Written by Robbie Hadley
As long as humans have looked up into the starry sky in wonder, many grappled with the big questions. What does it all mean, why are we here, and how should I live my life? For most of the world, these answers come through their religious beliefs. As of 2010 approximately 84% of the world’s population purports to be affiliated with some sort of religious belief. Billions of people find comfort and meaning through the myriad of belief systems. Many of these traditions go back hundreds, if not thousands of years. Judaism dates back to the first century BCE and Hinduism preceded it by nearly a millennium, and those are just the oldest religions with large groups of modern followers.
Despite the numerous cultures, traditions, and beliefs, there is one practice that is nearly universal, the adoration of relics. Relics take nearly every shape and form, but all of them give followers a tangible object to attach to their metaphysical beliefs. Like the Holy Grail of legend, relics have a special connection to a person or event of significance. The Catholic church in particular has adopted the tradition of relics as a way to grow in their faith and feel a connection to the people who had an oversized impact on the church.
Some objects like the Shroud of Turin, which claims to be the cloth Jesus’ body was wrapped in after crucifixion, saw 1.5 million visitors flock to see the relic during the three months it was on display in 2015. The cathedral of San Giovanni Battista in Turin, Italy sees 200,000 visitors annually even when it is not on display.
Being the burial cloth of Christ, there is a certain morbidity to worshiping an object so associated with death. However, it pales in comparison to some of the bizarre objects that people worship. It is all too common for relics to be a body part from the holy person preserved for worshipers to feel a connection. In fact, the word relic itself comes from the Latin word for human remains. Some of these objects toe the line between inspiring religious objects and disgusting macabre reminders of mortality. Today we dive into the world of relics and discuss some of the weirdest and most disgusting objects that have been revered by parishioners the world over.
The Blood of Saint Januarius
Januarius I of Benevento was an Italian bishop who became a martyr in the third century CE. Legend tells that Januarius was hiding a group of Christians who were being persecuted for worshiping their religion in the still pagan Roman Empire. After being caught, he was sentenced to death. Now the legend splits in a few different ways. One version says that he was thrown to wild beasts, but they refused to attack him. Another version says he was sent into a furnace, but escaped completely unharmed. Other versions say that these sorts of deaths would have been looked upon poorly by the populace, so they reverted to the more traditional method of beheading. Nomatter the exact nature of his sentencing, sources seem to agree that he was put to death in 305 CE where at some point some of his blood was collected and preserved.
Today, the blood of St. Janarius is kept in two glass ampoules and are often seen as portents of the state of the world. You see, about three times a year, a miracle occurs. The blood that is nearly two millennia old is said to liquify once again. Over the course of a few days, the once dried and congealed material within the ampoules regains the consistency of fresh blood. This is said to symbolize a great miracle that has occurred or will occur. Since this process is both irregular and mostly unexplained, it is seen as an omen. When the blood goes an extended period of time without liquifying, that is probably a bad sign.
It is also said to liquify in the presence of particularly holy people, usually The Pope. In 2015, it was said to have had a near instant liquefaction while Pope Francis was speaking to leaders and parishioners in Naples. This perportatly has not happened in the presence of a Pope since 1848 neglecting to liquify in front of John Paul II or Benedict XVI.
Despite the Catholic Church’s insistence that it is a miracle, there are those who disagree. For one, no in depth study of the blood has ever taken place as the church claims that opening the ampoules might taint or harm the relics. However, a study conducted on a similar relic showed that the liquefaction can occur in other circumstances and was even able to be replicated with the researcher’s own blood. Despite these studies, no firm scientific answer has ever been established on how the liquefaction occurs and why it is irregular.This is just one of the many reasons that faithful parishioners the world over revere Janarius’ sacrifice and honor this sanguinary relic.
The Head of Saint Oliver Plunkett
The city of Drogheda is a mid-sized Irish city just north of the capital of Dublin. While known as an important port city on the mouth of the River Boyne, the city is also known for being the home of the mummified head of St. Oliver Plunkett who is one of the patron Saints of Ireland.
Oliver Plunkett was one of the many victims of Oliver Cromwell’s coup against the English throne and subsequent conquest of Ireland. As a devout protestant, Cromwell despised the Catholic church and attempted to wipe out the religion from the islands. Even after his death, the persecution of Catholics did not stop. St. Plunkett, despite being a Catholic priest, worked desperately to bridge the gap between protestants and Catholics, even starting a Jesuit school that welcomed both, a first in Ireland. Unfortunately, this just made him a target. He was accused and convicted of promoting Catholicism which was high treason, a capital offense. Just as most other enemies of the state, he was sentenced to one of the most brutal executions imaginable. He was hanged, drawn, and quartered on the first of July, 1681.
However, death was not the end of St. Oliver’s story. His body was to be burned, but his head was recovered from the inferno. Going on a veritable pilgrimage across Europe, the head saw its home move from Germany, to Rome, and eventually back to Ireland. For nearly 200 years, an order of nuns were charged with keeping the relic safe and it purportedly lived in an ebony box on top of a grandfather clock. When he was officially ordained as a martyr for the church in 1918, plans were made for a more permanent arrangement and two years later his head was taken to its final resting place in Drogheda. Since St. Oliver’s canonization, the faithful have come to see it regularly.
Today, the head sits in a specially made shrine alongside some shards of bone. They even have the door of the cell he was held in before his execution nearby. These relics are macabre to be sure, but they are also an important reminder of the atrocities that occurred. St. Oliver is considered to be the patron saint of peace and reconciliation in Ireland. Although Ireland has had more than its fair share of Troubles in the preceding centuries, this relic is a reminder to all of one man who fought for peaceful cooperation between the different factions within the country. St. Oliver’s day is celebrated on the first Sunday of July, and there is a monthly Mass in the church in honor of the man and the relic.
The Tongue and Jaw of Saint Anthony
St. Oliver is hardly the only saint to be honored with a cranial relic. St. Anthony of Padua was a Portuguese priest. As the patron saint of lost articles and lost items, his name is very often invoked. However, his story goes far beyond just helping the faithful find their keys. He is considered to be one of the greatest preachers in the history of the church. His ability to give a sermon was so unmatched, that many see it as a uniquely divine gift.
Dying at the age of just 35, he was canonized less than a year later in 1232. For years he was revered for his masterful sermons and was invoked time and time again for anyone who had misplaced something that they wished to recover. However, when his body was exhumed in 1263, the entire body had already deteriorated into dust. Well, at least they thought it had. Upon further inspection, parts of his jaw was intact along with his tongue which was said to be in such good condition, that it still looked as if it were still moist and part of a living body.
Seeing this, it was taken as a miracle. The words he had spoken were so perfect, holy, and godly that his tongue was not allowed to return to the dust. To celebrate this miracle, they made reliquaries out of gold to house the holy relics. The most famous of these is a golden bust depicting the saint. Well, it depicts some of the saint, but not his face. Where the face would be is a glass opening where his jaw is placed. Another reliquary nearby depicts a golden cathedral and houses his tongue in the center.
Unlike many other relics, St. Anthony’s body was allowed to be studied in 1981 on papal authority. When the body was exhumed again, there were a number of interesting finds. Firstly, the body was hardly completely turned to dust. In contrast, many parts of the corpse were well preserved. Scientists from the University of Padua also discovered his vocal cords still remarkably intact. For worshipers who already see the preservation of the tongue as a miracle, this was as much conformation as they could have asked for.
Relics of St. Anthony are some of the most common in the faith. The jaw and tongue are on display at The Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, Italy, but other relics from rib bones to bits of skin can be seen the world over.
Virgin Mary’s Breast Milk
In Catholicism, one saint is venerated above all others and that is the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. However, the Catholic church does not recognize any relics from this most venerated of all saints. The reason for this is because of the Assumption. For the greatest people in the Bible, it is said that death was not to be their ultimate end. Instead, they were lifted into heaven and body and soul taken from Earth to heaven. It has been an official Catholic doctrine since 1950. With their entire body taken up into heaven, that doesn’t leave anything back here on Earth to be a relic.
However, this hasn’t stopped some relics from cropping up from time to time. Among these, one of the most controversial and most famous is Virgin Mary’s Breast Milk. Although we are sure some charlatans will appear from time to time selling the “genuine artifact” from time to time, none of Mary’s milk remains. At least it doesn’t exist in its original form.
Travel to the ancient city of Bethlehem in Palestine and reminders of the city’s historic and religious past are everywhere. The Church of the Nativity is often considered to be the oldest Christian church in the world, dating back to the third century CE. However, just steps away from that holy place is another that is patronized by countless visitors, the Milk Grotto Church.
At this place, it is said that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus sought refuge when King Herod ordered all boys under the age of two to be killed. They shortly after fled to Egypt, but while they were in this place, she breastfed the infant Jesus. However, some of this milk spilled onto the ground turning the red stone to a milky white.
For generations after, the place was seen as a place of healing and a place of particular fertility. Those who were especially desperate for the holy mother’s blessing would drink what they called “milk powder” which is just the limestone from the ground in the grotto mixed into a drink. You can purchase this at the chapel for the extremely reasonable fee of $2, which probably has some record for the cheapest religious relic. Although the prospect of consuming milk that is two centuries old is not appealing to most, for some, it is their salvation. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support their claims, and although there is absolutely no scientific proof, the faithful are not likely to let that obscure their belief in this holy place.
Parishioners the world over will make a pilgrimage here to honor the holy family, to seek healing, or to seek aid when they are having trouble conceiving. Others who are unable to make the journey will send their prayers to the church where the caretakers will pray in their name. Although not like other relics, this is still seen by many as a place with enormous significance and it is the only one we are aware of that you can take home with you.
The Holy Foreskin
So we have saved what we see as the most bizarre of these relics for last. Circumcision, or the act of removing the foreskin from a penis, is an extremely ancient religious practice and often suggested as the most ancient medical procedure. Historian Grafton Elliot Smith suggested that the practice could be over 15,000 years old. Records suggest the practice occurred as early as 4,000 BCE and the first confirmed record of it on a ceremonial dagger, presumably the one used in the procedure, dates to around 2400 BCE.
A millennia of history, the knowledge that it is an ancient custom among people who practice Judaism, and an explicit reference to Jesus’ circumcision in The Bible led a few to ask the question, “What happened to Jesus’ foreskin?” Well, one 17th century scholar seems to have claimed that like Jesus, the foreskin was ascended to heaven where it was then transformed into the rings of Saturn. As you might imagine, this is not a common belief. For most others, including the Catholic Church itself, the holy foreskin is, or at least was, accounted for.
However, the holy prepuce has appeared many times throughout history. The relic disappeared in Roman times but appeared again in the middle ages. Famously, Emperor Charlemagne gifted it to Pope Leo III as thanks for crowning him as an emperor in 800 CE. Does this constitute the weirdest gift in history? Sound off in the comments if you can think of something that beats out a holy foreskin as a bizarre gift.
It was supposedly taken from Rome when the city was sacked in 1527 and then when the soldier who stole it was found in the city of Calcata just north of Rome, it was allowed to stay there along a piece of the cross where it was an extremely popular site for pilgrimages. The church even offered indulgences to pilgrims to the relic.
This was the state of things for several centuries, but numerous copycats arose. It also started to be seen as a weird and culturally backwards practice. The problem was so severe that the church threatened to excommunicate anyone who claimed to have the holy foreskin or even anyone who talked about it, although Calcata’s yearly celebration of the relic was allowed to continue.
Things once again settled into a routine until 1983. A few weeks before the annual celebration, an official of the church went to check on the relic. It had disappeared. This mystery has never been solved but has inspired a number of rumors. Some say that angry Satanists trying to seek revenge against Christ stole it. Others believe it was secretly taken back to the Vatican. Others still suggest that a disgruntled priest sold it. The truth of the matter is unlikely to be uncovered.
Despite the mysterious conclusion of its life, it spent well over a millenia as an officially recognized relic of the church. Countless people from Charlemagne onward looked at a piece of flesh removed from an infant’s penis as one of the most important symbols of their religion. It was literally displayed next to shards of the cross in a symbolism of Christ’s birth and death. However, the holy foreskin stands along with vials of blood, mummified heads, and a plethora of other body parts preserved to remind practitioners of the sacrifices of holy men and women in the name of God.