Thursday, June 12, 2008

Scapegoats & Sin Eaters

"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." Prayer of the last sin eater of England, Richard Munslow.
I remember the first time I heard of 'sin-eaters' was during an episode called 'Sins of our Fathers'. The show first aired in 1972 on Rod Serlings' Night Gallery and the series survived in reruns for many years. The plot was set during the famine where a young Welshmen was required to feast upon the sins of Mr. Craighill to feed himself and his family. The dramatic ending of this episode is one of those artifacts of childhood that lies mostly dormant in my conscience; never fully formed but never quite without shape either.

For those not familiar with arcane Celtic folk-lore, the term 'sin-eater' refers to a person who, by an act of ritual consumption of bread and alcohol, removes the of sins of the deceased by taking those sins into himself, thereby allowing the departed to rest in peace.

The ritual was performed by the relative and the sin eater in the presence of the corpse. The sin eater would pray and receive a bowl of ale from the relative who passed the drink over the body of the deceased. A crust of bread is placed upon the chest of the corpse which is consumed by the sin eater. After praying, eating and drinking, the sin eater thereby takes the sins of the departed as his own.

One might think a profession as valuable as removing unforgiven sins might be thought of as a pretty swell guy. However, the 1926 book Funeral Customs by Bertram S. Puckle speaks of the sin-eater as a less-than-well-respected member of the community.
"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."
Given the sin-eaters lowly status in society, I assume nobody asked if he'd like a second helping and was promptly shown the door as soon as his work was done, probably very late at night entering and leaving via the back door.

The occupation of sin eater is fascinating on many levels, but I haven't thought of the subject since seeing that Night Gallery episode when I was a kid. However, when a friend jokingly called me his favorite 'scapegoat' I suddenly realized I never understood why "A person selected to bear the responsibility for a calamity' was called such a strange name. This sent me in a small quest that incidentally resurrected that formless artifact of my childhood that Rod Serling was responsible for.

A scapegoat was in fact a goat, and it's function was very similar to that of the sin eater. Leviticus 16 describes an ancient jewish ceremony performed on Yom Kippur (The Day Of Atonement) where the high priest would make a sacrifice of two goats. The first goat was slain within the temple to atone for the sins of the people and the second goat was selected as the medium for which the sins of Israel was placed upon. This sin-laden goat was then led out of the temple and 'escaped' into the wilderness, which is where the term (e)scapegoat comes from. The scapegoat was likely feeling very fortunate for himself after seeing what happened to the first goat in the temple. However he would not survive for long as he was followed by members of the community and thrown off the first high cliff they came across, which ensured the sin-carrying beast couldn't carry it's cargo back to it's rightful owners.

The sin eater and the scapegoat share many similarities.
  • Both are living carriers of transgressions against God they did not commit themselves.
  • They are 'cast out' of the community and never able to return.
  • Each goes through a magic ritual that serves to remove sin and makes them vessels of those sins.
Neither the sin eater or the goat appear to have many perks for being employed in this risky and apparently thankless profession.

If you think the tradition of sin eating is barbaric, you may do well to look up the traditions of the Catholic Church which ritualizes the magical transmutation of wine and bread into the blood and body of Christ (literally, not symbolically) and encourages the consumption of this flesh and blood as a means of personal salvation.

Care for a glass of blood and a bit of flesh? Or would you consider sharing a bit of bread and some beer with a corpse for an evening? What would you decide?

There are a many unanswered questions about sin-eaters. Was the practice of sin eating a purely pagan tradition or a warped Christian phenomena or more likely a strange mix of the two? It occurs to me that the sin-eater may have been a political remnant in the battle for Pagan supremacy over the Christian bid for dominance. Perhaps 'sin eating' was created as a foil to the apparently unique Christian monopoly on absolving sins.

After thousands of years of practice, the pagan priests couldn't suddenly say, "Oh! Sin forgiveness. Yeah, we do that too." The natural response would be "And why haven't you offered that before?" However, Pagans could create a ritual which guarantees a sin-free arrival in the afterlife through transference of sin into another vessel. Provided the chain was unbroken, even the sin eaters could enter the kingdom of heaven, so long as another sin eater were available to eat his sins as well.

Could we not consider the sin-eater as an incarnation of Christ himself? Certainly not the celebrated Christ who turned water into wine or resurrected the dead but rather, the Christ who must perpetually bear the cross of other mens sins as he walks slowly, as we all do, towards mortal death. The sin eater, rather, takes on the role of the hated and maligned figure of Jesus, not the loved and celebrated savior of mankind. He suffers the stations of the cross every step of his life, abandoned and uncomforted by his community even as he offers eternal salvation to his people. It is a compelling image if one is moved by the motif of anti-hero as hero.

Unfortunately, the practice of sin eating is not a well researched aspect of folklore. The last known sin eater died in the early twentieth century and whatever answers he had went with him to the grave -- and, unfortunately for him, without another sin-eater to share a last meal with.

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