AskDefine | Define relics

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  1. Plural of relic

Extensive Definition

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 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.

Christian relics

History of Christian relics

One of the earliest sources that show the efficacy of relics is found in Bible verse 2|Kings|13:20-21|KJV:
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 claimed to be the burial shroud of Jesus, although this is disputed. 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). 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 a person who was deemed divine 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.

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

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.

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).



  • 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
relics in Czech: Relikvie
relics in Danish: Relikvie
relics in German: Reliquie
relics in Spanish: Reliquia
relics in French: Relique
relics in Italian: Reliquia
relics in Dutch: Relikwie
relics in Japanese: 聖遺物
relics in Norwegian: Relikvie
relics in Polish: Relikwie
relics in Portuguese: Relíquia
relics in Russian: Мощи
relics in Serbian: Мошти
relics in Slovak: Relikvia
relics in Slovenian: Relikvije
relics in Finnish: Pyhäinjäännös
relics in Swedish: Relik
relics in Ukrainian: Нетлінні мощі
relics in Thai: วัตถุมงคลในคริสต์ศาสนา
relics in Chinese: 文物

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

afterglow, afterimage, ashes, balance, body, bones, butt, butt end, cadaver, candle ends, carcass, carrion, chaff, clay, corpse, corpus delicti, crowbait, dead body, dead man, dead person, debris, decedent, detritus, dry bones, dust, earth, embalmed corpse, end, fag end, filings, food for worms, fossil, holdover, husks, late lamented, leavings, leftovers, mortal remains, mummification, mummy, odds and ends, offscourings, organic remains, orts, parings, rags, refuse, reliquiae, remainder, remains, remnant, residue, residuum, rest, roach, rubbish, ruins, rump, sawdust, scourings, scraps, shadow, shavings, skeleton, stiff, straw, stubble, stump, survival, sweepings, tenement of clay, the dead, the deceased, the defunct, the departed, the loved one, trace, vestige, waste
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