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Budapest, Hungary

The Holy Right

Mummified holy right fist of a 1,000-year-old Saint-king. 

It is known as “The Holy Right” and every year on August 20th, Hungary takes it out for a walk. The occasion is Saint Stephen’s Day, a day dedicated to celebrating the founder of the Hungarian nation. Curiously, St. Stephen, or a least a part of him, faithfully attends his celebration every year. The Holy Right is the right fist of St. Stephen himself and his relic leads the parade each year.

Saint Stephen was canonized in 1083, and as part of the process of saint-ing, his corpse was exhumed from his crypt. It is said that his right arm (though not the rest of him apparently) was found to be as fresh as the day he was buried. The supple arm was promptly lopped off to be preserved and venerated.

The mummified hand went through a number of owners before returning to Hungary. In the 13th century during the Tartar invasion, it was sent to Dubrovnik in Croatia for safekeeping by the Dominican monks. It is believed that around this time the monks cut the hand from the arm and sent the upper arm to Lemburg, and the lower arm to Vienna. A common practice in those days to keep each branch of the church from getting jealous.

In 1771, the Austro-Hungarian empire took the Holy Right and placed it in Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna (the Hapsburg’s summer home) before eventually returning it to Hungary. However as the front of WWll approached Budapest in 1944, the Holy Right was again taken back into Austria and was kept by the archbishop of Salzburg. At long last, on August 20, 1945, the priest of the American army brought the hand from Austria to its rightful Hungarian owners.

Today, the mummified “Holy Right” (known to sacrilegious young Hungarians as “the monkey paw”) resides in an ornate golden reliquary in the Basilica of St. Stephen. Drawn into a tight fist and clutching precious jewels, the hand – now shrunken and yellowed – still manages an air of righteous defiance.

To see the hand, go to the back left of the Basilica and put a 100 Forint coin in the slot. A light will then illuminate the Holy Right for about 30 seconds.