In the County of Hereford was an old Custom at Funerals, to hire poor people, who were to take upon them all the Sins of the party deceased… The manner was that when a Corpse was brought out of the house and laid on the Bier; a Loaf of bread was brought out and delivered to the Sin-eater over the corps, as also a Mazer-bowl full of beer, which he was to drink up, and sixpence in money, in consideration whereof he took upon him all the Sins of the Defunct, and freed him (or her) from Walking after they were dead.
John Aubrey, Remains of Gentilism
When I was a child my family moved to the Herefordshire countryside, in the shadow of the Welsh Black Mountains and deep in the heart of Celtic mythology. At the edge of the village, alone and isolated from the rest of the scant community there was a small cottage, long fallen to disrepair; a place I was always warned to stay clear of. For in this cottage there lived a madman, who was somehow unclean and undesirable to the village… so they said. Inevitably I found my way to this place.
His cottage stood at a crossroads, just back from the road itself and surrounded by tall bushes and trees. It was a walk of about a mile from the village and there were no other houses anywhere near it. It felt somewhat like the fairytale cottage of a witch, a place you stumble upon in error, after which your life is never the same. As I stood looking at this mysterious cottage, whose lopsided architecture had begun to take on the form of the surrounding land, the door opened and its single inhabitant emerged.
He was old, thin, and dressed oddly for the times (the 1970s) in white collarless shirt, black trousers and waistcoat, like a 1940s off-duty doctor or the cinema version of a period railway signalman. A gold chain and fob watch hung from the pocket of his waistcoat. So this was the madman I had been warned away from. He began to talk to me about flowers and herbs and his life story. He had been a Sin Eater.
THE SIN EATER
There is little written or known of Sin Eaters. It is an ancient tradition, practiced in many countries of the world, and integrated into the Catholic ritual of the last rites. It is supposedly derived from the ‘scapegoat’ described in Leviticus xvi. 21, 22, where the wrongdoings of another are ascribed to an innocent. In the Hebrew ritual of the ‘scapegoat’, Aaron confessed all the sins of the children of Israel on the Day of Atonement, above the head of a live goat that was then sent out into the wilderness to die, symbolically bearing their sins.
As a shamanic tradition, a Sin Eater would be employed by the family of a deceased person, or sometimes by the church, to eat a last meal of bread and salt from the belly of the corpse as it lay in state. By so doing it was believed that the sins of the dead person would be absorbed and the deceased would have clear passage to the hereafter. The Sin Eater was given a few coins for his trouble but other than that was avoided (literally ‘like the plague’) by the community who regarded him as sin-filled and unclean as a result of his work. That is why Sin Eaters usually lived at the edge of the village and children were warned away from them.
The role of the Sin Eater was, in essence, that of a shamanic healer. It was his job to remove negativity and the spirit of disease from the dead (and, often, the living) and make the gods available to them. Their teachers in this work were the spirits themselves and, in the case of the Sin Eater I knew, the Old Testament which, read shamanically, reveals many rituals for cleansing and healing that have been mysteriously lost in the New Testament, which has also rewritten the nature of the god(s) from many to one (e.g. Genesis 1 26: ‘Let us make man to our image and likeness’. Genesis 2 22: ‘Behold Adam is become as one of us, knowing good and evil’).
THE NATURE OF SIN
In Sin Eating tradition, a sin is a blemish or a weight on the soul which will hold it trapped in the Middle World in a sort of purgatory or limbo while that sin remains. The Sin Eater’s job is to free the soul by devouring this ‘blemish’.
The seemingly simple ritual of eating from the body of the deceased therefore masks a number of more complicated shamanic manoeuvres.
Firstly, the action of eating from the belly of the deceased is, of course, a form of extraction medicine. It is assumed that the ‘food’ will absorb the sins from the corpse since spirit craves matter and the spirit of the disease (sin) will therefore be attracted to the stronger life force of the ‘living’ food than the dead corpse. When the food is eaten, the weight on the soul is therefore removed.
The food itself varied according to the Sin Eater’s lineage. Sometimes it was bread and ale, sometime merely salt and water. The latter was more useful to the Sin Eater as salt water is an aid to purging, the unseen part of the sin eating ritual being for the healer to go out into nature following his corpse-side duties in order to vomit away the sins he was now carrying and allow the Earth itself to defuse them. In another variant the Sin Eater would free himself of the sins he had taken on by casting them into a body of water and reciting an incantation.
Secondly, as the Sin Eater went about his duties with the corpse he would also be praying for the soul to be free of its attachments to the Earth so it might enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This is, in effect, psychopomp work, the ‘escorting of the dead’. The belief of the Sin Eater is that the deceased carries guilt and shame within the soul as a result of his or her misdemeanours and inappropriate actions towards others – or, indeed, because of their actions towards the deceased. The soul, in fact, can be damaged in two ways: either because the person who carried it has acted in a way that has caused pain to another (a parallel here with the Buddhist notion of ‘right-living’ – that no matter what our interactions with others or what they do to us, there is a correct way for us to behave in order to preserve our spiritual integrity) or because they were the victims of shameful acts and now carry guilt which is actually not their weight to bear. The victim of sexual abuse, for example, may sometimes come to believe, at an unconscious or deep soul level, that they were somehow to blame or ‘invited’ such abuse. This may be incorrect but it is the belief itself and the shame of the event rather than the reality of what happened that causes the wound to the soul.
Thirdly, the ritual of sin eating is a community healing for the people present at the wake. When a relative or close friend dies, there is often a feeling of guilt on the part of those who live on – ‘why couldn’t I have done more to help?’, ‘why didn’t I pay more attention to him when he was alive?’ etc. This guilt arises as a result of the perceived sin of neglect on the part of the relative or friend. The ritual of sin eating helps to assuage this guilt as well since the relative can at least see that the deceased has been helped and healed through his employment of the Sin Eater.
HEALING THE LIVING
Sin Eaters rarely work just with the dead. Many of them, because of their closeness to nature and rural location, were also skilled exponents of folk medicine and plant spirit shamanism.
Folk medicine can be described as ‘root doctoring’ or herbalism, which works with both the medicinal properties and spirit of the plants. Thus, a tonic made from vervain was known to be helpful for easing depression, paranoia and insomnia (all symptoms of guilt or shame as a consequence of being in the presence of sin), but the plant could also be used as a talisman to drive away ‘evil spirits’.
By the same token, marigolds could be used to treat skin rashes, inflammation and ulcers (perhaps stress-induced as a result of the sinful situation), and at the same time, to soothe and calm the soul. The 13th century herbalist Aemilius Macer, for example, wrote that marigold flowers have the power to draw “wicked humours out”. (Interestingly, marigolds are used, even today, in Amazonian Peru in the shamanic practice of soul retrieval).
The client visiting the Sin Eater would find, first of all, a confessor to whom they would announce their sins. In this respect, the healer plays the role of anam cara – the ‘soul friend’ whose task it was to listen without judgement or prejudice to what was spoken, the intention being only to understand the nature of the problem and its impact on the soul. Even this simple action can have a profound healing effect since it unburdens the soul of its guilt, hence its enduring practice in Catholic confessionals, as well as its modern incarnation in counselling and psychotherapy (“the talking cure”).
Having heard his client, the Sin Eater might then offer advice from ‘the land of the dead’ (the spiritual world) for how these sins could be recompensed. The advice itself was often of a practical nature, the belief being that sins need to be reversed in this lifetime and with action in the world, rather than simple prayer, for example.
The penitent might therefore be advised to make an offering, not to the spirits, but to the person he had harmed. This is a quite different dynamic from the notion of ‘karma’, for example, where our good and bad deeds are weighed in the balance at judgement day and, perhaps, we must return in a new life to atone for our sins. In sin eating practice it is understood that ‘karma’ must be dealt with immediately in the here-and-now since any sin has the power to erode the soul, leading to ill-health and further corruption.
A potion of flowers or plants, as per above, might then be administered to the client in order to balance and soothe the soul. In this way, sin eating – a practice perhaps more than 1000 years old – recognises a mind-body-spirit connection that modern science is only now starting to acknowledge, for the plant medicine itself would work on the troubled body and mind as well as healing the wounds of the soul.
THE ALONENESS OF THE SIN EATER
The most paradoxical aspect of the Sin Eater’s life was his role of being central to the well-being of the community but also ostracized from it. The Sin Eater was typically a man who spent much of his life alone, disparaged by the community he served – and yet, in one way at least, the most important member of that community for without him no-one who had sinned could enter the Kingdom of Heaven. At the same time, he was regarded as unclean, as strange and mad – and yet, if he was unclean, it was because of the sins he was eating. The sins of the community, not his own.
We often find this solitariness among people of spiritual power. A time of aloneness is a requisite in many shamanic initiations and in some traditions the shaman will also live on the outskirts of the community, representing in a physical and symbolic way his dwelling on the threshold or boundary, the ‘betwixt and between’ place of human and spiritual connection. In our fairytales and myths, as well, crones, witches, and other unusual people tend to live alone in woods and shadowlands.
The emotional hardship of the Sin Eater’s life, along with the decline of spiritual belief in our modern cities are perhaps two of the reasons why sin eating is no longer a central practice in funerary rites, although it survives symbolically. In Ireland, for example, it is still common for the corpse to lie in state in the family home and at one such funeral I attended in the mid-1980s, a service was held over the coffin and our host then offered a glass of wine and a funeral biscuit to each guest, handing it to us across the coffin itself. The burial-cakes still made in parts of rural England (Shropshire and Cumberland, for example) are also symbolic relics of the sin eating tradition.
In other countries sin eating still continues in a more original form. In Bavaria, for example, a corpse cake is placed on the breast of the deceased before being eaten by the closest relative. In the Balkans a small bread image of the deceased is made and eaten by members of the family. In Holland, doed-koecks (dead-cakes) are eaten, each marked with the initials of the deceased.
As the modern world enters what we might call a sin-filled age of terrorism, warfare, and territorial invasion, perhaps it is time for a revival of this powerful healing tradition, for the sake of all our souls.