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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones

Saint Nicholas, the bishop in Asia Minor who is considered to be the inspiration for Santa Claus, died over 1700 years ago. There are many stories of his generosity and selflessness, and the miracles he performed, even after his death, which were spread by sailors to other parts of the world. That's how Nicholas became a saint, and his earthly remains were venerated as other saints' remains were.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

There was no shortage of people who wanted those relics, and today Nicholas' tomb in Myra where he was first buried is empty. There has been more than one documented grave robbery, so who has St. Nicholas today? Bess Lovejoy wrote a book called Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses. An excerpt at Mental Floss follows what we know about the fate of St. Nicholas' remains.

(Image credit: Wellcome Images)


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