Skip to comments.Sin eaters and sin eating
Posted on 01/27/2011 6:18:36 AM PST by Graybeard58
Sin eaters and the custom of sin eating seem to come from Wales. Early descriptions of the ritual all mention the bread eaten over the corpse, as well as the payment of sixpence to the person assuming the sins of the dead. Below are two 19th century accounts of sin eaters.
"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, and were called sin-eaters. One of them, I remember, lived in a cottage on Ross high-way. The manner was thus: when the corpse was brought out of the house, and laid on the bier, a loaf of bread was delivered to the sin-eater over the corpse, as also a mazar-bowl (a gossip's bowl of maple) full of beer, which he was to drink up, and sixpence in money; in consequence whereof, he took upon him, ipso facto, all the sins of the defunct, and freed him or her from walking after they were dead.
In North Wales, the sin-eaters are frequently made use of; but there, instead of a bowl of beer, they have a bowl of milk. This custom was by some people observed, even in the strictest time of the Presbyterian government. And at Dyndar, volens nolens the parson of the parish, the relations of a woman deceased there had this ceremony punctually performed according to her will.
The like was done in the city of Hereford in those times, where a woman kept many years before her death, a mazar bowl for the sin-eater, and in other places in this county, as also at Brecon, at Llangore, where Mr. Gwin, the minister, about 1640, could not hinder this superstition."
-- Aubrey of Gentilisme, MS. quoted in Kennett's Par. Ant. vol. 2, p. 276.
In some part of Wales a very extraordinary rite was observed. "When a person died, the friends sent for the sin-eater of the district, who on his arrival places a piece of salt on the breast of the defunct, and upon the salt a piece of bread.
He then muttered an incantation over the bread, which he finally ate; thereby eating up all the sins of the deceased. This done, he received the fee of two shillings and sixpence, and vanished as quickly as possible from the general gaze; for as it was believed that he really appropriated to his own use and behoof the sins of all those over whom he performed the above ceremony, he was utterly detested in the neighbourhood -- regarded as a mere Pariah -- as one irremediably lost."
Sin-eating was not a Bardic idea, it seems to have been a perverted and perverse tradition, probably reaching Wales by an oriental channel, in which the Jewish scape-goat and Christian Eucharistic Sacrifice are blended in disguise and distortion. "The popular notion in Pembrokeshire, with reference to the placing of salt on the bodies of the dead, was that it kept away the evil spirit."
-- From Welsh sketches, by Ernest Silvanus Appleyard
“... if this tradition was ever brought over here...”
I remember stories my parents told me of “sin” eaters when they were kids. They would have been in their mid 70’s if alive today. They grew up in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania and the town had their own “sin” eaters. They were usually very poor and paid decently for the viewing. The concept was that they would eat prepared food and they would consume the sins of the deceased. From what I remember, NO ONE became the sin eater when the original one passed away. Just a thought.
I read a tale by Anglo-Welsh novelist Alice Thomas Ellis a couple of years back, called “The Sin-Eater.” A malicious and witty story with a back-loaded plot which I can’t say I “enjoyed” yet I haven’t been quite able to stop thinking about.
It takes little thought to realize that was one heck of a party ~ with the (soon to be) dead gladiator playing the part of the spirit that will distract the evil spirits and allow the dead rich guy to pay his nickel and get on board the boat to be taken to the other side of the Styx, and to the Elysian fields without further risk.
But that wouldn't be the "origin" ~ for that you need to read the Mahabarat wherein Bishma dies.
Bishma was one of those special guys who'd been granted the boon of being able to decide when he would die. Because of that he serves as a perfect vehicle for instructing kings and rulers in their duties (which he does frequently).
So, Bishma is out there on the battlefield full of arrows (as is popularly imagined), just rolling around like a pincushion and what does he do for entertainment in the evening? Well, both sides in the Great War Between The Truth and Lies come out and have a party with him ~ they discuss philosophies of ruling and law with Bishma well into the night ~ in those days they did not yet fight at night as we do so the worst of enemies continued to live normal lives "after hours".
The conferences with Bishma are usually portrayed as involving copious quantities of food and drink ~ so I think it's safe to say that by the time of the days of Hastinapur it was understood that DEATH involved a meal or two, even while a warrior died.
Now that's a tad before Wales was even invaded by Gaelic warrior clans from the Middle East ~ some suggest 400 BC, yet others noting a cave painting showing a god-like or demi-god tossing a chariot wheel (representative of Krishna) suggest maybe 800 BC.
Presuming the slightest contact between the charioteers of the East and the West (and in-between), it's easy to get back to 1000 BC to find folk mixing meat, drink and funeral ceremonies.
And, as far as sin goes, the usual portrayal of Bishma definitely takes on the atmosphere of a sort of open confession ~ but with a twist ~ he frequently serves as the table where they sit their plates.
Inasmuch as Hinduism has not yet reached that age where "they" no longer practice the burnt offering, I'd imagine all of this is just something that normaly springs to the minds of Indian movie producers.
I could see some moody, indie rock band doing a whole concept album about this subject...
I was going to say the same thing. That episode freaked me out.
While all salvation is ultimately wrought by Christ’s Incarnation, Death, Resurrection, Ascension and Glorious Coming Again, those of us who adhere to traditional Christianity, whether Orthodox, Latin, Coptic, Armenian or Assyrian, expect saving faith to be something more than assent to that fact and to the Lordship of Christ. Putting on Christ, following His commands, growing into His likeness is part of faith, thus the humble acceptance (in the eyes of his community) of the sins of another, being an imitation of the true saving work of Christ might well be part of real saving faith on the part of the “sin eater”.
Of course the only way to find out whether my suggestion is right will be for those of us blessed to be on the Right Hand at the Last Day to make inquiries among any Welshmen among our fellow “sheep”.
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