Updated: Nov 7
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In 1752, a local farmer passed away, his grieving daughters and widow dressed his body in his Sunday best. They then prepared a bowl of beer and some bread which they placed on his chest, the food and drink, obviously, is not for him, the Sin-Eater has been summoned.
No, this isn’t a lost chapter from Harry Potter, although J.K. Rowling admittedly borrows many characters from British folklore and mythology. Sin is the stain of wrongdoing on your eternal soul, a concept that transcends religions, some believe that what you do in this life will either pass into the next or receive some kind of judgment in the gateway between worlds. There is an ancient Indian legend that describes the transition between life and death as a bridge, on this bridge you meet all the animals that you have interacted with, in your lifetime, they decide whether or not you are able to pass into Heaven based on how you treated them, so step over that ant next time.
The idea of passing into another world unclean and this lack of cleanliness relating to further suffering has had people of all faiths getting into a bit of a panic about their departure for centuries. In Aztec mythology, Tlazōlteōtl (or Tlaçolteotl) is the deity of filth, lust, vice and adulterers, her name literally means ‘Sacred Filth.’ Towards the end of your life, you would confess your wrongdoing to an Aztec Priest representing Tlazōlteōtl and she would cleanse the soul by consuming its ‘filth’.
In a broader context, this was the role of Jesus of Nazareth who burdened himself with the sins of humanity and died baring them so that they would be absolved. Then there is the Catholic ritual of confession and absolution and the consumption of the body of Christ through the host, which is pure.
In British folklore, the ritual was a common practice and although it has much in common with the Christian tradition, Sin-Eaters were the enemy of the Church. Since the Church expected you to confess your sins to them, at a cost, local Sin-Eaters were undercutting them with cheaper rates and diverting commoners from the sanctity of the local Priests. The life of a Sin-Eater was a lonesome, wretched and damned existence for this reason it was a profession often taken up by the shunned and deformed, usually living apart from society in a cave or woods. This further added to their reputation, they were both desired for their ability to remove sin, but despised for their filthy work, as it was believed they carried that sin within them.
In the 17th Century diary of one John Aubrey, he writes of “an old custome” witnessed in Herefordshire:
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.
The Sin-Eater would eat the bread, which had absorbed the sin of the dead, therefore taking on their sin, wash it down with some beer, take their payment and recite a short prayer:
“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.”
It was expected that through this ritual the person would avoid becoming a wretched soul, a wraith, ghost or wandering spirit that often plagued the areas between villages, wooded areas and brought bad harvests, weather, death and corruption.
The custom is sometimes transferred to relatives, the Dutch make ‘doed-koecks’ or ‘dead-cakes’ which are marked with the initials of the deceased, a version can be seen in Lincolnshire and Cumberland, England with ‘burial cakes’ which are still made to this day.
The last known Sin-Eater was Richard Munslow of Shropshire, West Midlands, England who died in 1906. Unlike his predecessors, Munslow was a relatively wealthy farmer and performed his duties out of compassion for his fellow villagers.
The role of the Sin-Eater lives on today in popular culture, in the Marvel character The Sin Eater. The TV miniseries The Dark Secret of Harvest Home includes a funeral scene attended by a sin-eater who eats some cheese containing a coin, in a symbolic nod to the folk ritual. There are also references in the films The Order and The Final Cut, as well as the TV series Lucifer and Sleepy Hollow.
Needless to say, the symbolism of this ritual continues to inspire awe, fascination and hunger to this day.