Rapunzel's Foremother

Apocryphal people can be very influential even though not proven to exist. 

Such influence can be felt in pop culture references.  Paul Bunyan, for example, is mistakenly considered a long-standing American folk-lore character.  He is not, however.  Much like The Jolly Green Giant and Ronald McDonald he was the creation of the advertising industry as a marketing tool.  His adventures and “back story” were carefully contrived (though one story featuring him, nothing like the rich character he became, had been published as early as 1906).  He was later presumed – erroneously – by the public to be part of Americana.  

Other apocryphal people have more weighty influence in the world.  Religious icons are those venerated by the masses, and in many cases have been revered for centuries.  But within the last half century or so the Catholic Church has re-examined its cadre of saints and through more objective eyes and dispassionate scholarship have culled the number of its recognized saints. 

This was done in some cases when it was clear that perhaps outside, secular influence came to bear – in more than one instance, an influential or wealthy family was able to successfully lobby (and sometimes pay) the Church to canonize one of its relatives. In other cases, the criteria for sainthood were not met.  Miracles of intercession (of which there must be at least two directly attributable to that venerated person) must be documented.  This means some event came to pass as a consequence through contact with a saint’s relics or through direct prayer to that saint.

Such intercession miracles, though, can be more often attributable to wishful thinking, stretching the results of the intercession, or downright coincidence.  Classic examples of dubious intercession miracles involved St. Philomena (c. late 3rd Century-early 4th Century CE).  In the 19th Century, two very religious people – a priest later canonized as a saint, and a laywoman recently recommended for sainthood – were literally ill to the point of believing they were about to die.  Both prayed to St. Philomena.  Both recovered after a few weeks.  Both attributed their recovery to St. Philomena’s intervention.  And yet, these “miracles” can be seen with disinterest as simply nothing more than recovery from an illness after an expected period.   St. Philomena’s feast day was removed from the liturgical calendar in the 1960s because of the dubious nature of these intercession miracles.    

The sainthood of others had been called into question when modern research could not confirm the saint in question ever existed.  St. Valentine falls into this group – it is unclear which person named Valentine, if any, fits all the characteristics of that icon.  Thus, his day is nothing more now than a silly Hallmark Holiday with no religious significance.  St. Dymphna (most likely confused with an Irish folk legend) and St. Margaret of Antioch (very popular in medieval times) cannot be shown to have ever lived except in imagination.

Another saint left her mark on the landscape of modern literature, even if she perhaps never walked the planet.  A girl embracing Christianity and locked away by a crazed father and later martyred by him are the key elements of the story of St. Barbara of the Tower.  Her legend forms the basis for a beloved (albeit bowdlerized in modern times) fairy tale, that of Rapunzel

St. Barbara Martyrdom (engraving 1501)Credit: Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg
The Barbarian
In the Roman world, peace of mind was not easily gleaned.  The most recent Roman emperor had been assassinated by his own troops.  Plagues spread throughout the villages and towns thanks to increased commerce and contact with foreigners.  And there was another, albeit subtle, threat to Roman stability on the horizon: Christianity.

One such bastion of Roman influence abutted the Persian border (in what is now Turkey) in Asia Minor.  It, too, was a place of political and cultural turmoil in the early 3rd Century CE.  Bithynia was a land of Roman occupation on the peninsula fronting on the Black Sea, the gateway to which was through Byzantium, the great Eastern Roman capital.  The area was a rich mix (and sometimes clash) of Eastern and Western cultures.

As Roman occupations of various strongholds brought with it Roman culture, this also included belief and worship of the Roman pagan gods.  At this time in world history, the Christian cult (promulgated by followers of the Israeli Jewish evangelical Jesus of Nazareth after his death) appeared in pockets within the Roman Empire and in its more remote outposts.  This included Bithynia.

Nicomedia, Bithynia (environs map)Credit: bible-history.com

A concerned Roman governor of Bithynia was a man named Dioscuros. The cult of Christianity had gained a foothold in the region, and its belief in only one god, rather than the many of the Romans, was a subversion not readily tolerated by Dioscuros.  In fact, undue worldly influences were so great a concern to this man that, after his daughter was born and was of an age to be aware of the world around her and its ways, he locked her in a tower for safe-keeping.

Dioscuros’ daughter, known in lore as “Barbara” (a word that merely means “female barbarian”, so it is uncertain what her given name was), was born in Nicomedia, Bithynia,St. Barbara (in her tower)Credit: Robert Campin, 1438 directly east of the grand city of Byzantium about 236 CE.  Her father’s insistence upon keeping her safe from the world (which also translated into protecting her virginity in a time and place when girls were routinely kidnapped or carried off as wives or slaves) meant she had few chances to stray.

Barbara was the only child of this civil servant, so he guarded her jealously. His primary intent, as she was of great beauty, was to keep her free of unwanted suitors.  The tower in which she was kept was lavish and stood in the courtyard of the palace he inhabited.  She was never allowed outside the tower where her apartment was set at the very top.  She could look out, but she could not go out. 

Seeing to her education her father sent tutors (properly vetted and “safe”) to teach the girl.  It was from there the girl learned what she could of the outside world.  And it was from her few visiting friends she learned of a new religion that threatened the old ways and would lead to her death.

The Way
Religious studies in the Roman fashion were part of her learning.  Barbara began to question the wisdom of the piecemeal theology – one god or goddess for this, another for that.  It was after thinking that perhaps there might be only one god responsible for the world as she saw it – reinforced by visitors who introduced her to the philosophy of The Way (as Christianity was simply known then) – that her interest in Christianity was piqued.  She found out that one of her closer female visitors, a girl of about her own age, was herself a Christian.  Barbara decided to secretly become one of this new flock. 

A new bathhouse was being built on the palace grounds for Barbara’s use.  On one of the times during its construction that her father was away Barbara decided that, with her newfound faith, such a large pool would be ideal for baptismal purposes.  She got word to the workers to make some minor alterations in the design of the structure.  She wanted three windows (instead of the two in the original plans) to represent the Trinity. And on the wall above the pool she requested a large cross be cut into the stonework.

She got a letter out, sent to Origen (c. 185-254 CE), a Greek theologian, and himself the son of a Christian martyr.  He had studied philosophy in Alexandria, and served as its catechetical school master 20 years. He later settled in Palestine where he established a school of theology and philosophy.  He wrote a synopsis of six versions of the Old Testament. Origen stressed in his teachings that no one was beyond repentance and salvation, not even Satan (he was condemned for holding this opinion).

Origen was also a traveling preacher, and he responded to Barbara’s plea.  He made the trek to Bithynia, baptized her (in her father’s absence), and taught her more about The Way.  He left her with a few very precious religious books, and also left her with the disquieting parting message that, while she must suffer much for her faith (an indictment against the persecutions of the times), in the end she would be crowned with eternal glory.

Daddy’s Home
One of the first things her father did upon returning to his place was to seek out his precious jewel.  En route to the tower of her keeping, he stopped off to inspect the newly completed bathhouse. He was outraged to see the cross carved in the stone – the windows were, though not immediately obvious in their significance, also a variation of the original construction plans.

Recognizing the cross as a symbol of the much-hated Christians, Dioscuros questioned Barbara about it.  She confessed that she had requested the architectural changes to reflect her new faith.  When he asked if she had undergone baptism to complete her conversion she told him she had, and in the pool he had ordered built. 

Dioscuros was enraged.  His attempts to keep his daughter safe from the world and its influence had failed.  Now, here she stood before him, a baptized Christian, rejecting his Roman gods and his Roman values. He drew his sword, intent on killing her where she stood.  Barbara fled from the tower, and made her way into the surrounding mountains.

St. Barbara Flees from Her FatherCredit: Peter Paul Reubens, 1620

A posse was assembled by Dioscuros the next day, and they quickly found the girl in a cave. She refused to recant her Christian conversion at the time of discovery.  Considering the potential political embarrassment of a Roman pagan governor having a Christian daughter St. Barbara (panel)Credit: amphilsoc.corgunder his roof, Dioscuros  dragged her off to the Roman prefect for a ruling on what he should do. 

The prefect felt as her father did and offered Barbara the choice of either sacrificing to the Roman pagan gods (thus renouncing her conversion) or die. She expressed a desire to remain a Christian, and the prefect handed her over for torture in hopes of getting her to give up her new faith.  Her scourging was horrific: she was stripped, flogged, and her tormenters  “burned her sides with burning lamps . . . and hurted her head with a mallet . . . and cut off her paps”.  She remained staunch and did not recant.  She was finally tossed into a prison cell with another woman named Julia who befriended the girl and tended her wounds.

The prison cell received a visit from Jesus himself at about midnight, during which time he reassured Barbara of his constant presence.  Her wounds were miraculously healed, and Julia (the woman with whom she shared her cell) decided to convert to Christianity herself having witnessed the healing miracle.

Cold Light of Morning
The next morning, Barbara was brought before the prefect.  Her wounds were seen to be gone, and this caused concern among the pagans, particularly when the story of the previousSt. Barbara(123797)Credit: Jan van Eyck, 1437 night’s miracle was told.  Barbara was mercilessly tortured again, and when it was found out that her cellmate Julia had also embraced Christianity, she was ordered to be tortured as well.

To make an example of her Barbara was stripped naked and forced to walk the city streets.  Like Lady Godiva her nudity was covered from prying eyes, only not by long hair.  A blindingly brilliant white light surrounded her as she made her way into the city and no one could see her nude form.

Tiring of the continued presence of this recalcitrant girl the prefect finally gave Barbara (as well as Julia) over for execution.  She was ordered beheaded.  The prefect’s guard normally performed this function but her father Dioscuros asked to be allowed to do it himself (probably in a bid to curry political favor from the prefect). He swept her head clear of her neck with his own sword. She was 18 years old.

His duty done, Dioscuros left for home.  On his way home he was struck by a bolt of lightning and reduced to ashes. A pious Christian found the bodies of Barbara and Julia a few days after their executions (they had been left to lie out as deterrents). He gathered them up and buried them.  

Saintliness Is Next to Impossible
Martyrs of ancient times, such as the Apostle Peter, are automatically granted sainthood without having undergone the rigorous process of canonization (a procedure of relatively St. BarbaraCredit: public domainmodern times, requiring investigation, interviewing witnesses, and debate before a person is granted such a serious, lofty title).

St. Barbara’s legend can only be traced back to its earliest appearance in the 7th Century (almost half a millennium after her death).  William Caxton, the English printer, included her tale in a wonderful compendium about the saints printed in English in 1483 (taken from an earlier work, The Golden Lives or Lives of the Saints, compiled by a Genoan archbishop in 1275).  Caxton’s version is very flowery and filled with heavenly interventions and adventure.  It is a tale worth reading.

St. Barbara, a saint by attrition, was hugely popular in Europe during the Middle Ages.  She is the patron saint of mathematicians and also of artillerymen (presumably because of the St. Barbara (religious statue)thunderous cannon noise echoing the distant thunder-clap that turned her father to ash).  

She was also invoked by those who were fearful during thunderstorms.  A church in Cairo, Egypt, has relics claiming to be those of St. Barbara, but there is no way to be assured whose remains are actually there.  And the city of Santa Barbara in California was named in honor of the apocryphal saint.

The Catholic Church revisited St. Barbara’s case in the 1960s and concluded, rightfully, that there was no evidence of such a person ever having existed.  Rather, the story of Barbara of the Tower was found to have antecedents going back as far as the Jewish Babylonian exile period.  She was dropped from the Catholic Church calendar in 1969. In making its decision, the Church, however, did not go so far as to claim she was not a saint, nor did it claim that veneration was verboten, either. 

Even today, there is a cult of Barbara of theChaplet and image of St. BarbaraCredit: rosaryandchaplets.com & public domain Tower, religious persons who draw comfort from invoking her name during times of personal strife.  [The Orthodox Church, for example, still maintains her on their list of venerated and celebrated saints.  She was first revered by the Eastern religion in the 9th Century CE.] 

Barbara’s amazing story of the girl martyr beheaded by her own father for refusing to recant her Christian beliefs resonated with people.  The tale was passed down through the folk lore of Europe.  She was considered a saint well before the time the first folk tales were told that evolved into many of the fairy-tales known today.  St. Barbara’s story of a girl growing up locked inside a tower to protect her virtue is mirrored in the tale of Rapunzel.


Author’s note: Barbara of the Tower has many variants in her story, a few of which are noted here.  One variant has the cross of the bathhouse carved into its marble floor.  Another version of the tale has Valentinus (St. Valentine) as her confessor and converter instead of St. Barbara(123799)Credit: public domainOrigen, and another names Valentinus as the Christian who buried her remains.  Still another has the fleeing Barbara betrayed by a shepherd when she was in the mountains – he was turned into a statue and his flock into grasshoppers.  Yet another variant is in her death scene – instead of beheading, she and Julia were suddenly swallowed up by the earth. Finally, even the date of her martyrdom is questionable.  One gives her December 4 martyrdom date as during the reign of emperor Maximianus and Prefect Marcien (r. 286–305).  Another French source records it as December 5, 267 CE.  

These detail differences are reflective of the times in which the story was passed along.  Added details lend a richness, a rightness, and an air of credibility to any story.  Sadly though, this story is only a legend.

St. Barbara of the Tower, on DVD

Saint Barbara: Convert and Martyr of the Early Church
Amazon Price: $19.95 $11.80 Buy Now
(price as of Jan 2, 2014)

a good movie

Agnes of God
Amazon Price: $14.99 $2.24 Buy Now
(price as of Jan 2, 2014)