Relic

Relic

[rel-ik]

A relic is an object or a personal item of religious significance, carefully preserved with an air of veneration as a tangible memorial. Relics are an important aspect of some forms of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, shamanism, and many other religions.

The word relic comes from the Latin reliquiae ('remains'). A reliquary is a shrine that houses one or more relics.

Ancient 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). However; there is no tradition in Zoroastrianism or its scriptures to support this postulation.

Buddhist relics

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.

Some relics believed to be original relics of Buddha still survive including the much revered Sacred Relic of the tooth of the Buddha in Sri Lanka.

More relics of bone which were discovered during archaeological excavations of a stupa built in Peshawar, Pakistan by the Kushan Emperor Kanishka in the second century A.D. In 1909, three pieces of bone (approx 1½ in. or 3.8 cm long) were found in a crystal reliquary in a bronze casket bearing an effigy of Kanishka and an inscription recording his gift. They were removed to Mandalay, Burma by the Earl of Minto, Viceroy and Governor General of India, in 1910, for safekeeping. They were originally kept in a stupa in Mandalay but this has become dilapidated and is used for housing. The relics are meanwhile being kept safely in a nearby monastery until funds can be found to build a new stupa to house the relics next to Mandalay Hill. The crystal reliquary holding the bones is now enclosed in a gold and ruby casket provided by Burmese devotees. The miniature gold stupa in which they were transported to Mandalay may be seen in the photo to the left of the modern ruby and gold reliquary.

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, many stupas also hold the ashes or ringsel of prominent/respected Buddhists who were cremated.

The Buddha's relics are considered to show people that enlightenment is possible, and to also promote good virtue.

Christian relics

History of Christian relics

One of the earliest sources that purports to show the efficacy of relics is found in :
20 Elisha died and was buried. Now Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring. 21 Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man's body into Elisha's tomb. When the body touched Elisha's bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet. (NIV)
These verses are cited to claim that the Holy Spirit's indwelling also affects the physical body, that God can do miracles through the bodies of His servants, or both. Also cited is the veneration of Polycarp's relics recorded in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (written 150–160 AD). With regard to relics that are objects, an often cited passage is Acts 19:11–12, which says that Paul's handkerchiefs were imbued by God with healing power.

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.

There are also many relics attributed to Jesus, perhaps most famously the Shroud of Turin, which is allegedly the burial shroud of Jesus Christ. 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 John Calvin famously remarked that there were enough pieces of the True Cross to build a ship from, although a study in 1870 found that put together the claimed relics weighed less than 1.7kg (0.04m³).

Romano-Christian demons 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, 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 Myra is another example. The Image of Edessa was reputed to render that city impregnable.

Roman Catholic classification and prohibitions

Saint Jerome declared, "We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are" (Ad Riparium, i, P.L., XXII, 907). First-Class Relics : Items directly associated with the events of Christ's life (manger, cross, etc.), or the physical remains of a saint (a bone, a hair, a limb, etc.). Traditionally, a martyr's relics are often more prized than the relics of other saints. Also, some saints' relics are known for their extraordinary incorruptibility (Human remains do not deteriorate as would normally be expected. For instance a 500 year old body that appears as though it is still in wake) and so would have high regard. It is important to note that parts of the saint that were significant to that saint's life are more prized relics. For instance, King St. Stephen of Hungary's right forearm is especially important because of his status as a ruler. A famous theologian's head may be his most important relic. (The head of St. Thomas Aquinas was removed by the monks at the Cistercian abbey at Fossanova where he died). Logically, if a saint did a lot of travelling then the bones of his feet may be prized. Current Catholic teaching prohibits relics to be divided up into small, unrecognizable parts if they are to be used in liturgy (i.e, as in an altar; see the rubrics listed in Rite Of Dedication of a Church and an Altar). Second-Class Relics : An item that the saint wore (a sock, a shirt, a glove, etc.) Also included is an item that the saint owned or frequently used, for example, a crucifix, book etc. Again, an item more important in the saint's life is thus a more important relic. Third-Class Relics : Any object that is touched to a first class relic. The sale of relics is strictly forbidden by the Church. The Code of Canon Law states:

§1190 §1 - "It is absolutely forbidden to sell sacred relics."

§1190 §2 - "Relics of great significance and other relics honored with great reverence by the people cannot be alienated validly in any manner or transferred permanently without the permission of the Apostolic See."

Importance of Relics in Medieval Christianity

Since the beginning of Christianity, individuals have seen relics as a way to come closer to the saints and thus form a closer bond with God. Since Christians during the Middle Ages often took pilgrimages to shrines of holy people, relics became a large business. The pilgrims saw the purchasing of a relic as a means to bring the shrine back with him or her upon returning home in a small way, since during the Middle Ages the concept of physical proximity to the “holy” (tombs of saints or their personal objects) was considered extremely important. Instead of having to travel hundreds of miles to become near to a venerated saint, one could venerate the relics of the saint within his or her own home.

Muslim relics

While various relics are preserved by different Muslim communities, the most important are those known as The Sacred Trusts, more than 600 pieces treasured in the Privy Chamber of the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul.

Muslims believe that these treasures include the sword and standard of Muhammad, a hair from his beard, and the staff of Moses. Most of the trusts can be seen in the museum, but the most important of them can only be seen during the month of Ramadan. The Quran has been recited next to these relics uninterruptedly since they were brought to the Topkapi Palace.

"Under the shimmering turquoise dome that dominates the sand-blown city [of Kandahar] lies the body of Ahmad Shah Abdali, the young Kandahari warrior who in 1747 became Afghanistan's first king. The mausoleum is covered in deep blue and white tiles behind a small grove of trees, one of which is said to cure toothache, and is a place of pilgrimage. In front of it is a small mosque with a marble vault containing one of the holiest relics in the Islamic World, a kherqa, the Sacred Cloak of Prophet Mohammed that was given to Ahmad Shah by Mured Beg, the Emir of Bokhara. The Sacred Cloak is kept locked away, taken out only at times of great crisis1 but the mausoleum is open and there is a constant line of men leaving their sandals at the door and shuffling through to marvel at the surprisingly long marble tomb and touch the glass case containing Ahmad Shah's brass helmet. Before leaving they bend to kiss a length of pink velvet said to be from his robe. It bears the unmistakable scent of jasmine.

1 Until Mullah Omar took it out in November 1996 and displayed it to a crowd of ulema of religious scholars to have himself declared Amir-ud Momineen, Prince of all Islam, the last time had been when the city was struck by a cholera epidemic in the 1930s.

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).

References

Bibliography

  • Relics, by Joan Carroll Cruz, OCDS, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc, 1984. ISBN 0-87973-701-8
  • Reliques et sainteté dans l'espace médiéval
  • Brown, Peter; Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity; University of Chicago Press; 1982
  • Vauchez, Andre; Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages; Cambridge University Press; 1997

Relics in fiction

  • The Relic by Eca De Queiros, Dedalus Ltd, UK 1994. ISBN 0-94662-694-4
  • The Translation of Father Torturo by Brendan Connell, Prime Books, 2005. ISBN 0-80950-043-4

See also

External links

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