Monday, August 15, 2005


Navel Gazing

One of my favorite spots for a leisurely walk is Pike's Island, at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. Like Pike's Peak, Pike's Island is named after Zebulon Pike. A sign at the entrance of the trail gives two Dakota Indian names for the island:
  1. Wi-ta Tan-ka = Big Island
  2. Ma-ko-ce Co-ka-ya Kin = The Center of the Earth
Big Island isn't a very descriptive or memorable name, but The Center of the Earth certainly is. It reminds me of another place thought to be the center of the earth, Delphi in ancient Greece, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus.

In the inner sanctum (adyton) of Apollo's temple at Delphi was a stone called omphalos, the Greek word for navel or belly button (Latin umbilicus). As the navel is at the body's center, so the omphalos at Delphi was at the world's center.

Speaking of Delphi, Strabo (9.6.3, tr. Horace Leonard Jones) said:
Now although the greatest share of honour was paid to this temple because of its oracle, since of all oracles in the world it had the repute of being the most truthful, yet the position of the place added something. For it is almost in the centre of Greece taken as a whole, between the country inside the Isthmus and that outside it; and it was also believed to be the centre of the inhabited world, and people called it the navel of the earth, in addition fabricating a myth, which is told by Pindar, that two eagles (some say crows) which had been set free by Zeus met there, one coming from the west and the other from the east. There is also a kind of navel to be seen in the temple; it is draped with fillets, and on it are two likenesses of the birds of the myth.
The scholiast on Pindar, Pythian Odes 4.6 (p. 95 Drachmann, tr. A.B. Cook), said much the same thing:
A story is bruited abroad to the effect that Zeus, wanting to determine the centre of the world, let fly eagles of equal speed from west and east. They, winging their way in opposite directions, met at Pytho and by that very fact marked the central point of the whole world. Later, in token of what had befallen, he made other eagles of gold and set them up in the precinct of the god.
Claudian (16.11-16, tr. Maurice Platnauer) versified the tale:
Jove, 'tis said, when he would fain learn its extent (for he knew not the bounds of his own empire) sent forth two eagles of equal flight from the East and from the West. On Parnassus, as they tell, their twin flights met; the Delphic heaven brought together the one bird and the other.

Iuppiter, ut perhibent, spatium cum discere vellet
  naturae regni nescius ipse sui,
armigeros utrimque duos aequalibus alis
  misit ab Eois Occiduisque plagis.
Parnasus geminos fertur iunxisse volatus;
  contulit alternas Pythius axis aves.
Other ancient authors mention the omphalos stone at Delphi without telling the myth in detail. Among them are:
  1. Pindar, Pythian Odes 6.3-4 (tr. William H. Race): The enshrined navel of the loudly rumbling earth.
  2. Pindar, Paeans 6.13-18 (tr. William H. Race): I have come to Apollo's precinct, nurse of crowns and feasts, where the maidens of Delphi often sing to Leto's son at the shady navel of the earth and beat the ground with a rapid foot.
  3. Aeschylus, Eumenides 39-41 (cf. 166-167): I creep to the inner sanctum which is decked with many a wreath. I behold on the navel a polluted man in a suppliant posture.
  4. Euripides, Ion 5-7: I have come to this land of Delphi, where Apollo, sitting on the central navel, chants to mortals, always prophesying the things that are and will be.
  5. Plato, Republic 4.5.427 c (tr. Benjamin Jowett): He [Apollo] is the god who sits in the centre, on the navel of the earth, and he is the interpreter of religion to all mankind.
  6. Pausanias 10.16.2 (tr. Peter Levi): What the Delphians call the navel is made of white stone; the Dephians maintain, and Pindar writes to the same effect in one of his odes, that this is the centre of the entire earth.
The ancient Jews seem to have thought that Mount Zion was the earth's navel. See the apocryphal Book of Jubilees 8.19 (tr. R.H. Charles):
And he knew that the Garden of Eden is the holy of holies, and the dwelling of the Lord, and Mount Sinai the centre of the desert, and Mount Zion the centre of the navel of the earth: these three were created as holy places facing each other.
In addition to meaning navel, Greek omphalos also means the protuberant boss of a shield (cf. Latin umbo, cognate with umbilicus). One might therefore surmise that ancient Greek belly buttons were outies, not innies. But the naked statues in Gisela Richter's Handbook of Greek Art all seem to show innies.

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?