“Scapegoating worked in practice while it still had religious powers behind it. You loaded the sins of the city on to the goat’s back and drove it out, and the city was cleansed. It worked because everyone knew how to read the ritual, including the gods. Then the gods died, and all of a sudden you had to cleanse the city without divine help. Real actions were demanded instead of symbolism. The censor was born, in the Roman sense. Watchfulness became the watchword: the watchfulness of all over all. Purgation was replaced by the purge” – J.M. Coetzee
Oscar Wilde once said, “The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future”. Until you die. Then you’ve got problems, especially if you were an accomplished sinner, as pretty much every religion that ever posited an afterlife concurs that the quality of your eternity is determined by the content of your corporeality. Put on your bow ties and berets, and keep the hemlock handy. We’re going to pretend to be philosophers for a second. In order to sin you have to be a moral agent (that is, have moral responsibility for your actions). To be held morally responsible for your actions, you have to have free will i.e. if all your actions are causally determined, how can you held morally culpable for your own actions? Thus, arguments about moral responsibility generally break down into incompatibalist (free will and determinism are mutually exclusive) and compatibilist (free will and determinism can co-exist) views. The incompatabilist line of thinking has a certain hard logic to it. The compatibilist perspective has bright guys as varied as Krishna and Spinoza arguing that we are rational creatures, and that because we are aware of the many natural forces acting upon our wants and desires, we bear the responsibility to heed the dictates of our own conscience e.g. “the devil made me do it”, but after all he is the devil, and knowing that I probably shouldn’t have listened to him. Civilization is largely based on the premise that people can choose not to behave like animals. As dubious as this proposition may be given your college buddies, the notion that there is right and wrong (although the actions associated with such are largely a relative function of culture) is more or less universal when it comes to us hairy apes living together. That means that although there may be some wet blanket incompatibalist ethicists out there earning tenure by being contrary (adherents of the Italian proverb, “If you crave an audience, start a fight”), our species has largely believed in the compatibalist version of moral responsibility ever since we got tired of tigers picking us off individually. Okay, let’s take the berets off. We look like idiots. In plain English, as a species, we believe in individual moral responsibility. This makes it difficult to justify a peculiar critter called the “Sin Eater” (in Christian traditions), for which there are numerous cross-cultural analogues. Basically, for a token fee, the Sin Eater takes the blame for all the horrible stuff you did while you were partying on Earth, so you can have a restful repose in the afterlife. And they don’t even get a government pension.
No more curious custom ever existed than that performed in ancient times by the person known as the “Sin-eater,” who attended a funeral and took upon himself, for a small consideration, the sins of the deceased, whose soul might thus be delivered from purgatory. The sin-eater, generally a poor old man, came to the door of the house in which the deceased lay, and one of the family took out to him a “cricket” (or low stool) upon which he sat, facing the door. He was then given a groat to put in his pocket, a crust of bread to eat, and a bowl of ale, which he drank at a draught. After this ceremonial performance, he rose from his seat and solemnly pronounced “the ease and rest of the soul departed, for which he would pawn his own soul.” Surely the idea of this remarkable custom was borrowed from that of the Jewish scapegoat (Hackwood, 1911, p209-210).
For the right price, you can get a clean slate as far as the divine justice system is concerned. You don’t have to do anything but die. Your concerned relatives will take care of things for you. Notions regarding the transference of sin began to appear as soon as we started getting sedentary. Our modern concept of the “scapegoat” is actually not all that modern. Of course, it used to be a tad bit more literal. In 24th century B.C. Syria, purification rituals associated with the King’s wedding involved apotropaic magic (magic intended to remove evil influences) that transferred sins to a goat, who was then driven out into the desert to die, symbolically carrying away evil. Similarly, in Ancient Greece, natural disasters were often followed by the selection of a local ne’er-do-well, called the pharmakos who was cast out of the community (often beaten or killed) as a purge of the community sins that were thought to have precipitated events. Ancient Israelite practice (as interpreted from Leviticus) on the Day of Atonement was to select two unsuspecting goats, sacrifice one goat to the Lord (who apparently finds goat especially tasty, and really who doesn’t with a nice curry), and place the sins of all Israelites (through some sort of ritual confession) onto the second goat, who was then sent out into the wilderness to perish. It sort of sucked to be a goat in the ancient Near East. Apart from the whole dying in the desert thing, goats had to take on the burden of our moral failings. And it’s not like they even had a choice in the matter. Equivalent ancient Hindu funeral rites at least involved a human being who had a choice, and received some compensation.
At a Hindu funeral in Sindh the relations, in the course of the march to the place of burning, throw dry dates into the air over the corpse. These, we are told, are considered as a kind of alms, and are left to the poor. On returning to the house, after the cremation, the first thing done is to offer the couch, bedding, and some clothes of the deceased to a Karnigor who is in attendance. A Karnigor is a low caste-man,—according to some, the offspring of a Brahman father and a Sudra mother. North of Hydrabad his appearance and conduct resemble those of the servile, south of that city those of the priestly, order. The condition of the gift is that the Karnigor must eat a certain sweetmeat prepared for the occasion. If he refuses, the ghost of the dead man would haunt the place. This means that the funeral rites would have been incomplete. The Karnigor has, therefore, the game in his own hands; and, rejecting the first advance, he demands not only all the articles of dress left by the departed, but fees into the bargain. “When his avarice is satiated, he eats four or five mouthfuls of the sweetmeat, seldom more, for fear of the spirit. After this, he carries off his plunder, taking care not to look behind him, as the Pinniyaworo [head mourner] and the person who prepared the confectionery wait until he is fifteen or twenty paces off, break up all the earthen cooking pots that have been used, and throw three of the broken pieces at him, in token of abhorrence.” Can we fail to be reminded of the Sin-eater? (Hartland, 1894, p294-295).
A professional sin-eating (although less with the eating, and more with the praying) position has also been attested to in Turkestan. Where the scapegoats of the ancient Near East were used to purge the sins of entire communities, the Hindu Karnigor and Turkestan’s Iskachi take on the sins of individuals. Rituals absolving group culpability for sins (like the scapegoat) would seem to fall more in line with an incompatiabilist view of morality, in so far as they hypothesize that entire communities unavoidably suck at being decent and are deterministic jackasses, so much so that we may as well use a broad brush and a goat on the odd chance that our stern gods don’t notice the sleight of hand. To take on someone’s individual sins presupposes that said person is morally responsible for their own actions, and can be specifically targeted, either for blame or for purposes of sin extraction. Otherwise, you should all chip in on a goat and hope for the best.
To give an instance of the further development of this idea in the East, we would observe that Dr. Schuyler in his Turkestan speaks of a custom existing in that country, which is worth quoting in this connection. He says: “Life in Ach Kurgan was rather dull: amusement there was none, all games being strictly forbidden. Such things as jugglery, dancing, and comic performances are, I am told, forbidden in the Khanate, the licentious Khan having seen the error of his ways, and having put on, for his people at least, the semblance of virtue. Of praying there was very little: occasionally in the afternoon or at sunset some few pious individuals would spread out a rug and make their supplications to Allah. One poor old man, however, I noticed, who seemed constantly engaged in prayer. On calling attention to him, I was told that he was an iskachi, a person who makes his living by taking upon himself the sins of the dead, and thenceforward devoting his life to prayer for their souls. He corresponds to the sin-eater of the Welsh border (Murray-Aynsley, 1900, p148-149).
Which brings us to the best documented version of the sin eater in the Christian tradition, which appears in Wales. Many of our scrupulously precise funereal practices have echoes of these ritual purges, but as we are somewhat egomaniacal little primates, our reasons for wanting to absolve the deceased of their mortal crimes are a bit self-serving, in so far as we figure that if someone is unhappy with their afterlife (as you would expect a sinner to be what with all that hellfire and brimstone that became popular in the Middle Ages), they would be more likely to want to hang around and haunt us. Hence our concern for finding a way to properly dispose of a dead man’s sins. “A number of observances, still in vogue, are designed to prevent the ghost from returning to the place of his former abode. Thus it is imperative that the corpse be carried out of the house in a certain way, that the exit of the soul be facilitated by various methods, that the dead man’s guilt be taken upon some one else, as happens in the case of the sin-eater”(Krappe, 1962, p279).
The existing evidence in support of the belief that there were once Sin-eaters in Wales I have carefully collated and (excluding hearsay and second-hand accounts), it is here produced. The first reference to the Sin-eater anywhere to be found is in the Lansdowne MSS. in the British Museum, in the handwriting of John Aubrey, the author. It runs thus: ‘In the county of Hereford was an old custom at funerals to hire poor people, who were to take upon them the sins of the partly deceased. One of them (he was a long, lean, ugly, lamentable poor rascal), I remember, lived in a cottage on Rosse highway. The manner was that when the corpse was brought out of the house, and laid on the bier, a loaf of bread was brought out, and delivered to the Sin-eater, over the corpse, as also a mazard bowl of maple, full of beer (which he was to drink up), and sixpence in money, in consideration whereof he took upon him, ipso facto, all the sins of the defunct, and freed him or her from walking after they were dead’ (Sikes, 1880, p325).
Now six-pence doesn’t seem like a whole lot of money to take the weight of someone else’s moral depravity, which is why the sin eater was frequently a down and out vagabond. Of course, if everybody knows that you’ve taken on countless sins, they probably aren’t going to want to hang out with you at parties. Of course, the Scottish probably figured that the Welsh shouldn’t be the only one’s to benefit from the services of a sin eater, and consequently had their own version.
There seems some evidence of this custom being in vogue at Llandebie, near Swansea, until about 1850, where the ceremony was not unlike that described as having been practised in the west of Scotland. ‘There were persons,’ says Mr. Napier, ‘calling themselves sin-eaters, who when a person died were sent for to come and eat the sins of the deceased. When they came their modus operandi was to place a plate of salt and a plate of bread on the breast of the corpse and repeat a series of incantations, after which they ate the contents of the plates and so relieved the dead person of such sins as would have kept him hovering around his relations, haunting them with his imperfectly purified spirit, to their great annoyance and without satisfaction to himself’ (Gomme, 1892, p117-118).
Even in stolid and stuffy England, the sin eater made appearances.
He was invited to attend the funeral of a sister of a farmer, near Crasswall, and to his surprise, was invited to go upstairs to the room where the body was lying. He went, with the brother and four bearers. At the bottom of the bed, at the foot of the coffin, was a little box with a white cloth covering it. On it were placed a bottle of port wine, opened, and six glasses arranged around it. The glasses were filled, and my informant was asked to drink. This he refused, saying that he never took wine. “But you must drink, sir,” said the old farmer, “It is like the Sacrament. It is to kill the sins of my sister” (Leather, 1912, p121).
A Bavarian variation, which had all the trappings of traditional sin eating, including delightful little treats called “corpse-cakes”, eaten by guests at a funeral, rather than imparting the onus of sin onto loved one’s, instead was thought to transfer the virtuous qualities of the dead to his kinfolk (the idea being that the positive stuff about an individual was thereby retained in the family). This actually harkens back to the very ancient warrior ethos that consuming one’s foes accrues to the consumer their power. “But it is a fact worthy of mention that the characteristics usually taken over from the dead are those regarded as laudable. The uncivilised warrior, and those like-minded with him, are desirous of assuming the nobler traits of a corpse’s ebbing individuality, but as a rule they lay no claim to its weaknesses: they have no inclination to become the scape-goat of the departed and make themselves responsible for his evil qualities. A natural proneness to shun what is contemptible and of ill report seems to be the chief cause of this tendency; but it may also be, in some degree, attributable to the feeling that defects and faults are, as these words really imply, failures, lacks, and omissions in human character, voids unfilled by virtues, in fact” (Peacock, 1896, p281-282).
In the Highlands of Bavaria we are told that when the corpse is placed upon the bier the room is carefully washed out and cleaned. It was formerly the custom for the housewife then to prepare the Leiclien-nudeln, which I may perhaps freely translate as Corpse-cakes. Having kneaded the dough, she placed it to rise on the dead body, which lay there enswathed in a linen shroud. When the dough had risen the cakes were baked for the expected guests. To the cakes so prepared the belief attached that they contained the virtues and advantages (Voriheile) of the departed, and that thus the living strength of the deceased passed over by means of the corpse-cakes into the kinsmen who consumed them, and so was retained within the kindred (Hartland, 1892, p145).
Sin eating is curious in that is seems weirdly incompatible with our fundamental human notions of right and wrong, that is, individual moral responsibility. In fact, it seems like procuring the services of a sin eater would be regarded as a pretty deadly sin in and of itself, an unscrupulous con game to avoid divine retribution, and probably ultimately unnecessary, for as Bishop Desmond Tutu observed, “We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low.” The more important question I want answered is, obviously, how does sin taste?
Gomme, George Laurence, 1853-1916. Ethnology In Folklore. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1892.
Hackwood, Frederick William, 1851-. Good Cheer: the Romance of Food And Feasting. London [etc.]: T.F. Unwin, 1911.
Hartland, E. Sidney, “The Sin-Eater”, Folklore Society (Great Britain). Publications. London v.30, p145-158, 1892.
Hartland, Edwin Sidney, 1848-1927. The Legend of Perseus: a Study of Tradition In Story Custom And Belief. London: D. Nutt, 1894.
Krappe, Alexander Haggerty, 1894-1947. The Science of Folk-lore. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1962.
Leather, Ella Mary. The Folklore of Herefordshire. Hereford: Jakeman & Carver, 1912.
Murray-Aynsley, Harriet, 1827?-1898. Symbolism of the East and West. London: G. Redway, 1900.
Peacock, Mabel. “Executed Criminals and Folk Medicine”. Folklore Society (Great Britain). Folklore v.7. [London: Folklore Society] 268-321, 1896.
Sikes, Wirt, 1836-1883. British Goblins: Welsh Folk-lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends And Traditions. London: S. Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1880.