belly button

views updated May 23 2018

belly button The yogi contemplating his navel often figures for Westerners as an object of amusement, being taken as a symptom of indolence or narcissistic self-absorption. In reality nothing could be further from the truth; navel-gazing is, rather, a quest for absorption in realms transcending the individual psyche and even the domain of the human altogether. The navel provides a focus for spiritual concentration.

Beyond its obstetrical and physiological significance, the navel has been an object of great consequence in the light of deep convictions, held in many cultures, about correspondences between the macro- and the microcosm. If the human body is the image and epitome of an orderly and intelligible world, the navel is bound to assume philosophical significance as a key or clue to profound mysteries about the geometry of the universe and perhaps the origins of mankind. An originary myth from Turkey, for instance, relates that on seeing the first man created by Allah, the Devil spat at his stomach. Allah then made a grab at and removed the polluted spot, the resultant scar thus explaining why humans have a belly button. Byzantine mystics for their part thought of their navels as ‘circles of the sun’, expecting to observe a refraction of the light streaming from sacred Mount Tabor.

Cultures world-wide have striven to locate and distinguish the centre of the universe or at least of the globe. In Greek mythology, Zeus, seeking to discover the precise centre of the earth, arranged for two eagles to fly at the same speed, one from the east and the other from the west. They met at Delphi, and so it was there, in a temple to Apollo, that the Greeks set up an omphalos — that is, a holy navel-stone — guarded by two golden eagles. The stones, as revealed by excavations, were in the shape of ornamented half-eggs on squat, quadrangular bases. Apollo, explained Plato, ‘has his shrine at the world's centre and navel, to guide mankind.’ Further legends state that the omphalos at Delphi stands upon the spot where Apollo killed the serpent Python, or upon the chasm through which the waters of Deucalion's flood drained away.

The omphalos was regarded as the throne of a deity, notably the Earth Mother. It could serve as a symbol of sacredness, peace, and order. The spinning wheel at which Heracles toiled was an omphalos, as was the shrine where Orestes took sanctuary.

Similar views have been prominent in other cultures too. In India, the Rig-Veda depicts the navel of the Uncreated upon which lay the seed of the world, and it was from Vishnu's navel, recumbent upon the primeval ocean, whence arose the Lotus of the universal manifestation. In Hindu thinking, the navel is the ‘motionless hub of the wheel’; it may alternatively be viewed as the tree under which the Buddha sat when he achieved illumination at Bodhgaya.

Boundary stones set down as markers in the fields of southern India often resemble the omphalos shape, also being known as ‘navel-stones’. The sacred shield of the Jews was likewise given a navel form — reflecting the belief that Jerusalem was the earth's centre. The many ‘Bethels’ in the Bible (for instance Jacob's sleeping place) are also associated with the navel-stone. In view of their shape, and also since, etymologically, the word ‘omphalos’ breaks down into om-phallus (i.e. penetrating shafts or arrows of enkindling light), navel-stones have been interpreted by folklorists as phallic symbols.

The Suffi people of New Mexico have assorted complicated migration myths which elucidate their search for the navel of the world. Such stories link up with origin myths about their race's appearance from the womb of the earth. Myths amongst some American Indians have held that the navel of the universe is the origin of the four winds. In the sky, the Pole Star, around which the firmament appears to turn, has been styled the ‘navel of the Heavens’.

Christian theology and popular traditions have sometimes addressed the troubling question as to whether those not regularly born of woman (and hence lacking an umbilical cord) would possess a navel. Should Adam and Eve be depicted with belly buttons? And, within folklorish speculation, what of naked ghosts? The naturalist and fundamentalist Christian, Philip Gosse (1810–88), wrote a book entitled Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot ( John van Voorst, London, 1857), designed to show that suchlike rationalistic speculations (not least, the origin of fossils) were necessarily impious; true religion required faith in the literal word of the Bible, without the posing of such profane questions. It was his answer to the evolutionary controversy.

The belly button has thus provided a major focus for speculations upon the origins both of individuals and of the universe at large. Its shape and nature suggest both links and ruptures.

Roy Porter

See also umbilical cord.

belly button

views updated Jun 08 2018

bel·ly but·ton • n. inf. a person's navel.