The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







The word relic comes from the Latin reliquiae ('remains') and there are many pre-Christian instances of some bone or other part of the corpse, or some intimately associated object, carefully preserved with an air of veneration as a tangible memorial. The preservation of relics is a primitive instinct, and it is associated with shamanism as well as many other developed religious systems besides that of Christianity. Relics are an important aspect of Buddhism and Hinduism. In some denominations of Christianity, a relic is an object of religious veneration, especially a piece of the body or a personal item of a saint. A shrine that houses a relic is called a reliquary.


Christian relics

History of Christian relics

One of the earliest sources cited to support the efficacy of relics is 2 Kgs. 13:20-21. "So Elisha died, and they buried him. Now bands of Moabites used to invade the land in the spring of the year. And as a man was being buried, lo, a marauding band was seen and the man was cast into the grave of Elisha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood on his feet." It is cited to establish that the Holy Spirit's indwelling also affects our fleshly body, or that God chooses to do miracles through the sleeping bodies of His holy servants, or both. Also cited is the veneration of Polycarp's relics recorded in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (written 150-160 AD). A source often cited for the efficacy of relics that are objects is the passage in Acts mentioning how Paul's handkerchiefs were imbued by God with healing power (19:11-12).

Many tales of miracles and other marvels were attributed to relics beginning in the early centuries of the church; many of these became especially popular during the Middle Ages. These tales are collected in books of hagiography such as the Golden Legend or the works of Caesar of Heisterbach. These miracle tales made relics much sought after during the Middle Ages.

Pieces of the True Cross were one of the most highly sought after such relics; many churches claimed to possess a piece of it, so many that Erasmus famously remarked that there were enough pieces of the True Cross to build a ship from. The Shroud of Turin is another relic whose authenticity is questionable. The abbey church of Coulombs in France, among several others, claims to possess the relic of Jesus' circumcision - the Holy Prepuce.

Romano-Christian daemons and the "virtue" of relics

In his introduction to Gregory of Tours Ernest Brehaut analyzed the Romano-Christian concepts that gave relics such a powerful draw (see link). He distinguished Gregory's constant usage of "sanctus" and "virtus", the first with its familiar meaning of "sacred" or "holy", and the second

"the mystic potency emanating from the person or thing that is sacred. These words have in themselves no ethical meaning and no humane implications whatever. They are the keywords of a religious technique and their content is wholly supernatural. In a practical way the second word [virtus] is the more important. It describes the uncanny, mysterious power emanating from the supernatural and affecting the natural. The manifestation of this power may be thought of as a contact between the natural and the supernatural in which the former, being an inferior reality, of course yielded. These points of contact and yielding are the miracles we continually hear of. The quality of sacredness and the mystic potency belong to spirits, in varying degrees to the faithful, and to inanimate objects. They are possessed by spirits, acquired by the faithful, and transmitted to objects."

Opposed to this holy "virtue" was also a false mystic potency that emanated from inhabiting daemons who were conceived of as alien and hostile. Truly holy virtus would defeat it, but it could affect natural phenomena and effect its own kinds of miracles, deceitful and malignant ones. This "virtue" Gregory of Tours and other Christian writers associated with the devil, demons, soothsayers, magicians, pagans and pagan gods, and heretics. False virtus inhabited images of the pagan gods, the "idols" of our museums and archaeology, and destroying it accounts for some of the righteous rage with which mobs of Christians toppled sculptures, and smashed classical bas-reliefs (particularly the faces), as our museums attest.

The transmissibility of this potency, this virtus, is still reflected in the Roman Catholic classifications of relics in degrees, as mentioned above. By transmission, the "virtus" might be transmitted to the city. When St Martin died, halfway between the cities of Tours and Poitiers, November 8, 397, at a village halfway between Tours and Poitiers, the inhabitants of these cities were well ready to fight for his body,which the people of Tours managed to secure by stealth. The story of the purloining of St Nicholas of Bari is another example. The Image of Edessa was reputed to render that city impregnable.

Roman Catholic classification and prohibitions

First-Class Relics 
Actual part of a saint (a bone, a hair, a limb, etc.)
Second-Class Relics 
An item that the saint wore (a sock, a shirt, a glove, etc.)
Third-Class Relics 
The Third-Class Relics above fall into two categories. The first category is a piece of cloth touched to the body of a saint. The second category is a piece of cloth brought to the shrine (or site of the vision) of the saint.

It is prohibited by the Catholic Church to sell First- and Second-Class Relics. When the church prohibits the selling of "sacred relics" it is referring to First- and Second-class relics. It is not referring to Third-class relics. It is not prohibited by the church to sell Third-Class Relics.

Non-Christian relics

At Athens the supposed remains of Oedipus and Theseus enjoyed an honor that is very difficult to distinguish from a religious cult, while Plutarch gives accounts of the translation of the bodies of Demetrius (Demetrius iii) and Phocion (Phocion xxxvii) which in many details anticipate Christian practice. The bones or ashes of Aesculapius at Epidaurus, and of Perdiccas I at Macedon were treated with the deepest veneration, as were those of the Persian Zoroaster, according to the Chronicon Paschale (Dindorf, p. 67).

In Buddhism, relics of the Buddha and various saints are venerated. Originally, after the Buddha's death, his body was divided for the purpose of relics, and there was an armed conflict between factions for possession of the relics. Afterward, these relics were taken to wherever Buddhism was spread. The stupa is a building created specifically for the relics. Many Buddhist temples have stupas and historically, the placement of relics in a stupa often became the initial structure around which the whole temple would be based. Today, stupas also hold the ashes of prominent/respected Buddhists who were cremated.

Cultural relics

Relic is also the term for something that has survived the passage of time, especially an object or custom whose original culture has disappeared, but also an object cherished for historical or memorial value (such as a keepsake or heirloom).

Fantasy RPG

In role-playing games, a relic is a magical object with marvelous and alarming power, originating from a deity as opposed to manmade origins. (Compare to Artifact.)

List of famous real or alleged relics

Main article - Alleged relics of Jesus Christ

See also

External links

Last updated: 05-14-2005 20:01:04
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04