Book Review: Rag and Bone

Photography was strictly forbidden. It did not matter that the objects I was about to see had been photographed many, many times before. Security demanded that I leave my camera bag behind. I was in their house and had to play by their rules.

Once inside, I took my time as I walked through the gallery of religious artifacts. There was no hurry. Outside of myself, my two friends, and two or three other visitors, no one was around to jostle or push for a better view of the bibles, ceremonial clothes, or pottery. They were interesting, but they were not what I had come to see.

She was laid out in a transparent coffin like a macabre, skeletonized version of Snow White. She did not stare up from the box, for she had no face to speak of, and many of her other bones were missing, as well. Yet just enough of her remains had been recovered to reveal her diminutive frame. For those who did not know what to look for, her skeleton must have looked like that of a child.

While the former owner of these bones had walked upright, she did not belong to our species. “Lucy“, as she is so popularly known, belonged to a species of our prehistoric relatives dubbed Australopithecus afarensis that lived in Africa between about 4 and 3 million years ago. I did not visit her bones to pray, pay homage, or ask for spiritual enlightenment, but there was something of a reverential air around her that echoed the treatment given to religious relics.

Items that connect us to important events and famous (or infamous) figures are often sought after. A bit of rubble from a demolished sports stadium, a piece of clothing worn by a celebrity, a preserved body part from a long-dead politician, fossil bones from the incredibly ancient past … all of these objectss act as still-extant reminders of things long gone. The significance of each item is in the eye of their beholder, but objects such as these often carry personal, historical, and scientific meanings for those interested in them. Religious relics are a different story.

A religious relic is both a connection to the past and, according to some, a conduit through which a god (or gods) may still work. As such relics can be immensely powerful objects. This power comes from the value placed upon them by the faithful, not any supernatural force. In Rag and Bone, author Peter Manseau explores this tricky relationship between faith and the purported remains of spiritual figures that hve been scattered throughout the world.

Despite the common call of the world’s major religions to give up earthly things and transcend into some “higher” state of being the physical remains of religious figures are very popular. Even though many relics probably do not belong to the people they are ascribed to and there is no evidence that they hold any kind of supernatural force, many people imbue them with a kind of social power by believing in them. In 1963, for example, Muslims in Kashmir rioted for over two weeks when a whisker said to have belonged to Muhammad was stolen from the Hazrat Bal shrine. The unrest ended when a whisker (but perhaps not the whisker) was returned. As Manseau observes, the riots help illustrate the very real cultural and political significance such slivers of the holy dead can hold.

Even among the faithful, though, relics can be very controversial. First comes the question of whether the bit of bone or flesh you have really belonged to the person you ascribe it to. The origins of individual relics are usually murky, and there are often several versions of especially desirable relics making the rounds at any one time (i.e. the head of John the Baptist). Then comes the question of who has the right to take possession of the relics. Among Christian sects that revere relics, especially, these items can be a source of tension if the “wrong” denomination holds part of a saint especially revered by another sect. In such cases relics may be further divided and scattered to spread blessings, making the trail even more complex.

Manseau does not approach these complexities directly, as a historian might do. Instead Rag and Bone is written as a travelogue in which Manseau goes in search of particular Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist relics. Whether he is successful in his quest is somewhat irrelevant; the book is not so much about the objects themselves as what people think about them. Manseau uses this approach to draw out historical details, and while his account is not comprehensive, it is successful in highlighting the somewhat paradoxical relationship people have with the decaying parts of revered figures.

If you combined Mary Roach’s Spook and Stiff and put a religious shine on it, Rag and Bone is likely what you would get. It is a light, enjoyable book meant to spur thought and conversation. It does end somewhat abruptly, and no doubt those who know relics could probably mention a few prime examples that Manseau missed, but these are quibbles that do little to detract from the book’s strengths. It makes the reader ponder the question of how relics, regardless of origin, are created.

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