In “Stairway to Heaven,” Robert Plant sings, “There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west, and my spirit is crying for leaving.” It occurs to me that he could be standing in a cathedral. You see, the altar in a cathedral is, in the liturgical schema (though not necessarily in real-world orientation), the east, and the door through which one enters and exits is at the west. So if you want to leave, “west” is the direction. And on your way out, you will pass through the narthex.
Nowadays, the narthex is just a vestibule (some may say foyer), a sort of lobby to the church, and typically not a very big one. Not all churches have them, either, but you’ll only find them in churches – one does not have a narthex in one’s house. The reason for this is the function that they formerly filled: to provide a place to hear the service for catechumens, pentitents, and others who were not eligible for admittance into the congregation. (These days, such a place is more often separated by glass from the nave and called a cry room, and ineligibility is determined by the volume of the infant’s protestations.)
I remember first seeing this word applied to the foyer of an ordinary-size Presbyterian church. My brother and I were still young and callow, and I recall my brother saying “Narthex!?” with that tone that indicated it was the silliest thing he’d seen in several days at least. As indeed it does seem sort of silly. It’s kind of like the noise you’d expect from a pugnacious little prognathous dog; to adolescent me, it produced an image of sniffling and snuffling with a snotty nose. The nar may make those who know German think of Narr, “fool.” On the other hand, it may seem corporate to some (with that ex on the end, as in AmEx and FedEx). It might seem like a word from some ancient hex. Or the sound of an arrow being fired and finding its mark. It might even sound like north exit. But of course it’s the west exit that it’s by!
And does the juxtaposition of Led Zeppelin and liturgical architecture seem a bit improper? Well, it gets better. Robert is not the only plant that narthex is associated with. In fact, narthex comes from Greek for “giant fennel.”
Yes, “giant fennel.” No, it’s not entirely clear how that came to be the name for the halfway-in part of a church (which, by the way, in Byzantine architecture is further divided into an esonarthex and an exonarthex). Some have speculated that it is because the space is long and narrow, like a fennel cane. Others note that narthex by extension also meant “schoolmaster’s cane,” and so there was a connection to the catechumens. It also was a word for an unguent box, and catechumens were anointed with oil in this part of the church.
But never mind that. You want improper? Pick up the play The Bacchae by Euripides. You will find that Bacchus (Dionysus) and his followers wielded wands of – yes – giant fennel. The giant fennel, narthex, was a symbol of this god who stood for, well, golly, a whole lot of things that the Church has over the ages stood against.
But there’s also another connection that’s even better. Consider Adam and Eve. They fell from grace by coming to gain knowledge that was promised to make them see as gods – to have knowledge of good and evil. This coming to knowledge has a story attached to it in classical Greek mythology, too, but the angle is a little different. Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give it to mankind – he was not just the fire-bringer but the bringer of knowledge, the person who gave divine insight to humans. For which he was a hero to humans (quite unlike the snake of Genesis). Not to the gods, mind you; they bound him to a rock, where he was daily de-livered by an eagle until he was ultimately delivered by Hercules. (Since I’m talking about the Greeks, though, not the Romans, maybe I should say Prometheos and Herakles.) But the reason I mention this is just that when he stole fire from the gods, he hid it in a fennel stalk. And this learning, this enlightenment he brought, has obvious parallels with the learning of catechumens. They get their knowledge thus from the fennel stalk of their schoolmaster and from the fennel stalk of Prometheus. It’s not exactly buying a stairway to heaven – learning to climb one, rather – but there they are, by the door, in the west: you can hear them, the voices of those who stand looking.