Village Kheshi, Svaneti, Kingdom of Georgia. December 21, 1351, 6:53am.

Daguna is sprawled at the foot of the shrine. Her forehead numb from the cool stone, arms extended, fingers wedged in the dirt between the smooth slabs. At her feet, a reed basket bulbing with offerings. This is her oblation, her last hope. Barbol is benevolent, only last year had she saved Daguna’s favorite heifer from steppe murrain. She’ll surely take pity on Daguna too and sate her womb with a child. At the very least, Daguna’s sumptuous offerings are a token of her devotion. She spared nothing. Her porridge is smooth as silk, made from fresh milk and finely ground rye, and the cheese filling in her bread is the color of late summer sunshine. She knows how to placate the deity. 

Goddess Barbol has long inhabited the highlands and lowlands of present-day Georgia. She nursed many afflicted back to health and tended to domestic animals with the maternal care typical of a fertility deity. Her devotees have hailed from a melange of principalities, villages, professions, and age groups. Above all, Barbol has been a source of solace for mothers and women. In the far-flung mountainous communities of the north, barren women pled with her to send them a yearned-for child, and in the fertile plains of the lowlands, mothers brought her roosters and all things red in exchange for guiding their smallpox-afflicted children into safety. Over time, anguished parents also supplicated Barbol to treat damaged eyesight, a common complication of the infectious disease. 

Wherever she toiled, and whatever she attended to, there is one treat that Barbol enjoyed above all – disc-shaped ritual cakes with an amber layer of golden buttery filling. They say in time immemorial Barbol was the sun deity of proto-Georgian agrarian societies, hence her consideration for fecundity, first of the soil, and then of women and cattle. The solar pastries packed with fresh cheese and boiled butter must have been a reminder of this past life. Each winter solstice, when the sun had its shortest voyage in the sky, devotees would assuage Barbol with merry-making and indulge her appetite with freshly baked cakes. 

   Gurjaani, West Georgia, December 17, 2012, 12:30 p.m.  

Nino is pulling her weight in a humble kitchen-cum-living room. A sooty iron oven stands in the middle, toiling away since early morning. Now and then, she feeds it roughly chopped pieces of red beech as a reward. A mismatched assortment of buckets and basins, pots and pans, kettles and bowls crowd every surface in the room. With a pensive look and a firm hand Nino pushes the dough away from her as she rolls it out in a circular shape only to fill it with a mash of red beans and spices. She’s making lobiani. Beside her sits a gold-rimmed saucer of multicolor wrapped candy. She can hardly wait for her son Rezo to come home from school. St. Barbara loves children, so Rezo will be coddled and cosseted, showered in his favorite sweets and lobiani.

The circular bread, filled with cheese or beans, has become a staple of Georgian cuisine. Khachapuri, the cheese variety, is slightly more common than its plant-based cousin, yet there is one special day in the calendar when every Christian household in the country adorns the festive table with lobiani. This particular culinary custom is dedicated to Barbara, one of the most beloved saints in Georgia, and an enthusiast of these sun-shaped pastries.

What makes the Georgian rendition of St. Barbara unconventional is her involvement with children and fertility rather than explosives and fire as virtually everywhere else in the Christian world.

Geographic and cultural flexibility is, of course, not foreign to Barbara. A quick look at her repertory across Christian denominations and communities reveals her versatility. Barbara first appeared on the horizon of organized Christianity in the seventh century. Since then, she has faithfully served as the patron of every profession that tinkers with explosives, alternating between miners, artillery men, military engineers, and armourers. Artillery formations throughout the world assiduously commemorate her day every year. Although she was stamped out from the Catholic liturgical calendar in 1969 due to a reported lack of historical evidence for her martyrdom, she remains conspicuous in Orthodox Christianity. 

What makes the Georgian rendition of St. Barbara unconventional is her involvement with children and fertility rather than explosives and fire as virtually everywhere else in the Christian world. It would almost seem like Barbara of Georgia has more in common with the deity Barbol than St. Barbara of the Christian world. Perhaps by virtue of their similar names and overlapping days of devotion in mid-December, Barbara also took Barbol’s devotees under her wing and before long, started to appreciate similar food. Certainly, there is nothing unconventional about the Christianization of indigenous deities. That is simply how religious practice works, thriving in a veiled or blatant continuity with the past. A simple genealogy of Christian saints in any given context is enough to unravel a tortuous network of associations with other divine figures. 

Even so, St. Barbara of Georgia might be a special case in point since she completely abandoned her former identity after her arrival in the Kingdom of Georgia around the twelfth century, and transformed into a Christian Barbol, the Saint of the Children. Besides the change in vocation, Barbara also developed a taste for Barbol’s sun-shaped baked oblations but not before adding a special touch to the recipe. Since St. Barbara’s day falls within the Nativity Fast – a period of abstinence and penance leading up to Christmas, –  the sumptuous cheese and butter pastries relished by Barbol would be too lavish for the saint. Thereby, the golden filling was first substituted with unassuming lentil and grass pea paste, and later, with the red beans newly imported from the Americas. 

Though Orthodox Christians in the Balkans and the Levant do enjoy a bowl of boiled barley garnished with a variety of dried fruits and spices for St. Barbara’s day, special liking for solar bean pastries is a trademark of the Georgian “Barbaroba” (Barbara’s Day). Food offering is, of course, a delicate topic in modern Christianity; after its golden age in the Old Testament, it has become obsolete, if not doctrinally shunned within the Church. Preparation of special recipes for certain feast days – annual celebrations dedicated to particular saints, – is nonetheless a cherished folk tradition, and likely a vestige of the times when sacred figures were nourished by their devotees.