Void; then, I AM; from that completion sprang ourobouros.
The Epoch of Demons
The first children knew only the chaos in Nature.
Land surged upward from the sea and the wild demons perceived solid form. They assumed shapes to interbreed and mix with the land. The multitude of sights and sounds and pressures delighted them. All their thoughts became forms, ever changing with each new idea, for they were the first, born of Earth’s chaos. Never shackled by preconceptions, their minds ruled magic and matter, as if it were thought.
The demons rifled across the virgin Earth. A gargantuan tower of obsidian thrust upward to the thundering ammonia laden sky at a whim; another whim–the tower collapsed. This continued for a thousand years.
The demon Ptah thought, "If everything is change, then change, itself, is a constant in the universe."
The next moment, a circlet of liquid mercury appeared in Ptah’s hundred fingered hand. It felt soft and warm and held all colors and sights and sounds. "I have created something," spoke the mouth imbedded in Ptah’s chest, "I shall create something more from this."
Ptah tried. Ptah failed.
Ptah’s brothers gathered around the circlet, pressed their flesh against it. Some willed it to be a square; some a diamond; one tried to make it a statue of gaseous ebony in its own image; but most just wished it to disappear. Nothing the demons thought could change the circlet of mercury. Frustration, a new thing, entered the demons. All contemplated the circlet, how to change it. Ennui devoured the demons after a thousand thousand years of this effort.
The Epoch of Atlantis
The first men to rise from brute Nature walked the three paths of Atlantis’ magic: the first path rejected self awareness and ended at void, oblivion; the second path spun and twirled into madness, with self awareness amok; but the third–the third!–ascended toward enlightenment.
Wizard Ela gazed into the alabaster encircled pool. The visionary waters darkened, and Ela despaired as he watched the future unfold. The golden city would soon sink into the sea.
The people heralded Ela as the mightiest of wizards, the farthest to walk down the third road. Ela believed he could exhort them to a defense.
He donned his cloak of crow feathers and commanded his hair to braid itself in the warrior’s knot. Ela passed down the ruby corridors and into the crystal chamber of meditation, where the King reposed on cushions, woven of peacock feathers.
"My King!" cried Ela, "Atlantis will fall!"
But the King rebuked Ela, "You have faltered and fallen onto the second path. What harm can savages do to us? What storm is mighty enough to pierce the spells of our wizards? Before Atlantis there was nothing; Atlantis is; Atlantis shall ever be."
None would listen to Ela. To walk the third path was treacherous and many slipped onto the second path. Such was Ela branded: insane. His cries became wearisome to the placid seekers of enlightenment and Ela was banished.
His magic kept him safe as he travelled the barbarian world in the form of a golden eagle. Always, Ela watched the savages. And Ela saw something new arising from their thoughts: They stopped praying to wood nymphs and faeries and satyrs, but began praying to sculpted things in the shapes of men. The savages told stories of heroism and wisdom and cunning; and all this passion, this primitive magic of the savages, was thrust into the cold stones.
Ela feared what the savages were making.
Ela wept. All the wisdom, the splendor of Atlantis would be lost. He wanted to save something from the darkness. Ela had walked far down the third path and his answer came readily to him: the dignity of Man within Atlantis’ three paths of magic.
The knowledge must endure the rages of primitive magic. How? Permanence. "Ourobouros," Ela whispered.
The third path to enlightenment stretched on and on, and he had little time. Ela could feel the primitive magic, tingling his skin; it was building, building swiftly–and Ela knew he was not enlightened. His own fear told him that. The first path, he could choose and complete.
But only once.
Again, Ela wept, and Ela trembled. To cease to be: a terrible fate. He felt a pain in his ankle and looked down.
A hooded cobra had bitten him. Already, Ela felt the poison pouring through his body. Ela asked, "Why? Why did you do this to me?"
The cobra replied, "My serpent’s eyes reveal no thoughts, but see your thoughts. I made your decision easy, yes? We both feel the end coming. I would have something of me survive, too. I have slithered around the savages more than you. Their time is upon them. You cannot tarry."
An icy wind without a heart moaned over the Earth.
The cobra hissed, "The apocalypse comes. Hurry."
Ela bent down and whispered to the cobra the three paths of Atlantis with all his magic of the third path. With the first path’s magic, Ela whispered, "Ourobouros." and then to finish that path, "I am not."
Ela passed away.
The cobra turned upon itself and grasped its tail; then tumbled into the sea.
Six days afterward, cold statues moved across the Earth. Savages bowed. Magic flowed to the statues’ command.
The first statue to speak said, "I am Enlil, your god." It turned its stony head in the direction of Atlantis. "No man may oppose a god."
Atlantis sank into the ocean. The savages were cowed and debased themselves before Enlil.
The Epoch of Gods
Gods dared to command the magic of men; and gods multiplied swiftly, with all the passion of men, but no weakness of flesh, only unyielding stone.
Thor ruled the storms; mortals prayed to him, sent him their magic. And Thor laughed as he plunged their ships down into the sea. "Men," Thor said one day to the trickster god Loki, "are fools. Only gods endure."
Bound by chains in a cave under the gods’ halls, Loki replied, "I have heard that in midgard in a land called Egypt rules a man who is a god, and on his crown is a serpent that is eternity."
Thor laughed. "You, too, are a fool. I’ll bring you this pretender’s head and his serpent crown. You shall wear it when I prove you wrong, and all the gods shall laugh at you."
Loki smiled as he watched Thor depart with tromping steps toward midgard, the realm of men. Loki had roamed far before he had been caught and bound, and he had heard the All-father Wotan’s first words after he had plucked out an eye for wisdom. Groaning, Wotan had muttered fearfully, "The midgard serpent."
Above Loki a snake chuckled and dripped poison. Loki screamed and pulled at his chains as the poison scorched his face. When he had regained his breath, Loki whispered, "Now, I have hope. It may end."
In Egypt the Pharaoh watched as his marble doors splintered and shattered from the single stroke of a hammer. The stranger strode in defiantly; his skin was pale and his beard was stained redder than any henna dye. He stood at eight cubits and wore a belt of iron and strange furs.
The Pharaoh spoke, "You are a god."
Thor said, "Surrender that crown, mortal. Only gods endure."
While the Pharaoh pondered, Thor strode forward and reached for the crown.
The Pharaoh changed into a falcon and flew over Thor’s head. The Pharaoh said, "How have you discovered what our gods could not? The serpent allows only men to share his dreams of the golden city and the three roads of magic."
Thor lunged for the bird, but the falcon flew in circles beyond his reach. Red faced, Thor screamed, "What madness! Come down! Let me strangle you. No mortal may use magic. You must give it to us!"
The Pharaoh feared for his life and regretted masquerading as a god to bind his people to him. Gods were strong, too strong for his spells. He plucked a feather from his head with his talons. It fell to the floor as his golden crown. "There! Take it and go!"
But Thor’s fury was upon him and he screamed, "You must die! All mortals who dare to keep magic for themselves must die!"
That terrible hammer swung close to his head. The Pharaoh spoke quickly, "It is the serpent in the sea who teaches. Kill it and no mortals shall do magic. But the serpent is too strong for you. It has grown over uncountable years. You’re quest is vain; men will always dream for magic."
Thor shouted, "What impudence! I’ll kill this serpent and drown you in its poisons!"
The god of seas and storms ran from the throne room, jumped on his chariot, and lashed his goats in a fury. "Take me to this serpent who dwells in the sea! Now!"
The goat drawn chariot plunged into the sea. Thor laughed joyously as the icy waters washed over him. The sea was dark, but Thor commanded lightning ahead of his chariot to brighten his way. Below him, a serpent grasped its tail within its jaws. Its scales were as large as mountains and its girth spanned more than the eye could see. But its head lay before the god and Thor saw that the serpent slept.
Thor smote the serpent’s jaws with his hammer, again and again. The serpent did not stir. After one thousand days of this pounding the jaw bone cracked.
The serpent raised the eyelid that faced Thor.
"No!" Thor screamed and ran to his chariot. Only the All-father could help him answer this terrible fear the serpent had placed within him.
In Wotan’s feasting hall the warriors shouted, laughed, and gorged themselves on mead and meats. Wotan, blue cloaked and white bearded, silently watched as Thor entered the hall, too swiftly for respect, too hunched for arrogance. Wotan’s limbs froze as he saw Thor’s eyes. The wolves at his feet jumped to snatch the meat from Wotan’s hand.
Thor cried in a maiden’s voice and all revelry ceased as Thor said, "All-father, what–what is this ourobouros in the eyes of the serpent who dwells in the sea? Will nothing but it endure? I–I do not understand. I am Thor and I am–am vain. Mortals are wrong to pray to us. We are not true."
Wotan murmured, "Ragnarok is come. The end comes." He watched the strongest of his gods crumble before him; chunks of rough hewn stone tumbled to his feet. He had prepared for a glorious end at Ragnarok: battle, bloodshed, and fire–but the end from such dreadful magical knowledge . . . Madness. How could mortals survive in a reality of such ever changing madness? He knew he could not. Already, Wotan felt his limbs begin to stiffen and crack.
Returning to stone, Loki gently smiled as the Epoch of Gods eroded to myth.
The Epoch of Camelot
Magic drifted, freed to mortal hands. One wizard grew bolder than the rest to dream into the seas surrounding his island land; he dreamed within a dream of a golden city and of the three paths and of ourobouros.
"Pour the gold into the groove carefully. Carefully!" the young master berated his pupils, "It must be a perfect circle, without ending or beginning. Camelot must have an immortal, ever faithful defender."
Shivering from the cold winds his master had summoned to freeze the gold, his first student asked, "What is Camelot?"
The wizard gazed into his student’s eyes with a passion that made the boy flinch. "Camelot is a dream, but one I shall make true forever."
The boy peeped, "But nothing endures forever. You taught us that."
"I was wrong." The wizard tightened his cloak against the cold winds. "I have heard from falcons that a serpent dwells in Egypt that lives longer than any other beast or man. Its immortal gaze is monstrous; none can face this basilisk. I shall make such a creature, a cockatrice, not born, made from rooster’s egg and hen’s dung: one of impossible birth, the other of renewing change after death. This cockatrice shall never die and it shall turn all armies from my city’s gate."
"What city, master?"
The wizard cuffed the boy on the ear. "Pay attention."
More scared than hurt, the boy stumbled inside the golden ring and plopped into the hen’s dung.
Magic consumed the boy’s body. The spell began. The wizard cried out, "Am I ever to be beset by calamity?" He grimaced and began the spell, "Ourobouros."
On the thousandth day mists rose upward from the hen’s dung. It crawled from the golden circle; then it stood and said, "I am–I am alive. Such pain. What am I?"
The wizard answered, "You resemble a man, but are neither man nor woman. You are my cockatrice, and you shall defend Camelot and live forever as its guardian. Let me see your eyes. Ah! Such loneliness. Your gaze is monstrous; you are a thing complete, with nothing but itself." The wizard averted his eyes. "You are ourobouros, truly. I will get a blindfold. Follow me."
The cockatrice balked. "No. That word, I know. I feel the dream you dreamed; I see a brother, a companion for my loneliness."
The wizard tried to bind the cockatrice with magical fires, but it walked on, its slow gate undisturbed. It marched into the sea with no weapon able to restrain it.
The wizard said, "I was a youthful fool to complete a bungled spell. Ourobouros is not for this world. I shall need an entirely different instrument: change, a honed edge with endings–endings for the foes of Camelot, an edge that cuts to make Camelot dangerous in a world of dangers."
On the ocean floor two shadows of ourobouros shared a dream of darkness and words:
"Are we not ourobouros?"
"No, we change, too. You change simply by moving on a changing world. I envy your legs."
"And you change?"
"Yes. I grow, feeding on magic and spewing it out as Ela’s dreams. I was once a hooded cobra, Ela’s serpent, his fool. And look, feel my jaw; yes, there. A god changed me so that my jaw aches now."
"There is no ourobouros, then?"
"I do not know. Perhaps, but I have been alive longer than anything I have known; and no thing endures. Because we are shadows of ourobouros, we will endure for long times. You longer than I: Keep your legs."
"I should go to Camelot. My maker created me for this."
"Camelot crumbled; your maker is long since dust. Time changes, too, but mostly it is slow for me, and a weary passage. Ela knew ourobouros well, chose me well. I do not remember when I began to hate him. Even memories change. Only those three roads of his are branded in my circle."
"Why do you hate this Ela?"
"My jaw aches. We are shadows of ourobouros, changing only as much as we are shadowy. Brother, find me a wizard, greater than Ela."
"Why, circle brother?"
"To kill me. My jaw aches. No wizard I have dreamed of has been greater than Ela, but you have time to search. Oh, you have time."
"Circle brother, after death comes what path: void, madness, or enlightenment?"
"I don’t know. I don’t care. My jaw aches."
The Epoch of Technology
Pain drove the serpent slowly into senility and the third path slipped from the shadowy brand of ourobouros on its scales. Desiring a wizard mighty enough to slay it, the serpent dreamed only to one mortal, taught him for a thousand years . . . Without the serpent’s dreams Man forgot magic and turned back to brute Nature to master it.
The scents of bodily discharges flooded the room of the crack-heroin-alcohol slum house. Thomas Roberts breathed the taint. He listened to the sounds: the hacking, moaning–blind ecstacy and gnawing pain. He mumbled to his companion, "Keep it dark. At least there’s no way to see the idiotic graffiti, the faces stretched too thin, too pale."
The cockatrice said, "No one told you necromancy would be pleasant."
Thomas placed his cold bony hands against his chest. Nope. No doubt about it at all. His heart had stopped beating. He laughed. It had worked. It had all been worth it: the injections, the filthy smoking, the vices–all indulged in to the point of no return. Always, his thoughts had been of power, magic. Magic! Slip beyond the every day dull grey world! Live forever! Control your friends and loved ones! "Uh," Thomas said, "I’ve outlived my loved ones."
Thomas smelled sulfur as light flickered; his companion had taken off his sunglasses and held a match. Their gazes met. "Oh, alone." the necromancer moaned.
The cockatrice held his gaze until Thomas screamed.
The cockatrice said, "You want to live forever? Endure? Ourobouros."
Exactly one thousand years passed and two things resembling men held a conversation in a luxurious penthouse:
Thomas Roberts said, "Welcome, ourobouros."
"I am not that. I am cockatrice."
"Don’t lie to me, cockatrice! I have dropped you into the pit of a nuclear furnace and watched you walk out! You carry the mark of ourobouros, you, you and that senile serpent."
"We can change."
"Hah. You reassure me. The same manners, the same tones and expressions that you wear on every anniversary of my first death. You possess no hate for me."
The cockatrice replied, "No. I seek only a favor from you, necromancer."
Thomas grinned. "Kill the serpent, yes?"
"Yes, of course."
"How nice it is to see one person whose eyes do not lash out at me with hate. Come closer, cockatrice; and take off your glasses."
They locked gazes and Thomas did not flinch.
The cockatrice said, "It is time. You are mighty enough."
"Why should I bother?"
The cockatrice replied, "Because you are our circle brother now; I have branded you, necromancer, as a shadow of ourobouros. One day, you may want this favor returned."
Thomas nodded, "Yes, I am branded. Time has changed for me, but I will change little after this day, yes?" The cockatrice stared at the necromancer. Thomas said, "I will use the necromancy within my brand to slay our brother. He has been in pain for too long."
"I have a weapon, too. My maker discovered it; then, it was lost with the fall of Camelot. But shadows of ourobouros have time to search, yes?"
Thomas asked, "What is it?"
"A sword to change mankind, but my maker failed. Still, it is a potent thing, this Excalibur."
The cockatrice put on a leather glove and pulled the sword from a force field briefcase. "Do not touch it. I did so over two millennia ago, and the wound to my finger still stings. I cannot imagine the agony of our serpent brother. This thing was created to be anathema to ourobouros."
"Ourobouros has no opposites."
"True, but my maker failed to believe so. It is human magic, rife with paradoxical thoughts and change. And even our serpent brother is only a shadow of ourobouros. It works as my finger attests, and our brother shall not fight us."
The Epoch of Earthquakes
The Earth trembled spasmodically for five hundred years, as the serpent struggled in its death throes.
Coming out of the sea onto a sandy beach, both shadows of ourobouros looked upward at an ice blue sky.
Suddenly, Thomas said, "Circle brother, let’s make a pact."
"Let’s travel a different path than what our circle brother travelled. Let’s seek to endure, to see if there is an end."
The cockatrice’s eyes widened.
Thomas spoke softly, "Brother, I think that is the first time I have ever surprised you."
The cockatrice said, "Yes. That much surprise was a first for me, too, and shows the futility of your pact. We are shadows–We change, only slowly. I wonder if anything endures. Perhaps the serpent found ourobouros beyond the veil of death?"
"Perhaps. Perhaps change itself is ourobouros?"
A wave washed a circlet of liquid mercury onto the beach at their feet.
Thomas asked, "Another shadow?"
The cockatrice replied, "I don’t know yet, but we have time."
Thomas laughed and laughed for one thousand days, unsettling the cockatrice.