The term sin-eater refers to a person who, through ritual means, would take on by means of food and drink the sins of a household, often because of a recent death, thus absolving the soul and allowing that person to rest in peace. In anthropology, and the study of folklore, sin-eating is classified as apotropaic ritual and a form of religious magic.
Although the figure of the sin-eater has had various references in modern culture, the questions of how common the practice was, what regions of the world in which it was most common, and what the interactions between sin-eaters, common people, and religious authorities were, remain largely unstudied and in the realm of folklore.
Tlazolteotl, the Aztec goddess of earth, motherhood and fertility, had a redemptive role in the religious practices of the Meso-American civilization. At the end of an individual's life, he was allowed to confess his misdeeds to this deity, and according to legend she would cleanse his soul by "eating its filth".
“Notice was given to an old sire before the door of the house, when some of the family came out and furnished him with a cricket [low stool], on which he sat down facing the door; then they gave him a groat which he put in his pocket, a crust of bread which he ate, and a bowl of ale which he drank off at a draught. After this he got up from the cricket and pronounced the case and rest of the soul departed, for which he would pawn his own soul.”
"By eating bread and drinking ale, and by making a short speech at the graveside, the sin-eater took upon themselves the sins of the deceased". The speech was written as: "I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. Amen".
The 1926 book Funeral Customs by Bertram S. Puckle mentions the sin-eater:
"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".
Howlett mentions sin-eating as an old custom in Hereford, and thus describes the practice: 'The corpse being taken out of the house, and laid on a bier, a loaf of bread was given to the sin-eater over the corpse, also a maga-bowl of maple, full of beer. These consumed, a fee of sixpence was given him for the consideration of his taking upon himself the sins of the deceased, who, thus freed, would not walk after death.'"
The 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica states in its article on "sin eaters":
"A symbolic survival of it (sin eating) was witnessed as recently as 1893 at Market Drayton, Shropshire. 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".
In popular culture
- An episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery, aired February 23, 1972, was entitled "The Sins of the Fathers". It took place in Wales in the Middle Ages, and involved a young man (played by Richard Thomas) who is forced to play the role of sin-eater at the wake of his father (who had been sin-eater for the area).
- M. John Harrison's story "Strange Great Sins" (part of the Viriconium sequence) is about a sin eater who recalls the life of his uncle while performing a sin eating ceremony for the family of a small girl who has died.
- Margaret Atwood has a story entitled "The Sin Eater" in her 1983 collection of short-stories, Bluebird's Egg.
- In the 1924 novel Precious Bane by Mary Webb, performing sin-eating is a major element in the development of the main character Gideon.
- The 2003 Brian Helgeland film The Order deals with a sin eater in Rome in the modern day.
- The 2009 Lorelei Shannon novel Possum Kingdom features a sin-eater as a character central to the story.
- In the 2004 movie The Final Cut, Alan Hakman describes sin eaters at length and compares himself as a modern day sin eater.
- Jaeger, the protagonist in Carla Speed McNeill's comic book series Finder is a sin-eater.
- The Last Sin Eater, a 1998 novel by Francine Rivers, involves a group of Welsh immigrants in Appalachia in 1850.
- In the 2012 film The Bourne Legacy, Eric Byer tells Aaron Cross "we are the sin-eaters."
- A Sin-eater appears in Sleepy Hollow (TV series).
- Hilda Ellis Davidson (1993) Boundaries & Thresholds p.85 quotation:
It is this fear of what the dead in their uncontrollable power might cause which has brought forth apotropaic rites, protective rites against the dead. (...) One of these popular rites was the funeral rite of sin-eating, performed by a sin-eater, a man or woman. Through accepting the food and drink provided, he took upon himself the sins of the departed.
- Ferguson, Linda J. (2011). Staying Grounded in Shifting Sand: Awakening Soul Consciousness for the New Millennium. Balboa Press. p. 52. ISBN 1452541221.
- Walford Davies, Richard Marggraf Turley, Damian (2006). The Monstrous Debt: Modalities of Romantic Influence in Twentieth-century Literature. Wayne State University. p. 19. ISBN 0814330584.
- "Last 'sin-eater' to be celebrated with church service". BBC News. 19 September 2010. Retrieved 2010-09-19.
- The Sin Eaters' Grave at Ratlinghope
- SacredTexts.com: Food
- Encyclopaedia Britannica