The interesting feature in several of Bruno’s drawings is a sideways 8 that resembles a serpent coiled across itself. This feature has been prominent in several cultures throughout ancient Persia, both Greek and Minoan artwork and is believed to have its roots in Egyptian serpent worship. The reasoning behind it being drawn in a figure eight pattern was to show how eternally weaving cycles of opposites are actually one and the same. Think of the yin and yang symbol of Taoism where each is found in the other representing the eternal unity of all things.
There are plenty of discourses out there on John Wallis giving mathematical meaning to the infinity symbol in 1655. Mathematicians believe the infinite symbol to be a variation of the Roman numeral 1,000 which was typically used to mean ‘many.’ In mathematics infinity only represents a potential infinity and while Bruno definitely agreed with this sentiment we sell him short when we restrict his philosophy to mere numbers, innumerable as they may be.
“Everywhere is one soul, one spirit of the world, wholly in the whole and in every part of it, as we find in our lesser world also. This soul…produces all things everywhere; so that for the generations of some even time is not required…”
Here we see Bruno taking on a feel very similar to Heracleitus saying: “Thus it is Wisdom to confess that all things are one; all things come out of one, and one out of all things.” This is why I find it so difficult to separate the realm of philosophy and religion. I feel that both schools of thought are dancing in the same mystery. Each is striving to understand this never ending cycle of life and death stretching back through time.
While Bruno saw an endless array of worlds stretching out beyond all human conception he was still very grounded in his faith in God; God being the infinite in his holistic view of said multiverse. We really see this point driven home when Bruno says: “God is infinite, so His universe must be too. Thus is the excellence of God magnified and the greatness of His kingdom made manifest; He is glorified not in one, but in countless suns; not in a single earth, a single world, but in a thousand thousand, I say in an infinity of worlds.”
Oddly enough he was brutally beaten and burned to death in the year 1600 after refusing to denounce his beliefs. Thankfully ideas aren’t so easy to burn at the stake and his legacy lives on today. While science has taken huge leaps to understanding the infinite nature of the universe I want to turn our discussion inwards, to the infinite possibilities within.
In mysticism the infinity symbol is identified as a variation of the ouroboros- an ancient image of a snake eating its own tail said to represent the eternal cycle of the cosmos, the transcendence of duality, and the union of opposites. After emerging in ancient Egypt, the ouroboros became an important symbol in alchemy as it represented the circular nature of the alchemists opus (soul).
The first known appearance of the ouroboros motif as we know it today was in the “Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld (above).” This ancient text was discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun, the son of Amonhotep IV and is dated back to the 14 century B.C. The text chronicles the actions of the god Ra and his union with Osiris in the underworld which puts it in the realm of metaphor. There’s an illustration on this text with two serpents holding their tails in their mouths, coiled around the head and feet of an enormous god which possibly represents the unified Ra-Osiris. All that illustrious symbolism means to convey is there is a perfected being that is capable of moving beyond duality. This figure is given the cryptic title of ‘he who hides the hours.’ Here the ouroboros is Mehen- the protective snake god known as the enveloper. What we’re talking about here is the beginning and the end of time and it’s cyclic nature.
A well known 2nd century alchemist known simply as Cleopatra utilized the ouroboros in her writings on inner transformation. She famously depicted the words “hen to pan” meaning “one is the all,” which she surrounded by an ouroboros. The alchemist is ultimately seeking liberation from the seemingly dualistic nature of reality by unifying the conscious and the unconscious mind; the unity of opposites. Alchemists see our dualistic thinking as a hindrance to spiritual awakening. They believed that my meditating on the spirit of Mercury (the substance that permeates all matter) we can free ourselves and escape death.
It interests me to think about how all of these different cultures and all of these people who have alternative points of view all seem to agree on a few key points. We can all see these infinite possibilities that lie beyond dualistic thinking yet we can’t seem to agree on how to interpret them because of dualistic thinking:
“I’m right and everything you say is wrong.”
“Scientific fact is better than religious superstition.”
Paradox after paradox shapes the world we live in and no one seems to be able to land on a definitive answer as to what the nature of reality actually is, or isn’t. Every single time I sit down at my computer and rattle off a diatrob on some collected brand of knowledge regarding reality I’m reminded of how little we actually know. My belief in God sustains me through my meditative practice. My belief helps me feel like I have a handle on life but for every theological thread I write there is an atheist counter that is just as compelling as my own.
Maybe each thought we have has sprung to life and came into being in an alternate version of reality. Maybe it’s all strawberry fields and nothing is real. Maybe we aren’t meant to understand; maybe we can’t understand. Maybe…