March/April 2015

Saint Barbara, patron saint of miners

By Correy Baldwin

Saint Barbara icon
Saint Barbara has long been invoked by miners around the world for good luck and protection | Wikimedia commons

German miners have been known to greet each other with a good luck salutation: “Glück auf!” Translated literally to mean “luck open,” the greeting wishes for the rock face to open before the miner and reveal its ore. It is a reference to the tale of Saint Barbara, the patron saint of miners, who was once protected by a mountain rock face that opened up to shelter her.

Saint Barbara has long been invoked for protection and good luck in what was once extremely dangerous work. She shares her feast day with International Miners Day, Dec. 4, which honours people who have risked their lives working in mines.

The tale of her sainthood is a brief but violent one. Saint Barbara was a young woman who lived around AD 300 in what is now Turkey. Her father, a pagan nobleman named Dio­scorus, ­was an overprotective parent who kept his daughter in a tower to shield her from the outside world. He was especially concerned that she would catch wind of a pesky religion known as Christianity, which was outlawed at the time.

And yet even locked up she learned – through divine intervention – about the Christian faith. When Barbara confessed to her father that she had converted, he was so furious that he tried to kill her. Barbara managed to escape and ran to the nearby hills. It was here that a rock face opened up for her and hid her in its cave.

Her father eventually found her, having been tipped off by a local shepherd, and dragged her to court, which denounced her as a heretic and had her tortured and imprisoned. Barbara’s wounds miraculously healed overnight, but the next day she was sentenced to death and beheaded by her own father. Before the day was over, however, Barbara’s martyrdom would be avenged: her murderous father was struck and killed by lightning as he returned home.

In some versions of the tale, Barbara fled to a mine, where the miners hid and protected her as long as they could. Later, as Barbara prayed in the hours before her death, she said a special prayer for all miners.

Still, miners cannot claim Saint Barbara exclusively for themselves. Architects, engineers and craftsmen have also adopted her, drawn to the image of the tower in which she was imprisoned. She also became the patron saint of geologists because of the mountain that sheltered her. And her name has long been invoked for protection from lightning and by extension fires, making her the chosen saint of firefighters.

This aspect of her divine protection was adapted and modernized with the invention of gunpowder and other explosives, which brought to mind the bolt of lightning that avenged her death. Saint Barbara became the patron saint of artillerymen, who for years painted her image onto their munitions. When explosives were brought into the mines, miners again invoked her for protection.

Although Saint Barbara has always been a popular saint, her place in the historical record is very much in doubt. She is not mentioned in any early Christian texts or writings about saints and martyrs, and the versions of her story vary greatly. She is, most likely, the product of myth and legend. The Roman Catholic Church recognized this in 1969 when it revised its liturgical calendar and removed Saint Barbara, although she did remain in the Church’s list of saints. It is not known exactly when she was canonized, but it was probably in the seventh century.

The Orthodox Church has perhaps had a closer tie to the saint. Fragments of her relics were first brought to Constantinople, and then to Kiev in 1108. In the 1950s they travelled yet again, this time to the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Barbara in Edmonton, Alberta.

The authenticity of Saint Barbara’s story can be debated, but she will always play a special role in the tradition and mythology of the mining industry.

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