Great Men's Houses Are Often Preserved for the Nation in Their Entirety. but What Do We Really Learn from George Washington's Mantelpiece, or Charles Dickens' Teacup, or Even Dr Johnson's Doorknob? and Whatever Happened to the Women in Their Lives? Germaine Greer Uncovers a Secret History beyond the Velvet Rope

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The world is full of shrines, not all of them dedicated to Great Men. Some are dedicated to gods, some to goddesses, some to saints and some to warriors, and some to animal avatars of the gods. Some are no more than groups of stones, stained with ochre or bindi, or greasy with butterfat; others are huge and complex edifices, towering over a bone-chip of the Buddha or a thorn from Christ's crown. The very name "shrine" means a container for something precious. Sometimes, when a beloved child meets an untimely death, the bereaved mother makes a shrine of the child's room, keeping it just as it was at the time of the calamity, as if expecting the missing one to return and take on life again. This is what we do with the houses of Great Men. We leave their pens in the ink-stand, their pipes in their ashtrays, their slippers under their beds, as if life were unbearable without the illusion of their presence. Wherever we find shrines we find superstition, self-deception and confabulation. The faithful, who will travel many miles to experience the fantasy nearness of the charismatic dead, are there to be gulled. After the money the pilgrims have spent and the distance they have travelled it would be cruel to jolt them with unvarnished truth.

The impulse to venerate is as old as humanity. When humans had nothing else to venerate they endowed rocks or waterholes or trees with divine power and treated them with reverence. Sacred animals were approached with awe and propitiated with gifts and sacrifices. When holy men and prophets arose among us, we struggled to get close to them, to touch them and to get their blessing. We craved locks of their hair, scraps of their raiment, which we held as lucky charms, if not actually miraculous. Christ is supposed to have left us no fewer than 18 messianic foreskins. The fragments of the true cross eventually became so numerous that the enemies of the Church said you could build a whole navy out of them. After Buddha was cremated, his remains were distributed to 10 centres, each of which is supposed to have erected a stupa over them. All but one of the original stupas has disappeared, while fragments no bigger than crumbs are preserved in jewelled shrines in China, Tibet, Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and India.

In the Cathedral of Bom Jesus in Goa the embalmed body of the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier can be seen dimly through the glass walls of a sarcophagus on top of a side altar, out of reach of the clutching hands of the faithful. When the cadaver was first exposed in Goa in 1556, a female devotee bit off the little toe of the right foot, which is missing to this day. Eventually the papal authorities demanded hard evidence that the saint's body had escaped the usual processes of decay, so part of the right arm was cut off and sent to Rome to be preserved in a reliquary in the Church of the Gesu. A year later, the viscera were removed and distributed to Jesuit foundations all over the world. Every 10 years or so the corpse is exposed to the public who throng in their millions to kiss it, and to buy amulets, rosaries, cards and holy pictures that "have been touched to the body". Piety means profit.

The cult of Francis Xavier is alive and well, though those of us who are not Catholics might think we had grown out of such gross superstition. We do not now venerate saints or expect to be cured of what ails us by hanging fragments chipped from the skeletons of saints about our necks. Catholics may make vast shrines on the scale of Lourdes or Fatima or Knock and flock from all corners of the globe to be blessed or cured or inspired or unutterably depressed by such places. People who fancy themselves more rational make shrines to Great Men. The people who fly to Dublin and make straight for the Martello Tower that is the setting for the beginning of Ulysses, and trudge around the streets of Dublin for days covering every site mentioned in any novel of James Joyce, believe themselves to be behaving sensibly. …