Omphalic Obsessions

Where is the centre of the ancient world? This is not only a question for globalisation, network or core-periphery debates in archaeology and ancient history, but is also relevant to the study of ancient conceptions of sacred geography.

Temple of Apollo, Delphi
The Temple of Apollo, Delphi, Oct 2020. Photo: TMK.

Specifically, the idea of Apollo’s sanctuary at Delphi as the “centre of the ancient world” is a common trope in both modern scholarship – as seen most recently in the title of Michael Scott’s excellent and very useful Princeton volume on the history of Delphi, and ancient texts from Pindar to Plutarch. However, the concept itself and its relationship to the omphalos (or navel) stone(s) at Delphi typically plays an only minor role in contemporary scholarship. In fact, it is relatively rarely taken all that seriously outside the works of the “Cambridge Ritualists” (Jane Harrison, A.B. Cook, et al.), Mircea Eliade, and the more, well, fringy stuff on Greek cosmovision and ‘Great Alignments’. All of this is to say that it’s a daunting topic with multiple historiographical layers in addition to a complex iconography.

I’ve been thinking about the omphalos again recently when trying to revise a paper for publication in the proceedings from a very enjoyable conference on “The Stuff of the Gods” organised at the Swedish Institute in Athens all the way back in 2015.

I discuss the omphalos (and its various textual and material re-incarnations) as part of a history of replication, concluding that it may be productive to approach it as an aspect of ancient Greek mythistory – a phrase taken from the work of the Israeli historian Joseph Mali – a very particular synthesis of history and myth that is crucial to how communities define themselves:

At one scale, the omphalos was simply a geographical trope that expressed the religious authority of Apollo and his sanctuary. We can even speculate that it was invented in the early history of the sanctuary in order to promote its Panhellenic ambitions. However, at another scale, it was translated into a singular object with a particular mythistory, and decisions were made about the choice of materials, size and decoration that were used to represent a whole series of different claims to religious authority. I have here argued that these choices were significant and are important for our understanding of the self-representation of the sanctuary. The histories of the concept and the thing were clearly intertwined, although not necessarily always aligned. Even when building on traditions and explicitly referring back to earlier authorities (especially Pindar), each textual, visual or material representation of the omphalos constituted a re-invention of the thing itself that in (more or less) subtle ways could emphasize different aspects of the powerful concept of the navel of the earth. 

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