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A plant of gods and mortals

In the beginning of spring, an impressive flower towers high above all others. It is usually found on roadsides, abandoned fields and archaeological sites all over Greece. It is giant fennel (ferula communis) but, despite its similarity with fennel, it belongs to another branch of the family and is poisonous.

Its name in Greek is Narthex and, despite being toxic, it is a very useful plant, which perhaps explains its prominence in several Greek myths and cults.

Its stem may reach a height of 3 or even 4 meters (9-12 ft). It is light and rather stiff, which made it perfect for immobilizing broken limbs until the bones set. Orthopedic doctors in Greece still use the word “narthex” to describe casts and other devices that immobilize injured body parts.

The cylindrical stem is full of fluffy fibers. These may burn slowly for quite a long time, without burning the outside of the cane-like stem, which made narthex perfect as a torch or for carrying fire. In an age without modern lighters, this probably happened relatively often; the myth of Prometheus probably reflects this when stating that the Titan used a narthex stem for carrying the fire he secretly stole from the forge of Hephaestus.

Narthex is associated with another deity too, namely god Dionysus. The god’s scepter is called “thyrsus” and was made of a narthex stem, crowned with a pine cone and decorated with ivy. Such scepters were carried by the Maenads (the god’s manic women followers) during his rites.

satyr-and-maenad

Satyr and Maenad holding a thyrsus.

When dry, the narthex stem is strong enough to support a man, but not hard or heavy enough to cause injury when used to hit someone. That is why the god commanded that those who drank should use walking sticks made of nothing else.

In more recent times, narthex found other uses: children used it to make toy airplanes while sailors used it to light their pipes against the wind.

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Image sources: I. Kakridis, Greek Mythology, Athens, 1986; Boardman, Dörig, Fuchs & Hirmer, Griechische Kunst, Munich, 1966.

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