Devouring The Intangible: Pt.1: Sin Eating

SIN-EATER, a man who for trifling payment was believed to take upon himself, by means of food and drink, the sins of a deceased person. – Encyclopedia Britannica 1911 vol. 25

The idea that the sins of the deceased could be transferred to someone else through food and drink can likely trace its origins to the scapegoat.  This transfer left the deceased unhindered by their poor choices in their transition to the afterlife. The burden of those choices passed to the consumer of the sacrament.

The practice of sin-eating seems to have largely been constrained to the British Isles. Edwin Hartland’s essay in the, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics: Volume XI cites instances of sin-eating, as recorded by a John Aubry, going back into the mid 1600’s.

“… This custom (though rarely used in our day yet by some people was observed even in the strictest times of Presbyterian government… the kindred of a woman deceased had this ceremony punctually performed according to her will… a woman kept many years before her death a Masard-bowle for the Sinne-eater , and like in other places in this county : as also in Brecon where Mr Gwin the minister about 1640 could no longer ye performing this ancient custom. I believe the custom was heretofore used all over Wales.”  – Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics: Volume XI (1921)

Referring to it as an ancient custom is notable. The time between the mid 1800’s and the first quarter of the 1900’s seem to have been the most active in the sparse records I have found. Aubrey’s accounts indicate that at the time it was on the wane. It’s difficult to determine if the later reports are due to a resurgence in the practice or simply better record keeping.

The mention that a bowl was kept for years prior specifically for this ritual is intriguing. Was the bowl a familial treasure passed down as a way to stay connected to ancestors? Was it something that was ritually prepared or used for other offerings before fulfilling its ultimate role? These possibilities seem contrary to the social place the sin-eater occupied in later accounts. It’s an odd juxtaposition that the vessel would be treasured while the recipient of its contents is shunned.

“Because of the religious climate of the time, people took the idea of sin seriously, and were eager to reach heaven free of their misdeeds. They needed a sin eater to come around every once and awhile, but most of the time being a sin eater meant you were homeless and a social pariah. Nevertheless, sin eaters in the United Kingdom were expected to attend funerals and wakes when they were notified of a local death.” – Atlas Obscura: The Worst Freelance Gig in History was Being the Village Sin-Eater

Rather than being seen in the light of a confessor, the sin-eater was viewed as a butcher’s pit of poison thoughts and devilry.  I’m sure there were those that doubted the concept of sin and afterlife that were happy to take the food with little concern for themselves. Others, though, were surely ensnared in the same religious thinking that made the sin-eater a necessary visitor at the deathbed. They weren’t approaching it from a place of piety so much as they were desperation. Given the role of the clergy and even the sin absolving nature of Christ, one wonders if the sin-eaters biggest fault might have been their presentation.

“Professor Evans of the Presbyterian College, Carmarthen, actually saw a sin-eater about the year 1825, who was then living near Llanwenog, Cardiganshire. Abhorred by the superstitious villagers as a thing unclean, the sin-eater cut himself off from all social intercourse with his fellow creatures by reason of the life he had chosen; he lived as a rule in a remote place by himself, and those who chanced to meet him avoided him as they would a leper. This unfortunate was held to be the associate of evil spirits, and given to witchcraft, incantations and unholy practices; only when a death took place did they seek him out, and when his purpose was accomplished they burned the wooden bowl and platter from which he had eaten the food handed across, or placed on the corpse for his consumption.” – Bertram S. Puckle, Funeral Customs: Their Origin and Development

Beyond the bleak picture of a destitute person surrendering their eternal peace for a small meal, it also happened that the sin imbued food was given to the unsuspecting. The spiritual understanding being what it was, foisting your sins upon another for a small bribe strikes me as sufficiently sinful, but to do that to someone without their knowledge  is the spiritual equivalent of poisoning the well.

“… food that was placed on or near a corpse was surreptitiously fed to a beggar or to some other person unaware of the situation, so that they  absorbed the dead person’s sins unknowingly.” – David Pickering, Cassell Dictionary of Superstitions

Sin-Eaters found there way into the fiction of the day as well. Fiona MacLeod’s The Sin-eater alludes to a deeper superstition related to the transfer of sins, that of the corpse itself making sure that the intended deed had transpired as planned.

“After you ate the sins of Adam Blair, the people there brought out the coffin. When they were putting him into it, he was as stiff as a sheep dead in the snow—and just like that, too, with his eyes wide open. Well, some one saw you trampling the heather down the slope that is in front of the house, and said, It is the Sin-Eater !

With that, Andrew Blair sneered, and said, ‘Ay, ’tis the scapegoat he is !’ Then, after a
while, he went on : ‘ The Sin-Eater they call him; ay, just so; and a bitter good bargain it is, too, if all’s true that’s thought true! — an with that he laughed, and then his wife that was behind him laughed, and then”

“Weel, what then?”

“Well, ’tis Himself that hears and knows if it is true! But this is the thing I was told: After that laughing there was a stillness, and a dread. For all there saw that the corpse had turned its head and was looking after you as you went down the heather. – Fiona Macleod – The Sin-eater, The Washer of the Ford and Other Legendary Moralities (1911)

The practice eventually gave way to a a more symbolic gestures, and spread from the UK to other regions of Europe.

After a preliminary service had been held over the coffin in the house, a woman poured out a glass of wine for each bearer and handed it to him across the coffin with a “ funeral biscuit.” In Upper Bavaria sin-eating still survives: a corpse cake is placed on the breast of the dead and then eaten by the nearest relative, while in the Balkan peninsula a small bread image of the deceased is made and eaten by the survivors of the family. The Dutch doed-koecks or “ dead-cakes,” marked with the initials of the deceased, introduced into America in the 17th century, were long given to the attendants at funerals in old New York. The “ burial-cakes ” which are still made in parts of rural England, for example Lincolnshire and Cumberland, are almost certainly a relic of sin-eating. – Encyclopedia Britannica 1911 vol. 25

There is evidence that the practice was brought to the United States, particularly to Appalachian regions. These reports are rooted in folklore more so than the religious reports that can be found out of the UK. There is an interesting shift in tone once the practice appears in the US.

Quite often especially in western North Carolina the identity of the sin eater was kept hidden so that no one in the community knew who the sin eater was. And my grandmother told that in her community when she was a young girl the sin eater wore a costume… She said that the sin eater that came to her community also went to other communities around in the same area where she lived as a young girl.- Thomas Beyers – Do You Know That Sin Eaters Once Were Real

Ozark Magic has a report referencing a modern day performance of the ritual to ease the distress of a dying family member so that they might pass.

Superstitious or not, reality is constructed of beliefs about what reality is. Whether the light in the sky is a UFO or not, whether the shape at the end of the hall is a ghost or not, and whether judgement is waiting at the threshold of death or not is inconsequential. That is the reality for the experiencer, that is the reality for the person swamped in shame and fear in their last moments. In that reality, the reason for summoning the sin-eater is also the thing that makes it such a selfish act. Damn another so that you can move forward unfettered. That the sin-eater isn’t viewed with the slightest of reverence, even the distant respect, that a shaman or medicine person would command makes them a curious and sympathetic figure in history.

This is the first part in what will be a short series looking at the folklore around devouring the intangible.



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