In classical antiquity
In ancient Greece, a city or sanctuary might claim to possess, without necessarily displaying, the remains of a venerated hero as a part of a hero cult. Other venerable objects associated with the hero were more likely to be on display in sanctuaries, such as spears, shields, or other weaponry; chariots, ships or figureheads; furniture such as chairs or tripods; and clothing. The sanctuary of the Leucippides at Sparta claimed to display the egg of Leda.
The bones were not regarded as holding a particular power derived from the hero, with some exceptions, such as the divine shoulder of Pelops held at Olympia. Miracles and healing were not regularly attributed to them; rather, their presence was meant to serve a tutelary function, as the tomb of Oedipus was said to protect Athens.
The bones of Orestes and Theseus were supposed to have been stolen or removed from their original resting place and reburied. On the advice of the Delphic Oracle, the Spartans searched for the bones of Orestes and brought them home, without which they had been told they could not expect victory in their war against the neighboring Tegeans. Plutarch says that the Athenians were likewise instructed by the oracle to locate and steal the relics of Theseus from the Dolopians.
The body of the legendary Eurystheus was also supposed to protect Athens from enemy attack, and in Thebes, that of the prophet Amphiaraus, whose cult was oracular and healing. Plutarch narrates transferrals similar to that of Theseus for the bodies of the historical Demetrius I of Macedon and Phocion the Good The bones or ashes of Aesculapius at Epidaurus, and of Perdiccas I at Macedon, were treated with the deepest veneration.
As with the relics of Theseus, the bones are sometimes described in literary sources as gigantic, an indication of the hero's "larger than life" status. On the basis of their reported size, it has been conjectured that such bones were those of prehistoric creatures, the startling discovery of which may have prompted the sanctifying of the site.
The head of the poet-prophet Orpheus was supposed to have been transported to Lesbos, where it was enshrined and visited as an oracle. The 2nd-century geographer Pausanias reported that the bones of Orpheus were kept in a stone vase displayed on a pillar near Dion, his place of death and a major religious center. These too were regarded as having oracular power, which might be accessed through dreaming in a ritual of incubation. The accidental exposure of the bones brought a disaster upon the town of Libretha, whence the people of Dion had transferred the relics to their own keeping.
According to the Chronicon Paschale, the bones of the Persian Zoroaster were venerated, but the tradition of Zoroastrianism and its scriptures offer no support of this.