolithicHongshan
culture),Siberia,and the Crimea (Needham 1980:381). Southwestern
Iran is a second early center of iconography,with examples found
at Tepe Giyan and Tepe Bouhallan fromthe firsthalf of the fourth
millennium BCE (Mahdihassan 1963:43, fig. 18; Amiet 1966:37; cf.
Toscanne 1911:191, fig.351). The motifalso has been discovered on
a prehistoricEgyptianring (Petrie 1914:25 and plate XII). In scattered places around the world, the ouroboros occasionally appears
in petroglyphsand on pottery.

The CircularSerpentin Cosmology:


AncientEgypt
According to textbooksand encyclopedias on mythologicalsymbols,
the icon of the round snake conveyedthe sense of continuity,
union,
stability,cyclicity,or immortality(e.g., Deonna 1952:163; Lindsay
1970:261; Cooper 1978; Chevalier and Gheerbrant 1996a, 1996b).
However,a close inspection of primarysource materialsuggeststhat
the original SitzimLebenof the ouroboros was cosmological:
CosmicProportions: The territoryencompassed by the coil of
the serpentwas oftenunderstood to be the
entireearth,world,or cosmos,vague terms

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MarinusA. van der Sluijs& AnthonyL. Peratt

The Ouroboros

thatoriginally
connotedno morethanthe
simple concept of "all thingsknownor
seen." By encirclingthe earth,the snake
it(Cheeffectively
supportedand protected
valierand Gheerbrant1996b:846).
SolarConnection: The serpentwas widelybelievedeitherto
enclosethesun or,in rarecases,to be the
sun (Preisendanz1935:143,1940:207).
relatethe
directly
Cosmogonic
Aspect: A numberofbeliefsystems
of
the
ouroboros
to
the
formation
cycleof
thecreation
eventsunderstoodtorepresent
oftheworld.
WithintheOld World,theoldesthistorical
examplesoftheouroboros
motif
areEgyptian
(Preisendanz1935:143;1940:194,cf.208;Needham
whichis indicativeof the
The
earliest
textualattestation,
1980:375).
of the theme,is a cursein the Pyramid
Texts(2300
greatantiquity
BCE): "Yourtailbe on yourmouth,O ini-snake!"(689.393). Cosmofroma numberoflaterimageson
can be inferred
logicalsymbolism
of the
"the earliestknownrepresentation
burialobjects.Arguably,
in funerary
artis an episodeon thesecondgildedshrineof
ouroboros'
fromthe fourteenth
"a
centuryBCE, featuring
KingTutankhamun
figureoftheking,hishead and feetencircledby
largemummiform
twoserpentsbitingtheirtails.The serpentaroundthehead is called
1955:121,fig.41; Hornung1999:78).
Mehen,theEnveloper"(Piankoff
and thesnakesurrounding
The twoimagesofMehen,theencircler,
ofheavenand earth
theking'sfeetsupposedlyconnotedthepolarity
1953:7). Animageon thefunerary
(Strieker
papyrusoftheChantress
features
a tail-biting
snake.It
ofAmunHenuttawy
(1069-747 BCE)
the
of
is placed in the righthand of Geb, thepersonification
earth,
torsooftheanthropomorphic
overwhosebodythestar-spangled
sky
goddessis extended(BritishMuseumcatalognumberEA 10018.2;
Lanzone1881:408-10,plateCLIX. 8). Althoughtheexactsignificance
leaveslittle
oftheouroborosin thisimageis elusive,thearrangement
conceived
of
it
as
a
doubtthattheEgyptians
prominent
phenomenon
in the space betweenheavenand earth- eitheras a manifestation
ofthepatternoftheenclosing
ofthejourneyingsun or a repetition

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union of earthand sky(Lindsay 1970:274). In another typeof image,


the ouroboros surroundsthe sun god, Horahte, and is supported on
the backs of twolions facingawayfromeach other.In some cases, the
head of an animal identifiableas the "bull of heaven" correspondsin
functionto thatofa sky-supporting
pillar (Piankoff1949:135-34, plate
IV; Strieker1953:8, 10, 12, cf. fig.3f,4a-f; Clark 1959:53).
A clusterofpassagesbothin theBookoftheDeadend the Coffin
Texts(
to seventeenthcenturiesBCE) describesthecoilsofa serpent
twenty-first
thatsurroundedthesun god as pathwaysoffire.Re' is "theCoiled One,
who makesa circlein a myriadaftera myriad(ofyears) . . . The pathsof
firego round about the seat of the ShiningSun, who guardsthe paths
forthegreatbarkoftheCoiled One, who makesa circleformyriadafter
myriad"(CoffinTexts:758[VI. 387], 759-60 [VI. 387-90]; BookoftheDead
(Papyrusof Nu):131, tr.Allen 1974:107).
In termsof the dailycycleof the sun, the serpent'srole is certainly
definedas thatofthedivineantagonistwho opposes thesun's risingwith
clouds and lightningstorms(e.g., Strieker1953:7) . A vignetteaccompanyinga spell in the BookoftheDead depictsthe sun as a cat usinga knife
to attackthe circularserpentthatsurroundshim at the foot of a tree
(BookoftheDea125,tr.Kolpaktchy1973:214; Lanzone 1881:plateCIV.
1). Anotherpassage in the same corpus explains thatthe cat denoted
Re' and the treedenoted the sacred ished-tree
at Heliopolis (Bookofthe
A
tr.
Faulkner
from
312/311 BCE features
Dead:17,
1985:48). papyrus
Apep or Apepi as theophidian foe of thesun god Re', who is destroyed
byhis forcedadoption of the circularpose:
O 'APEP,thoufoeofRe', gettheeback!. . . thoushaltnotcomeagainst
over
Re' in histwoheavenswhenRe' is in hisheavens;he shalltriumph
thee,thytailshallbe placedin thymouth,and thoushaltchewthineown
skin,it beingcutintoupon thealtarof thegods,of theGreatEnnead
whichis in Heliopolis.
Hail to thee,O Re', in the midstof (the coils of) thymehen-serpent;
over'APEP. ("Bremner-Rhind
thouarttriumphant
Papyrus"1937 and
cf.
4.24.11, 22.15,32.45)
1938:6.30.15-17,
As the embodimentof the lowerregion of the cosmos, the ouroboros
bears an intimaterelationshipto the darknessof the Dw3t,or underworld,throughwhich the sun, emulated by the soul of the deceased
king,musttravelat night.An imageon thealabastersarcophagusofKing

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The Ouroboros

SetiI (1280BCE) portrays


theboatofthesungodinthefirst
regionof
theDw3t,describedin theBookofGates(as paraphrased
E.
by A. Wallis
a beetle;thediskis encircledbya huge
Budge) as "a diskcontaining
in
which
holds
its
tailin itsmouth."(1904:vol1, 180;cf.
folds,
serpent
The
ouroboros
is associatedwiththeunderworld,
Hornung1999:66).
whichservesas therepository
ofthetemporarily
deceasedsungodand
otherdisincarnate
souls.Thisassociationalso underliesa numberof
textsfromthesixteenth
BCE onward,including
some
funerary
century
inwhichOsirisisdepictedwithin
thecoilofa serpentthatisalternately
identified
as Wer(theold one or thegreatone) and as Neh3Her (fearfulface)whowasapparently
identicalwithMehen {BookofCaverns'A8,
10,
66-7,
12,
72-74,
129-30,
1953:10,fig.3c,fig.
fig.
fig.
fig.27; Strieker
cf.
Clark
58;
1959:167;Hornung1999:85-95).
Far frombeingrestricted
to the diurnalsunrise,the ouroboros'
in
is
most
activity
pronounced itscosmogonicrole.In thecontextof
of thesun and thestormor darknessis
creation,thedailyantithesis
reducedto the morefundamental,
archetypal
strugglebetweenthe
sun on itsfirstrisingand the malevolentforcesof the unorganized
chaos.The cosmogonicaspectofthecircularserpentmorespecifically
manifests
as thedarknessoftheunderworld,
as thesnakewasdemon"the
conceivedas
thickdarknesswhichenvelopedthewatery
strably
of
and
which
formed
sucha seriousobstacletothesunwhen
Nu,
abyss
he wasmakinghiswayoutoftheinertmassfromwhichhe proceeded
torisethefirst
time"(Budge1904:vol.1, 324). Asa primordial
formof
darknessenclosingRe', thisapproximates
theprosopography
ofSito
of
alias
Iru-To
of
a
monstrous
(creator earth),
(son earth),
serpent
thatarose "out of the darknessof the PrimevalWatersbeforeany
definitethingyetexisted"(Clark1959:50,cf.241;Faulkner1985:87).
is preserved
The crucialepisode in the cycleof creationmythology
in a spellin the Coffin
in whichthe creativedeitydeclareshis
Texts,
withthecoil thatsurroundedhim:
identity
I bentrightaroundmyself,
I wasencircledin mycoils,
in themidstofhiscoils.
one whomadea place forhimself
waswhatcameforthfromhisownmouth.
His utterance
Texts-,321
[IV. 147] translated
byClark1959:51)
(Coffin

thepassageheretranslated
totranslator
Faulkner,
Raymond
According
is "surely
note
as "bentrightaroundmyself"
Texts:250,
corrupt"1
(Coffin
evidencereviewed
abovenonetheless
that
16).The comparative
suggests

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thepresupposedimage is thatoftheouroboros,producingeithersingle
or multiplecoils around the solar orb. The textsmake it sufficiently
clear thatthissnakewas the supremegod ofcreation(cf.Clark 1959:51;
Faulkner1985:175;Uphill 2003:19).

Survivalsin Late Antiquity


As an artmotif,theouroborosmayhavespreadfromEgyptto theLevant.
An ouroborosdecoratestherimofa bowlwitha Phoenician inscription
fromtheseventhcenturyBCE thatwas discoveredin 1876 in Praeneste,
Italy(Clermont-Ganneau1878:239,1880:8,plateIII). One also decorates
a marble cup fromnear Sidon, now in Lebanon (Deonna 1952:169).
In the visualartsof the classicalworld,the motifof the round serpent
surfacedno earlierthan the Roman Imperialage, almostexclusivelyin
esotericcontexts(Deonna 1952:164-65, 170; Needham 1980:377). The
natureoftheseappearancesindicatesan orientalprovenance
syncretistic
and enabled thesnake'smagicalapplications- in theformofspellsand
amulets- to prevailas the originallinkswithdarknessand the underworldbegan to fade (cf.Bonner 1950:158,250) . Essentiallytwothematic
typescan be distinguished.One type,akin to the HellenisticEgyptian
use of 'Apep, featuresa victoriousdeitytramplingon the subjugated
ouroboros (Van Wijngaardenand Strieker1941:35;Strieker1943:27fig.
15; cf. 1944:89; 1953:6, fig.1; Mundkur 1983:66 fig.35). Anothertype
featuresthe ouroboros protectively
surroundingthe sun god. Charms
withthis typeof image were oftenprescribedbetween the thirdand
fifthcenturiesCE. For example, a spell froma GreekMagical Papyrus
advises: "Helios is to be engraved on a heliotrope stone as follows:A
thick-bodiedsnake in the shape of a wreathshould be [shown] having
itstailin itsmouth.Inside [thecircleformedby] thesnakelet therebe a
sacredscarab" (12.274-76; cf.1.144-47; 7.586; 12.203-206). In thesame
numberofGnosticgemswereinscribedwiththe
tradition,a significant
round snake, typically
enfoldingthe name of the tutelarygenius,such
as Abraxas,Anubis,Osiris,Horus, Iao, Khnum,Harpocratesor Serapis
(Bonner 1950; Chabouillet 1858; cf.Cumont 1898:293; Cook 1914:192;
Deonna 1920:128). As borrowingsfromthe southeasternpart of the
Mediterraneanbasin,these instancesof the ouroboros are symbolicin
intentand lack a narrative,mythologicalframework.

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The Ouroboros

In literaryformat,the Egyptiansymbolismof the ouroboros placed


itsstampon the colorfullegends wovenaround thebiographyofAlexander theGreat.In the romance traditionally
attributedtoAlexander's
court historian,Callisthenes of Olynthus (f 328 BCE), Alexander's
is compared to the serpent's encirclingof the "world egg"
Blitzkrieg
( VitaAlexandriMagni [Armenianversion]:1.23-24; cf. VitaAlexandri
Magni [Syriacversion]:1.11) In the Syriacversion,the prophecywas
subsequentlyaffirmedbythegod Ammon himself,who toldAlexander
in a vision: "Through the serpent thou wiltencircle the whole world
like a dragon" (1.30).
The cosmicproportionsoftheouroborosand itslinkswithdarkness
and the infernalregion were betterpreservedin some Gnostic texts.
In one,Jesussays:"The outer darknessis a greatdragonwhose tailis in
itsmouth,and itis outside the wholeworld,and itsurroundsthe whole
world: (PistisSophia:3.126,cf. 3.102, 105-07, 119, 127-28, 4.136). In
anotherGnostictext,theapostleThomas encountersa snakewho identifieshimselfas "the offspring
of the serpent,... I am the son of him
who encirclestheglobe; I am kinsmanto himwho is outsidethe ocean,
whose taillies in his mouth" (The ActsofThomas:32;see also Lydus:3.4;
1885:326-28; Stocks 1910:3, 44; Reitzenstein1921:78).
Wesselofsky

The CircularSerpentand theWorldOcean


In an archaic cosmological model reflected in many cultures, the
ouroboros embodied the cosmic boundaryand shared a close associationwiththe equallywidespreadnotion of the circularocean (Deonna
1920:131) . Traditionsvaryfroma mere feelingthatthe circularsnake
dwells inside the surroundingwater to a direct identificationof the
two.In some cases, the alternatingtides are ascribed to the activityof
the creature.Again, the earliestexample comes fromEgypt.A spell in
the PyramidTextsinvokesthe god Osirisin the followingcapacity:"you
are complete and greatin yourname of 'Wall of the BitterLakes,' you
are hale and great in your name of 'Sea'; behold, you are great and
round in [yourname of] 'Ocean'; behold, you are circularand round
as the circle which surrounds the H3w-nbwt,
behold, you are round
and great as the Sn-'s-sk"2
(628-29 [366], cf. 847 [454], 1631 [593]).
The literalinterpretationof Osiris as the personificationof a circular
ocean is strengthenedbythe well-knownidentificationof Osiris with
in particularthatoftheNile,4whichwas itselfequated
water,3
life-giving

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withthe ocean: "For the Egyptiansconsider Oceanus to be theirriver


Nile, on which also theirgods were born" (Diodorus:1.12). As Clark
concluded, "There was even a doctrinethatOsiriswas thewhole earth,
or the ocean whichsurrounded the knownworld. . . . He is in the Red
Sea, the Mediterranean and the cosmic ocean which surrounds the
world. Such thoughtswere not a later development. They belong to
one of the earliesthymnsthathave survived"(1959:117). Late survivals of the Egyptianassociation of the ouroboros withthe sea include
"the offspringof the serpent . . . who encircles the globe. . . . who is
outside the ocean" encountered by the apostle Thomas ( TheActsof
Thomas:32).Alexander the Great,while airborne, perceived "a large
snake coiled in a circle,and inside ita round buildinglike a verysmall
which represented "the earth; the snake, however,
threshing-floor"
is the sea, which surroundsthe earth." (Vita AlexandriMagni (Greek
version)2.41.10-12).5
Hints thatthe ouroboros is a marinecreatureappear relatively
late
and somewhatindirectly
in Hebrewtexts.Iiwyatanor Leviathan,literally
meaning the coilingone, is the mostfamiliardragon in the Old Testament.MedievalJewishtraditionscontend thatLeviathan"gripshis tail
betweenhis teethand formsa ringaround the Ocean" (PiyyutWeyikkon
'Olam1964:48;cf.Ginzberg1947:43-46) or that"Behemotand Leviathan
are snakes (monsters)on the shore of the ocean, surroundthe earth
likea ring"6( Vocabularium
. Atleastthreemedievalworks
Aethiopicum:83)
of artdepictLeviathanas "a large fishcurled into a ring"(Ameisenowa
1935:421, Fig. 2; Leveen 1944:77; Drewer 1981:153, plates 17b, 18a).
Forexample,
These expressionsmaywellreflectmuchearliersentiments.
Psalm74, 13-14 seems to identify"the coiling serpent"withthe sea if
is read as a stylistic
(the
parallel to yam(the sea) and hammdyim
liwydtdn
waters) (Gunkel 1895:59; cLJob26.12). The link between the serpent
and thesea is unambiguousin BabylonianTalmud:Baba Batra(74b) , but
is not specifiedin any of these passages. The possibilitythat
circularity
Leviathanoriginallypersonifiedthesea is undergirdedbytheapparent
ofitsUgariticnamesakeand predecessor,Lotan,witha
interchangeability
called
Yamm(u), literally
meaningsea (Oldenburg 1969:33,138;
dragon
Wakeman 1973:92-93; Fontenrose1980 [1959] :134; Bonnet 1987:140;
West 1997:300-02). Nicholas Wyattsomewhatcarelesslyimplied that
with"theocean, thecosmic
Lotan should be "identifiedmythologically"
sea whichsurroundsthe habitableworld"(1995:226). A midras(second
centuryCE onwards) hintsat the possibilitythat Leviathan and yam

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A. vanderSluijs& Anthony
L. Peratt
Marinus

TheOuroboros

11

(the Ocean) mayonce havebeen parallelconceptsfroma


haggddol
theworldas a vault
mythological
pointofview:"TheOcean surrounds
surroundsa largepillar.And theworldis placed in itscircularform
on the finsof Leviathan."(Midras'A^r^t ha-Dibb9rdt.l:63\
Wensinck
1916:62;cf.1918:23).7
The watery
ouroboroswasa commonfixture
inVikingloreas well.
The Icelandictradition,
as laiddowninProse
Edda(composedbySnorri
Sturluson
thesupremedeity,
received
[f 1241CE] ) ,heldthatAll-father,
the
and
"threw
the
(i.e.,
"Iormungand
Midgardserpent)"
serpentinto
thatdeep sea whichliesroundall lands,and thisserpentgrewso that
itliesin themidstoftheocean encircling
all landsand biteson itsown
tail" {Gylfaginningm
.
Sturluson:34,cf. 8; PoeticEdda: V6luspd:b2-b)

Because"theMidgardserpentlivesstilland liesin theencircling


sea"
bardssuch
,as Snorriopined,professional
( Gylfaginningm
Sturluson:48)
as OlvirHnufa,Eystein
could
Valdason,Bragi,and EilifGudrunarson
accordMidgardsormr
suchsobriquets
as "encircler
ofall lands,""steepoftheearth,""thecoal-fish
thatbounds
way's[land's]ring,""coal-fish
all lands,""theuglyring[serpent]oftheside-oared
ship'sroad [sea],"
and "sea-thread"
in
Sturluson:4,
18).
(Skaldskaparmal
similarideasare encountered
in placesfarremovedfrom
Strikingly
intheregionsofInworld,proliferating
Europeand theMediterranean
andLatinAmerica,
atlatitudes
betweentheequator
dia,Oceania,Africa,
and 30 north.In Vedicmythology,
thegod Visnuis depictedas being
calledNaga,Sesa,orAnanta,at thetimeof
asleepon a cosmicserpent,
creation.
An episodein theMahdbharata
BCE onwards),
(sixthcentury
describeshowBrahma(aliasPrajapati),in thewakeofthechurning
of
theprimordial
theserpent
tostabilize
thewobbly
earth
ocean,instructed
itfrombelow:
byencircling
Thiswideearthaboundingwithmountains
and forests,
withheroceans
and minefields
and settlements,
whichso farhas rockedunsteadily,
you
mustnowencompassand holdso thatshe be stable.. . . Then go underneaththeearth,thoubestoftheSnakes.. . . TheBardsaid:Sesa consented;
thefirstborn
ofthefirst
a chasmin the
amongtheSnakespassedthrough
earthand stayedthere.He carriesGoddessEarthon hishead,encompassthemajesticsnakeAnantadwells
ingall aroundthefellyoftheocean
underneath
theground,ubiquitous,
holdinggoodEarthup atthebidding
ofBrahma.(Vyasa:[5]32.17-19)
On theislandofNias,offthe coast of Sumatra,a prodigioussnake is
thoughtto encircletheearthand is held responsibleforthe tidesof the

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Vol. 46, No. 1

fromthe palace of Gezo, representingDa Ayidohwedo,the god


Fig. 1. Bas-relief
of the rainbowand servantof the thunder(Waterlot1926:plateIX).

ocean (Modigliani
totheTobaBatak,
1890:317-18,
616). Andaccording
ofSumatra,
the"godoftheunderworld,
ofthesea and thelightning"
is
"Panena Bolon,theunderworld-serpent,"
and he "sendstherains,he
createsthewaves,thethunderand thelightning
. . . Moreover,
he gives
to thefieldsand bearsthemiddleworld
on hishead" (Tobing
fertility
Winkler
1956:27,cf.56,82,122;Joustra
1917:331;
1925:8,208;1956:31).
On a painting
ina Toba house,Pane na Bolonisshownina head-to-tail
positionenclosingthemiddleworld(Hasibuan1985:79,cf.123).
The Fon ofBenindepictthecosmosas a calabash,withtheupper
halfcorresponding
to theskyand thelowerhalfcontainingtheearth
withthesea flowing
aroundit.The surrounding
sea is equivalentto
theprimordialserpentDa Ayidohwedo:
"It is oftensaid: Ayidohxvedo
turnsaroundthe earthlikea
daga (fordo ago) da weke,Ayidohxvedo
meridian... it is said thatDa residesin the ocean (xu)"8 (Maupoil
1943:63,73-74; cf. Mercier1954:220-1; Metraux1958:320). This
motifis abundantlyreflectedin local art (Herskovits1938:341and
Burton1966:298;Merloand Vidaud 1966). Manysimifrontispiece;
larartifacts
includea bas-relief
on thepalace ofKingGezo (figure1)
and a bronzeshieldthatmaysymbolize
thecosmos- likethefamous
shieldof Heracles- and featuresthe ouroborosencirclinga square
the earth(PittRivers1900:plate
that,in our estimation,
maysignify
indicatesthatthisserpentwasnot
18,catalog#102).A local tradition

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MarinusA. van der Sluijs& AnthonyL. Peratt

The Ouroboros

13

merely an artistic device or a cosmological symbol, but that it was also


firmlyembedded in the creation mythology cycle:
Now when the taskof makingthe earthwas done, the Creatorsaw thathe
had put on it too great a weightforit to carry,for therewere too many
mountains,too manytrees,too manylarge animals. Somethinghad to be
done to keep the earthfromfallinginto the sea, and so Aido Hwedo, the
male serpent,was asked to coil himself,tail in mouth,and lie below the
earth like a carryingpad that men and women use to support burdens
which theycarryon theirheads. But because Aido Hwedo does not like
heat, the Creator gave him the sea to live in. (Herskovits1938:248-49;
cf. Mercier 1954:220)

In SouthAmerica,
theKogiofColombiamaintain
thattheprimordial
ocean was"theGreatMother,theoriginof all things.Her namewas
In one ofherforms,
she was"a hugeblackserpentthat
Gaulcovdng"
encircledthesea" (Reichel-Dolmatoff
1987:83-84).Accordingto the
WaraooftheOrinoco,
the earthis a diskwhichfloatsin the middle of theworldsea. Accordingly,
the Indians referto the earth as hobahi,"thatwhich is surrounded bywater."Submerged in the ocean and encirclingthe earthis a serpentwhose
extremeends approach each other,uroboros
[sic] fashion,east of the disk.
This sea monsteris hahuba,"the Snake of Being," whose body contains
the amorphous luminous essence of all life formson earth and whose
breathingregulatesthe rhythmof the tides. (Wilbert1981:37-38)

The Shipibo-Conibo,
ofthePeruvianAmazon,holdstrikingly
similar
ideas.Asan informant
fromCaimito,LaureanoAncon,revealed,"The
earth,on whichwe are situated,is a largedisc floatingin the great
- halfsubmerged
- is nestled
water,dnipdro.The worldsnakeRonin
arounditsrim"9(Gebhart-Sayer
1987:25,cf.51, 72,86; 1984:10,13).

SomeOtherCharacteristics
oftheCircularSerpent
Otherrecurrent
inthearchetypal
features
oftheouroboros
mythology
are itsassociationwitha roundedobject,fourpillars,theaxismundi,
therainbow,
and lightning.
The ouroborosis sometimespartitioned
intoblackandwhitesections,
hasmultiple
"scales"or"eyes,"
glistening
and revolves.
Italso oftenhasa dual natureand a felineaspect.Space
permitselaborationon onlya fewofthese.

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14

Research
ofFolklore
Journal

Vol.46, No. 1

RainbowColor
Sourcesthatelaborateon thecolorpatternoftheouroborosrepeatedlyspecifya variegatedrainbow-like
spectrum.Accordingto the
Huicholpeople ofcentralMexico,theouroboros,whomtheycalled
Tate' Ipou,was"paintedred,blue,and yellow"(Lumholtz1900:39).
In Benin,Da Ayidohwedo
wascomparedto therainbowas wellas the
sun (Maupoil 1943:74)."Whenhe appearsas therainbow,themale
is theredportion,thefemaletheblue. Black,white,and redare the
times:night,day,
colorsofthegarments
whichDdputson at different
and twilight"
see
also
Merlo
and
Vidaud
1966:301;
(Mercier1954:221;
Metraux1958:320).As a long-standing
emblemofalchemy,
thechromaticpatternoftheserpentalso represented
thealchemicalprocess
(Jung1944:399).A medievalalchemicaltreatise(1478 CE) contains
twoillustrations
oftheautophagousserpentwithaccompanying
text.
- greenin
The first
illustration
oftheserpentdepictsthreewindings
- whilethe
thecenter,yellowin themiddle,and red at the exterior
secondone features
twoconcentric
rings greenand red as symbolic
offermentation
or putrefaction
(Berthelot1888:22-24,cf.159,196;
1885:59;Taylor1930:112Fig. 1).

Lightning
In theJudaic traditiontwo Rabbis stated that,"The reflectionof the
Leviathan'sfinsmakes the disk of the sun dim by comparison,so that
it is said of each of the fins... It telleththe sun thatit shinesweakly"
thereflections
and that:"The [Leviathan's]underparts,
[surpass]the
thereof,
is a shiningofyellow
sun: whereit liethuponthemire,there
gold. . . But the
place wherethe Leviathanlies is purereven thanyellowgold" (Pesiketa
de-RabKahdna.supplement2.4; cf.BabylonianTalmud:Baba Batra:74b).
In orderforthe effulgenceof the serpentto exceed thatof the sun, it
conmustborder on the brightnessof a lightningflash.Significantly,
comthe
from
ouroboros
the
beliefs
about
equatorialregions
temporary
To the Toba Batak of
circular
to
the
attribute
dragon.
lightning
monly
ofthesea and
of
the
"the
Bolon
was
na
Pane
underworld,
Sumatra,
god
he sends
the lightning... As Pane na Bolon, the underworld-serpent,
the rains,he creates the waves,the thunderand the lightning... he
to the fieldsand . . . bears the middleworldon his head"
givesfertility
(Tobing 1956:27, cf.56, 82-83, 122;Joustra1917:331; Winkler1925:8,

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MarinusA. van der Sluijs& AnthonyL. Peratt

The Ouroboros

15

inBeninDa Ayidohwedo
isintimately
connected
208;1956:31) . Similarly
tothethunderbolt:
"BeneaththeearthAyidoHwedo
issubmerged
inthe
waters.... he isseencleavingthewaterslikea flashoflight,hisvoiceis
heardand thenan altaris raisedto himcloseby"(Mercier1954:221).
Anotherdescription
fromBeninstatesthatthe"tailofthecelestialseris
the
twice
pent
lengthofthedistancebetweentheearthand thesky;
thatiswhytherearealwaystworeports
whena thunderbolt
crashes,the
first
ofthesendingofthebolttoearth,and thesecondoftherecoilof
thebolt- really
thesoundmadebythetailofAidoHwedo- as itreturns
above"(Herskovits
1938:249-50,cf.108,163).
texture
Filamentary
Bothiconographical
and textualsourcesoccasionally
describethetextureoftheouroboros'skinas a seriesofrays,specks,or another,
often
feature.On thebase of a Chinesebronzevessel
luminous,repetitive
fromtheWesternZhou period(1122-1011BCE), theroundbodyof
thesnakeis decoratedwith"circumferential
stylized
rays"(Mundkur
to
the
feathers
ofthe
1983:76). Theseraysmaytypologically
correspond
feathered
in
the
Meso-American
known
as
Cuculcan
tradition,
serpent
totheMayaofYucatan,
CucumatztotheQuicheMayaofGuatemala,
or
to
the
Aztec.
this
is
not
often
Quetzalcoatl
Although
reported
byscholars,
wasrepeatedly
incircular
formon ballringsand
Quetzalcoatl
portrayed
inclayreliefs
(cf.Seler1923:150fig.120,153fig.123).On thebas-reliefs
ofroyalbuildings
inBenin,redfeathers
thatindicateboththeserpent's
natureand itspneumaticcomposition
atmospheric
gracedthebodyof
Da Ayidohwedo
(MerloandVidaud1966:316,cf.307). Luminousdots
also studdedtheskinofa drakon
(dragon)whosebirthwasdescribed
in an alchemicalpoem attributed
to an unknownByzantine
scholar,
to
tenth
the
DeArte
Sacra:
CE),
Theophrastus
(eighth
century
Thisdragon,whomtheyOuroboroscall,
Is whitein looksand spottedin hisskin,
Andhas a formand shapemoststrangeto see.
hisgleamingskin
Andall thebandswhichgirdlehimaround
Arebrightas goldand shinewithpointsoflight(7-23; Browne1920)10

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16

Research
JournalofFolklore

Vol. 46, No. 1

Movement
Rotatory
The enclosing serpentor ocean is in permanentflow (Cooper 1978;
Chevalierand Gheerbrant1996a, 1996b) . The Fon regardedtheworldencirclingsnakeDa Ayidohwedoas theepitomeofmovement:"thecoils
revolves
made byDa around theearthare notstationary.
Da AyidoHxvedo
round theearth.In thiswayhe setsin motiontheheavenlybodies" (Mercier 1954:221, cf. 224; Maupoil 1943:74). In addition,the Toba Batak
viewedPane na Bolon as "He who completes his revolutionin a year,
who needs a monthto turnround.When he moves,the middleworldis
shaking,and when he turnsround, it is quaking" (Tobing 1956:56; cf.
82-83, 114, 122-28;Joustra1917:331; Winkler1925:9, 1956:26).

The CelestialAspectoftheCircularSerpent
FromthesixthcenturyBCE onward,culturesthathad adopted a spherical model of the cosmos, such as Greece and India, carried over the
notion of the world-surrounding
serpentinto the new cosmologyand
it
as
of
the
the
outermostsphere of the material
portrayed
perimeter
cosmos, universe,or sky,as opposed to the chaotic world that both
preceded and surroundedit.Thus, thelate EgyptianscholarHorapollo
oftheouroborosas thesur(fifth
centuryCE) ascribedtheinterpretation
rounding"soul of the universe"to the Egyptiansin his Hieroglyphica:
To show a verypowerfulking, theydraw a serpent represented as the
cosmos, withitstail in itsmouth and the name of the kingwrittenin the
middle of the coils, thus intimatingthatthe king rules over the cosmos.
And the name of the serpent among the Egyptiansis Meisi.. . . They
symbolizethe Almightybythe perfectanimal, again drawinga complete
serpent.Thus among themthatwhichpervadesthewhole cosmos is Spirit.
n
(1.59, 64, cf. 1.60, 61,63)

on severalGnosticamuletsthesevenvowelsthatrepreCorrespondingly,
thatthelatter
senttheplanetsare inscribedin theouroboros,signifying
1858?:cataChabouillet
around
the
orbits
itself
(e.g.,
wrapped
planetary
log#2196,#2203,#2205;Bonnet 1950:catalog#135,#139,#172,#191).
In the cosmic diagramof the Ophites, the heavenlyorbitswere "held
togetherbya singlecircle,whichwas said to be the soul of the universe
and was called Leviathan"(Origen:6.25,cf.6.35; Lewy1978:354).
In thesphericalparadigmofthecosmos,themundane egg treasured
thecosmosas a whole.
as representing
bythedragoncould be interpreted

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L. Peratt
A. vanderSluijs& Anthony
Marinus

TheOuroboros

17

Thus, the Greek philosopher,Epicurus (341-271 BCE), contended


thatpneumadrakontoeidos
(a dragon-likesoul) surroundsthecosmicegg:
thewholewaslikean egg;butthespiritwasthencoiled snake"Originally
all round likea wreathor
wiseround the egg,and bound naturetightly
cf.
Onians
2000 [1951]:250, note 2).
girdle"(Epiphanius:1.8.2;
The activeconsumptionby the ouroboros of itsown hind partswhich involves contortions that suggest perpetual motion- corresponds to the apparent cyclical revolutionof heavenlybodies. The
Roman grammarianMacrobius attributedthis interpretationof the
ouroboros to the Phoenicians, who portrayedthe god Janus "in the
likenessof a serpentcoiled and swallowingitsown tail,as a visibleimage of the universewhich feeds on itselfand returnsto itselfagain"
12
of stellar
(1.9.12). As the emblem of the regularityand the cyclicity
movements,thecircularsnake personifiedtimeitselfin severalcultures
was similarto
(cf.Ficino 1896:5.8.6) . The Greekwordfortime,chr&nos,
Kronos, the name of the god associated withthe planet Saturn since
the Hellenistic period. Because Saturn was thoughtto be the closest
body to the fixed stars,it is not surprisingthat the classical Greeks
identifiedthe god Kronos as the personificationof time (e.g., Macrobius:1.22.8). Capitalizing on the common mythologicaltheme of
Kronosdormantin a cave as wellas thefamiliarPlatonicrepresentation
of the cosmos as a cave (Plato, Republic!.1-3 [514-18], Phaedo:58-59
5 [59] , 10) , Claudian could thussituatehis
[109B-1 11C] ; Porphyry:2,
green ouroboros around speluncaaevi (the cave of Time):
all unknown,
Faraway,
beyondtherangeofmortalminds,scarcetobe apthe
is
oftheyears,
age,hoarymother
proachedby gods, a cavernofimmense
hervastbreastatoncethecradleandthetomboftime.A serpent
surrounds
with
slow
but
never
ceases
thiscave,engulfing
everything
all-devouring
jaws;
tailas
theglintofhisgreenscales.His mouthdevourstheback-bending
he traceshisownbeginning."13
withsilentmovement
(32-33)
Thus, the circuitcompleted by the snake corresponds to the annual
cycleof the stars.As an image of an eclipticband, the serpentof time
acquires an intimateassociationwiththe concept of theyear (Preisendanz 1935:143; Needham 1980:376; Chevalierand Gheerbrant1996b) .
For example, in the Rabbinical traditionthe number of featuresdetectedon Leviathan'sbody adds up to the number of daysin the year:
"Some say thatLeviathan has as manyeyes as the year has days,and
radiantscales thatobscure the verysun; thathe gripshis tail between

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18

Research
Journal
ofFolklore

Vol.46, No. 1

(Olam
his teethand formsa ringaround the Ocean" (PiyyufWeyikkon
1964:48; cf.Pesiktade-Ral)Kahdnaisupplement2.4; BabylonianTalmud:

BabaBatra:74b;Ginzberg1947:127[45]). Serviusstatesthat"accordtheyearwas indicatedbeforetheinventionof


ing to theEgyptians,
lettersbytheimageofa dragonbitingitsowntail,becauseitreturns
in itself(5.85; cf.Anastasius
Sinaita:l[864]; IsidoreofSevilla:5.36.2;
alsocomparedthe
.14According
toHorapollo,theEgyptians
Lydus:3.4)
Sacra
ofThebes,DeArte
snake'sscalestothestars(1.2;cf.Olympiodorus
in
Needham
iv.
Berthelot
1885:256,1888:79-80;
1980:375).
(II. 18),
The Africansavant,MartianusCapella,reducedthe ouroborosto a
mereemblemheld in the righthand of the god Saturnand identifiedwiththeyear:"In hisrighthand he helda fire-breathing
dragon
devouringits own tail- a dragonwhichwas believedto teach the
numberofdaysin theyearbythespellingofitsownname"(1.70; cf.
AlbericusPhilosophusof London:1; RemigiusofAuxerre:33.8;
VaticanusMythographus
Tertius:l.l,5-6). 15
CulturesoutsideofEuropealso used therounddragonas an icon
of the year.The Toba Batakof SumatradescribedPane na Bolon,
in
namedNai Bala Tongtongan,
as "He whocompleteshisrevolution
a year,who needs a monthto turnround"(Tobing1956:56,cf.82).
themonster
wasimplored:"Andyou,
Accordingtoone creationstory,
be
Pane
Bolon.
.
.
. Changeyourdwellingshall
na
gatipgatip-serpent
place everythreemonths. . . youshallvisitall theeightpointsofthe
1917:331).Furthercompass"(Tobing1956:124,cf.114,122;Joustra
was
the
annual
movement
more,
carefullysynchronized
serpent's
withthecardinaldirections(Winkler1925:9,1956:26,29-30;Tobing
1956:126-28;Voorhoeve1956:40).
ofspace and
Alongwiththesnake'sassociationwiththecyclicity
as a symbolof
time,thesnakeis also oftendescribedin dictionaries
abstract
such
and
conceptsas
physical
temporalunity,embracing
and infinity
union,eternity,
(e.g., Howey1955:2;Mahimmortality
dihassan1963:23;Lindsay1970:261).These associationshad already
Ascan
theend ofancientEgyptian
towards
history.
beguntocrystallize
theouroboros
be gleanedfromHorapollo,theEgyptians
interpreted
notonlyas an imageof thecosmos,butalso as Eternity
(l.l).16 The
of
ofthecircularsnakethatunifiedtheconcepts beginning
symbolism
and afterwards,
and end continuedto flourishin late antiquity
par1885:59
in
Berthelot
tradition
in
the
alchemical
(textsgiven
ticularly
note 1, 61; 1888:79-80,132,134,196).

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MarinusA. van der Sluijs& AnthonyL. Peratt

The Ouroboros

19

oftheCircularSerpent
Towardan Explanation
Scholarshave tended to reportthe ancientinterpretations
of the
in
ouroboros an uncritical
manner,contenttoarguethattheimageof
theouroborosaroseas a spontaneousexpression
ofa snake,thevisible
the
the
the
outermost
horizon, rainbow, ocean,
sphereofthecosmos,
thecelestialequator,theeclipticband,timeortheyearpersonified,
the
lunarnodes,immortality,
or
Needless
to
the
perpetuity, cyclicity.
say,
ouroborosdidrepresent
all ofthesemeaningstovariouspeoplesover
timeand space,butwhethersuchassociationsaccountforthe origin
oftheicon is a different
question.In theirquestfora moretangible
in thenaturalworld,symbologists
haveoftenfailedto raise
prototype
a numberofunsettling
questions.
Thosewhoprefer
a naturalist
outlookpointoutthattheflexible
body
ofa snakeis"aseminently
forpurely
decorative
appropriate
purposesas
foresoteric
theprocessbywhichsnakesperiodically
ones,"whileecdysis,
shedtheirskins,couldhavereinforced
theouroboros'association
with
thesheddingoftheskin
(Mundkur1983:76).17However,
rejuvenation
isnotan annualevent,butratheroccursfourtoeighttimesa year,thus
thesymbolic
linkbetween
theouroboros
andtheyear.Anothweakening
erzoologicalquestioniswhether
of
snakes
hasbeenknown
anyspecies
toconsumeitsownrearparts.In a casualremark,
theearlyapologistof
theChristian
church,EpiphaniusofSalamis(f 403 CE), notedthatthe
snakesinterred
belowtheirtempleswouldnaturally
be
bytheEgyptians
inducedtoautophagousbehavior(Epiphanius:
1.22.2.2-4,repeatedin
1.30.26.5-7). Whilethismaybe evidenceofa genuineburialriteandthe
oftheouroboros,
one
Egyptians
mayhaveembracedsuchexplanations
shouldbearinmindthatsuchevidencedoesnotnecessarily
standup in
thecoldlightofday.Asone zoologistpointsout,"Itisdoubtful. . . that
to biteor swallow
anyserpentcan or has everbeen knownto attempt
itsowntail"(Mundkur1983:75).As ithappens,a case is on recordof
a femalecaptivepythoncommitting
suicideat thethreatofdeathby
to
devour
her
own
tail.
suchincidents
However,
beginning
although
may
Merloand PierreVidaudrightly
out
that
the
happen,Christian
point
of
suicide
is
a
far
from
the
of
the
despair
cry
sovereign
majesty
mythical
ouroboros(1966:307,309).Recognizing
theproblem,
JosephNeedham
- intheshapeof
moreboldlypropagatedthat"ouroborosactually
lives
theSouthAfrican
armadillolizard,whichwhendisturbed
holdsthetip
ofitstailinitsmouthinordertoprotect
itsbellybyitsspringscales.Not

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20

Research
Journal
ofFolklore

Vol.46, No. 1

impossiblethereforeis it thatthe ancientshad a livingpatternbefore


them,ratherthanhavingto formone entirelyout oftheirimaginations"
is not a snake, is
(1980:385). But needless to say,Cardylus
cataphractus
not knownoutside South Africain places where the mythology
of the
ouroboros prevails,and isjust as incapable of illuminatingthe nature
of the mythicalouroboros' propertiesas actual snakes.The snake's extremespine flexibility,
itsrecurrentsheddingof the skin,and itshighly
anomalous behaviorofingestingitsown tailall failto explainthecosmic
withthe circular
proportionsof the mythicalserpent,itsidentification
its
connection
with
the
and
the sun, itsballocean,
lightning, rainbow,
shaped treasure,and itsrole in mythsof creation.
The undeniable celestial dimension to the mythologyof the
ouroboros is given more attentionin a number of alternativeexplanations. Prompted by the identificationof Da Ayidohwedowith the
rainbow,Merlo and Vidaud argue thatthe image of the round serpent
may simplyhave originated as a thought experiment to complete
the rainbow's arc below the horizon (1966:312-13). Although this
explanation mayseem ingenious at firstblush,itdoes not fitwellwith
additional aspects of the ouroboros, such as servingas the cosmic
ocean that encloses the disc of the earth, producing lightningand
earthquakes,or performinga rotatorymovementin the sky.
The roundness of the horizon appears obvious to manyobservers
and thereforecould have led to the notion of the circularocean. In
the earlytwentiethcentury,ArentJan Wensinckargued thatthe idea
of a circularocean was quite natural: "The primitiveeye startsfrom
whatitobserves:theseashorepresentstheunlimitedsightoftheocean;
thismeans that the ends of the earth are surrounded by the ocean"
( 1918:21). A numberofmodernscholarsargue along similarlines (e.g.,
EllisDavidson 1975:175; Brown1995:110; Onians 2000 [1951]:249). Yet
forall the confidence expressed in such observations,the circularity
of the horizon is less obvious than thesewriterssuggest.Althoughthe
impressionof roundness maycertainlypresentitselfto people familiar withrelativelyflatand open geographic environments,observers
mightas easilyimagine the expanse of land or sea theysee as extending indefinitelyin all directions,particularlyin culturalcontextsthat
have not yetembraced a sphericalmodel of the cosmos. Furthermore,
such as the Warao or the Shipibo-Conibo,
whywould forest-dwellers
who have never conceived of the idea of a spherical earth, envision
a round horizon? At best the apparent rotundityof the horizon may

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MarinusA. van der Sluijs& AnthonyL. Peratt

The Ouroboros

21

beliefsofancientsocieties,
whileearly
haveconfirmed
thecosmological
distribution
of
water
have
influenced
thenoabout
the
may
guesses
tionofa flowing
worldocean. Evenifitweregrantedthatthehorizon
and, byextension,the oceans,are circular,thechoice of a snaketo
theimaginedperimeter
oftheworldremainsanomalousand
represent
The
natural
appearanceoftheocean is notquiteas clearly
puzzling.
motion"as some anthropologists
endowedwithsucha "serpent-like
haveclaimed(contraLumholtz1900:81),butdoes thismeanthatthe
offancy?
Wheredo
choiceofa serpentforitssymbolwasjust a flight
and
the
feather-like
filamentation
associated
with
colors
thespecific
the naturalconditionof theequathiscreaturecome from?Finally,
the specificcosmogonicand
toror theeclipticalso does not clarify
cosmologicalcontextwithinwhichthe themesof thecircularsnake
embedded:whywastheouroborosthoughtto
and ocean areso firmly
oftheabyss?Andwhy
haveformedfromthebreath-like
primamateria
wasitconceivedas theanimatedsourceoflifeon earth?These queseveniftheouroborosis merelya metaphor
tionsremainunanswered
forthehorizon,theecliptic,or therainbow.

The CircularSerpentas an AuroralPhenomenon


A priori,
theappearanceof theouroboroson veryearlyworksof art,
that
and petroglyphs,
suggestsa prototype
strongly
includingpottery
astronomical
did notcome in theformof sophisticated
speculation,
but ratherpresenteditselfas natural,immediate,spontaneous,and
distribution
ofthemotif
In addition,thepractically
universal
relevant.
causealongthelinesofJung'sas
ifnotan innatepsychological
requires,
a highly
visibleandconspicuthen
collective
unconscious,
yetunproven
to
survive
formillenniaas
in
one
ous cause thesky, impressive
enough
contenttypitheme.As traditional
a pervasive
imagesofastronomical
it
to
the
one
would
entire
as
the
eye,
expect
object
appears
callyportray
oftheouroborosto havelookedlikea complete
a celestialprototype
- unliketherainbow
ortheeclipticband,whichrequirea sufficient
ring
toa circle.The
to be extrapolated
levelofastronomical
sophistication
and southern
arepromising
alsoknownas thenorthern
aurorae,
lights,
lines.
these
candidatesforan interpretation
along
ionizedgasesthatglowwhenthe
Auroraeare plasmasor partially
ionosphereof theearthexperiencesan increasedinfluxofcharged
particlesfromspace, notablyfromthe solarwind (Alfven1981:1).

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22

JournalofFolkloreResearch

Vol. 46, No. 1

Fig. 2. Auroralringseen overToemmeraas,Norway,on October 6, 2002 at


22:50. TrygveLindersen.

Electronsand ions flowintothe earth'slowerionospherealong socalledBirkeland


whichare circularor ovalelectricalcurrents
currents,
thatfollowthemagneticfieldlinesthatsurroundthepolarcusps(the
openingsat themagneticnorthand southpoles of theearthwhere
theauroraeareat theirbrightest
. Thesesheetsof
and mostpowerful)
electricalcurrents
formtherapidly
wavingcurtainsoflightseenin the
mostfamiliar
formofauroraldisplay(Perattet al 2007:797).Hannes
AlfVen
wasthefirstto analysetheformation
ofsuchauroralcurtains
as whatisnowcalleda diocotron
(Peratt1992:29). Whiledancinstability
forms
curtains
and
flames
are
ing
cavorting
amongthemostfamiliar
of the aurora,ring-shaped
formations
are also known.Examplesof
annularauroraeobservednearthemagneticnorthpole are theglowin theaftermath
of
inggreencirclesseen overToemmeraas,
Norway,
a solarstormon October6, 2002 (figure2), and thoseobservedin
Alaskaoverthe KnikRiveron an Octobereveningin an unknown
year(Bryson,Hall, and Pederson2006). Because theseringsvisually
resemblethemythical
ouroboros,we proposethatauroralbands,of
thediocotroninstability
type,are capable ofexplainingmanyofthe
and
appearances
symbolic
meaningsoftheouroboros.
In bothmedievalEuropeandChina,auroralformations
witha circularmorphology
havebeen describedin termsofwallsand boundaries,
reminiscent
oftheouroboros'roleas delimiter
oftheworld(Dall'Olmo
1980:13;SongShi,Tdizongji,
5, in Xu etal 2000:200).Sourcesfromthe
same areas have also appliedwordsfordragonto observedaurorae
(Dall'Olmo1980:13-14;KimBusik,Samguk
Sagi,16,inXu etal 2000:191;
lumiin
Xu
et
al
The
intenselightning-like
2000:183-84).
Shdnhdijing,
in
be
to
the
ouroboros
some
sources
could
nosity
assigned
explainedby

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MarinusA. van der Sluijs& AnthonyL. Peratt

The Ouroboros

23

thebright
synchrotron
lightemitted
byan auroraldiocotron
instability.18
ofauroraehasrepeatedly
The luminescence
theircomparison
provoked
tonocturnal
suns{Han Shu,XidowudiBenJi,
6,inXu etal 2000:189),an
which
offers
a
to
understand
theancientEgyptian
interpretation
way
sungod'srepresentation
as a coilingserpent.The respective
rainbowlike colorsattributed
to the ouroborosfallwithinthe spectrumof
colorsobservedin aurorae,whichtypically
shiftsfromred to green
character
of
(Peratt2003:1193;Perattetal 2007:797). The filamentary
as
often
observed
in
resembles
intensely
glowing
plasmas,
rayedaurorae,
theraysand scalesdeckingtheserpent'sskinin ancientartand traditions.Exceptionally
activeauroraehaveoccasionally
seemedto touch
thehorizon(Corliss1982:16,21)- an observation
thatfacilitates
the
ouroboros'linktothehorizonas themeetingplaceofskyand earthor
water.Furthermore,
therepeateddescription
oftheouroborosas the
of
movement
and
as
thevivifying
soul ofthe
supremerepresentation
cosmosresonates
withthesurprisingly
life-like
of
the
properties
glowing
plasmaseenin theaurorae.
auroraearesporadicandusuallylastfora maximum
Contemporary
ofseveralhours.The mostintenseand largestauroraldisplaysoccur
duringa solarstorm,whentheincomingfluxincreasesdramatically
(Perattet al 2007:797).Yeteventheselastno longerthana fewdays.
How mightthe fleeting,
intermittent
characterof auroraloutbursts
be reconciledwiththesemi-permanent
of theouroborosas
stability
withtheboundaryofthevisibleworld?
expressedin itsidentification
thefeebleauroraeobservedtodayare mostoftenseen at
Moreover,
farremovedgeographically
fromthetemperate
latitudes,
circumpolar
and equatorialzones connectedto themythology
of theouroboros.
One answerto thesechallengesis the possibility
thata dramatically
enhancedsolarwindprovokeda severegeomagnetic
storm.Although
auroraeare generallya mild,benign,and relatively
short-lived
phean
intense
solar
storm
or
some
other
nomenon,
extremedisturbance
ofthegeomagnetic
fieldwouldprovokean excessiveauroraloutburst,
more
visiblein areasmuchcloserto
producing
enduringformations
theequator.The earliestexampleofsucha low-latitude
aurorainmodernscienceisthefirst
recognizedspaceweatherevent,whichmayalso
havebeen "thelargestsolarenergeticparticleeventin thepastseveral
hundredyears"(Townsendet al 2006:226).On September2, 1859,a
RichardCarrington
observeda
dayafterEnglishamateurastronomer
solar
flare
that
indicated
a
massive
white-light
magneticexplosionon

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24

Research
Journal
ofFolklore

Vol.46, No. 1

the sun, "skiesall over planet Eartherupted in red, green,and purple


auroras. . . . Indeed, stunningauroras pulsated even at near tropical
latitudesover Cuba, the Bahamas,Jamaica, El Salvador,and Hawaii"
(Bell and Phillips 2008; cf. Cliverand Svalgaard 2004:417). Between
1859 and 1958, six well-documentedaurorae were observed "within
30 of the geomagneticequator,"fiveofwhich"had well-documented
reportsof equatorwardextensionsthatexceeded the 20 (Honolulu)
low latitudeextremeof the September 1859 storm"(Cliver and Svalgaard 2004:417-18; see furtherCorliss 1982:21).
How would an extremelyenhanced influx of charged particles
fromthe solar wind affectthe appearance of the aurora? In recent
have made considerable progressmodeling
decades, plasma physicists
auroral behavior under laboratoryconditions. These physicistshave
found that rare high-energydisturbances of the geomagnetic field
produce intense aurorae, which develop complex formstechnically
known as "plasma instabilities."19
Simulations indicate that, under
conditions even more extreme than the Carringtonevent of 1859,
the aurora would take the formof a glowinghigh-energy
currenttube
connectingthe magneticpoles of the earthto the poles of the skylike
the electrodes in an electrochemicalcell, such as a battery(Perattet
al 2007:800-01). The findingspresented below draw primarilyon a
computer simulationcalled a Particle-in-Cell(PIC) simulation,running for months,which was conducted firstat Lawrence Livermore
National Laboratoryin California,and later at Los Alamos National
Laboratoryin New Mexico. This simulation used IBM Roadrunner,
whichis currentlythe world'sfastestcomputer.The initialconditions
and boundary conditions delimitingthis experimentwere specified
in 2000 forthe simplestBirkeland currentconfigurationpossible- a
single,solid Birkeland currentrunningalong an electricfield and a
magnetic field. The number of electrons and ions modeled in the
in 1976. This
simulationwas initiallyset at 8,000 at StanfordUniversity
numberwas increased to 32,000 at LivermoreNational Laboratoryin
1979 and has expanded eversince at Los Alamos National Laboratory,
alwaysin step withdramatic improvementsin computer power.The
increased number of particlesenables observationat a higherresolution,similarto the use of a largerand a betterlens in a telescope. The
onlyinitialparametersforthe experimentwere the undifferentiated
plasma formedof thisoriginal sea of millions of electrons and ions,
the verticalmagnetic field required for Birkeland's currentsto run

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MarinusA. van der Sluijs& AnthonyL. Peratt

The Ouroboros

25

through(to whichthisplasmawas subjected),and Maxwell'sequations,whichare a standardsetofphysicallawsthatdescribetheinterbetweenelectricfields,magneticfields,electriccharge,


relationship
and electriccurrent.HaroldWebsterhas shownthattheseforcesare
the"laboratory
analogsof thepolaraurora"(Peratt1992:74).Their
combinedoperationalone wouldeventually
yieldan enormousradiantcolumnthatwouldachievea semi-permanent
mode.The plasma
tubewouldhavepinchedintotwoconspicuousegg-shaped
plasmoids,
situatedat 306,000and 266,000kmabove the surfaceof the earth
thecurrentflowwouldterminate
(Perattet al 2007:802).Eventually,
and thecolumnwoulddissipate,scattering
piecesof glowingdebris
intospace.20
The mythological
accountsoftheouroboroscanbe correlated
witha
courseofsuchan intenseauroral
particular
phaseinthedevelopmental
outburst.
In thisphase thesheathsurrounding
thedischargecolumn
visibleabovethepolewouldthinout,filament,
and producevortices
or
rather
"discrete
vortex-like
current
formed
ofauroralcurrents
bundles,"
weakerthana giga-Ampere
tothesheetsorcurtains
observed
comparable
inauroralapparitions
today(Perattetal 2007:798). Thismodelindicates
thattheinitialnumberofbrightplasmafilaments
formedwouldhave
been 112 or 56 (Peratt2003:1207).As thesurrounding
plasmasheath
flowsaroundtheupperplasmoid,itthinsand givesrisetoa diocotron
arounditsequator,
witha widthnotexceedingperhapsa fifth
instability
of the diameterof thisplasmoid.Laboratory
photographs
capturing
cross-sectional
views
ofthebeamconfirm
thatthecorresponding
segment
oftheplasmatubeat thisstagemayhavelookedremarkably
similarto
a rotating
circularsnakedevouring
itsowntail(figure3),21suggesting
thata diocotroninstability
producedin an intenseauroramayhave
servedas theultimate
forthemythical
ouroboros.In these
inspiration
theobjectrotates,
so thatthehead appearstobe chasing
photographs,
thetail.In mythological
eachoftheplasmoids
enclosed
terms,
moreover,
within
theringmaycorrespond
totheworld,theegg,ortheunderworld
or nocturnal
sunconfinedbythecircularserpent.
If sucha high-energy
densityaurorahas occurred,thecomplete
oftheearthwithinthesamesurrounding
encapsulation
plasmasphere
thatproducedthediocotroninstability
higherin theatmosphere
may
havegivenhumanobservers
atthattimetheimpression
thattheywere
some sortofunderworld
enclosedbythemanyradiating
inhabiting
streamers
thatflowedforthfrombeneaththeouroboros.In ancient

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26

JournalofFolkloreResearch

Vol. 46, No. 1

diocotroninstability,
Fig. 3. A high-current
rotatingcounterclockwise.
Courtesy
A. L. Peratt.

cosmologiesthecenteroftheearthwastypically
occupiedbya cosmic
as a gianttreeor mountain,whichalso appearedto
pillarsymbolized
formtheearth'shighestpart.Therefore,
thishypothetical
scenarioexhow
the
erstwhile
ofa ring-shaped
formation
aurorainthepolar
plains
beliefthatit encompassed
skymayhavespawnedthenear-universal
theearthor theworld:theserpentbelievedtosurroundtheearthwas
reallywrappedaroundthelowerstrataofthecosmicmountainseen
abovethecenteroftheearth.
Atpresent,
theearliestrecordedauroraeare"a multi-colored
light"
listedin ChineseannalsforthelastyearofkingZhao ofZhou,around
950 BCE (Zhushu
Annals,GujlnTushuu
102;
Jinidnor Bamboo
Jicheng,
in
Yuldn,
874,all Xu etal 2000:188)and an unusual"redglow"
Tdiping
in thenightskymentionedon a Babylonianclaytabletdatedto 567
BCE. The latterobservation
"occurredata timewhenthegeomagnetic
ofBabylonwasabout41N comparedwiththepresent
(dipole)latitude
valueof27.5N; suggesting
a higherauroralincidenceatBabylonin567
BC thanatpresent"(Stephensonetal 2004:615).**Ifouranalysis
iscorand iconography
oftheouroboroscan be seenas a
rect,themythology
recollection
ofan aurorathatwasexperienced
muchearlier,
longbefore
theriseof an appropriateastronomical
suchas theone
terminology
or theChinese.Thishypothetical
event
employedbytheBabylonians
wouldhavetranspired
on a moreextremescalethanthemodestauroraeobservedtoday,
a diocotroninstability
involving
phaseknownboth
fromlaboratory
and
occasional
experiments
ephemeralrecrudescences
seenincontemporary
aurorae.Thismotherofallaurorae,inscribed
in
theannalsofcreationmyths
aroundtheworld,is conjecturedto have
occurredtowards
theend oftheNeolithicperiod.Whilescientists
have
notyetfullymodeledtheearth'smagneticfieldforthisearlytime,it
is noteworthy
thatthescientific
evidenceforincreasedauroralactivity
in theancientNear Eastduringthesixthcentury
BCE facilitates
the

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MarinusA. van der Sluijs& AnthonyL. Peratt

The Ouroboros

27

in Central
oftheouroborosthemeat equatoriallatitudes
proliferation
and
Oceania.23
America,
Africa,
raisesmorequestionsthanitanswers.
Thishighly
speculative
theory
of
auroral
the
the
of
Ultimately, validity
explanationofthearchetype
oftheplasma-physical
theouroboroshingeson thefeasibility
model.
in auroralphysicsare in a positionto replicateor to
Untilspecialists
ruleout theformation
of a ringshaped diocotroninstability
in the
aurorasimilarto theone apparentin our ownexperiments,
theproof
the
ouroboros
motif
will
remain
controversial.
posed explanation
evenatthisearlystagewefeelthattheapparentubiquity,
Nonetheless,
and cosmologicalsignificance
of theouroborosare better
antiquity,
our
rooted
in
natural
and auroralphysics,
explainedby
theory,
history
thanbyanyexplanationoffered
before.The aweinstilled
bythemontheawesomespectacle
ster,whichcastsitsshadowstilltoday,reflects
evenofcontemporary
with
tranquilaurorae.Aninterdisciplinary
study
an open mindtowardstheturbulent
eventsofthepastwouldthrowa
clearerlighton thedragon'sfuzzypast.
the presentintellectualclimateis conduciveto
Encouragingly,
suchlinesof inquiry.
Withinthehistory
of ideas,thehypothesis
that
theworldwide
motifof thetail-biting
was
based
on
dragon
originally
observations
of an extremetypeof aurorafitsintorecently
revived
interests
in
transient
natural
as
the
ultimate
scholarly
phenomena
forwidespreadmythical
themes.In our view,thishypothinspiration
esisbetterexplainssuchwidespreadmotifs
thantheintrospective
and
structuralist
models
most
of
the
psychosociological
preferred
during
twentieth
and
thinkers
such
as
century championedby
SigmundFreud,
CarlJung,
JosephCampbell,EmileDurkheim,
GeorgesDumezil,and
Claude Levi-Strauss.
On a parwiththenascentfieldofgeomythology,
theexploitation
ofcutting-edge
scientific
ofatmospheric
and
knowledge
astronomical
eventssuchas aurorae,mega-lightning,
and thepassage
ofcometsis a moderncontinuation
ofthenineteenth-century
nature
schoolofmythology,
whichlookedtotheordinary
ofthesun,
properties
sourceofprominent
moon,andvegetallife,as theinspirational
mythical themes(e.g.,Masse1995;1998;BarberandBarber2006;Bobrowsky
and Rickman
2007;PiccardiandMasse2007).Yetunliketheoldschool,
themoderninterdisciplinary
approachplacesno emphasison elaborate
and thelinguistic
names.Thisapproach
metaphors
aspectsofmythical
- suchas tsunamis,
on short-lived,
concentrates
dramaticevents
volcanic eruptions,
or
meteor
showers
instead
of
less
aurorae,lightning,

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Research
JournalofFolklore

28

Vol. 46, No. 1

awe-inspiring
spectaclessuch as the sunriseor the lunar cycle.Further
of
exploration the inspirationforshared motifsbenefitsfromthe immenselyimprovedstateof researchtakingplace in geophysics,plasma
and relatedscientificdisciplines.
physics,climatology,
MarinusAnthony
van derSluijs
MuseumofArchaeology
and Anthropology,
University
ofPennsylvania,
Philadelphia
L. Peratt
Anthony
Los AlamosNationalLaboratory
NewMexico
MuseumofArchaeology
and Anthropology,
University
ofPennsylvania
Philadelphia

Acknowledgments
Withouttheunceasingand generoussupportoftheMainwaringArchive
Foundationthisprojectcould nothavebeen completed.The PetrieMuseum of EgyptianArchaeologyand theAsian departmentof the British
Museum,bothin London, as wellas theFieldMuseumofNaturalHistory,
Chicago,are thankedforallowingexaminationofsome crucialartifacts.
Help was also offeredbyJamesAllen, Sebastian Brock,Huub de Mul,
Albertvan der Heide, FayYao,JacquelineSimpson,and Wilbertvan der
Sluijs.Finally,we are deeply indebted to Ev Cochrane forthe constant
and intelligentfeedbackhe has providedover the years,as well as two
anonymousrefereesforJFR,who pointedout thechallengeposed bythe
auroral theoryof the ouroborosforthe science of astronomy.

Notes
andmeans
ofphilology
1. Theterm"corrupt"
iscommonly
usedinthediscipline
in theversion
wehavebeforeus today.
thattheoriginaltexthasbeendistorted
toPhoenicia
2.While"H3w-nbwt"
(Bikai1989:135),
specifically
mayhavereferred
as "the
Lands"and"theSn-'3-sk"
Clark(1959:117) rendered
itas "theOutermost
Ocean."
Surrounding
ofOsiriswithlife-giving
identification
3. Forexamplesofthewell-known
water,
see Pyramid
Texts:.
589 (357),848 (455),868 (460), 1291(536), 1631(539),2007
(676), 2111 (690); BookoftheDead: Introductory
Hymnto Osiris;Hippolytus:5.1.7

and Breasted1959:20.
(150); Erman1911:933-34;
of OsiriswiththeNile,see Plutarch:32
4. Forexamplesof theidentification
2, 122-23;Boylan
(363D), 33 (364A-B),36 (365B),38 (366A);Budge1904:vol.
1999:17;andKurth2004:7.

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L. Peratt
A.vanderSluijs& Anthony
Marinus

TheOuroboros

29

5. Translation
provided
bytheauthors.
6. Translation
bytheauthors.
provided
in- butperhapsnotbeingidentical
7. ThatLeviathan
theearth,lying
supports
- thewaters
belowit,is alsofoundin othersources,including
with
of
Apocalypse
Midras
Abraham
:21;Hirschman
1976:11;Pirqede-RabWEli
'ezer,
(CodexSylvester)
Bdraitddi Ma'aseh Beresit(MS. Paris,BiblioKonen:26;SederRabbddi-Bdresit$\

Razi'ettoL
cf.
35a-36b),185-92in Sed 1965:58-59,
thequeNationale;cf.Sepher
1964:293.
8. Translation
bytheauthors.
provided
9. Translation
bytheauthors.
provided
menopsin
10.The Greekfor"whitein looksand spottedin hisskin"is leuken
skin"tesdoraschroan,
andfor"points
oflight"
kaikatdstikton
for"gleaming
dordn,
thealchemicalopus,theserpentis subsequently
Asitrepresents
stigmas
phdous.
and thenintogold.
intosilver
transformed
theroyalcartouche
tothemnh,
thatwas
11. Horapollomayhavebeenreferring
of
Scholars
have
this
written
around
the
names
kings.
longregarded
customarily
oftheouroboros(Strieker
as a derivative
cartouche
1953:14).
andfromSidoncorroborate
theclaimofPhoenician
12.ThecupsatPalestrina
the
ouroboros
with
(Bourdais1895:151).
affinity
cavecan hardly
be
13.The Mithraic
imageofthesnakewoundaboutMithra's
divorced
fromthistheme.
14.Translation
bytheauthors.
provided
itsowntail"isflammivomus
15.TheLatinfor"a fire-breathing
dragondevouring
dracocaudaesuae ultimadevorans.

thecosmosand
between
theouroboros
16.Horapollo's
distinction
representing
is notrigid(Cumont1898:293;Nilsson1950:481,
theone embodying
eternity
note5).
theouroboros,
as
forthechoiceofthesnake,particularly
17.Thisexplanation
hasbeenpropagated
oflifeandimmortality
a symbol
byancientandmodernauMahdihassan
thors
alike.CompareHorapollo:
1963:20;
1940:194;
1.2;Preisendanz
in Baumgarten
255.
Sanchuniathon
1981:245-46,
emissions
refers
toelectromagnetic
radiation
18.Synchrotron
bycircular
generated
currents.
For
orspiralmotionofelectrons
field,as in Birkeland
alonga magnetic
seePeratt1992:197-98.
further
explanation
ofresearch
aredisofthehistory
anda briefoverview
19.The relevant
physics
cussedin Peratt1992,cf.2003,andPerattetal 2007.
ofarchaic
20.Asarguedin Peratt2003and Perattet al 2007,a largesegment
as
or abstract
withgeometric
interpreted
designsoftententatively
petroglyphs
into
account
an
intense
to
of
such
solarsymbols
aurora,taking
correspond aspects
and field-of-view.
factors
suchas latitude
geographic
inPeratt1992:31,84-85.Peratt
herearediscussed
21.The imagesreproduced
theseexperiments
to very
and Snell (1985) followthemechanism
underlying
beam
in
intense
currents
experiments.
high
fieldoverthepast
orientation
oftheglobalgeomagnetic
22. Fortheevolving
see Constableetal 2000.
3,000years,

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30

Research
JournalofFolklore

Vol. 46, No. 1

23. As the Scandinavianversionof the ouroboros is embedded in the frameworkof Germanicmythology,


it is likelythatit onlyarrivedin northernEurope
duringthe firstmillenniumBCE, as the Indo-Europeanancestorsof the people
thatspoke the Proto-Germanic
languagesettledtherefromtheiroriginalhomelands in thesteppesofUkraine,northof theBlack Sea (comingtherefromtheir
earlierhomeland, the Armenianhighlandssouth of the Caucasus mountains)
(Gamkrelidzeand Ivanov1995).

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MarinusA. van der Sluijs8cAnthonyL. Peratt

The Ouroboros

41

Xu, Zhentao,David W. Pankenier,and YaotiaoJiang


2000

East Asian Archaeoastronomy:


HistoricalRecordsofAstronomical
Observationsof

Book Series,5. Amsterdam:


China,Japanand Korea.EarthSpace Institute
OverseasPublishersAssociation,
Gordonand BreachSciencePublishers.

Marinus Anthony van der Sluijs is a comparative


and historical
in
the
Semitic
and
linguist,specializing
Indo-Europeanlanguage
families.He is a consulting
scholarwiththeMuseumofArchaeology
and Anthropology,
ofPennsylvania,
and publisheson the
University
of
and
of
and comhistory religions
astronomy,
archaeoastronomy,
parativemythology,
(mythopedia@hotmail.com)
Anthony L. Peratt is a physicist
in the AppliedPhysicsDivision,
Los AlamosNationalLaboratoryand a memberof the Museumof
and Anthropology,
of Pennsylvania.
The auArchaeology
University

thor of three books: PhysicsofthePlasma Universe,


Plasma Astrophysics
and Cosmology,
and AdvancedTopicson Astrophysical
and SpacePlasmas,

he is also theSeniorEditoroftheInstitute
ofElectricaland Electronics Engineers(IEEE) Transactions
on PlasmaScienceon Space and
CosmicPlasmaand a LifeFellowoftheIEEE, (alp@ieeetps.org)

This content downloaded from 193.227.1.43 on Wed, 13 May 2015 17:08:39 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions