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The term sin-eater refers to a person who, through ritual means, would take on by means of food and drink the sins of a household, often because of a recent death,
absolving the soul and allowing that person to rest in peace. In the study of folklore sin-eating is considered a form of religious magic.
Traditionally, it was performed by a beggar, and certain villages maintained their own sin-eaters. They would be brought to the dying person's bedside, where a relative would place a crust of bread on the breast of the dying and pass a bowl of ale to him over the corpse. After praying or reciting the ritual, he would then drink and remove the bread from the breast and eat it, the act of which would remove the sin from the dying person and take it into himself.
This ritual is said to have been practised in parts of England and Scotland, and allegedly survived until the late 19th or early 20th century in Wales and the adjoining Welsh Marches of Shropshire and Herefordshire, as well as certain portions of Appalachia in America.
Although the figure of the sin-eater has had various references in modern culture, the questions of how common the practice was, what regions of the world in which it was most common, and what the interactions between sin-eaters, common people, and religious authorities were, remain largely unstudied and in the realm of folklore.
Tlazolteotl, the Aztec goddess of earth, motherhood and fertility, had a redemptive role in the religious practices of the Meso-American civilization. At the end of an individual's life, he was allowed to confess his misdeeds to this deity, and according to legend she would cleanse his soul by "eating its filth".
A local legend in Shropshire, England, concerns the grave of Richard Munslow, who died in 1906, said to be the last sin-eater of the area:
"By eating bread and drinking ale, and by making a short speech at the graveside, the sin-eater took upon themselves the sins of the deceased". The speech was written as: "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".
The 1926 book Funeral Customs by Bertram S. Puckle mentions the sin-eater:
"Professor Evans of the Presbyterian College, Carmarthen, actually saw a sin-eater about the year 1825, who was then living near Llanwenog, Cardiganshire. 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.
This unfortunate was held to be the associate of evil spirits, and given to witchcraft, incantations and unholy practices; only when a death took place did they seek him out, and when his purpose was accomplished they burned the wooden bowl and platter from which he had eaten the food handed across, or placed on the corpse for his consumption".
The 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica states in its article on "sin eaters":
"A symbolic survival of it (sin eating) was witnessed as recently as 1893 at Market Drayton, Shropshire. After a preliminary service had been held over the coffin in the house, a woman poured out a glass of wine for each bearer and handed it to him across the coffin with a 'funeral biscuit.'
In Upper Bavaria sin-eating still survives: a corpse cake is placed on the breast of the dead and then eaten by the nearest relative, while in the Balkan peninsula a small bread image of the deceased is made and eaten by the survivors of the family.
The Dutch doed-koecks or 'dead-cakes', marked with the initials of the deceased, introduced into America in the 17th century, were long given to the attendants at funerals in old New York. The 'burial-cakes' which are still made in parts of rural England, for example Lincolnshire and Cumberland, are almost certainly a relic of sin-eating"