Skip to main content

Relics

RELICS

RELICS may loosely be defined as the venerated remains of venerable persons. This should be taken to include not only the bodies, bones, or ashes of saints, heroes, martyrs, founders of religious traditions, and other holy men and women but also objects that they once owned and, by extension, things that were once in physical contact with them.

According to the principles of contagious magic, any personal possession or part of a person's body can be thought of as equivalent to his whole self, no matter how minute it may be, or how detached in time and space. Thus a bone, a hair, a tooth, a garment, a footprint can carry the power or saintliness of the person with whom they were once associated and make him or her "present" once again.

Scholars eager to discuss the "origins" of relics have often pointed to the magical use of such objects by "primitive" peoples in rituals of war, healing, rainmaking, or hunting. They have gathered examples from all sorts of ethnographies to show that fetishes and talismans, amulets and medicine bundles were sometimes made of human bones, hair, or organs. They have thereby concluded that the impulse to preserve and use "relics" must be very ancient indeed. They may well be correct, but it is important to try to view such examples within their individual cultural contexts, and not to generalize too quickly from them about the development of relic worship as a whole.

In fact, the veneration of relics is not equally emphasized in the various religions of the world. Highly featured in some traditions (such as Buddhism and Catholicism), it is virtually absent in others (Protestantism, Hinduism, Judaism), and found only incidentally elsewhere (Islam, ancient Greece). This entry, therefore, shall deal primarily with the Roman Catholic and Buddhist traditions. But before doing so, it may be helpful to examine briefly some of the reasons for the other traditions' diversity.

Protestantism, Hinduism, and Israelite Religion

The Protestant reformers condemned the veneration of relics partly for theological reasons and partly because it was closely associated in their minds with the sale of indulgences and with other ecclesiastical practices of which they disapproved. From the start, their criticism was thus polemical, and, appealing to reason, it lambasted in particular the fantastic proliferation of relics that had developed in medieval Catholicism. For instance, John Calvin (15091564), who wrote a treatise on relics, mockingly commented that in his day the quantity of wood contained in relics of the True Cross was so great that even three hundred men could not have carried it.

In Hinduism, opposition to relic worship occurred for quite different reasons. Though Hindus commonly honor the memories of great saints and teachers and visit sites of pilgrimage associated with them, they do not generally venerate their bodily remains. On the one hand, the doctrine of reincarnation and the belief in the ultimately illusory nature of things of this world simply do not promote relic worship. On the other hand, and probably more importantly, death and things associated with it are, in Hinduism, thought to be highly polluting. For this reason, in fact, Hindu funeral customs stress the total destruction of the body, which is most commonly cremated. The ashes from the pyre and any unburned fragments of bone, though they are treated with respect for a while, are all eventually disposed of, often in a nearby river, ideally in the Ganges.

In ancient Israel, there also existed a concern for purity and for separating the dead from the living. Bodies were not cremated, but they were quickly and carefully buried in the hollowed sides of caves or burial chambers. There it was expected that they would decay, dry up, and disintegrate; thus tombs were commonly reused by family members. Pronounced rites of mourning and lamentation did take place, but, generally speaking, the tomb and the corpse were thought to be unclean, and contact with them was defiling (Lv. 21:14, Nm. 19:1116). Hence, there was little room for any enthusiasm for relics.

It may also be, however, that too great a veneration of the remains of the deadas in the occasionally mentioned practice of making food offerings in the tombswas thought of in certain ancient Israelite circles as bordering on idolatry or paganism, and hence to be condemned.

Islam

Much the same concern can be found in Islam; certain Qurʾanic scholars periodically denounced the veneration of relics, especially of the bodies of saints, as shirk (polytheism), that is, as treating the grave as an idol rather than worshiping God alone. Nevertheless, the cult of relics did manage to grow within the Muslim fold, and it continues to be popular today.

In addition to the various "traces" (athar ) left by Muammad, such as hairs, teeth, autographs, and especially footprints, Muslims have long venerated the remains of saints. This, it should be pointed out, is a cult of bodies rather than of bones, and focuses on the tombs of holy persons that dot the countrysides of those Muslim lands where their worship plays an important role. Though ritual patterns at these tombs may vary, often believers will circumambulate the saint's enshrined coffin, leave votive offerings there, and pray for cures, for help with family problems, or more generally for "blessing" (barakah ). While some Muslim theologians may claim that such petitions are not technically made to the saint but through the saint to God, it is clear that, in the minds of the faithful, the saint himself is thought to be present in the tomb and able to respond effectively.

In some instances, owing to their great popularity, certain famous saints are reputed to be buried in more than one place. Thus, for example, the body of the great Shīʿī martyr, usayn ibn ʿAli (d. 680 ce), while usually thought to be enshrined in Karbala, is also reputed to rest in Medina, Damascus, Aleppo, and a number of other places, and his head is said to be in Cairo, where it remains a popular center of piety.

Nonetheless, because of orthodox objections, the cult of relics in Islam seems never to have mushroomed in quite the way it did in Christianity or Buddhism, and it has retained a somewhat ambiguous status. This ambiguity is perhaps best summed up in the recurring legends of mausoleums that were destroyed by the very saints they entombedthe saints themselves thereby posthumously objecting to their own cult (and at the same time showing their even greater glory).

Ancient Greece

In ancient Greece, the veneration of relics was closely connected to the cult of heroes, whose reputed remainsoften bones larger than lifesizewere enshrined and honored in towns as a guarantee of their protection and an enhancement of their prestige. Thus Lesbos had the head of Orpheus, Elis the shoulder bone of Pelops (which had been found by a fisherman and identified by an oracle). Tantalos's bones were at Argos, while the remains of Europa were the focus of the great Hellotia festival in Crete. All of these were thought to ward off disease and famine, to encourage fertility and welfare, and sometimes to bring about miraculous cures.

Occasionally the relics of great heroes were the object of searches and, when found, had to be translated to their place of enshrinement. Plutarch, for example, describes in some detail the quest for the bones of Theseus, a hero whose armed ghost many Athenians believed to have helped them achieve their victory at Marathon. Finally, when his remains were discovered on the island of Siphnos, they were transported to Athens with considerable pomp and celebration and enshrined in the center of the city.

In addition to the bones of the heroes, weapons and other objects associated with them were honored. Thus, in a variety of temples, visitors could marvel at Orpheus's lyre, Achilles' spear, Helen's sandal, Agamemnon's scepter, the Argonauts' anchor, the stone swallowed by Kronos, even the tusks of the Erymanthian boar captured by Herakles. Such items were, perhaps, more objects of curiosity than of cults, but they served the important function of drawing pilgrims and of concretizing the myths and glories of a former age.

Early Christianity

In Christianity one finds an example of the fully developed veneration of relics. Its origins within the Christian tradition are usually traced to the cults that arose around the tombs of the early saints and martyrs. These cults are often compared to the similar hero cults of the Hellenistic world. They stem, however, not only from a desire to venerate the memory of the departed saint, but also from a hope to partake of some of the power and blessing he or she derived from a close and ongoing relationship with God.

It was thought to be beneficial in the early church to be physically close to the saints. Hence, from the start, Christians paid visits to their tombs; there they celebrated the Eucharist on the stone slabs covering their graves. Sometimes, they even decided to settle permanently in the vicinity of these graves. In this way, tombs became altars, and whole cities arose where once had been cemeteries.

Alternatively, the bodies of the saints were sometimes brought to the faithful; they were translated from their graves to existing cities and enshrined in churches there. Thus existing altars also became tombs, and the custom of celebrating mass over the bones of the martyrs was reinforced. In fact, by the fourth century, in the Eastern church, the Eucharist could only be celebrated on an altar covered with an antimensiona cloth into which were sewn fragments of relics. And in the West, the common custom was to enclose relics in a cavity in the altar top itselfa practice that became formalized in 787 when the Second Council of Nicaea declared the presence of such relics to be obligatory for the consecration of a church.

With the toleration of Christianity throughout the Roman empire beginning in the reign of Constantine (272327), the demand for and veneration of relics grew. Especially in the fourth and fifth centuries, not only were the known remains of martyrs venerated but lost relics of ancient saints started making their appearance. Thus the body of Saint Stephenthe first Christian martyrwas discovered as though it had been waiting for this time and was enshrined in a number of important centers.

At the same time, relics connected with Christ's passion came to be highly esteemed: the crown of thorns, the nails that pierced his hands and feet, and especially the wood of the True Cross on which Christ had died and which, according to legend, had been discovered by Constantine's mother, Helena. The cross was said to have been made of the wood of the Tree of Life, taken belatedly from the Garden of Eden by Adam's son Seth. It was, thus, a powerful symbol of both the death of Christ and the rewards of eternal life. Along with other relics, it was credited with miraculous cures, even resurrections. It was also used as a talisman for magical protection; Gregory of Nyssa's sister Macrina (c. 327379) always wore around her neck an amulet consisting of a splinter of the True Cross encased in a ring, and she was clearly not the only noblewoman to do so. It comes as no surprise, then, that by the middle of the fourth century, according to one account, wood from the True Cross filled the world (though miraculously the original cross itself still remained whole and undiminished in Jerusalem).

The growth of the cult of relics in the early church, however, was not without controversy and opposition. On the one hand, it was clearly an offense to traditional Roman sensibilities about keeping the dead in their proper place. For example, Julian the Apostate (r. 361363) denounced the Christians for filling the world with sepulchers and defiling the cities with the bones and skulls of "criminals." On the other hand, even within the Christian community, there were those such as Vigilantius (early fifth century) who were very critical of the worship of relics, claiming that it was grossly superstitious and bordered on idolatry. However, Jerome, in an angry reply to Vigilantius, argued that Christians did not "worship" relics but "honored" them. Doctrinally, then, if not always in practice, a distinction was made that still stands today between the veneratio paid to the saints and their relics and the adoratio espoused for God and Christ.

Other church leaders, however, were concerned about the veritable traffic in relics that was developing in the fourth and fifth centuries, especially in the East. In 386, therefore, the emperor Theodosius passed legislation restricting the translation of dead bodies and the selling, buying, or dividing of the remains of martyrs. This, however, seems to have had little effect; at the end of the century, Augustine was still complaining of unscrupulous monks who wandered and traded in "members of martyrs if martyrs they be," and over a century later, the emperor Justinian had to issue another decree regulating the exhumation and transfer of saints' bodies.

It is important to realize the many dimensions of these practices and their larger religious and social significance. As Peter Brown has pointed out, the translations of relics that started in the fourth century helped to spread Christianity by making it more mobile and decentralizing it (Brown 1981, p. 88). Because of this, not only local holy men but centrally important saints could be worshiped in places far away from the ancient foci of the faith. It was not necessary to journey to Palestine or Rome to honor the memory of Jesus or of the early martyrs; they could be foundpresent in various physical objectsmore close to home, indeed in any consecrated church. In this, the translation of relics was a perfect complement to the popular practice of pilgrimage; it brought the saints to the people instead of taking the people to the saints. At a somewhat different level, the translation of relics also served to establish an intricate network of "patronage, alliance, and gift giving that linked the lay and clerical elites of East and West," which was crucial in the development of the church (Brown 1981, p. 89). In this, the remains of saints acted as a sort of symbolic exchange commodity.

At the same time, as Brown has also pointed out, the exhumation, dismemberment, and translation of relics has played an important role in divorcing them from too direct an association with death. Precisely because relics are fragments of bones and not whole corpses, precisely because they are in altars or reliquaries and not in coffins, the connotations of death are suppressed, and in the relics the saints can be thought to be "alive."

The Middle Ages

By the time of the Middle Ages, the veneration of relics had become so widespread, popular, and intense that more than one scholar has called it the true religion of the medieval period. Especially in Europe, churches, monasteries, cathedrals, and other places of pilgrimage seemed to develop an almost insatiable thirst for relics that might add to their sanctity, prestige, and attractiveness to pilgrims. This increasing demand led, in fact, to a renewed search for the bodies of ancient saints in places such as the catacombs in Rome. Quickly, a transalpine trade in bones developed, manned by relic merchants and professional relic thieves, who were eager to supply the needs of Carolingian bishops and abbots and later of Anglo-Saxon kings. Then, with the Crusades, still new sources of relics became accessibleJerusalem and Constantinople being the most important of these.

Throughout the Middle Ages, relics, in fact, were significant sources of revenue. Offerings made to the shrine of Thomas Becket, for example, accounted for almost half of Canterbury's annual income in the late twelfth century, and this proportion increased when special indulgences were granted to pilgrims there. It is not surprising, then, that persons in power were willing to invest considerably in the acquisition of relics. Louis IX of France (r. 12261270), for example, reportedly offered the count of Fondi fifteen thousand florins for the bones of Saint Thomas Aquinas, but, alas, in vain.

When relics were obtained, they were often magnificently enshrined. The reliquaries in which they were encased were some of the most richly adorned products of medieval art; sometimes entire buildings were conceived of as reliquaries, such as the splendid Sainte Chapelle in Paris, which was built to house Christ's crown of thorns.

Given such enthusiasm and piety, it is perhaps not surprising that fraudulent and false relics should also appear. Chaucer, in his Canterbury Tales, tells of a relic monger who in his trunk had a pillowcase that he asserted was Our Lady's veil. Other sources mention exhibitions of vials that were said to contain a sneeze of the Holy Spirit, or the sounds of the bells of Solomon's temple, or rays from the star that guided the wise men from the East. One church in Italy even claimed to possess the cross that Constantine saw in his vision.

More generally, however, piety and rival claims led to a bewildering multiplication of the remains of saints. During the Middle Ages, it was rare, in fact, for a saint's body or bones to exist in one place only. At least nineteen churches, for example, claimed to enshrine the jaw of John the Baptist. The body of Saint James was found most famously at Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where, like a magnet, it drew pilgrims from all over Europe along well-established routes; it was also venerated, however, in at least six other places, with additional heads and arms elsewhere. Saint Peter, of course, was honored in Rome, but despite (or because of) his fame there, pilgrims could also venerate significant portions of his body at Arles, Cluny, Constantinople, and Saint-Cloud. While his thumb was to be seen in Toulon, three teeth were in Marseilles, his beard was in Poitiers, and his brain was in Geneva (although John Calvin later claimed it was but a piece of pumice stone).

Relics of more minor saintssix hands of Saint Adrian, various breasts of Saint Agathaabounded as well. The list is almost endless, and Collin de Plancy easily filled three volumes of a dictionary of relics with references to them.

As for relics of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, they, too, were extremely popular during the Middle Ages, though the doctrine of their bodily ascension to heaven presented some difficulties. In their cases, bones were, for the most part, not legitimately acceptable. Great emphasis, however, could be laid on any object that had once been in contact with their persons.

In the case of the Virgin, these relics tended to emphasize her maternal, nurturing, and domestic characteristics. Thus vials of her breast milk (spilled on various occasions) could be found in countless churches throughout Christendom, later causing Calvin to comment that, had she been a cow all her life, she could not have produced such a quantity. Almost as popular was her tunic (especially that worn at the time of the Annunciation). Threads from it were occasionally worn in protective amulets. Roland, in Spain, for example, fought with a sword in whose hilt was a piece of the Virgin's robe (along with a hair of Saint Denis, a tooth of Saint Peter, and some of Saint Basil's blood). Finally, in Loreto, in central Italy, the whole of the house in which the Virgin had raised the young Jesus in Nazareth could be visited. It was believed to have been miraculously transported there through the air from Palestine in 1296.

In the case of Jesus, the relics were of a more varied character. Some, such as his swaddling clothes and the boards of the manger in which he lay in Bethlehem, brought to mind the figure of the Christ child. Others called up more complex associations, perhaps; no fewer than seven churches claimed to possess his circumcised foreskin, and the one at Coulombs in the diocese of Chartres was venerated by pregnant women hoping for an easy childbirth. Still others simply recalled various episodes recorded in the Gospels: bread crumbs left over from the loaves he had used in feeding the five thousand, one of the pots in which he had turned water into wine, the cloth that had covered the table at the Last Supper, the towel he had used on that occasion to wipe the apostles' feet, the body of the ass on which he had entered Jerusalem.

The greatest veneration and enthusiasm, however, were reserved for relics associated with Christ's passion. Some of these, such as the crown of thorns, the spear that had pierced his side, the nails and wood of the True Cross, had long been popular. But now no detail of Christ's agony escaped attention, and in various churches, pilgrims could also venerate the pillar to which he had been tied, the reeds with which he had been whipped, Veronica's veil on which he had left an image of his face on the way to Calvary, the seamless robe that the soldiers divided, the sponge with which he was offered vinegar, the blood and water that flowed from his side, and, finally, the burial shroud in which he lay in the tomb and on which he left the full imprint of his body. This shroud, now in Turin, was perhaps the last major relic of Christ's passion to come to light. It was first exhibited in the fourteenth century and has, in recent years, become the subject of intensive debate and scientific analysis.

It is sometimes difficult to realize the fervor with which medieval people approached many of these relics. Part of their attraction, of course, lay in their reputed miraculous powers, especially in the form of cures, but there was more to it than this. Relics enabled the pious to reliveto recall experientiallyevents that were central to their faith. They were visible manifestations of the presence of Christ and of his saints that could, in the words of one bishop, "open the eyes of the heart." They thus provided effective focal points for religious devotion and emotion. Suger, the abbot of Saint-Denis in Paris, has described the scene there in the early twelfth century. The old church, he states, was often filled to overflowing by the faithful, who pressed in closely to implore the help of the saints and strove hard to kiss the nail and crown relics of the Lord. Women found themselves trampled underfoot or squeezed to the point of suffocation, while the brethren themselves, pressed hard by the crowd, periodically had to make their escape with the relics through the windows.

Buddhism

Christianity is but one of two major traditions in which relics have played a prominent and popular role. The otherBuddhismbecame one of the great propagators of relic worship throughout Asia. Unlike Hinduism, which, as has been seen, had little room for relics, Buddhism was from the start fascinated by, and preoccupied with, death. This does not mean that Buddhists did not share some of the Indian repugnance for dead bodies. They tried, however, to overcome that repugnance, meditating on the impurity and impermanence of the body, dead or alive. The remains of the Buddha and of other enlightened saints, however, were thought not to be impure but worthy of the highest veneration.

The focus in Buddhism has been by and large on the relics of the Buddha himself, even though Buddhists in ancient India did also honor the relics of his disciples, and though still today, in some places, believers will search the ashes of great monks for their śarīradhātu (either bits of bone or tiny pieces of what is thought to be metamorphosed bodily substance).

According to tradition, when the Buddha passed away into final nirvāa, he told his disciples who were monks not to preoccupy themselves with his physical remains but to follow his teaching. After his cremation, therefore, his relics were left to the laity. Almost immediately they became the object of a dispute among various North Indian monarchs, each of whom wanted all the physical remains of the Buddha for his own kingdom. According to the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, this squabble was resolved not by the monks but by a brahman named Drona who divided the Buddha's relics into eight equal shares and distributed them to eight kings, instructing each to build a stupa (a domed funerary mound) over his portion.

The fate of these eight "Drona stupas" (as they were called) is uncertain. According to one legend, however, soon after his conversion to Buddhism, the great Indian emperor Asoka (third century BCE) collected from them the relics, which he then redistributed throughout his empire, this time dividing them into eighty-four thousand shares and building eighty-four thousand stupas to enshrine them. Thus, the Buddha's physical body (his relics), along with his teaching (his Dharma), was spread throughout the Indian subcontinent in a systematic and ordered way. It is clear, however, that Asoka was also using Buddhism and the relics symbolically in order to impose his own authority over the kingdom.

In addition to this legend of the eighty-four thousand stupas, there are a number of other quite different traditions concerning the fate of the Buddha's relics. These focus not so much on his ashes as on the fortune of certain of his bones and teeth. One tooth, for instance, ended up enshrined in Sri Lanka, where today it is an object of veneration by pilgrims who come to the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy to make offerings of flowers and incense. Once a year, in the summer month of Äsa-la, it is paraded in pomp around the city in what remains one of the chief Sri Lankan festivals.

Throughout the precolonial history of Sri Lanka, possession of the Buddha's tooth was seen as an indispensable attribute of kingship. Its cult was the privilege and duty of the legitimate ruler and was thought to ensure social harmony, regular rainfall, bountiful crops, and righteous rule. Its possession meant power. Thus, when the British finally took Kandy in 1815 and captured the tooth, they found to their surprise that resistance to them soon stopped.

The official cult of the tooth relic was and is today carried out by an entire hierarchy of priests. Several times a day, in a series of ceremonies that closely resemble the Hindu pattern of worship of the gods, they ritually entertain the tooth, bathe it, clothe it, and feed it. In this, it is quite clear that the Buddha is thought to be somehow present, despite the doctrine that he has completely transcended the realm of rebirth.

As with the saints in Christianity, this presence of the Buddha in his relics is sometimes emphasized by the occurrence of miracles. For instance, according to the Mahāvasa (Great Chronicle) of Sri Lanka, when King Dutthagamani (first century bce) was about to enshrine some Buddha relics in the great stupa he had built, the casket in which they were kept rose up into the air; it opened of itself, and the relics came out, took on the physical form of the Buddha, and performed all sorts of miracles that had been performed by the Buddha himself during his lifetime. According to some traditions, it might be added, much the same miracle is expected to take place at the end of this present world cycle, when, just prior to the advent of the next Buddha, Maitreya, all of the dispersed relics of the present Buddha will miraculously come together again to form his body one more time, before disappearing forever into the depths of the earth.

Sri Lanka, however, was by no means the only Buddhist nation to enjoy the possession of prestigious Buddha relics. A number of hairs of the Buddha were enshrined in splendor in the great Shwe Dagon pagoda in Rangoon, Burma; and in Lamphun in northern Thailand, several relics of the Buddha became the object of great veneration and elaborate legends. In both of these places, as in many others throughout the Buddhist world, the presence of Buddha relics is closely linked to the first introduction of Buddhism into the country. In other words, the relics were not just objects of veneration for a few but were symbolic of the establishment of the faith in a whole region.

The situation was somewhat different in China, where Buddhism was always in competition with a number of other faiths and ideologies. Nevertheless, in Changan (present-day Sian), the ancient capital of the Tang dynasty, the emperor's periodic reception for the Buddha's finger bone relic (generally kept at a monastery outside the city) was perhaps the greatest religious festival during the ninth century.

As Kenneth Chen put it in his Buddhism in China, "Whenever this relic was put on public display, the people would work themselves into such a state of religious frenzy as to belie the statement that the Chinese are rational and practical in their conduct" (Chen 1964, p. 280). Devotees threw themselves on the ground, gave away all their possessions, cut off their hair, burned their scalps, and made fiery offerings of their fingers. It was, in fact, this sort of display that in 819 led the Confucian scholar Han Yü to petition the throne to put an end to such celebrations, pointing out that it was demeaning for the emperor to have anything to do with the bone of a barbarian.

Another famous relic of the Buddha in China was a tooth that was originally brought to Nanking in the fifth century and then taken to Chang'an. Lost for over eight hundred years, it was rediscovered in 1900 and is presently enshrined in a pagoda outside Peking. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Chinese government, eager to improve its relations with Buddhist nations of South and Southeast Asia, allowed it to go on a tour to Burma and then Sri Lanka, where it was worshiped by hundreds of thousands of people.

Not all of the Buddha's relics, however, have been bodily remains. In several places in South and Southeast Asia, great stone footprints, reputed to be his, are still venerated today. In northwest India, he is said to have left his shadow or reflected image on the wall of a cave that was a popular pilgrimage site from the fourth to the eighth century. There, given the right amount of devotion and meditation, pilgrims were thought actually to be able to see the Buddha himself in his shadow. Nearby was a rock on which one could discern the pattern of the cloth in the Buddha's robe where he had set it out to dry. Also in the same region was the Buddha's begging bowl, which the Chinese pilgrim Faxian saw during his trip to India (399414). Faxian recounts a legend concerning the bowl's miraculous migration over the centuries throughout the Buddhist world. According to this, at the end of the present age, it is destined to ascend to the Tusita Heaven, where it will be a sign for the future Buddha Maitreya that the time for him to come down to earth is at hand.

Conclusion

In both the Christian and Buddhist traditions, as well as to a lesser extent in Islam and ancient Greece, the examples of relics here considered present a great variety of aspects and have been caught up in a whole gamut of symbolisms. In relics, believers have found the ongoing presence and power of Jesus, of the Buddha, of the saints of different traditions. Everywhere relics have performed miracles of various kinds; they have been used to ward off evil, to effectuate cures, and to ensure the prosperity of individuals, cities, and even nations; they have legitimized the rule of kings and emperors; they have helped spread and popularize religion; they have been bought, stolen, traded, and fought over, and have held social, economic, and political importance.

But for all these many functions, it must be noted that relics remain marked with a certain ambiguity. They are often objects that are normally considered to be impuredead flesh, bones, and body partsand yet they are venerated as holy. In this very paradox, however, can be seen some of the ways in which relics work to heighten the holiness and purity of the saints; if even their impurities are venerated, how much purer and more venerable they must be themselves!

Somewhat the same reasoning can be applied to a second and more basic ambiguity found in relics. They are clearly symbols of death and impermanence; they are what is left after the saints and founders of the tradition are no more. Yet, as has been seen repeatedly, they also make manifest the continuing presence and life of these absent beings. In asserting that the saints are "alive in death," or, in the case of Buddhism, that they are paradoxically present despite their final nirvana, relics in both traditions manage to bridge a gap that is one of the great divides of human existence.

See Also

Architecture; Bones; Persecution, article on Christian Experience; Stupa Worship; Tombs.

Bibliography

For a short introduction to the comparative study of relics, see Gregory Schopen, "Relic," in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, edited by Mark C. Taylor (Chicago, 1998), pp. 256268. For a survey of the field, see James Bentley, Restless Bones: the Story of Relics (London, 1985). For the study of relics in early Christianity, Peter Brown's The Cult of the Saints (Chicago, 1981) is a good place to begin, while André Grabar's Martyrium: recherches sur le culte des reliques et l'art chrétien antique (Paris, 1946) remains a readable classic. More general works on Christian relics extending into Medieval and Modern times are Thomas Head's succinct "Relics" in Dictionary of the Middle Ages (New York, 1988), 10: 296299; Nicole Hermann-Mascard, Les reliques des saints: formation coutumière d'un droit (Paris, 1975); and David Sox's more popularly written Relics and Shrines (London, 1985). For more specialized studies, see on the True Cross, Anatole Frolow's La relique de la Vraie Croix: Recherches sur le développement d'un culte (Paris, 1961); on the medieval traffic in relics in western Europe, Patrick Geary's Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages (Princeton, N.J., 1978); and on Roman Catholic rules about relics, Eugene A. Dooley, Church Law on Sacred Relics (Washington, D.C., 1931). Among the many works to appear on the shroud of Turin, mention might be made of Ian Wilson's The Shroud of Turin: The Burial Cloth of Jesus Christ? (Garden City, N.Y., 1978).

For the study of relics in Buddhism, see Kevin Trainor, Relics, Ritual, and Representation in Buddhism: Rematerializing the Sri Lankan Theravada Tradition (Cambridge, 1997); Dan Martin, "Pearls from Bones: Relics, Chortens, Tertons and the Signs of Saintly Death in Tibet," Numen 41 (1994): 273324; Bernard Faure, "Relics and Flesh Bodies: The Creation of Ch'an Sites," in Pilgrims and Sacred Sites in China, ed. Susan Naquin and Chün-fang Yü (Berkeley, Calif., 1992), pp. 150189; Brian Ruppert, Jewel in the Ashes: Buddha Relics and Power in Early Medieval Japan (Cambridge, 1997); and John S. Strong, Relics of the Buddha (Princeton, N.J., 2004). A detailed study of the rituals associated with the Buddha's tooth relic in Sri Lanka can be found in H.L. Seneviratne, Rituals of the Kandyan State (Cambridge, 1978). A helpful introduction to the temple of the Buddha's relic in Lamphun, Thailand is Donald K. Swearer's Wat Haripuñjaya (Missoula, Mont., 1976). For Buddhist relics in China, see Kenneth Ch'en's Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey (Princeton, N.J., 1964).

Finally, two useful works for the study of relics in Islam deserve mention: Ignácz Goldziher's "On the Veneration of the Dead in Paganism and Islam," in volume 1 of Muslim Studies (Chicago, 1966), and, on the cult of the saints in Egypt, Jane I. Smith and Yvonne Haddad's The Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection (Albany, N.Y., 1981), appendix C.

John S. Strong (1987 and 2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Relics." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Relics." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 20, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/relics

"Relics." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved November 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/relics

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.