Relics: What’s given up, what’s left behind

Now that the Confederate flag crisis in South Carolina is resolved, just what is a ‘relic,’ anyway?

Jason Miczek/Reuters
Confederate flag supporters argue their position after the Confederate battle flag was permanently removed from the South Carolina statehouse grounds during a ceremony in Columbia, South Carolina.

What do you do with a slightly used Confederate battle flag that’s been flying over the grounds of a state capitol?

Good question. It nearly derailed efforts to expedite removal of the polarizing banner from the State House grounds in Columbia, S.C.

But having come down to the whoops and cheers of onlookers, in a nonetheless “respectful” final lowering, the flag has a new home at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum.

The museum, close by the State House, has a broader mission than its name suggests. It “serves as the State’s military history museum by collecting, preserving, and exhibiting South Carolina’s military material culture from the colonial era to the present....”

But the word that lit up in red when I heard about this was relic. It’s a sword that cuts two ways.

Its definition 1a in the Oxford English Dictionary reads in part: “the physical remains (as the body or a part of it) of a saint, martyr, or other deceased holy person, or a thing believed to be sanctified by contact with him or her.”

Definition 1b extends this Christian idea of relic to objects or artifacts “held sacred by some other religion or culture.” Definition 1 broadens out further to mean simply “memento.”

And then there’s Definition 2, a plural usage that begins, “That which remains or is left behind, esp. after destruction or wasting away....” There’s even a sense, admittedly “now rare,” that refers to leftovers after a meal.

In other words, both martyr’s bones enshrined in a church or chicken bones left on your dinner plate are “relics.”

There’s also an adjectival usage, as in “relic neutrinos” left over from the big bang. This sense is often used in the natural sciences but seems to have some relevance in the flag controversy: “surviving from a previous age or in changed circumstances after the extinction or disappearance of related forms or structures.”

Etymologically, relic made a slow meandering pilgrimage from Latin via French before ending up in English during the 13th century. The Online Etymology Dictionary explains its roots in something “remaining, or “that which remains.” Relinquish, meaning “to abandon,” or “to give up,” is a related English word from the same Latin roots.

“Upon removal from the Confederate Soldiers Monument on the State House grounds, the Confederate battle flag becomes part of the collection” at the museum, its website notes. “The museum is aware that this is a grave responsibility.... The museum is humbled to play a small role in further uniting the citizens of South Carolina.”

We can all be grateful that the museum was there and willing to expand its mission just a bit. But are relics there to be venerated – or just studied for clues to the past?

Perhaps the most hopeful way to thread this needle is to say that relics are what get left behind – by those who move on.

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