What Is a Relic? Definition, Origins, and Examples

Learn About Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu Relics

Muhammad's footprint at Topkapi Palace
Muhammad's footprint at Topkapi Palace.

De Agostini / Getty Images

Relics are the physical remains of saints or holy people or, more generally, objects that have been in contact with holy individuals. Relics are kept in sacred places and are often thought to have the power to bestow good fortune to those who venerate them. While relics are often associated with the Catholic church, they are also an important concept in Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism.

Key Takeaways

  • Relics may be the literal remains of holy people or objects that the holy people have used or touched.
  • Examples of relics include teeth, bones, hairs, and fragments of objects such as fabrics or wood.
  • The most important Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim relics are objects associated with the religions' founders.
  • Relics are believed to have special powers to heal, grant favors, or exorcise spirits.

Relic Definition

Relics are sacred objects associated with holy individuals. They may be literal body parts (teeth, hair, bones) or objects which the holy person used or touched. In many traditions, relics are believed to have special powers to heal, grant favors, or exorcise demons.

In most cases, relics are objects that are recovered from the holy person's tomb or cremation. They are usually housed in a sacred place such as a church, stupa, temple, or palace; today, some are kept in museums.

Famous Christian Relics

Relics have been part of Christianity since its earliest days. In fact, there are at least two such references in the New Testament, both in the Acts of the Apostles. In both cases, the relics were related to living saints.

  • In Acts 5:14-16, the "relic" is actually Peter's shadow: "… people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by."
  • In Acts 19:11-12, the relics are Paul's handkerchiefs and aprons: "Now God worked unusual miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them."

During the middle ages, relics from Jerusalem captured during the Crusades took on great significance. The bones of martyred saints, preserved in places of honor in churches and cathedrals, were believed to have the power to exorcise demons and heal the sick.

While there are relics in churches around the world, perhaps the most significant relic in the Christian tradition is the True Cross. The actual locations of the fragments of the True Cross are hotly debated; there are many possible objects that could, based on research, be fragments of the True Cross. In fact, according to the great Protestant leader John Calvin: "if all the pieces [of the True Cross] that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it."

Famous Muslim Relics

Contemporary Islam does not sanction the veneration of relics, but this was not always the case. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the Ottoman sultans collected holy relics associated with various holy men including the prophet Muhammad; this collection is referred to as the Sacred Trust.

Today, the Sacred Trust is kept at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, and it includes:

  • Abraham's pot
  • Joseph's turban
  • Moses's staff
  • David's sword
  • John's scrolls
  • Muhammad's footprint, tooth, hair, swords, bow, and mantle

Famous Buddhist Relics

The most famous Buddhist relics are the physical remains of the Buddha himself, who died around the year 483 BCE. According to legend, the Buddha asked that his body be cremated and that relics (mainly bones and teeth) be distributed. There were ten sets of relics from the Buddha's remains; initially, they were distributed among eight Indian tribes. Later, they were brought together, and, finally, they were redistributed into 84,000 stupas by King Ashoka. Similar relics have been saved and venerated from other holy men over time.

According to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, speaking at the MIT exhibit of Buddhist relics: "Relics come from masters who have devoted their entire lifetime to spiritual practices that are dedicated to the welfare of all. Every part of their body and relics carries positive energy to inspire goodness."

Famous Hindu Relics

Unlike Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists, Hindus have no individual founder to venerate. What's more, Hindus see the entire Earth as sacred, rather than one man. Nevertheless, the footprints (padukas) of great teachers are considered to be sacred. Padukas are pictured in paintings or other representations; water used to bathe a holy person's feet is also considered to be sacred.

Sources

  • “About Relics.” About Relics - Treasures of the Church, www.treasuresofthechurch.com/about-relics.
  • Boyle, Alan, and Science Editor. “A Piece of Jesus' Cross? Relics Unearthed in Turkey.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 2 Aug. 2013, www.nbcnews.com/science/piece-jesus-cross-relics-unearthed-turkey-6C10812170.
  • Brehm, Denise. “Buddhist Relics Are Full of Spirit.” MIT News, 11 Sept. 2003, news.mit.edu/2003/relics.
  • TRTWorld. In Pictures: Holy Relics of Prophet Mohammed Exhibited in Topkapi Palace, TRT World, 12 June 2019, www.trtworld.com/magazine/in-pictures-holy-relics-of-prophet-mohammed-exhibited-in-topkapi-palace-27424.