Tag Archives: saints

Pilgrimage Tourism

In my research for a story during biblical times I have come across the bizarre business of what I call pilgrimage tourism. By the Middle Ages, parts or bodies of saints had begun to surface, literally. They were found in sepulchers, under churches, in the naves, perhaps a grave yard, and various other places. Some of these saints may have done a lot more traveling after their deaths than they did before they died.

Monasterboice, Ireland

Some traveled far and wide and one was likely to find  the remains of every saint at some point or another. The only person whose remains were never found were those of Jesus because he was supposed to have ascended bodily to heaven and to find his body would have whacked a giant hole in the tenets of early Christianity. So only his image on shrouds and capes, and parts of the true cross came into bearing.

After the first few saintly parts appeared and were ensconced in a church, or in the foundations or a reliquary box, the faithful visited these churches to venerate the saintly body, even though supposedly Christians believe in the transmigration of the soul, which means there is no spirit in the remains. And then, of course, cures or other miracles began to happen in the presence of a dead saint’s remains. In a way you could say that early Christians venerated a certain zombie aura to the dead, considering saints’ flesh or bones reanimated enough vitality to touch the living.

When the faithful flocked to these churches they needed places to sleep and food to eat, which not only buoyed and increased the wealth of the town but also filled out the coffers of the church. A richer church meant a bigger church and more items of gold and jewels, illuminated manuscripts, attention from Rome, larger flocks, etc. Soon, saintly remains were showing up everywhere.

A great many saints seemed to have left the environs of the Holy Land after Christ’s resurrection and traveled to Gaul or southern France. Why, I’m not sure since Italy was closer but it may have been to escape the Romans. And as the business of spiritually imbued remains grew more popular, grave robbing became a pretty regular business. If you were a saint you could bet that there would be no mortal rest for your body, nor for your soul as you would be dug up, dismembered, sold to various churches and pilgrims and then called upon for daily miracles. Busy life, busier afterlife. But of course, Christianity has only maintained that it is monotheistic, worshiping one god. Oops, but then there are saints galore.

Suddenly, or perhaps not that sudden, the early Middle Ages saw grave robbing as almost respectable. The fine line between good and bad was stretched a bit thin. On top of the grave robbing, churches started stealing the venerated saints from neighboring parishes and monks/priests were praised for such actions as obviously the saints had let them know they wanted to be moved.

But a problem started to arise, which neither Christ nor God could control, and it exposed a shady side to religion that was the ultimate downfall of a few churches’ prosperity. The dead saints seemed to multiply. Mary Magdalene had five bodies and numerous legs and arms. There was more than one head for other saints, or enough finger bones to populate a centipede’s legs. In truth the saints became legion and pretty much any suitable grave would be pillaged for body parts for nearby churches. There was no DNA testing then and the distance between towns and cities was much greater, with the only common modes of transportation being by foot or horse/mule. Often it was easy to have the same saint in a few places, until the mother church started to hear about it.

At first complicit in venerating saintly bits, the church had to curb the ghoulish trend. Just imagine a zombie army of saintly limbs and torsos and heads able to not necessarily animate, but to cure a host of ills. And all of this for the longest time brought hordes of faithful to various towns and cities. Popularity of saints waxed and waned but Saints Peter, Paul, John, Thomas, Mary Magdalene and Virgin Mary were popular at different times.

However, the multiple parts that each saint owned, and the full bodies or extra heads started to mar the validity of not only the Catholic church but also the belief that these were the holy remains, which could cure the ill and perform miracles. There was probably a couple of centuries worth of great tourism for pilgrims and Santiago de Compostela in Spain (a pilgrimage route to St. James) is popular to this day by tourists, hikers and the faithful.

It’s obvious that in two millennia of Christianity its role and rules changed and evolved, and perhaps the original teachings of Jesus got skewed quite a few times. What this says about humanity is fascinating: that for the sake of religion (and fame and fortune within that) even if you’ve taken a vow of poverty but you live in a monastery, you’ll do anything, even the illegal things, to bring glory to God, Jesus or the saints. You’ll cheat, swindle and create fake holy items. And if you’re just a worshiper, you’ll forget that it’s the soul that’s supposed to matter, and venerate desiccated body parts, that if ever tested might show the wrong gender or someone of origins other than Jewish for those first Jewish-Christian saints. Makes for an interesting evolution of a man-made religion with creative intervention.

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The Grisly Quest For Body Parts

I’m working on a story that involves research into some ancient Christian practices. And I’m reminded yet again about the weird human penchant for bones.  When people die we either bury them in dirt or burn them. Some places like Cuba and New Orleans, which have little dirt due to high water tables, bury their people in above ground caskets where there is less chance of a body floating away or unpleasantly moldering in a hot climate. Most cultures inter their dead one way or another.

But along with the ritualistic aspects of burying the dead comes the adoration, idolizing and power of those people  who gained fame and notoriety.  Ancient Celts would save the heads of their enemies, as an honor to the fighter and for the power that would be imbued to them. Drinking from skull cups (kapala) has been done as part of ritual, to honor the defeated person, or for power to pass onto the drinker in Hindu and Buddhist cultures, Celtic, Chinese, Scythian, Rus, Bulgarian, Uzbek and even Lord Byron. Shrunken heads of the Amazon also fall into this except the skull bone was removed.

People have a grisly fascination with that which supports us but yet remains invisible until we die. Bones. The early Christian church was no slacker in this regard. Any body part of a sainted individual was ready for demolition and salvation in a reliquary. Finger bones, skulls, leg bones, you name it. If it could be found and sanctified the churches and monasteries would hang on to such a reliquary to make each of them special. Never mind that the vaunted saint might not rest easy when their bones were scattered far and wide. Funny that we’re very touchy about our dead getting proper rites and their remains being undistrubed…unless their saints. Then it’s a wholesale grabfest for every pious group.

Of course any place that boasted of owning the used hanky, holey sock, or toothpick of a saint would have a chance of getting more believers to view the grisly religious tourist attractions. Of course this wasn’t just the Christian religion, with the Vatican being the biggest repository of weird sideshow bits of dead people. Buddhists often used the skull cup and other beliefs have their body parts too.

Of all the prized possessions it seems people have sought the head most of all. Coinciding with this research I’m doing CBC was talking about the stolen heads of famous musicians like Beethoven and Haydn. It was a pretty popular sport in the 1800s to dig up a grave and grab the head of a famous poet or composer. In some cases the macabre quest was for science. What had made these people so great? In some cases it was for grisly rewards. Own the head of Marie Antoinette…yours for $100,000. And in some cases it was for that nebulous religious aura. I touched the finger bone of St. Peter and therefore I’m blessed, I’m closer to heaven, I will get that X that I prayed for.

Whatever the reason, we are similarly repulsed and drawn to aspects of the dead. Don’t look at a corpse, and  bury the bones, but oh wait if it’s got some power, well then I will touch it, look at it, revere it. Humans are very odd, at one point fearing everything to do with death and the dead and at the other end, eternally pulled to and fascinated by it. Look at vampire fiction. There is a crossover with the dead and the living; and zombies, though not as sexy as vampires, are definitely gaining mainstream time but usually in  a more campy way. But in the true essence of humanity our natures our dichotomized by our logic and our beliefs and I’m sure in the future we’ll continue to see body parts revered in some way or another.

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