(Investigator 49, 1996 July)

Belief in the putative powers of crystals and magnetic beads are part of New Age lore, although artefacts, talismans, icons, amulets and lucky charms have been popular since prehistoric times. While crystals have been dealt with under its own heading and it is deemed appropriate to mention some of the other popular artefacts and relics and their uses.

They take many forms, rings, necklaces and bracelets in a variety of materials ranging from gold and precious stones to humble plastic beads. Others take the form of carved animals, insects and birds in wood, stone and ivory. I recall as a child I carried a rabbit's foot for good luck and my mother's purse was never without her lucky miniature brass leprechaun.

Belief in the efficacy of holy relics, in particular the bones and remains of the beatified, are endemic to some religions. Paintings, carvings and icons of religious significance are still worshipped universally and even a prayer or the invoking of a saint's name to intervene on behalf of the devoted is widely practiced in Catholicism. This belief was born of another belief – that diseases were produced by the emissaries of Satan who possessed the bodies of the afflicted. As God's will was considered manifest through miracles and saints, apostles, prophets and martyrs were his intermediaries, any earthly remains of their person or objects with which they came into contact, became sacred and were thought to be endowed with supernatural powers.

It was believed that in some mysterious way the virtue in a holy hair, a piece of wood, or the bone of a saint would drive out the demon and effect a cure. In, the early part of the second millennium and up to the middle ages man lived in perpetual fear of natural phenomena which were put down to the intervention of God. In a spiritual age when ignorance was the hand maiden of faith, belief in miracles prospered and for political reasons the Church fathers decided that they were necessary to propagate the faith.

Although relics were sought after and venerated in Roman times, by the eleventh century they were commonplace, the list both long and macabre – splinters from the true cross, Christ's blood, seventeen (allegedly his) foreskins, the crown of thorns, baby teeth, hair clippings, the bones of Mary Magdalene, a vial of Mary's milk, her scarf, St Peter's tooth, the bead(s) of John the Baptist, a finger from the hand of apostle Thomas and countless bones allegedly belonging to a large number of assorted religious luminaries.

The relics, originally intended as an aid to devotion, soon became objects of worship in their own right, as did the ornate caskets which contained them. Shrines were built to house the caskets and became meccas to which the faithful beat a pilgrim's path.

From the very beginning the Church realised the value and power of relics and commercialism took over swelling the coffers of many an abbey, church and monastery. Notwithstanding that most relics were spurious, they were well sought after even to the extent of murder, theft and forgery. The bones of St Foy at Agan, for example, were stolen by Armisdus, a monk from Congues, who spent ten years planning the caper, and when the crusaders plundered Jerusalem in 1099, a horrible massacre of Muslims and Jews ensued and the Holy Sepulchre was recovered. In 1204, Constantinople too was submitted to a merciless pillage resulting in the dispersal of the spoils.

The mortal remains of St Francis Xavier, canonized in 1622, rest in a silver casket in the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa, India. I use the word ‘remains' in the literal sense as the poor fellow's body has been dismembered unmercifully by relic seekers both lay and ecclesiastical since he was first laid to rest in 1552.

One of his toes was bitten off by a Portuguese lady who wanted a relic of the saint, and in 1615, part of his right hand was cut off and sent to the Church of Gesu in Rome. In 1619, the remaining part of the hand was removed and sent to the Jesuits in Japan. Parts of the intestines have also been removed from time to time and distributed to various places around the world. Ironically, the remains of St Francis are now the subject of a court case, a local family is claiming that the body is not that of the saint at all, but one of their former ancestors.

Heads seem to enjoy a certain status among believers. The reliquaries for the heads of Saint Praxedes and Saint Sebastian, together with the relics of Saint Stephen, are still cherished and represent some of the most valuable artefacts in the Vatican's collection.

Equally bizarre is the life and fate of St Catherine. Born on March 25, 1347. The twenty-third child of a religious fanatic Jacomo Benincasa, her convictions drove her to change the pattern of European history. At the age of five, she was extremely devout and had a vision of Christ enthroned above St Dominic's Church in Siena. By the age of twelve, she had considered and rejected marriage and pledged herself to perpetual virginity, but because she had for a short time been tempted to try and win a husband she became riddled with guilt, accusing herself of vanity, she frequently flagellated until the blood ran. At sixteen, following another vision, she became a tertiary among the Daughters of Penance of St Dominic's Order of Preachers, but as the demands made of her were not enough she shut herself up in her father's house for three years accusing herself of entertaining the foulest temptations. Another vision at the age of nineteen, in which she saw herself betrothed to Christ himself, rewarded her pains and vigils.

Driven by inner promptings, visions and voices, she became well known in Siena for the trances into which she frequently felt. At such times she was totally insensitive and her limbs became stiff and cold.

She explained that because she was so full of Christ her senses stopped working. Her catatonic fits reached a peak in 1370, when she lay as though dead for four hours, then wept for two days explaining that she had seen the hidden things of God and was now forced back into the prison of her body.

On January 30, 1380, she suffered a stroke, her 'demons' blaming her for the part she had played in causing a split in the Church. She was struck by paralysis and died on April 29, 1380. Buried in the Minerva Church at Rome, her head was removed and carried to Siena, where it may still be seen, perhaps one of the most repulsive, although one of the most venerated of all Christian relics.

In hindsight, Catherine can be seen as a remarkable example of religious ecstasy which can now be explained in terms of the morbid psychology of hysteria.

The idolatry, veneration and dependence on artifacts or holy relics, whether they be the bones of saints or man made creations such as amulets or talismans to invoke good luck, cures for diseases, for miracles and a failure to understand the natural laws of nature, attests to the ignorance and superstitious nature of man still prevalent in many societies today.

[From: Skeptoon an illustrated look at some New Age Beliefs, 1994, Harry Edwards.]

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