What Is Sin-Eating?
Sin-eating is a ritual in which the sin eater took on the sin of a dead person, thus ensuring said individual’s untroubled passage into Heaven.
Similar rituals can be found in a wide range of cultures in a wide range of times and places. For example, the term scapegoating comes from a Biblical ritual in which one goat was sacrificed and another goat released into the wilderness, thus carrying away a community’s sins with it. Likewise, the Aztec goddess Tlazolteotl was believed to be capable of both inspiring vicious desires and cleaning the sin that resulted from indulging vicious desires, but the limits of her mercy meant that said ritual could be performed no more than once in a person’s lifetime. Having said this, sin-eating was most often practiced in Wales of the 18th and 19th centuries, though it is known to have existed in both England and Scotland as well.
How Is Sin-Eating Carried Out?
The process of sin-eating is simple and straightforward. In short, the sin-eater would be provided with a small amount of bread, a small amount of either beer or some other alcoholic drink, and a small amount of compensation in exchange for their services at a funeral. Once the food and drink had been consumed from the belly of the corpse, the sin-eater would utter a rote statement, thus signalling the completion of the ritual. Unsurprisingly, the people who were willing to risk their souls in this manner or to agree to such a one-sided metaphysical bargain were the very poorest in society. On top of that, they became social pariahs, not least because of the belief that they became more and more evil with each use of their services.
Sin eaters rarely work just with the dead. Many of them, because of their closeness to nature and isolated/rural location, were also skilled exponents of folk medicine and plant spirit shamanism.
The person visiting the sin eater would find, first of all, a confessor to whom they would announce their sins like a priest in Catholic church. After having heard the visitor, the sin eater might then offer advice from ‘the land of the dead’ for how these sins could be recompensed. The visitor might be advised to pray or make an offering not to the spirits but to the person he/she had harmed. A sin eater often offered a potion of healing plants might to the client in order to balance and soothe the soul. This is where sin-eating practice recognises a mind-body-spirit connection: plant medicine itself would work on the troubled body and mind as well as healing the wounds of the soul.
Who Was the Last Sin-Eater?
In time, the practice of sin-eating faded out. As a result, a farmer named Richard Munslow from Ratlinghope, Shrewsbury became the last known sin-eater in the UK.
Curiously, it doesn’t seem like he revived the tradition because of financial issues. Instead, Munslow revived the practice of sin-eating after the deaths of four of his children, which has caused some to speculate that he started sin-eating as a way of coping with his grief. Whatever the case, he is unusual in that he is a sin-eater who received recognition for his services, as shown by how interested individuals can pay their respects to his grave at St. Margaret’s Church in the village where he lived.