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Commentary on Emblem 133

The emblem poem presents trumpeting fame surrounded by the ouroboros, a symbol of eternity. Eternal fame, suggests the motto, comes from the work of the literary writer. The description of Triton, trumpeter for Neptune, god of the sea, comes from Virgil Aeneid books 6 and 10 and Ovid Metamorphoses book 1. The snake swallowing its own tail is from Horapollo Hieroglyphics 1.2, where it is said to signify the universe. But in the Renaissance the symbol came to mean eternity, as in Valerianus (Piero Valeriano Bolzani 1477- 1558?) Hieroglyphica 14.4, first published 1556, here from the expanded edition of Lyons 1602).
The serpent that holds its tale in its mouth ... is customarily taken for the course of a year, for time, for age, for immortality. That it signifies the passage of a year, Virgil demonstrates clearly: "Atque in se sua per vestigia voluitur annus" [Georgics 2]. And that the serpent is a symbol of time, St Cyril gives this reason: that it stretches out, and curls back again and again, and that represents the passage and revolution of the days and years ... But one might be able to give another reason that the serpent catches its tail: whether one considers the past or the present or the future, all these times are uncertain to us. For we cannot see the past or conceive of its spirit given that it has no beginning; likewise more of the future, because it is not yet, and the end of things is unknown ...
Wither's emblem of the ouroboros gives a very full interpretation of the symbol.

Last modified 25 November 1997