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Omphalos

[om-fuh-luhs]

An omphalos is an ancient religious stone artifact, or baetylus. In Greek, the word omphalos means "navel" (compare the name of Queen Omphale). According to the ancient Greeks, Zeus sent out two eagles to fly across the world to meet at its center, the "navel" of the world. Omphalos stones used to denote this point were erected in several areas surrounding the Mediterranean Sea; the most famous of those was at the oracle in Delphi. The plant genus Omphalodes in the family Boraginaceae is commonly called navelwort.

Delphi

Most accounts locate the Omphalos in the temple adyton near the Pythia. The stone itself (which may have been a copy) has a carving of a knotted net covering its surface, and has a hollow centre, which widens towards its base (illustrated, to the right).

The Omphalos at Delphi came to be identified as the stone which Rhea wrapped in swaddling clothes, pretending it was Zeus. This was to deceive Cronus, his father, who swallowed his children so they could not grow up and depose him as he had deposed his own father, Uranus.

Omphalos stones were said to allow direct communication with the gods. Leicester Holland (1933) has suggested that the stone was hollow to channel intoxicating vapours breathed by the Oracle. Erwin Rohde wrote that the Python at Delphi was an earth spirit, who was conquered by Apollo, and buried under the Omphalos, and that it is a case of one god setting up his temple on the grave of another.

Christian destruction of the site in the fourth century at the order of Emperors Theodosius I and Arcadius makes all suggestions about its use tentative.

Jerusalem

In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem there is also an omphalos. The existence of this stone is based upon the medieval cosmology which saw Jerusalem as the spiritual if not geographical center of the world (see T and O map). In fact, this tradition is likely based on an ancient Jewish tradition that saw Jerusalem as the navel of the world. In the Jewish tradition, the Ark in the Temple in Jerusalem, through which God revealed himself to His people, was located on a Foundation stone located on the Navel of the World. (This Jewish traditon is known to have began in Hellenistic times, when Jews were already quite familiar with Greek culture - and thus, might be a deliberate emulation of and competition with the above tradition regarding Delphi).

Literature

In chapter 1 of James Joyce's Ulysses Buck Mulligan describes his home in Martello tower as an omphalos:
Billy Pitt had them built, Buck Mulligan said, when the French were on the sea. But ours is the OMPHALOS.
In chapter 14, Mulligan proposes:
... to set up there a national fertilising farm to be named OMPHALOS with an obelisk hewn and erected after the fashion of Egypt and to offer his dutiful yeoman services for the fecundation of any female of what grade of life soever who should there direct to him with the desire of fulfilling the functions of her natural.

The first of the Indiana Jones Bantam Books series, Indiana Jones and the Peril at Delphi, features the Omphalos as the MacGuffin. In the novel, the omphalos is described as a small smooth black cone with a knotted net covering its surface. The netting is described as being petrified rather than carved as it is on the real world omphalos at Delphi. When one holds the omphalos they can see into the near and distant future.

References

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