As of August 30, 2012, eBay discontinued auctions for witchcraft, psychics, and other metaphysical services. This decision was made in light of the difficulty in resolving disputes regarding these transactions, not because they don’t work! At any rate, this project hasn’t been entirely successful, and eBay continues to sell objects used in these rituals, such as crystals, herbs, incense and jewelry. One category that also survived is Collectibles - Religion & Spirituality, which is legitimate for the sales of medals and statues but is also an avenue for the sale of relics connected to Christian mystics. Current listings include a locket of hair supposedly from Saint Bernadette, to whom the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared at Lourdes in 1858. For a mere $3,600 you can buy a bandage that apparently bound Padre Pio’s stigmata.
Relics have been traded for millennia. In ancient societies, people collected and sold relics of poets, sports heroes and mythical figures. In the early days of Christianity, trade in relics of religious figures became popular. In the Catholic Church, relics are categorized according to class. First Class relics include physical remains of a saint or other religious figure, including hair, blood, teeth and bones. Second class relics are objects said to be associated with a religious figure, such as clothing, a cross, or a Bible formerly owned by a saint. Third class relics or “contact relics” are a kind of do-it-yourself relic where an object is sanctified by being taken to the shrine of a saint, or being touched to a religious figure who has since been canonized.
The trade of relics was big business in the Middle Ages. Many unscrupulous merchants sold splinters from the “True Cross” and “finger bones of Jesus” (although Catholics believe that Jesus ascended to Heaven whole, except for his foreskin, but we’ll get to that in a moment). Stories of relic rip-offs abound, and one anecdote tells the tale of a monk who travelled Europe in search of a relic to display in his monastery. He couldn’t find anything suitable, but on his way home he encountered a merchant who claimed to have the skull of John the Baptist. However, he’d already seen the skull of John the Baptist on display in a church in Europe! The merchant argued that the monk had seen the skull of John the Baptist as a child, while he had for sale the skull of John the Baptist as an adult!
There are multiple claimants for some of the more famous “relics”. There are at least 4 Holy Lances, 3 Veils of Veronica, 70 thorns from the Crown of Thorns, 30 nails from the True Cross, hundreds of splinters from the True Cross, and some 6 Holy Prepuces, that is, the foreskin of Jesus. 17th Century theologian Leo Allatius proposed that Christ’s foreskin also ascended into Heaven at the same time as Jesus, and had become the recently observed rings of Saturn.
These relics haven’t been authenticated, because the Church doesn’t want these fragile items to be damaged, or debunked. In 1988, the Vatican allowed samples of linen cloth from the Shroud of Turin to be analyzed by three independent sources. Each of them dated the cloth to the Middle Ages, circa 1350, and right around the time that fakes proliferated in Europe. Of course, true believers have an explanation for this. They claim that the Shroud was damaged in a fire during the 16th Century, and that the carbon dating reflected this fire, thereby “modernizing” the results.
Relics can be found in churches throughout Europe and pilgrims flock to Rome and the Vatican City to view and venerate the world’s largest collections. St. Maria Maggiore claims to house a piece of the True Cross, while San Giovanni in Laterno and the Sancta Santorum purports to house wood from the table used during the Last Supper, and the Holy Umbilical Cord. (That is, at least one of them.) To the faithful, relics are a way to access the divine, and so many make their own contact relics during pilgrimages, or they try to buy a relic.
Regardless of their authenticity, the Church is so opposed to the sale of relics that it has its own name for the trade, “simony”. The sale of relics online has become so prolific that it has become known as “e-simony”. Selling relics is seen as sacrilege, and some devout Catholics think it is their duty to go around buying up these relics to prevent them from getting into the hands of irreligious people who might use them for occult purposes. In some instances, these people have ended up becoming dealers themselves, rationalizing this by selling the reliquary in which it’s displayed, and giving away the relic as “free”. They might be concerned about relics being used in magical spells but ironically, many Catholics believe that these relics have magical powers to heal and bring about other miracles.
Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist, author, skeptical paranormal investigator and a research fellow for the James Randi Foundation. You can follow Karen on Twitter here.