Way back in time, no one is really sure how long and exactly where the practice was common, there was a particularly strange rite performed over the body of the dead. Basically, anyone eating a meager meal of bread from the coffin or corpse of a sinner could transfer the deceased’s sins onto that person.
I was reminded of this particularly strange ceremony on reading The Gallows Curse which is, in itself, a bloody and macabre story. It opens with an innocent girl being tricked into eating the sins of a returned crusader who had……well he had many sins to be absolved. It added that the eater of sins would not be affected if they were innocent. Read the story, I don’t want to spoil it. It also touched on the idea of the Castrati but that is for another time.
However the stories of someone taking on other’s sins, while never mentioning the innocence idea, do include the theory that the Sin eater becomes nastier, both in body and spirit, as he takes on more and more sin. Thus he was ostracised by his neighbours. In certain areas, to meet the eye of a sin eater was to invite a curse. The practice was still documented right up to the end of the 1800’s
Of course this ceremony has echoes in the idea of Jesus and the ritual meal at the heart of Christianity. The Heath Ledger film (See Picture.) tried to present the act as a forbidden catholic rite performed by renegade priests but it was never that. It would be easy, one would think, for the medieval mind to equate the two ideas but the Eater was usually a peasant and was paid for his services, though not well. He got a free meal too of course.
The story of Dorian Gray also carries the idea of sin corrupting body.While Gray is physically beautiful his picture takes on all the evil attributes caused by his sins. In this case the picture is his Sin Eater. The idea of hell and damnation is not as prominent and Gray and his picture are returned to their proper state as he dies, but the idea of transference is there.
The Eater could be seen as an alternative Priest, each village or district had it’s own according to the legends. Presumably one would use the services of this person if the deceased were unshriven or maybe a suicide where there was no forgiveness possible. There may have been other reasons but it must have been an unpopular choice of career. A few shillings, some bread and the condemnation of your fellow man.
I first found out about this particular rite in one of the horror anthologies that were so popular in the 1970’s. It told the basic story of a Sin eater at work. There were funereal drapes, candles and a corpse. There was the food laid on the cadaver. It was atmospheric but not a great story. The twist, however, was quite chilling. The body, we are told, was a Sin eater too and his colleague, knowing the Church would never sanction confession and forgiveness for him, was eating his accumulated sins. The tagline was “Who eats the sins of the sin eater.”.
Of course, as an atheist, I do not believe in sin and forgiveness by a non-existent god. Nor, for that matter, do I believe in transference of sins. The concept of Sin was and is a control mechanism to maintain the status quo with the church doing the controlling. Even so the idea of an Sin Eater, riddled with the sins of others, and then passing those sins onto another was slightly scary.
Imagine you could take on other’s maladies and disabilities and carry them until you die. Sin, to the mind of these people was as real as illness and disease. It was even worse as sin could make you suffer even after death. That must have been how the Sin eater felt all the time, that he was doomed to hell for eternally if no one took his sins.
The idea died out eventually but there was a report of a sin eater who died in 1906. Maybe he even ate the sins of other sin eaters in his career. The report is here.
Scary indeed if he truly believed he carried all these sins to the grave.