The World Navel: A Story’s Foundation

Opening hook line needed here.

This popular motif [World Navel] gives emphasis to the lesson that the passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation . . .[I]nstead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again. The disappearance corresponds to the passing of a worshiper into a temple – where he is to be quickened by the recollection of who and what he is, namely dust and ashes unless immortal. The temple interior, the belly of the whale, and the heavenly land beyond, above, and below the confines of the world, are one and the same. That is why the approaches and entrances to temples are flanked and defended by colossal gargoyles: dragons, lions, devil-slayers with drawn swords, resentful dwarfs, winged bulls. These are the threshold guardians to ward away all incapable of encountering the higher silences within. . .The devotee at the moment of entry into a temple undergoes a metamorphosis. His secular character remains without; he sheds it, as a snake its slough. Once inside he may be said to have died to time and returned to the World Womb, the World Navel, the Earthly Paradise. . .Allegorically, then, the passage into a temple and the hero-dive through the jaws of the whale are identical adventures, both demoting in picture language, the life-centering, life renewing act.” (Campbell, p. 91-92)

Explanation: The World Navel is the center of the universe and the point from which life-force enters the world. The Greeks called this the Omphalos. This can be symbolized in a scene set in a church/temple, forest, near a spring or river, or household hearth. Other symbols of the World Navel include the center of a spiral or the center of a group of concentric circles. Campbell mentions that the Christian Cross is also one of these symbols. The Celtic cauldron also is a type of World Navel, such as the Cauldron of Poesy. The Newgrange Neolithic spiral carving in Ireland to be a representation of this. Another term for the World Navel is the “World Egg,” (laid by the world snake, one of the earliest creation myths) which relates to the potential of the world. The Omphalos looks like an egg. In Good Faeries-Bad Faeries Brian Froud, the artist for the movie The Dark Crystal, quotes both Jung and Campbell when referring to the Anima Mundi — the World’s Soul, which is another term for the World Navel (Egg, Omphalos). The Anima Mundi “mediates between the ultimate divinity and the mundane sensory world just as the human soul mediates between the body and spirit.”

Discussion: One of the most important elements of the mythic structure, the World Navel (WN) of your story forms the foundation of the journey. The World Navel is your characters’ belief systems; your characters’ personal philosophies on life; the central theme of your characters’ spiritual lives. In their deepest of hearts, what do your characters believe? What deep parts of themselves will they have to rely on to complete their journey? What do they have faith in?


(a) Oskar Seyffert in his The Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Religion, Literature, and Art defines “Omphalos” as the Delphic Oracle. He also points to a Roman/Greek annual festival called “Septeria,” at which there was a re-enactment of Apollo’s hero quest when he took possession of an oracle belonging to Gaia (the Earth). A boy took the part of Apollo during the festival:

“. . .at which the whole story was represented: the slaying of the serpent, and the flight, atonement and return of the god. Apollo was represented by a boy, both of whose parents were living. The dragon was symbolically slain, and his house decked out in costly fashion, was burnt. Then the boy’s followers hastily dispersed, and the boy was taken in procession to Tempe, along the road formerly followed by the god. Here he was purified and brought back by the same road, accompanied by a chorus of maidens singing songs of joy. The oracle proper was a cleft in the ground in the innermost sanctuary, from which arose cold vapours, which had the power of inducing ecstasy.”

(b) In The Apple Branch by Alexei Kondratiev, the World Navel is also called the World Tree. Kondratiev provides two examples from Celtic myth:

“This center is identified with the invisible presence of the World Tree– the Bilios — at the heart of reality, which spans all the planes of existence with its height, allowing access from this world to the Otherworld. It is at the foot of this Tree, resplendent in gold leaves, that Conn of the Hundred Battles met the Land-Goddess and received the sovereignty of Ireland from her in a wedding-cup. It is also the same Tree that Peredur saw, burning on one side, healthy and green on the other, on the edge of the river that is the boundary between the worlds.”

“Bilios” refers to “Bile” who was one of the Milesians mentioned in the pseudo-historical Leabhar Gaba/la (Book of Invasions of Ireland). “Bile,” or “billi,” can mean “large tree, tree trunk” in Irish and is thought to be the name of a special tree that was the home of deities or elemental spirits. Conn of the Hundred-Battles was a king of Irish pre-history and the first to hear from the Stone of Prophecy, which told him how many of his line would also be king. The Tree or the Stone of Prophecy in these stories fulfill the role of the WN, the stone being reminiscent of the Omphalos. Another version of the WN is the concept of the Land-Goddess’ cup of sovereignty (later adapted into the Arthurian legend of the Grail.) Peredur, from an early Welsh myth, is the precursor to Perceval in the Arthurian story.