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The elderly priest led Martin to an ornate cabinet in the back of the chapel. Inside the cabinet were two human skulls, a large one and a small one, decorated with gold leaf. "This is our church's most holy relic," the old man said; "The skull of John the Baptist."

"What is the smaller skull?" Martin asked.

"That's the skull of John the Baptist as a child."

Basic Information

Many religions give special respect and veneration to objects or items that were owned by or associated great holy men. If the item once belonged to a celebrity, we call it a souvenir. Since it belonged to a saint, it is regarded as a sacred relic.

In the Middle Ages, such relics were believed to possess divine power, residual holiness from their former owners, and it was common for people to go on pilgrimages to see such items, particularly on holy days. Although the Church technically forbade the selling of such relics, charging a fee to see them was a convenient source of income for some churches. Relic-peddling was also a well known phenomenon … verification tended to be tricky.

Relics include not just items owned by a saint, but also the saint's bones and sometimes mummified body parts. These items were frequently kept in ornate shrines or containers called reliquaries.

Perhaps the most famous Christian relics are the Shroud of Turin and various fragments of the True Cross1.

Although western cultures usually look on the veneration of holy relics as a Roman Catholic thing, other religions, such as Buddhism and Islam also revere items associated with their holy men. In addition, sometimes secular figures receive a level of adulation making their lives relic-worthy. Abraham Lincoln was a notable example.

Famous relics can be considered Public Domain Artifacts

See Also:



Game and Story Use

  • One word: MacGuffin
  • In a Historical or Time Travel campaign, the PC's could be part of a group of pilgrims on their way to a holy shrine to view a famous relic.
    • Historical? People still go on pilgrimage to view relics - the Shrine of St. James at Compostela is a very traditional destination, the shrine of Elvis at Graceland less traditional but probably roughly as popular.
    • Historically possession of a pilgrim attracting relic could be extremely lucrative … religious institutions could engage in all sorts of inappropriate behaviour as a result.
    • More generally a relic was thought to enhance the sanctity of a place of worship. Fake relics may be a problem.
  • In a magic-based game, such relics could actually possess great power, healing the sick or providing an energy source for mana-based technology.
    • And even if they don't, Hitler will still stop at nothing to get his hands on them.
      • …and let's not get started on the Hitler relics. In a wainscot campaign, there may be good reasons that the trade in them is so heavily suppressed.
    • Alternatively, they may be a useful aid when performing a theurgic invocation of the saint with whom they are associated (perhaps even if fake…).
    • …or just something that allows a necromancer to exploit the Law of Contagion on the dead saint.
  • In an authentic medieval European campaign, a portable relic would be a prized possession - and in one where the supernatural is a key theme may provide protection against the powers of darkness (and probably non-hostile magic as well) - it may even repel the Fair Folk, depending on your traditions. Having a relic set into your sword may make it effective against targets immune to normal weapons. Arguably these sorts of weapons will be more common than 'traditional' magic swords in an authentic campaign.
    • The trick will be sorting the real relics from the pig parts before you bang heads with the powers of darkness.
    • Note that even an authentic relic may depend on the user's proper veneration for it and the associated saint - not just using it as a magical p-rail attachment for your sword - and fail an irreverent user. Of course if true faith is in play, the truly faithful might well get effective results even from pig bones and the faithless no help at all, even with every surviving splinter of the true cross glued together in a big club.
  • Of course, an authentic PC will want to spend lots of money on an appropriate reliquary for his new acquisition. A typical one may simply glue it to the end of a 10' pole and poke the undead with it instead.
  • Of course, it needn't just be the good guys who have and use relics …

"Holy Sh!t!"
"Nah … we had some but it didn't sell well…"

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