By: Hannah Holland ‘15
Last Friday, Feb. 3rd, Trinity hosted a seminar that explored the idea of finding oneself through the stories and legacy of St. Barbara. Christine Lindner’s acclaimed essay touches upon the idea that St. Barbara, through her stories and legacy, helped to shape what it means to be Lebanese, in a modern context. The religious struggles, illuminated by recent war between the varieties of religious sects that compose Lebanon, can find common ground between their mutual celebration of St. Barbara and her life. Although from a western perspective St. Barbara is a lesser-known fixture of Christianity, she clearly holds a critical aspect of the Lebanese variety of the religion.
Every year on Nov. 3, Lebanese children gather by the masses, behind masks and veils, chanting, “Hechli Barbara” or, in English, “run, Barbara run.” The children are given candy and treats as the night progresses, paralleling a North American Halloween. This tradition of dressing-up, shouting, and giving treats commemorates Barbara’s famed death at the hand of her pagan father.
The seminar touched upon the idea that there are two conflicting stories of Barbara’s death. The hagiographic version argues that Barbara, the daughter of a wealthy Pagan by the name of Dioscorus, was kept locked in a tower to protect her from the corruption of the outside world. Her father ordered a dual-windowed private bathhouse to be created for her but, in his absence, Barbara added a third window, to celebrate the Holy Trinity. Once her father saw the three windows and understood Barbara to be a Christian, he drew his sword to kill her.
As Barbara evaded death by her father’s sword, she was dragged before the prefect of the province, and mercilessly tortured. Her faith healed all wounds until finally her father sentenced her to be beheaded.
On the other hand, the orthodox version of Barbara’s death varies in that she disguised herself to attempt to escape the tower and elude her father, hence the Halloween-esque masks of her Lebanese celebration, and in that her father ordered her beheading. Just prior to her ill-fated beheading, lightening struck the earth and her body.
The change in the story, between Christian and Lebanese Orthodox, illustrates the differences between the two religious sects. Lindner tells us that what appears to be subtle variations in the two stories, can be quite telling as to what it means to be Orthodox or Christian, in Lebanon.
The latter emphasizes the idea of female chastity and honor and manages to uphold Lebanese traditions. As the years progress, women who were largely oppressed have been gaining rights and social legitimization throughout Lebanon.
Like St. Barbara, who took initiative by escaping from the tower, Lebanese women have begun to escape from the confines of traditional second-class citizenship. From a modern perspective, the legacy of St. Barbara can be seen reflected in the Lebanese people’s sense of person from a national, regional and global outlook, and not just within the inspiration of Lebanese women. St. Barbara’s story and legacy illuminates the focus of many subsets of Lebanese lifestyle and beliefs.