The Ouroboros Egg

Pale urchin

This fossilised sea urchin was given to my 7-year old daughter by fossil-hunters on the beach at Birling Gap, Beachy Head. Over thousands of millennia it has turned to a tough chalk, typical of the fossils of the Southern England Chalk Formation. It may well be the same genus as this Echinocorys, which was found at nearby Seaford and dates from the Cretaceous Period.

Sea creatures are generally associated with the mysterious, the erotic, the irrational: all the stuff of the Shoreline. And they were everywhere you looked in the work of the Surrealists. However, I was uncertain what to make of this particular creature. An online search for sea urchin symbolism directed me to Rene Guenon’s The Great Triad, the first 40 pages or so of which you can read for free on Google Books, though posting a direct link defeats me. On pages 29-34 he discusses the World Egg, a symbol that occurs in many traditions: the Cosmic Egg which contains both Heaven and Earth, and as such represents the alchemist’s quest for self-transformation. The egg is associated with serpents:

And that footnote 11 says…

Well now. Not just a sea urchin, but a fossil sea-urchin. My daughter had been given an egg of the Cosmic Serpent: Ouroboros, the serpent that eats its own tail. Symbol of renewal, recurrence, and immortality: life begetting life.

The Ouroboros, or something very like it, occurs in so many ancient traditions that Jung considered it an archetype, an expression of something fundamental in both the collective psyche and the alchemical process:

The alchemists, who in their own way knew more about the nature of the individuation process than we moderns do, expressed this paradox through the symbol of the Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. The Ouroboros has been said to have a meaning of infinity or wholeness. In the age-old image of the Ouroboros 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. The Ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This ‘feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself. He symbolizes the One, who proceeds from the clash of opposites, and he therefore constitutes the secret of the prima materia which […] unquestionably stems from man’s unconscious. (Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis).

The serpent endlessly renews itself: yet something is missing. Nothing new is happening: the cycle simply repeats and repeats. But this is where the egg comes in- by the serpent’s production of the egg, novelty and change are introduced: the possibility of progress.

I know little about Rene Guenon. His assertion that the fossil sea-urchin represents the serpent’s egg is unreferenced and I have been unable to find a source, although this page also identifies the sea urchin (though not fossilised specifically) as representing “the serpent’s cosmic world-creating seed… the ‘serpent’s egg‘”, while The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art has this to say:

So there does appear to be a precedent for Guenon’s association of the urchin and the serpent’s egg.

To understand this fully, however, we must consider what actually happened when the fossil was given to my daughter.

Being my daughter, she is familiar with fossils, and was intrigued by the fossil-hunters at Birling Gap, and keen to see what they were up to. They had found three fossil urchins that day, and presented her with the best-preserved of the three. In other words, we have here a deep symbol, one of the very deepest: an ancient idea that recurs across times and cultures, an image that encrypts the secret of alchemy. But most significantly, this symbol became manifest on the Shoreline through two enabling processes:

the curiosity of a child

and

the kindness of strangers

Consider this well – and keep hope in your heart.

Rolling The Ball

Stone found on Saltdean beach.

This is a natural form- the stone has not been painted, inked, or otherwise altered. Nevertheless, scholars of Lapidary Animism (an important aspect of Shoreline studies) have argued that it depicts a scarab: a type of beetle that rolls around a ball of dung (in which it lays its eggs- the dung then serves as food for the larvae once they hatch) and which features prominently in Ancient Egyptian mythology and symbolism.

Dung beetle: Sisyphean toil

In ancient Egypt, the scarab was linked with the sun: as the beetle rolls its ball, so the sun god (in various forms) was held to roll the life-giving sun across the sky each day. There was even a scarab-headed solar deity, Khepera (sometimes Khepri or Xepera), and highly stylised scarabs are a frequent sight in Egyptian art and burial adornments.  In particular, a scarab amulet was placed over the heart of the deceased when a body was prepared for mummification and ritual burial.

In the Egyptian Book Of The Dead, the scarab amulet symbolises the heart. The Book depicts the rites of reckoning through which each new entrant to the afterlife must pass, and contains spells and formulae designed to ensure success on the journey. Once the deceased has gained initial entry to the Hall of Maat, the antechamber of the afterlife, their virtue is tested in the Weighing of the Heart, in which the heart (or rather the vessel containing it, sometimes symbolised by the scarab) is placed on the scales and weighed against shut, the Feather of Maat. A virtuous heart will not outweigh the feather, and will enable the deceased to continue the journey. But if the heart fails the test, the fearsome Ammut (part crocodile, part lion, part hippopotamus) will devour it:

Notice that it is our old friend  Anubis, the Guardian of the Shoreline, who leads the deceased into the Hall and then conducts the Weighing. Another deity of great interest, the ibis-headed scribe Thoth, records the result. Notice also the baleful presence of Ammut, hungrily awaiting the outcome of the Weighing (see here for an expanded version of this image and much more on Egyptian concepts and practices relating to death and the afterlife).

For me, the most intriguing symbolism in all this is that a ball of excrement was held to be representative of, and analogous to, the Sun. This parallels the alchemical ideal of the transmutation of ‘base matter’ (and what matter could be more ‘base’ than dung?) into the fabled Philosopher’s Stone.  In literalistic interpretations of alchemy, this implies the conversion of lead, or other ‘base’ metals, into pure gold. In esoteric alchemy, however, the prima materia of the alchemical process is the consciousness (for the purposes of this post, I prefer this word to ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ or similar) of the alchemist, and the goal is to attain a transformation: what might be called ‘rebirth’ or ‘enlightenment’, depending on tradition, or if not that, then at least a measure of self-actualisation (Jung’s concept of individuation).

The link between alchemical transmutation and the solar symbolism of the scarab is little remarked on. It is many years since I read it, but I think Jung discusses it in Psychology And Alchemy. Finding the stone above is my cue to now revisit that magisterial book.

A final thought on alchemy- as we noted, it has manifested in two opposing ways: as a quest for self-transformation, and as a ruse for getting rich by gulling the credulous. So in the real, messy, human world, alchemy itself embodies a fusion of opposites. It is an illustration of its own fundamental principle.

Incisor: Ancient Nightmares, Nameless Dread

Chalky rock fragment found by my daughter on cliffs near Beachy Head. A satisfyingly eerie  synchronicity: moments earlier, she had been describing a frightening creature seen in a picture book of prehistoric animals: a sabre-tooth cat.

There were many sabre-tooth cats; the term encompasses not just closely related species, but entire animal families. The most extensively documented are those of the genus Smilodon, including the splendidly named Smilodon fatalis.

Smilodon overlapped with our hominid ancestors both geographically and temporally, and in more recent times with Homo sapiens himself: in fact Smilodon is thought to have only become extinct as recently as 10,000 years ago. This has led to speculation that our forebears may have been preyed upon by sabre-tooths, and current research suggests this is plausible.

One may speculate, therefore, that Smilodon might have featured, perhaps even had a starring role, in the nightmares of early Man.

There is a connection here to Wilfred Bion‘s concept of nameless dread. Bion used the phrase to denote the fear of the abandoned infant, but the term recurs throughout psychoanalytic thought as a kind of shorthand for overwhelming primal terror: that which gnaws at us from darkness, beyond or beneath those fears we can actually identify.

Meanwhile, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is pleased to announce the world’s  first animatronic Smilodon.

Long in the tooth: the stone fang takes its turn in the makeshift display case at the Shoreline's museum of curiosities