Wednesday 9 May 2012

Omphalopsychites and Umbilicani

I've heard the phrase navel gazing exactly a million and one times, without ever suspecting that it had once been more than a figure of speech. I thought that it merely involved contemplating yourself, and a particularly uninteresting part of yourself at that.

The term is only recorded in English from 1854 when Harper's Magazine had the line:

Therefore‥every man who has contemplated his own navel until he is solemnly convinced that he has seen to the bottom of it‥is cocksure that he can help the world.

Thus my joy and jubilation when I realised that there were once real navel gazers who took the matter seriously. The Hesychast monks of the Middle Ages would sit on Mount Athos contemplating their belly buttons in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment. Here are Abbot Symeon's instructions on the matter of meditation:

Sitting alone in private, note and do what I say. Close the doors and raise thy spirit from vain and temporal things. Then rest thy beard on the breast and direct the gaze with all thy soul on the middle of the body at the navel.

The Hesychasts therefore became known as the Omphalopsychites, which means, approximately, navel-spiritualists. They were also called by the Italians the Umbilicani.

If a belly button is actually a pre-requisite of spiritual purity, it is no wonder, if you think about it, that Adam and Eve fell.

This picture contains two mistakes.


  1. In fact there was a long and philosophical debate on whether Adam and Eve had belly buttons (in 1877 Philip Henry Gosse published Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot).
    And since we are with Adam and Eve – maybe someday, somewhere you'll explain the etymology of "scrumping".

  2. Ah oops, I always read 'naval' as 'nasal', like I heard the 'v' sound but still interpreted it as talking about my nose.

  3. I used to go down to Stokes Bay near Portsmouth every time a US aircraft carrier was visiting - now that's what i call 'naval gazing'.....

    Laurie -

  4. "Navel Gazing". Is this how one achieves spiritual enlightenment through contemplating oranges.?

  5. Brother Emery told us to contemplate the end of man while waiting in line for showers.

  6. Brother Emery told us to contemplate the end of man while waiting in line for showers.

  7. and also
    Dürer korrigiert (schwarz - weiss) / Durero corregido (blanco y negro)

  8. Hi there, you will find a similar tradition in the Chinese and Zen Buddhist tradition, where the Tanden or Sea of Energy is located at or just above the navel on the inside of the body. Meditators in Zen Buddhist are asked to be mindful of this while they meditate - so all this may not be quite as ridiculous as it sounds...