The Sin-Eaters (a preview)

Many apologies to subscribers who received a notification of a new post earlier today. Unfortunately this was an error on my part. I was working on an upcoming essay and managed to hit the “publish” button in error well before the work was done.

So I’ve unpublished, and will try to get on with finishing up the post itself. It’s actually part of a big long-term project and it’s going to take some time to complete, I’m afraid – but since I’ve piqued your interest now, I’ll just put up the introduction as a bit of a teaser until the rest of the work is actually finished…

A Welsh funeral of 1814, showing the custom of passing food across the body of the deceased. Hand-coloured engraving by I. Havell for The Cambrian Popular Antiquities

On an unknown day in an unknown year, sometime in the last part of the eighteenth century, a man whose name we do not know came riding along the south shore of the River Dyfi.

It was already early in the evening, and he was a stranger in the country – which lies on the coast road from Harlech to Aberystwyth, in one of the most remote and most Welsh stretches of Wales. To his north squatted the mountains of Snowdonia. To the west lay the grey waters Irish Sea. And, immediately to the rider’s south, the vast peat mire that the locals knew as Cors Fochno, and the unromantic English called Borth Bog, stretched away into the gathering darkness.

Welsh Hovel at Machynllaeth - etching by George Cuitt the Younger 1814, National Gallery of Art Washington
A Welsh Hovel at Machynllaeth, only a dozen miles from Borth Bog, sketched in 1814. Etching by George Cuitt the Younger, from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

It was a potentially dangerous place to be as night drew in. The stranger, who was English, had been warned to “ride far round this pitchy morass, for no horse ever ventured among the peat-pits,” but though he tried to follow these instructions, he quickly realised he was lost. He was fortunate that the far-off light he used to navigate his way around the edges of the mire turned out to be “a pleasant cottage taper,” and not the dreaded Canwyll Corph – the corpse candle, a Welsh will o’ the wisp that drifts over marshy ground and has lured many travellers to their deaths.

Still, the cottage where the candle burned was not quite the welcoming inn that the visitor had dreamed of, and it held horrors of its own. As the Englishman drew closer, “hoping for lodging,” he saw that a corpse lay just inside the door, with a plate on its chest scattered with bread and salt. Then came “the sounds of wailing within, and soon a woman came out into the dead night, late as it was, and cried a name at the top pitch of her wild voice.” Receiving no reply, she gathered up an armful of straw from the floor, set it down by the side of the path and lit it, “the usual signal of a death in the house.” And, after a lengthy pause, the traveller caught the distant shout of a response, carried on the blustery coastal wind, then “saw at last the motion of what seemed a foggy meteor moving towards their standing point.”

Some moments later, the shape resolved itself into a “wretched being” – a tattered wraith of a man who ducked into the woman’s cottage. This, the visitor discovered later, was the local sin-eater, an outcast who “lived alone in a hovel made of sea-wreck and nails of such, between sea-marsh and that dim bog, where few could approach by day, and none dared by night, whether for the footing, or the great fear, or at least awe, which all felt for the recluse.”

What, though, was a sin-eater? What did he do, how did he live – and how did he come to be associated with the recently dead? The author of this same account offered answers to these questions: the sin-eater of Borth, he explained, was a member of a class of outcasts, “past redemption, lost to all hope of salvation.”  His job was to eat the bread placed on the corpse’s chest, to grasp hold of the cadaver’s hand, and, with the help of a muttered prayer, release the dead man’s soul to travel on into the afterlife, unburdened by its sins. But these acts had consequences. The ritual left this “desperate being” behind, “more dead than alive,” and ever more feared and shunned. So far as the local people were concerned, the sin-eater did possess the power to strip the weight of earthly wrongdoings from the dead. But he could do so only at the cost of heaping the sins of others onto his own, ever more burdened, soul…

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