On the desk in front of me rests a ring in the shape of a serpent biting its own tail. It owes its presence there to an accretion of personal meanings that began when I was seven or eight and my father, a scientist who studies the structures of crystals and alloys, related an anecdote about the great German chemist Friedrich August Kekule. Kekule's fame rests in large part on his discovery of the chemical structure of the benzene molecule in 1864 - a structure which came to him in an astonishing dream. It was this dream which my father described to me; here is Kekule's own account of it:

"I was sitting writing on my textbook, but the work did not progress; my thoughts were elsewhere. I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes...My mental eye, rendered more acute by the repeated visions of the kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold conformation; long rows sometimes more closely fitted together all twining and twisting in snake-like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke..."  (1)

Waking research confirmed that benzene did indeed take the form of a closed ring - a hexagon with a carbon and hydrogen atom at each of its six points (2). But while my father's principal aim was to illustrate the role of intuitive or unconscious thought in scientific inquiry, for me Kekule's discovery was surpassed in significance by the nature of his dream's imagery. To my child's mind, the simple yet inscrutable image of the self-consuming serpent seemed to resonate with meanings far beyond benzene. What was it after, that weird snake? Did it want more of itself than just its tail? And what if it got it - what would be left? The very fact of its snakeness also intrigued me, hinting as it did of infinite wiles and poisonous persuasions. Could this be the same snake, or a relative of the snake, that had peddled illicit fruit in Eden? Was this baffling pose another of its tricks? Kekule's choice of the word "mockingly" suggests it might be.

Kekule does not mention whether he had encountered this serpentine image before his famous dream, but it is likely he had seen it in a book or museum, for it is a symbol with a long history in many cultures (3). 

continued ~
The Ouroboros ~ A Personal Symbology
by Adam Sass
© LLE 2012
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