Sometime in the second half of the 4th century bc, a Pythaogorean philosopher living in Southern Italy put forward his idea about the principles of man. He wrote that the rational animal is made up of four principles: the brain, the heart, the navel, and the genital organ, in order of hierarchy. These choices, perhaps not the four you would have chosen, are explained by dividing the functions of the body between these principles. The navel is the seat of implantation and the growth of the embryo, from which future growth and nutrition is provided. Whilst these philosophical ideas of Philolaus of Croton are preserved only in the fragmentary records of later Greek philosopher, we can assume from what we have that Philolaus considered the navel as the centre of the body.
This concept, considering our knowledge of human anatomy, might appear a little strange, but within Greek culture it took on a greater symbolic importance. This brings us to the ὀμφαλός (omphalos). The ὀμφαλός was a cult object, best known as the large stone monument that lay in the centre of the temple of Apollo in Delphi. In addition to Delphi, these stones have been found at the site of Thebes (the Egyptian one, not the Greek!) and Karnak, also in Egypt. Drawings of omphalos-like shapes have been found on the walls of the Seti I pyramid in Egypt, but the oldest known actual example of these stones comes from the Vinca culture, a prehistoric Neolithic civilisation located along the Danube in Serbia flourished between 6000 and 3,500 BC. The connection between this early stone to those found across the Greek world might seem a stretch, but the details of netting and a bird, shown in the image below, suggest a pretty direct link between the Vinca culture and the myth which the Greeks associated with the Delphic oracles.
There are two main myths, combined in this iconography, which are associated with the Delphic stone. The first tells that Zeus, wishing to discover the centre of the earth, released two eagles at different ends of the earth and commanded them to fly to the centre. The two eagles crossed at Delphi, which was marked by Zeus as the centre with a stone, hence the depiction of the birds. The second myth relates more specifically to the stone, rather than the place, and reveals a history that predates Apollo. The titan Cronos received a prophecy which told that he would be overthrown by his own child. In fear, Cronos consumed each child to which his wife, Rhea, gave birth. Rhea, seeking to save her child, plotted against him and hid her child – Zeus – in a cave on Mount Ida in Crete. To trick Cronos, she wrapped a stone in swaddling clothes and gave it to her husband, who swallowed it.
While the Vinca stones most likely functioned differently from their successors in the Greek world, the shared imagery of the net and the birds suggest a interaction between the two cultures, with the Greeks appropriating and mythologising a preexisting Vinca tradition.
But what is an omphalos stone, and how does it relate to the human body? The greek word, like the latin umbilicus, translates as navel, but for the Greeks it was more importantly a cult object. The Delphic omphalos marked Delphi as the ‘navel’ – the centre, as we have established – of the world. It was the stone to which suppliants clung within the inner temple, as shown in the picture below, and in early times was covered by a shroud which was later replaced with the image of material binding. The association of the navel with the process of birth has allowed it to be used as a metaphor for the epicentre of civilisation from Delphi to Jerusalem, Mount Kailash in Tibet to Cusco, the former capital of the Inca Empire which takes its name from the Quechua word for navel.
In the Symposium, Plato’s Aristophanes has a different idea. The philosopher places the comedian, among other prominent Athenian men, at a drinking party where the guests discuss the nature of Love. Aristophanes, characteristically absurd, tells a myth of human origin to explain the attraction of sexes. His tale begins with the three genders of ‘pre-humans’: male, female and androgynous. These creatures attempted to overthrow the gods and, as a punishment, Zeus decided to weaken them by cutting them in half. He leaves the navel as a scar, smoothing over everything else, to remind us of our early fall (Plato, Symposium 1903-191a).
It is with this in mind that we should perhaps turn back to the Delphic myth and the role of Rhea/Gaia, the great mother, in the story of the omphalos stone. The Delphic navel-stone was first associated with Rhea and sat in her sanctuary, guarded by Python, her daughter. Apollo took control of the shrine by killing the Python, transforming the stone into a marker of centrality according to the Zeus myth, and separating it from its origins with the Great Mother. The navel stone thus marks again point of cutting, of what Jane Ellen Harrison calls the “mythopoeic umbilical cord”, serving as a grave mound for the slain snake, and a demonstration of a new patriarchal order, in which Apollo takes charge of the sanctuary and Zeus at the centre of the Delphic-myth.
The vulnerability of the navel leads us to another part of the world and a completely different mythological tradition on which we shall end. In Japanese culture, the raiju, or thunder beast, is said to come down to earth during a storm with by means of a lightning bolt. The folklore tradition appears to have been imported from China into Japan in the 16th century and by the Edo period (17th Century) it was widely sighted and documented. The shape of this creature is unclear, for it is a shape-shifter, but usually resembles a badger. The peculiarity of the raiju lies in its predilection for nestling in the recess of the human navel to sleep, causing Raiden, the god of thunder and lightning, to wake it with a lightning bolt, waking the raiju but harming the human. Elsewhere myths state that the creature likes to eat human navels, especially children’s. As a result, it people took care to sleep on their front during stormy weather.
In these varying traditions, as we have seen, the navel is a symbol of centrality and creation, a comforting resting place for the Raiju and a point of salvation for supplicants in Apollo’s temple. But the navel also emerges as a point of vulnerability, a scar which marks death, punishment and separation from the mother, a difference between the immortal and mortal worlds.
For more navels: omphaloskepsis: Navel-gazing