Dark Realms Magazine - Issue 19
Mystical Relics: Uncovering the World's Most Fabled Artifacts
It is written that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Despite this, however, many believers of different faiths insist there are physical manifestations of their supernatural beliefs, and these artifacts prove beyond a doubt the existence of a supreme being. From the fabled Holy Grail to the Spear of Destiny, these relics have not only inspired believers but also ignited bitter controversy for centuries. The details concerning these objects have become obscured throughout the ages, making it difficult to separate fact from fiction in some cases. Certain mystical artifacts such as Excalibur, the fabled sword of King Arthur, and the dreaded Necronomicon, the legendary tome of black magic, are merely figments of fictional lore. However, other relics that are believed to possess equally unbelievable powers may actually exist.
By definition, a relic is an object of religious veneration, usually a remnant that once belonged to a saint or revered holy person. Many relics consist of actual physical remains, such as pieces of bone. These morbid keepsakes, also known as bone relics are kept in elaborately ornate boxes or shrines known as reliquaries and are often displayed on the altars of churches. Although worshipping the bones of the dead may seem like a dark, occult practice, the belief is sanctioned by the Catholic church who contend that such relics possess sacred, unearthly powers. Pictured: the remains of St. Calixtus on display in the castle chapel of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic.
THE HOLY GRAIL
Perhaps the most legendary holy relic of all is the Grail, an object which has over time become associated with the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper and later used by Joseph of Aramathea to catch drops of Jesus' blood at the crucifixion. However, the earliest Grail romances were not connected to Christianity and did not equate the Grail with a magical cup or chalice. Instead, the first Grail epics, which were penned by 12th century poet Chretien de Troyes, dealt with a mystical, unspecified object sought by the Arthurian Knights of the Round Table. In some versions of these tales, the Grail was said to be a dish that had magical healing powers and the ability to create abundance (e.g., food) in a time of famine and strife.
Using material from already existing Celtic pagan traditions, Chretien's Grail romances concern a young man, Perceval, who desires to be a famous knight at the court of the Briton king, Arthur. After undergoing a series of tests and trials to prove his courage, Perceval embarks on a quest that will ultimately determine his worthiness as a knight: the quest for the legendary san graal, or Holy Grail.
The Grail resides in the castle of the Fisher-King, a castle that is invisible to all but the most worthy. Perceval finds this otherworldly keep, and there he meets the Fisher-King, who has been wounded between the thighs, rendering him impotent. His injury will not heal, and his condition has somehow affected his kingdom as well, turning his once bountiful and prosperous lands into a blighted wasteland.
While dining with the Fisher-King, Perceval witnesses a procession of servants carrying many strange objects, including a sword, a lance and finally the hypnotic, bejeweled Grail. The young knight desperately wants to ask who is served by the Grail, but he does not. Perceval would also like to inquire about the Fisher-King's wound but again he holds his tongue. These prove to be tragic mistakes. The next morning, the Fisher-King is gone and the castle is deserted, and Perceval departs. He encounters a maiden in the countryside who tells him that if he had only asked those two important questions, he would have been given the powerful Grail, the king's wound would have healed and the lands would have been restored to health and abundance as well. It is an odd, dreamlike tale that resists easy interpretation, but many scholars believe that the main lesson of the Grail epic is that only by embracing one's spontaneously altruistic tendencies (represented by Perceval's need to ask the Fisher-King what ails him) can this wounded world be brought back to life.
Other accounts of the Grail by later writers made the nebulous, undefined Grail a plate or dish, and Christian authors eventually hijacked the story, replacing its pagan imagery with Christian symbols. For example, the lance shown to Perceval during his dinner with the Fisher-King became the Spear of Longinus, the Roman soldier who pierced Jesus' side during the crucifixion, and the Grail itself evolved into the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. So successful was the Church's appropriation of the Grail legend that most people today equate the Holy Grail with a cup or chalice associated with Jesus, and the story's pagan roots have been all but forgotten.
Thanks to the success of Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code, interest in a controversial alternative interpretation of the Grail legend has been growing. This interpretation says that the san graal of Chretien's tale is a deliberate bit of verbal trickery to hide the potentially unsettling truth of the phrase from the general population. According to the theory, the medieval French words san graal, or Holy Grail, should be written as sang raal, which means royal blood. The quest for the Grail, then, is not a quest for an object that can heal the land but a royal bloodline that, once restored to the thrones of Europe, can bring balance to the world. Some historians believe this royal bloodline began with the supposed offspring of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and the Church, fearing competition for its power even from descendants of the very personage the Church venerates, tried to hide evidence of such a bloodline, silencing anyone who spouted such heresy. Writers like Chretien were then forced to encode the truth in allegories and symbols in the Grail epics.
Throughout history, many actual relics have surfaced purporting to be the Grail. One of the most famous is the Nanteos Cup in Wales. Some accounts suggest that this crumbling wooden cup is the vessel Jesus drank from at the Last Supper, while other accounts say the cup was made from wood taken from Jesus' cross. Through the centuries, the Nanteos Cup reportedly has cured the illnesses of people who drank from it.
THE ARK OF THE COVENANT
One of the most famous relics in Judeo- Christian history is the Ark of the Covenant, the gold-plated box made of acacia wood in which Moses put the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. However, since the tablets were believed to have been touched by the hand of God, the Ark itself was no simple storage container. Several passages in the Old Testament attribute to the Ark many terrifying powers in keeping with its divine contents, and the Ark is often described as emitting fire, laying waste to villages and striking dead anyone who foolishly touches it. The awe-inspiring embodiment of the Old Testament God, the Ark was the primary symbol of veneration for the Israelites until it mysteriously vanished sometime between the 10th and 6th centuries BC. Historical accounts suggest that neither Nebuchadnezzar nor the Babylonians took the Ark during their respective invasions of Jerusalem.
What happened to the Ark? Graham Hancock, in his book The Sign and the Seal, offers a compelling and credible theory. According to Ethiopian legends, that country's monarch, the Queen of Sheba, briefly visited King Solomon in Jerusalem sometime between 970 and 931 BC and became pregnant by him. She bore a son, Menelik, who returned to visit his father in Jerusalem when he was 20 years old. Soon, however, the Jewish elders became jealous of the favor Solomon showed Menelik and demanded the boy be sent back to Ethiopia. Solomon granted the request but insisted that the first-born sons of these elders escort Menelik on the journey. One of these sons secretly took the Ark with him, telling Menelik about the theft only after arriving in Ethiopia. Menelik, impressed with the success of the caper, declared that it must have been God's plan for the Ark to come to this new land. Hancock believes the Ark has remained there ever since. Its current resting place is in the sanctuary of the St. Mary of Zion church in Axum, in northern Ethiopia. It is kept hidden in total darkness, and no one except an appointed Guardian of the Ark may look upon it.
There is much circumstantial evidence to support Ethiopia's claim to the Ark. Although it is a strongly Christian country, many parts of Ethiopia venerate the image of the Ark, a decidedly Jewish, Old Testament symbol. In fact, the Ethiopian ceremony called Timkat involves parading a replica of the Ark throughout towns and villages.
According to Hancock's brief talks with the Guardian of the Ark, the Ark is still an immensely powerful, dangerous object. While the Bible claims that the Ark and its contents were created from plans dictated by God Himself, some theories suggest that the tablets and the Ark were actually components of an unusual energy source, much like the materials that comprise a battery. The tablets are described in the Bible as hard but flexible, extremely heavy and transparent - a material more complex than ordinary stone. In addition, the tablets caused the skin on Moses' face to become 'radiant,' suggesting some sort of radioactive burn or rash. The Ark, too, has qualities that make it more than a prosaic box. Bezaleel, the Ark's builder, worked according to plans supposedly provided by God Himself, and these plans required very large quantities of gold. The golden lid of the Ark, in fact, is almost ten inches thick, perhaps to offer insulation from some sort of unstable power source within.
While the Ark's definitive whereabouts remain unknown, unconfirmed rumors began circulating in the 1990s indicating that an elite team of Israeli soldiers 'liberated' the Ark from Ethiopia and returned it to Jerusalem. If the Biblical accounts of the Ark's power are true, this would make Israel a nearly indestructible world power. As one character says in the first Indiana Jones adventure, Raiders of the Lost Ark, "An army that marches with the Ark before it would be invincible."
THE SHROUD OF TURIN
Although the physical existence of the Ark of the Covenant has been hard to verify, there are some mystical relics that are very real and that have been scientifically investigated. The most famous of these is the Shroud of Turin, the alleged burial cloth of Jesus Christ that has his image inexplicably imprinted upon it.
The Shroud emerged from the shadows of history in the mid 1300s, when a French knight named Geoffrey de Charny returned to Lirey, France after somehow coming into possession of the cloth in Constantinople. Although the Shroud was put on public display in France, Bishop Henri of Lirey declared it to be a fraud, and de Charny subsequently hid it away for a while to avoid controversy. Throughout the ensuing centuries, the Shroud changed hands several times, and occasional public expositions were held. A fire in 1532 partially damaged the relic, but that did not stop the expositions as the Shroud traveled to various cities in France and in what is now Italy. Eventually the relic found a more or less permanent home in Turin, Italy.
It was not until the 20th century that scientific studies of the cloth were conducted. In late 1978, intensive analyses of the Shroud began, and in the late 1980s radiocarbon dating of the cloth estimated its date of manufacture to be around 1350 AD. Although this quashed much of the belief in the Shroud's authenticity, researchers are still unable to explain how the almost photographic image of a bearded, bloodied man was imprinted on the material. Some Shroud researchers claim that Leonardo da Vinci created the Shroud as a hoax using a primitive form of photography with himself as the subject. Other researchers claim that the person on the Shroud isn't Jesus but Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar. After the Catholic Church rounded up the Templars in the early 1300s, Molay was executed because his organization dared to rival the Church in power and prestige. While most historians insist he was burned at the stake, some believe he was crucified and his image was miraculously seared into his burial shroud as a testament to his holiness and the holiness of the Templars.
THE SPEAR OF DESTINY
Another holy relic connected with Jesus is the so-called Spear of Destiny, the lance that pierced Jesus' side in order to mercifully hasten his death as he hung on the cross. According to Christian tradition, the Roman centurion who wielded the lance was named Longinus and his near-blindness was miraculously healed when Jesus' blood fell into his eyes.
The spear was not mentioned again until 570 AD, when St. Antoninus wrote of seeing the spear and Jesus' crown of thorns in the basilica of Mt. Sion in Jerusalem. From then on, the holy lance became a much-sought-after symbol of power and righteousness for many greedy leaders and warriors. Crusaders even marched into battle against the Turks in 1098 using the spear as a sort of banner. Attila the Hun possessed it for a time as he ravaged Europe, but he bitterly tossed it away to Roman soldiers after starvation and disease had taken their toll on his army in Italy. "It is of no use to me, since I do not know Him that made it holy," he told the Romans.
Napoleon attempted to acquire it during his reign, but it was smuggled out of its resting place in Austerlitz for safekeeping. The most recent world leader to take an interest in the spear was Adolf Hitler, who saw it in the collection of the Hofburg Museum in Vienna, Austria in 1912. Hitler was mesmerized by the relic, and a friend who accompanied him claimed the future tyrant slipped into a trance while staring at it. Hitler wrote later, "It seemed to carry some hidden inner meaning which evaded me... I felt as though I myself had held it before in some earlier century... that I myself had once claimed it as my talisman of power and held the destiny of the world in my hands."
In 1938, after becoming Chancellor of Germany, Hitler annexed Austria and ordered that the spear be sent to him. The spear was later found in Hitler's bunker by General Patton's troops after Hitler's suicide in 1945.
The spear is actually only the iron head of the lance, and within the cut-out central portion of the blade is a long nail secured with several lengths of wire. The nail is purported to have come from Jesus' cross. Now safely back in the Hofburg Museum, the Spear of Destiny is again on display, but whether this relic truly is the Holy Lance from scripture is still a matter of debate.
No matter how powerful one's faith is, it is natural to crave some tangible physical evidence of a spiritual belief. The mystical holy relics and artifacts that have appeared throughout history have helped fan the flames of religious fervor with their legendary powers, and although some relics are thought to be hoaxes, some still elude conventional explanations to this day. Are these objects evidence of some godlike supernatural power? Or are they cleverly fabricated frauds meant to make us believe in the irrational? Neither science nor religion have been able to settle the matter definitively, and the answer may ultimately be as elusive as the Holy Grail itself.