Tearful effigies are pious (and not so pious) frauds.

May 6, 2009

I got a call (March 5, 2009) from a man who said his brother, a priest, had an icon that was “weeping” scented oil. I deduced correctly that it was Greek Orthodox. (In contrast, Russian Orthodox icons tend to exude myrrh, while Roman Catholic effigies tend to be statues rather than icons, and they typically “weep” water, blood, or occasionally another substance. The cultural differences are suggestive.)

The notion that an effigy is in some way animated not only challenges science; it also crosses a theological line, moving from   veneration (reverence toward what an image represents) to   idolatry (worship of an image said to be the tenement or vehicle of a deity and having divine influence). Investigation reveals that a few cases may have a natural explanation (such as condensation of moisture from the air on a statue’s glass eyes), but most are pious frauds.

In one Italian case, for example, a woman whose plaster bas-relief wept was caught surreptitiously applying “tears” with a water pistol. In another, DNA tests of blood ostensibly wept by a statue showed that it belonged to the statue’s owner. (Her attorney explained, “Well, the Virgin Mary had to get that blood from somewhere.”) In a case I investigated in Moscow, the “myrrhing” (or exuding of a fragrant myrrh-scented oil) of a   copy of an icon of Czar Nicholas II occurred suspiciously at the time of a campaign to declare him a saint.

An icon brought to me by a BBC producer had streamed oil in Syria where it was owned by a member of the Chaldean Catholic Church. However, the phenomena ceased after the icon left her custody, and nothing—not entreaties, sad stories, or the slicing of onions in front of it—could make it cry again. I am still waiting.

A Greek Orthodox case I investigated in Astoria, Queens, New York, had similarly stopped weeping, but a videotape of the phenomenon showed rivulets flowing from   outside the eyes—suggesting a crude hoax. The priest from that church relocated to Toronto, Canada, where another icon began to weep oil. I was called into the case by the   Toronto Sun newspaper and again by attorneys for the parent church. As a fraud-squad detective stood by, I took samples for testing by the Ontario Center of Forensic Sciences. The substance proved to be a nondrying oil (its use a standard trick since it looks fresh indefinitely). No one could prove who if anyone put the oil there, but the church pronounced it a hoax anyway. It turned out the priest had been defrocked in Athens, Greece, for working in a brothel! (For more on animated effigies, see my   Adventures in Paranormal Investigation , 2007, 222–230.)

As to the present case, at my urging, the caller attempted to get custody of his brother’s icon for me to examine. However, there were conditions, more conditions, apparent evasions—until the caller began to share my skepticism and dropped the matter. Still, the situation may change, and it is not the first weeping icon that has kept me waiting.