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 deceased person, thus absolving his or her soul and allowing that person to rest in peace. In the study of folklore sin-eating is considered a form of religious magic.
This practice was said to have been practiced in parts of England and Scotland, and allegedly survived until modern times in Wales. Traditionally, it is performed by a beggar and certain villages maintained their own sin-eaters. They would be brought to the dying person's bedside, where a relative would place a crust of bread on the breast of the dying and pass a bowl of ale to him over the corpse. After praying or reciting the ritual, he would then drink and remove the bread from the breast and eat it, the act of which would remove the sin from the dying person and take it into himself.
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".
A local legend in Shropshire, England, concerns the grave of Richard Munslow, said to be the last sin-eater of the area:
"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.'"
A cached page of a LoveToKnow Project, a reference project based on the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, states:
"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 the media
- The Sin-Eater and Other Tales (1895) by Fiona Mac Leod (pseudonym of William Sharp).
- The 1926 book Funeral Customs by Bertram S. Puckle is one of the earliest known print references to the sin-eater: "it was the province of the human scapegoat to take upon himself the moral trespasses of his client--and whatever the consequences might be in the after life — in return for a miserable fee and a scanty meal".
- The Sin Eater is the title of Alice Thomas Ellis' first novel, published in 1977.
- "The Sin Eater" is also the title of a short story by Margaret Atwood.
- A sin-eater is a suspect and part of a ritualistic game featured in Alex Kava's "A Necessary Evil."
- The Last Sin Eater is the title of a novel by Francine Rivers, published in 1998.
- One of the characters in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, Cheslin, (waister-starboard watch), was discovered by the crew to have been a sin-eater. He was expelled by his mess, not allowed to eat or sleep near them. Dr. Maturin treated him in sick-bay with the intention of making him his loblolly boy. The character appears in "Master & Commander," the first book in the series:
- In the Outlanders series by Mark Ellis (writing as James Axler), Sin-Eater is the name of the signature weapon used by the fearsome Magistrate Divisions.
- Sin Eater: A Ministry of Suffering, by Isaac DeLuca, purports to be a modern manual teaching people how to become sin-eaters.
- The Iron Dragon's Daughter, a 1993 novel by Michael Swanwick, includes a boy who acts as a sin-eater for the faerie equivalent of a homecoming queen.
- "The Sin-Eater of the Kaw" is a short story by Bradley Denton, published in the June 1989 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. A homeless person in the 20th century is depicted as a sin eater.
- Sineater was the title of a Bram Stoker award-winning novel by author Elizabeth Massie, about a sineater's family in a rural Southern town.
- The novel A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon describes a sin-eater within a Scottish settler community in 18th Century North Carolina.
- 'The Sin Eater' is a short story in Sugar Among the Freaks, a collection of short stories set in Mississippi by Lewis Nordan.
- Mary Webb's novel "Precious Bane" set in rural 19th century Shropshire contains a scene in which Gideon Sarn becomes the Sin eater for his father.
- "The Ballad Of The Sin Eater" is a song by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. "The Sin Eaters" was also the name of an early musical project featuring Ted Leo and his brother, Danny Leo.
- "Sin Eater" is a song originally under the God's Robots side project of Nathan Bennett of PXL and Ryan Speck of SSMODKdd
Film and television
- An episode of Rod Serling's television show Night Gallery entitled "Sins of the Father" concerns a dying sin-eater and his wife tricking their son into eating his father's sins.
- The 2003 film The Order (titled The Sin Eater in some areas) starring Heath Ledger and Shannyn Sossamon uses the concept of sin-eating as the one of its central plot devices.
- The 2004 near-future science fiction film The Final Cut draws parallels between sin-eaters and the film's "cutter" (played by Robin Williams), who edits crimes and other "sins" out of the footage from implanted cameras in the bodies of the recently deceased to create a happy feature-length film for the funeral. The effect on the "cutter", however, is depression from the mental burden of "swallowing" the footage of so many sins.
- The 2007 film The Last Sin Eater , based on the novel by Francine Rivers.
- The 1979 made-for-TV movie The Incredible Journey of Doctor Meg Laurel starring Lindsay Wagner included a Sin Eater in the plot.
- In the 1970's "Ryan's Daughter" depicted a classic sin eating scene with Sir John Mills as the Sin Eater.