Santa Barbara

by Barbara Ungar

From the Greek barbaros, strange 
or foreign, related to barbarian 
and barber, from beard. I hoped 
I was related to Babar. I hated Barb, 

ugly as barbed wire. A verbal jab. I liked 
the way the Greeks said Var-VAR-a! 
and the Chinese cooks at the Nankin sang 
Ba-BA-la, in rising then falling tones. 

A sort of Rapunzel, locked in a tower: 
instead of letting down her hair,
she converted. Her father dragged 
her to a Roman magistrate, who cut off

her breasts and paraded her naked
through town. She miraculously healed,
so her father cut off her head. Zapped 
by lightning, he was turned to ash. 

How Barbara became the patron 
saint of explosives: gunners,
miners, mariners, and bandits.
Both a California town and 

barbiturates are named for her. 
The Church decommissioned her
the year of my bat mitzvah, because
she was a fiction, and she’d rebelled 

against her father. But her feast day 
had already spread world-wide: 
in the Irish artillery corps, she perches
on a cannon like Jane Fonda;

in Germany, geologists hold 
Barbarafests. In Santeria, she’s merged
with Chango, god of fire and lightning, 
thunder and war. In America,

she’s ubiquitous, a shape-shifter: 
three Barbies sold every second.
More Barbies than guns. No wonder
no one names girls Barbara any more.


Barbara Ungar’s sixth book, After Naming the Animals, is forthcoming in June 2023 from The Word Works. Prior books include Save Our Ship, Immortal Medusa, and Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life. She has work forthcoming or recently published in Scientific American, Crazyhorse, and Small Orange. Her work has been translated into Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Bulgarian. A professor of English at The College of Saint Rose, she lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Image: “Saint Barbara” woodcut, 1440-1460

Image description: a woodcut of Saint Barbara holding a feather and a tower. She has a golden halo and text surrounds the top and sides of the image.