A sin-eater is a person who consumes a ritual meal in order to spiritually take on the sins of a deceased person. The food was believed to absorb the sins of a recently dead person, thus absolving the soul of the person. Sin-eaters, as a consequence, carried the sins of all people whose sins they had eaten. Cultural anthropologists and folklorists classify sin-eating as a form of ritual.
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.
In mythology, 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".
Diarist John Aubrey, in the earliest source on the practice, wrote that "an old Custome" in Herefordshire had been
at funerals to hire poor people, who were to take upon them all the sinnes of the party deceased. One of them I remember lived in a Cottage on Rosse-high way. (He was a long, lean, ugly, lamentable Raskel.) The manner was that when the Corps was brought out of the house, and layd on the Biere; a Loafe of bread was brought out, and delivered to the Sinne-eater over the Corps, and also a Mazar-bowl of maple (Gossips bowle) full of beer, which he was to drinke up, and sixpence in money, in consideration whereof he took upon him (ipso facto) all the Sinnes of the Defunct, and freed him (or her) from walking after they were dead.
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.
The 1911 Encyclopædia 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.
Margaret Atwood wrote a short story titled "The Sin-Eater".
The 2003 movie, The Order is a fictional horror story revolving around the investigation of the suspicious death of an excommunicated priest and the discovery of a Sin Eater headquartered in Rome.
In the film The Bourne Legacy (2012), the subject is used: Buyer tells Cross that they are "sin eaters", doing the "morally indefensible" but absolutely necessary thing, "so that the rest of our cause can stay pure." ... The story is that a village has one person who is treated extremely well and whose job is to eat food symbolic of people's sins, so that he assumes all their sins so that they can die in a state of grace. The sin eater is extremely old and weighed down by the sins of hundreds of people. A young man is being groomed to be a sin-eater. The old sin-eater dies and the first task the pure and innocent young man must do is eat the sins of the sin-eater including the lifetime of sins he has consumed which, by extension, includes the sins of all the thousands that have been absorbed by endless generations of sin-eaters. In other words, lured by the comforts to be provided by the adoring villagers, the young man becomes the most damnable person in history. His only hope is that one day, many years later, another young man will be similarly lured into eating all the sins that this young man will have to bear.
- Davidson, Hilda Ellis (1993). Boundaries & Thresholds. p. 85.
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.
- Walford Davies, Richard Marggraf Turley, Damian (2006). The Monstrous Debt: Modalities of Romantic Influence in Twentieth-century Literature. Wayne State University. p. 19. ISBN 978-0814330586.
- Aubrey, John (1881). The Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme, 1686-87. London: W. Satchell, Peyton.
- "Last 'sin-eater' to be celebrated with church service". BBC News. 19 September 2010. Retrieved 19 September 2010.
- The Sin Eaters' Grave at Ratlinghope Archived 8 February 2007 at the Wayback Machine
- SacredTexts.com: Food
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica. 25 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 146–147. .
- printed in ed. Robert Weaver, Small wonders. New stories by twelve distinguished Canadian writers. CBC, Toronto 1982, pp 11 – 22