April 29, 2007


I was doing some reading the other night. In this case the book was Hesiod's Theogony. Okay, I admit that I'd already finished my nightly crossword puzzle to help ward off Alzheimers, but Hesiod used a term that seemed really odd. I'm sure you're all familiar with Hesiod but this part had to do with Prometheus, who had just deceived his father, Zeus,  by playing a trick on him.  As Hessiod records the story, Prometheus:

stole the far-seen light of untiring fire in  a hollow narthex.

Playing tricks on Zeus, such as stealing his private stash of fire, was a serious no-no in those days so Zeus decided to deal harshly with his naughty son (the obvious lesson: don't mess with God). So what  was this punishment? He created woman. I suspect you already know that at this point in mythical history the world was populated entirely with males, so Zeus's punishment had serious implications for...well, we won't get into that. But the Genesis account of man's fall suggests pretty much the same thing.

My point here is that I always thought a narthex was the anteroom of a church and it seemed odd that Zeus would hide his fire in such a place. But according to the translator's notes, a "narthex is a giant fennel." I know that fennel is a herb of the carrot family that's cultivated for its foliage and aromatic seeds and that it's used in soups and salads for flavoring but, just the same, I checked my handy OED definition of "narthex." Lo and behold, the OED defines "narthex" as:

a small case or casket for unguents and used in the sense of a vestibule or portico stretching across the western end of some early Christian churches or basilicas, divided from the nave by a wall, screen, or railing, and set apart for the use of women, catechumens or penitents.

Sounds good so far but the OED went on to call a "narthex" a yellow flowered umbelliferous plant with leaves and stalks used in salads and soups with the seeds used as flavoring, derived from the Latin "feniculum," meaning hay.

So how did this word, dervived from Latin "feniculum," meaning hay, ever shift from being a hollow container with a hard and apprently fire-proof outer cover that was appropriate for Zeus to use to  carry and conceal fire? I enjoy reading Hesiod and I'm perfectly willing to accept what he says about ancient mythology, but it still seems strange that a plant of the carrot family, or hay, or a small case used to hold unguents, or a herb used to flavor soups and salads, also could once have been a giant-sized, hollow, rock-hard, fire-containing structure. More interestingly perhaps, how did "narthex" then make that long and mysterious semantic journey, eventually becoming today's church vestibule?

Language is a truly wonderful thing. No wonder so many people study it.

[Update: Whenever I stick my neck out and express my ignorance, I can be sure that there is an alert Language Log reader out there to straighten me out. And sure enough, Greek scholar Craig Russell informs me that "narthex" is an Ancient Greek word for a giant fennel, different from a regular fennel. It has a long, straight and sturdy hollow stalk, perhaps like bamboo. It was used as a walking stick and was likely familiar to the people of that time. Since it was hollow, it could be used to store things. Russell tells me that Alexander the Great is said to have brought over the papyrus text of Homer inside a narthex stem. So other than the flammable properties of the plant, Hesiod must have been on to something. Russell opines that this hollow stalk could have been used for carrying small things, like powder or liquids and maybe even the unguents used in church ceremonies and it may be that unguents were stored in the church vestibule, leading us to the modern meaning. Thanks, Craig.]

Posted by Roger Shuy at April 29, 2007 01:44 PM