The concept of the Ouroboros is central to much of the world’s mythology. This universal symbol denotes the paradox of our existence.
Also called the Pleroma, the Great Round, the Cosmic Egg, or any number of related things, the Ouroboros is most often pictured as a snake or dragon biting or eating its own tail, thus sustaining itself through its own destruction. It first appeared (I think) in ancient Egypt, and has been integral to various mythic, religious, and esoteric traditions ever since.
Its meaning is twofold: on one hand, its devouring of itself symbolizes the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth; the snake thrives on its own demise. In order for there to be life, there must also be death, and vice-versa. On the other hand, the circular enclosure created by the snake symbolizes one-ness. A perfect unity with and of the Universe. On a collective level, this most often represents the Universe prior to Creation by splitting of binary opposites. If you imagine the dualistic Yin-Yang symbol to be our world now, the Ouroboros would be a uniformly grey circle. On an individual level, it usually represents the time after death and before birth. Together, these two aspects of the Ouroboros can be combined in an attempt to explain the nature of the singular and cyclical Universe.
Creation occurred when the Ouroboros opened up and split in half (when the Egg hatched, if you will). From a cosmic, fifth-dimension sort of perspective, though, the Ouroboros is still intact. The opposites through which we perceive our existence are just an illusion that is a result of our inability to experience the world on anything other than a moment-by-moment basis.
I’ve written before about how the Tarot itself is akin to a wheel, making it a veritable model of the Ouroboros. Each card represents a single point upon the wheel, but together they make a unified whole. This is representative of how we experience the Tarot and life in general. There are several cards which specifically evoke the Ouroboros; there are two which, to me, are direct representations of it, and fittingly enough, they are located at either end of the Major Arcana. I’ve already written about the Fool. He is like the soul which has not yet departed from the enclosure of the Ouroboros. The woman dancing in the center of the World card is like the soul which has rejoined it (apotheosis is the term). More than showing the enlightened soul, though, the World (or Universe, as Mr. Crowley dubbed it – which pleases me very much) shows the Great Round itself. This card shows the entire universe as we understand it on a symbolic level. The Ouroboros itself is represented here by a huge wreath (which also shows up on the head of the Fool in the RWS – ahem). The wreath is held together by ribbons that remind one of the infinity sign.* Inside, we see the eternal soul of mankind. She is a woman, but she embraces her male aspect by holding a wand in either hand. Only a person who has embraced his or her entire self, including the anima/animus, and his or her shadow self (the Devil), can reach this state of being in life. Outside, we see the four worldly elements symbolized as four animals. These are outside of the circle because within we would not recognize them as separate from each other.
If any single card contained within itself all of the other cards, it would be the World. The dancer is the Fool as he completes his journey. Everything he’s learned can be boiled down to four elements (the suits of the Minor Arcana), but ultimately he must reconcile their differences and incorporate them all in his life. That the figure is a dancer is not accidental. The World illustrates a fluid state of being. The correct mixture of the four elements is ever-changing. This is the nature of the Universe. Stasis is an illusion of the human condition, just as opposition is.
The Wheel of Fortune (card 10) is similar to the World. Located about half way through the Majors, the Wheel is the Ouroboros as the Fool gazes upon it from the outside. Having been taught by the Hermit, he begins to understand the true nature of the world. But he has more tests to complete. When he finally reaches the World, he is no longer on the outside looking in. He is on the inside, or rather, he is one with the Great Round. There are ups and downs, but he understands that rather than being subject to the arbitrary whims of Lady Fortune, these ups and downs are equal and eternal. The serpent lives as it dies.
From the World springs the Fool, and the cycle begins again. Myths and stories would have us believe that, after one tumultuous journey through the symbolic Underworld, we are complete, and remain forever in the state of ecstasy that is the World. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true in real life. After successfully undergoing trials and tribulations, we do indeed feel like the World Dancer. But what good would the lessons learned during our own personal “Hero’s Journey” be if we didn’t get a chance to incorporate them into the next chapter? So we emerge from our revelry, more experienced but newly Foolish, to begin again and learn how to better ourselves even further. In this way, the Tarot is more like a spiral than a wheel, always circling around, but ever-rising. And so we continue, on and on, until we eventually die and rejoin the Great Round for real. Until you’re born again, that is, and the World keeps on spinning.
*You could imagine the wreath to be the cycle of the Major Arcana, and these two infinity ribbons that tie the wreath together represent two specific cards. They could be the Fool and the World itself, as the two points at which the circle is joined together. Or, they could be the Magician and Strength, cards 1 and 11, respectively, located at the start and midpoint of the cycle. Each of the figures in these cards usually has an implied infinity sign over his or her head. These infinities are especially apparent in the RWS, but of course in that deck, the position of Strength is no longer at the midpoint.