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One of the symbols that dominated the world of classical antiquity was the omphalos—powerful artifacts made from stone, viewed as facilitating communication with the gods. These objects marked important sites, most notably Delphi, which was regarded as the center of the world. The belief in the omphalos was widespread, and similar stones have been found in other cultures as well. Here’s why the omphalos was called the navel of the world, along with its significance and symbolism for the ancient Greeks.
What is the Omphalos?
The omphalos is a marble monument that was discovered at Delphi, Greece, during an archaeological dig. While the original monument resides in the Museum of Delphi, a simpler replica (pictured above) marks the location where the original was found.
Built by the priests from Knossos in the 8th century BCE, Delphi was a religious sanctuary dedicated to Apollo, and home to priestess Pythia, who was popular in the ancient world for her prophetic words. It’s said that the omphalos was decorated with fillets (the ornamental headbands) worn by worshippers when consulting the oracle, suggesting that they gave their fillets as a gift to Apollo. It was widely believed that the omphalos allowed direct communication with the gods. However, the Romans captured Delphi in the early 2nd century BCE, and by 385 CE, the sanctuary was permanently closed by the decree of Emperor Theodosius in the name of Christianity.
Although the omphalos at Delphi is the most popular, others have also been found. An omphalos serving as a lid covering an oracle well devoted to Apollo was recently discovered in Kerameikos, Athens. Its walls were covered by ancient Greek inscriptions. It’s believed that it was used to seek guidance from the sun god, by means of hydromancy—a method of divination based on the movements of water.
In Greek literature, the Ion of Euripides refers to the omphalos as the earth’s navel and Apollo’s prophetic seat. In the Iliad, it’s used to refer to the actual navel of the human body, as well as the boss or a rounded center of a shield. A 4th-century BCE coin depicted Apollo seated on the omphalos.
Meaning and Symbolism of Omphalos
The term omphalos is the Greek word for navel. It held great symbolic meaning in the Classical and Hellenistic periods.
- The Center of the World
In ancient Greek religion, the omphalos was believed to be the center of the world. It marked the sacred site of Delphi, which also became the center of Greek religion, culture and philosophy. It’s likely that the ancients believed the center of a person was their navel, and the temple where the direct contact with the sacred is allowed was also the center of the universe.
Today, the term omphalos is commonly used in a figurative sense to denote the center of something, like the omphalos of confusion. Metaphorically, it can also be used to refer to the center of a geographical area, like a city, or the sea.
- A Symbol of Glory
Through the oracle of Apollo in Delphi, the omphalos radiated knowledge, wisdom, and virtue to the ancient Greeks. Even though it’s no longer the center of worship, it remains the symbol of Apollonian religion throughout Greece, Rome, and beyond, influencing their culture and philosophy.
- A Symbol of Birth and Death
In some contexts, the omphalos can also be seen as a symbol of birth, representing the point from which life originated. As the navel of the world, it also gave rise to an ancient religion in Delphi.
Some also speculate that the omphalos symbolized the tomb, as two notable burials were recorded taking place in Delphi: Python, the former master of the oracle slain by Apollo, and Dionysius who was buried in the adyton—or cella of the temple. The Delphic priest Plutarch stated that Dionysius’ remains were close beside the oracle.
The Omphalos in Greek Mythology
The origin of the omphalos can be traced back to the childhood of Zeus, as it’s thought to be the stone Cronus was tricked into swallowing as he thought it was Zeus. Later, it was set up at Delphi and the ancient Greeks came to worship it as the center of the Earth. In another legend, the omphalos marked the spot where Apollo slayed the great serpent Python, in order for him to establish his temple at Delphi.
- Zeus and the Omphalos
Cronus the Titan, father of Zeus, was told by his parents that one of his children would overthrow him. For this reason, he swallowed them one by one as they were born, starting from Hades, Hestia, Demeter, Hera, and Poseidon. Rhea, the wife of Cronus and mother of Zeus, decided to save her last child by wrapping a stone in baby clothes and presenting it as Zeus.
Without knowing that his wife tricked him, Cronus promptly swallowed the stone. Rhea hid baby Zeus in a cave on Mount Ida in Crete, where he was raised by the she-goat Amalthea. In order to disguise the baby’s cries so that Cronus would not find his son, the Curetes warriors clashed their weapons to make noise.
When Zeus became an adult, he decided to rescue his siblings whom Cronus had swallowed and asked the advice of the Titaness Metis. On her advice, he disguised himself as a cupbearer and gave his father a drink, so that Cronus would regurgitate his children. Fortunately, all of his siblings were expelled alive including the stone his father had swallowed.
Zeus let two eagles flew, one from each end of the Earth. Where the eagles met, Zeus established Delphi as the center of the world. Zeus marked the place with omphalos—the stone his father Cronus had swallowed—and it was regarded as the navel of the Earth. It was also the place from which the Oracle, wise being who can foretell the future, would speak.
- The Omphalos and Apollo
Long before Zeus established Delphi, the site was called Pytho and was sacred to Gaia, from whom Apollo took over the omphalos and its symbolic meaning. Historians speculate that Gaia, the Greek personification of the Earth, was the goddess of a former earth religion, with Apollo appearing as a second-generation god.
The shrine was guarded by a serpent-dragon named Python, who was also thought to be the master of the oracle. According to the legend, Apollo slayed the serpent and the site became his chosen land. In some accounts, the omphalos also referred to the tomb of Python, as it marked the exact spot where the sun god slayed the serpent.
When Apollo was looking for priests to serve at his temple, he saw a ship with Cretans as its crew. He turned himself into a dolphin to capture the ship and he persuaded the crew to guard his shrine. His servants called it Delphi, as an honor to the dolphin. The rule of Apollo on top of the omphalos also prevented the reappearance of Python and former religion.
Omphalos in Modern Times
The omphalos has made its way into popular culture, though its meaning is altered in different novels and movies. In the novel Indiana Jones and the Peril at Delphi, the omphalos serves as the object or goal the characters are in pursuit of, as holding it will allow them to see the future.
The term omphalos is often used to describe a central location. In James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, Buck Mulligan used the term omphalos to describe his home in a Martello tower. In the same vein, Glastonbury Abbey is described as an omphalos in the novel Grave Goods.
FAQs About Omphalos
Omphalos comes from the Greek word for navel.
The original omphalos at Delphi is made of marble.
It marks the Temple of Apollo and the supposed center of the universe.
The omphalos is a historical monument. Today, it’s kept in the museum of Delphi, while a replica marks the original spot.
The omphalos is a symbol of the ancient Apollonian religion, and the sacred object that was believed to facilitate communication with the gods. The ancient Greeks believed that Delphi, where the omphalos was located, was the center of the world. The desire to be at the center of the world remains relevant even today, although it’s more on cultural, political, and economic terms, rather than geographical.