Friday, September 12, 2014

The Sin Eater

An ancient--and likely moribund--English tradition that hasn't well been studied is that of the Sin Eater, a person that absorbs the sins of the recently deceased through the ingestion of food or drink.

John Bagford, the famous English Antiquarian, wrote of the ritual in the late 17th century. He told of a man who sat before the door of a house, eating bread and drinking ale. When he was finished, he rose, pronounced the soul, for which he pawned his own, to now be departed.

A long held legend in Shropshire centers on the last sin eater in their region, Richard Munslow, who died in 1906. He would eat bread and drink ale and then make a speech over the deceased's grave. In this fashion, he took the burden of their sins as his own. As part of the speech, he implored the spirit to be at rest and to "come not down the lanes or in our meadows." It seemed that the sin eater may have been called upon in cases where an especially troubled or sinful person posed some revenant risk. To head off any ghostly return, the sin eater was summoned to make sure their spirit moved on.

A 1911 entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica relates what seems like a holdover of sin eater tradition in 1893 at Market Drayton, Shropshire when a woman poured a glass of wine for each pall bearer and handed each a "funeral biscuit" at the conclusion of a graveside service. "Burial cakes" and "funeral biscuits" and the ale of wine drank with them seemed, especially to the funereal Victorians, to be a watered down version of this ancient practice.

Bertram S. Puckle's 1926 book, Funeral Customs, recounts one Professor Evans of the Presbyterian College at Carmathen who told of having seen a sin eater in 1825 near Cardiganshire. Evans described the sin eater as a necessary but shunned member of village society, as those who tend the dead so often are. It was believed that this unclean person, an associate of evil spirits and practitioner
of witchcraft who lived in seclusion from the others, should only be called upon when death had come, for which he would be paid a sixpence fee. Often the bread was eaten directly from the corpse, but if a plate was to be used, it would be a wooden one that was burned afterward.

1 comment:

Little Gothic Horrors said...

Fascinating! I had only ever heard of Sin Eaters via the 'Sleepy Hollow' TV series and I had no idea it was a real tradition.