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An omphalos (ὀμφαλός) is a 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 at Delphi. It is also the name of the stone given to Cronus in Zeus' place in Greek mythology.
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 center, 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.
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). 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, rested on the Foundation stone marking the "navel of world". (This Jewish tradition is known to have begun 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.)
The literary term "omphalos" has been used periodically throughout history. Authors such as Homer, Pausanias, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and Jacques Derrida have incorporated different uses within their work. However, the vast majority of literary uses do not denote the stone from within the Temple of Delphi.
Due to the rare, disparate, and allusive nature of omphalos usages in literature, the book by Joseph R. Shafer, entitled Literary Identity in the Omphalos Periplus, has been both revealing and informational when confronting the literary term. Shafer begins by showing how Karl Kerenyi and Mircea Eliade implemented Delphi's omphalos as a representation of the centeredness of man's collective unconscious. Yet, Shafer returns to the earliest texts to explain the term's literary emphasis. Literary Identity in the Omphalos Periplus studies Homeric uses of the Greek word "omphalos" within the Odyssey and the Iliad, which are translated within as either "navel" or "boss". The boss, in Homeric times, was the center bulge upon a warrior's shield. Shafer then reveals how the literary term "boss", deriving from omphalos, has been portrayed in the works by such authors as Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence, and Walt Whitman.
The following chapter, "The Gaze", performs close readings of James Joyce's Ulysses, which uses the "omphalos" in numerous passages while also relying on Hellenic motifs and tropes. Shafer concludes by explicating Sigmund Freud's use of the term Navel ("gleichsam einen Nabel") within his Dream of Irma in The Interpretation of Dreams and also Jacques Derrida's work which labels Freud's navel as the "omphalos" and uses the term several times in works such as Resistances of Psychoanalysis, The Ear of the Other, and All Ears: Nietzsche's Otobiography. Shafer is able to show the recurrent usage, literary base, and theoretical significance of the term "omphalos" throughout a literary history.
Examples of other uses:
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 word also appears in chapter 3, amongst complex imagery of religion, creation and death:
One of her sisterhood lugged me squealing into life. Creation from nothing. What has she in the bag? A misbirth with a trailing navelcord, hushed in ruddy wool. The cords of all link back, strandentwining cable of all flesh. That is why mystic monks. Will you be as gods? Gaze in your omphalos.
There are a number of omphalos allusions elsewhere in literature, especially fantasy:
In Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Omphalos is a public art sculpture by Dimitri Hadzi which marks the center of this famous crossroads. Due to the deterioration of the sculpture, the MBTA transit agency is considering options to either move or destroy the artwork as of August 2013[update].
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