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Credit and Copyright: Rens van der Sluijs


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Dec 21, 2004
The Navel Stone

The curious object shown here is a Hellenistic or early Roman marble copy of the so-called omphalos or "navel", its surface covered with a woolen mesh. It was originally located in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, Greece. The travel writer, Pausanias, wrote the following about this rock:

"What the Delphians call the NAVEL is made of white stone: the Delphians maintain, and Pindar writes to the same effect in one of his odes, that this is the center of the entire earth."

Countless other surviving reports identify this navel-stone or Delphi as the center of the earth. But this deeply-rooted tradition raises a number of questions. Why was Delphi regarded as the center of the earth? And why did the centre have to be represented as a conical stone rather than, for example, a navelstring? The German scholar Wilhelm Roscher, who devoted no less than three books to this subject, was probably right when he derived the identification of Delphi as the center of the earth from the simple psychological tendency to place one's own land in the centre. Even if that is granted, however, the imagery itself still needs to be explained, especially because many other ancient societies identified one or another rock as the "navel" of the earth. In Petra, in modern Jordan, a "conic navel" was found, two meters in height and diameter, which was evidently regarded as a symbol of the cosmic center. The Israelites believed that the Holy of Holies in Solomon's temple was built on the "foundation stone" of the earth, which was the first object created by God, that he placed in the center of the universe. Muslims regard the Ka‘ba, the sacred black stone at Mecca, as the mark of the cosmic center. Many more examples could be adduced.

The key to the significance of such omphaloi is the connection to the heavenly pole. It is not difficult to understand why the cosmic pole would be singled out as the center of heaven par excellence, particularly in early societies with no concept of heliocentricity. The revolution of the stars around the pole and the constancy of the pole star near the center could readily be taken to mean that the polar region was the center of the cosmos. Earth navels such as the omphalos at Delphi and the Ka‘ba at Mecca must therefore have been deliberately modeled after the cosmic pole, even if this involved the erroneous conception that Delphi, Mecca, and other such places were located directly underneath the heavenly pole or, in other words, at the terrestrial poles.

So much was fully understood and elaborated by A.J. Wensinck, Mircea Eliade, and other students of early religion. What these scholars failed to notice, however, was that this cannot be the whole story. Granted that cultic "earth navels" were modeled after the celestial pole, the question remains just why the pole was so frequently represented by pillars and conical stones? Other recurring aspects of the iconography of the omphalos can be added. The Greek and the Semitic omphaloi were both depicted with a serpent wound around them. What could that have meant in connection with the pole of heaven? The symbol of the winged sun disc used to be placed right above the omphalos. Why? In order to make sense of this welter of confusing ideas, it is of paramount importance to consider that the ancients were looking at a different, more active sky than the one we presently see. The available evidence strongly suggests that the ancients were describing the axis mundi, the central axis connecting the poles of heaven and earth, as a visible object.

Based on an extensive analysis of ancient rock art, plasma physicist Anthony Peratt has recently proposed that a stupendous glowing plasma column formed in the 4th or 3rd millennium BCE as a result of a high-energy disturbance in the geomagnetic field. The known laboratory sequence of phases in the development of such a plasma column matches precisely the various aspects in the ancient mythological descriptions of the axis mundi. The plasma column will at some point have looked like a luminous cone; at another it will have been surrounded by a bright helix not unlike a serpent; and at another it will have been surmounted by two extensions resembling outstretched wings. This elegant hypothesis accounts at once for the significance and the complex morphology of the omphalos in ancient religion. Needless to say, many more years of painstaking analysis will be needed before the entire tangle is unraveled.

 Contributed by Rens van der Sluijs



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