Image via iStock.com/theasis
By Nick Keppler
The tail-eating serpent is one of the oldest tales known to humans. According to ancient Egyptian legend, when the sun god Ra merged with Osiris, ruler of the underworld, to form a new divine entity, two serpents representing the protective snake-god Mehen slithered around the newborn super-god holding their tails in their mouths. In Norse mythology, the serpent is Jörmungandr, an enormous sea beast and one of the monstrous children of the god Loki; a being so large it encircles the whole world, holding its tail in its mouth. One day, prophecy says, it will release its tail from its mouth and rise from the ocean depths to harken Ragnarök—the end, and rebirth, of earth.
In Hindu iconography, the snake often surrounds the god Shiva, the aspect of God representing destruction and transformation. The Greek philosopher Plato described it to analogize a universe that was “self-sufficient” and “far more excellent than one which lacked anything.” In more recent times, it was used as a plot device on The X-Files in the form of a tattoo on FBI Agent Dana Scully, perhaps noting her perpetual return to skepticism in the existence of paranormal phenomenon, despite encountering it on a weekly basis.
The tail-eating snake, or serpent, is an Ouroboros. Because it has appeared across so many cultures for so long, Swiss psychologist Carl Jung considered the icon one of the primordial archetypes of the human psyche. It usually represents cycles, eternal return, infinity, completion, self-containment on a cosmic scale, and anything “that goes around and around like the cycle of the sun,” according to Salima Ikram, professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo.
Does the symbol play out in nature? Were those story tellers of ancient times inspired by something they had witnessed firsthand?
Do Snakes Bite Their Own Tails?
A few news reports indicate they sometimes do. In 2014, a pet shop owner uploaded footage to YouTube showing an Albino Western Hognose writhing around its water bowl, attempting to swallow itself (to the chagrin of the shop owner, who had retailed the rare snake for $717).
In 2009, a Sussex, UK, man took his king snake, Reggie, to a veterinarian after the reptile got caught in a circle trying to nosh on his own hind quarters. The snake’s ratchet-like teeth caused the tail to get stuck in Reggie’s mouth and the vet (who said he hadn’t “ever seen a case like it”) worked the jaw open to free the snake.
The New Encyclopedia of Snakes includes two accounts of American rat snakes dying of self-digestion. “One individual, a captive, did this on two occasions and died at the second attempt,” author Joseph C. Mitchell writes. “The other individual was wild and was in a tight circle, having swallowed about two thirds of its body, when it was found.”
James B. Murphy, a herpetologist and research associate at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, says that this behavior is very rare and usually a sign of a snake in its death throws.
“Towards the end, when snakes are ill, they will bite themselves,” says Murphy. “I’ve seen rattle snakes go into convolutions and bite their own bodies.”
Unlike mammals, snakes don’t show emotions and have few behavioral responses to viruses or other maladies, says Murphy, so don’t count on self-biting as a sign that a snake needs veterinary care. Aside from ceasing to eat, there are few cues of snake illness. One explanation for why a snake might bite its own tail is that when kept in small containment, the snake is unable to stretch out fully and may think that its tail is that of another snake.
This explanation may bear some weight, since the most Ouroboros-like behavior that’s semi-common is the tendency of some snake varieties to eat other snakes. Some of these opportunist include the North American Kingsnake, which is impervious to the venom of most vipers, Garter snakes, Ribbon snakes, and several other species. Some snakes have also been seen munching on their own shed skin, says Murphy.
For this reason, it is wise to do extensive research before mixing different species of snakes in the same enclosure.
Fortunately, Ouroboros behavior is rare, so even snake keepers who keep several serpentine pets over decades shouldn’t expect to witness a real-life Ouroboros. At least not until Ragnarök.