The Navel Of The World

The concept of the navel of the world, now called by its Greek name, omphalos, was recognized as far back as ancient Egyptian times. The Egyptian world centre was more than a symbolic or theoretical place, for it was actually represented by an elliptical stone that marked the mid-point of the country. This was the geodetic point of reference at the place where the north-south meridian and the east—west parallel crossed each other. In the Old Kingdom, the centre of Egypt was at Sakkara. The omphalos there was marked by the holy stone of Sokar, god of orientation. Drawings of it in ancient papyri show that it was flanked by images of two birds of prey, alluding to a legend known later from Greece. In the twelfth dynasty, the geodetic centre of Egypt was changed, and the Sakkara omphalos was replaced by another stone in the Temple of Amun at Thebes. This may have been the inspiration for a later and more famous omphalos at Delphi in Greece. The Delphic omphalos was the seat of the priestess known as the Pythia. She was the oracle of Apollo, the god who, in the words of Plato, 'sits in the centre of the navel of the earth'. According to legend, Delphi was discovered by Zeus, who, as grand geometer of the cosmos, measured the earth. From the Olympian heights, he sent forth two eagles to find the middle of the world. Zeus released one bird to the east, and the other to the west. Flying in straight lines, they met each other over Delphi, which was defined thus as the navel of the world. According to another legend, this was also the place where Apollo slew with his arrow the serpent called Python so that the oracular goddess could take her place there without hindrance.

At least from Mycenean times, around 1400 bce, if not earlier, the

Delphic world navel was marked by a baitylos, an unworked mark-

stone which was regarded as an aniconic emblem of the deity. Later, this rough stone was considered inappropriate and was replaced by a finely carved omphalos. This was also an elliptical stone to which an eagle of gold was attached on each side in the Egyptian manner. This

Delphic omphalos was carved with swags of what appear to be wool or cloth, recreating the patterns made upon the earlier stone when it was honoured ceremonially. A number of ancient Greek sculptured reliefs and vase-paintings show the omphalos in the days when it was the

Representation of an revered sacred object of the oracle, dressed with ribbons and branches.

omphalos-stone on an altar, _ • ,, , , • , , r » , c 400 bce from an ancient ^oman writer Varro compared its shape with that or a treasury ,

Greek vase in Berlin. and when Delphi was sacked by the Celts under Brennos in 279 bce the actual treasure of Apollo's shrine was taken away as booty.

Although it is primarily the navel of the world, there is a strong connection, not only linguistically, between the omphalos and the phallus. A number of omphaloi at other places were phallic in shape, and the Etruscans used phalloid stones as tomb-markers. In the Celtic realms, a comparable pillar-stone stood at Pfalzfeld in the Hunsriick, Germany, in the land once inhabited by the Treviri tribe. Surrounded by ropework, an Etruscan motif that later appears in Celtic crosses all over the British Isles, the carvings on this stone include a bearded human head with horns or a headdress, surrounded by scrollwork in La Tene style. In Ireland, similar stone omphaloi have survived. The stone at Turoe in County Galway is an elliptical mark-stone that closely resembles the Delphic omphalos

Irish Omphalos Stone

in shape and size, even down to the swirling patterns that spiral across its surface. Elsewhere in Ireland are stones that include a cushion-shaped omphalos at Castlestrange in County Roscommon and a stone at Mullaghmast in Kildarc. The latter is the base of an ancient Pagan pillar. Another base of a round pillar, which, when intact, was probably approximately conical, exists at Killycluggan in County Cavan. These omphalos-pi\hrs are the model from which the later designers of the Irish high crosses took their inspiration.

The concept of the stone that stands at the centre of the world, or, by association, the centre of a country or sacred area, was known elsewhere in northern Europe. Before the introduction of the Christian religion into western Norway, many sacred places possessed Hellige hvide stene (holy white stones). Many have been discovered beneath churches or old homesteads which in Pagan times served as places of worship. The Hellige hvide stene are cylindrical pillars terminating with a hemisphere, made from white stone, either marble, quartzite or granite. Phallic in form, and measuring up to 90 cm (3 ft) in height, it is likely that these stones were the objects of worship of the god of sexuality and generation, Yngvi-Frey, who was the chief god of the older, pre-agricultural Norse pantheon, known as the Vanir. When the Christian religion was introduced, the holy white stones were buried, to be re-discovered in modern times. In Scotland, Clackmannan, a former inauguration-place of the Pictish kings, possesses a similar, but much larger, phallic megalith which stands by the church. Like other omphaloi, it hallows the centre-point of the land, where the spiritual essence is at its height. Such places were the natural spiritual centres of the priesthood, monarchs and lords. In England, the London Stone, recently refurbished, traditionally marks the centre and holds the 'luck' of the city of London, while the same function is ascribed to the Blue Stane of St Andrews in Scotland. In the Low Countries, the central points of town market-places, which in other places would be marked by a market cross, were marked by a blue stone. Thus, the tradition of the omphalos lives on as an integral element of modern cities.

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