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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; they were usually feared and shunned.
While there have been analogous instances of sin-eaters throughout history, the questions of how common the practice was, when it was practiced, and what the interactions between sin-eaters, common people, and religious authorities were remain largely unstudied by folklore academics.
In Meso-American civilisation, Tlazolteotl, the Aztec goddess of vice, purification, steam baths, lust and filth, and a patroness of adulterers (her name literally means 'Sacred Filth'), had a redemptive role in religious practices. At the end of an individual's life, they were allowed to confess misdeeds to this deity, and according to legend she would cleanse the soul by "eating its filth".
The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica states in its article on sin-eaters:
A symbolic survival of [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 Wales and the Welsh Marches
at funerals to hire poor people, who were to take upon them all the sins 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 corpse was brought out of the house, and laid on the Biere; a Loaf of bread was brought out, and delivered to the Sine-eater over the corpse, and also a Mazar-bowl of maple (Gossips bowl) full of beer, which he was to drink 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 1838, Catherine Sinclair noted the practice was in decline but that it continued in the locality:
A strange popish custom prevailed in Monmouthshire and other Western counties until recently. Many funerals were attended by a professed "sin-eater," hired to take upon him the sins of the deceased. By swallowing bread and beer, with a suitable ceremony before the corpse, he was supposed to free it from every penalty for past offences, appropriating the punishment to himself. Men who undertook so daring an imposture must all have been infidels, willing, apparently, like Esau, to sell their birthright for a mess of pottage.
A local legend in Shropshire, England, concerns the grave of Richard Munslow, who died in 1906, said to be the last sin-eater of the area. Unusually, Munslow was not poor or an outcast, instead being a wealthy farmer from an established family. Munslow may have revived the custom after the deaths of three of his children in a week 1870 due to scarlet fever. In the words of local Reverend Norman Morris of Ratlinghope, "It was a very odd practice and would not have been approved of by the church but I suspect the vicar often turned a blind eye to the practice." At the funeral of anyone who had died without confessing their sins, a sin-eater would take on the sins of the deceased by eating a loaf of bread and drinking ale out of a wooden bowl passed over the coffin, and make a short speech:
I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man, that ye walk 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, allegedly 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.
In popular culture
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"The Sin Eater" is an episode of Suspense (radio drama) which originally aired on July 8, 1962. The setting is rural Appalachia, with characters of Welsh heritage.
Published in 1977 by Duckworth Books, The Sin Eater was the first of British writer Alice Thomas Ellis's many novels. It "exposed the hidden rancours of Irish, Welsh and English," in the words of journalist and writer Clare Colvin. Writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Abby Geni comments, "The story orbits around the Captain, a failing patriarch, and the family who have gathered at his bedside. There are no ghosts or disembodied voices here. Instead, lovely Rose organises meals and cricket matches. Angela, visiting from out of town, vies with Rose for control of the proceedings. Awkward Ermyn searches for her place in the group. Servants lurk on the sidelines. The story is ripe with shadows and terror. An unclassifiable menace seeps through the book like a fog."
The 1978 TV miniseries The Dark Secret of Harvest Home features a funeral scene wherein all the mourners in attendance avert their faces as a repudiated fellow designated the sin-eater dines upon a symbolic meal, which includes a coin pressed into a cheese, thereby taking the deceased's transgressions in life upon himself.
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.
The 2004 movie The Final Cut is set in a world where memories are recorded, and then "cut" into positive hagiographies on the person's death; the "cutters" are referred to as sin-eaters.
The 2007 film The Last Sin Eater tells the story of a community of Welsh immigrants in Appalachia, 1850. The sin-eater of the community is seen through the eyes of ten-year-old Cadi Forbes.
In the film The Bourne Legacy (2012), a central character who leads a US government black ops program describes himself and his team as sin-eaters, doing the "morally indefensible" but absolutely necessary thing, "so that the rest of our cause can stay pure."
The American TV show Sleepy Hollow used the term Sin-Eater as the title of Season 1, episode 6, as a way to introduce another character on the show that is a sin-eater.
The American TV show Lucifer used the term Sin-Eater as the title of season 2, episode 3, to refer to the content moderation employees of a fictional social media company. The American TV show Arrow did so too in the season 5, episode 14, referring to a flash-back story of Anatoli Knyazev telling Oliver Queen he acts as a sin-eater.
In the American TV show Succession, Gerri, Waystar Royco's general counsel, suggests to Tom Wambsgans that he become the family sin-eater and destroy evidence of illegal activities aboard the company's cruise lines, "Have you ever heard of the sin cake eater? He would come to the funeral and he would eat all the little cakes they’d lay out on the corpse. He ate up all the sins. And you know what? The sin cake eater was very well paid. And so long as there was another one who came along after he died, it all worked out. So this might not be the best situation, but there are harder jobs and you get to eat [an amazing amount] of cake."
The comic series Finder features a main character who is a sin-eater, and thus despised by his mother's culture as the lowest member of their society.
In the MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers, sin-eaters are recurring hostile entities that aim to devour all living beings in The First, mindless monsters driven by insatiable hunger for living aether. The stronger sin-eaters are capable of "forgiving" the creatures they attack, gruesomely and permanently mutating them into newborn sin-eaters. Most of these creatures tend to be named as "forgiven" sins (Forgiven Cowardice, Forgiven Cruelty, Forgiven Hypocrisy, etc.). The strongest sin-eaters are known as Lightwardens.
In A Breath of Snow and Ashes, the sixth book in the Outlander series of novels by Diana Gabaldon, Roger Wakefield presides over the funeral of Hiram Crombie's mother-in-law, Mrs. Wilson, where a sin-eater makes an appearance.
The Sin Eater's Daughter is a YA fantasy novel written by Melinda Salisbury which includes a version of the practice and was published on February 24, 2015.
"My Soul’s Demise", a song by Blackbriar, is about the dread of a sin-eater.
In the American TV anthology Fargo season 5, episode 3, a flashback portrays a possible sixteenth century incarnation of the character Ole Munch as being a sin-eater.
- Valjak, Domagoj (6 August 2018). "The Macabre Story of Sin-Eaters". The Vintage News. Archived from the original on 5 May 2022. Retrieved 28 March 2022.
- Davidson, Hilda Ellis (1993). Boundaries & Thresholds. Thimble Press. p. 85. ISBN 9780903355414. Archived from the original on 28 March 2022. Retrieved 28 March 2022.
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.
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 25 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 146–147.
- Aubrey, John (1686–1687) [edited and annotated by James Britten in 1881]. The Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme. London: W. Satchell, Peyton.
- Sinclair, Catherine (1838). Hill and Valley: Or, Hours in England and Wales. Edinburgh: Robert Carter. p. 336.
- "Ratlinghope Churchyard". Shropshire Churches Tourism Group. n.d. Archived from the original on 31 May 2014. Retrieved 28 March 2022.
- "Last 'sin-eater' to be celebrated with church service". BBC News. 19 September 2010. Archived from the original on 19 May 2015. Retrieved 19 September 2010.
- Puckle, Bertram S. (1926). "Chapter IV: Wakes, Mutes, Wailers, Sin-Eating, Totemism, Death-Taxes". Funeral Customs. London, UK: T. Werner Laurie Ltd. Archived from the original on 18 January 2021. Retrieved 16 September 2020 – via Sacred texts.com.
- Colvin, Clare (10 March 2005). "Obituary: Alice Thomas Ellis". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 15 January 2021. Retrieved 3 August 2020.
- Geni, Abby (9 April 2016). "The Sin Eater: Alice Thomas Ellis and the Gothic Tradition". Los Angeles Review of Books. Archived from the original on 31 October 2020. Retrieved 3 August 2020.
- Atwood, Margaret (1982). Weaver, Robert (ed.). Small Wonders : New stories by twelve distinguished Canadian authors. Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. pp. 11–23. ISBN 0887941044.
- "Review: In Sleek Bourne Legacy, Superspy Needs His Meds". Wired.
- HBO. (2018, June 24). "Sad Sack Wasp Trap". Succession. New York, New York.