The Plight of the Sin Eaters, by C.M. Saunders
My latest book, The Wretched Bones, has just been released. It's the first in an unconnected series following the adventures of a likeable (I hope) but deeply flawed (because aren't we all?) paranormal investigator called Ben Shivers and his cat Mr Trimble. This debut outing concerns a series of strange and tragic events at an exclusive countryside getaway for the rich and famous called the Regal Retreat, which are eventually traced back to a particularly dark time in local history when orthodox religion and the 'old ways' collided with terrifying results. There was mystery, mayhem, magic and murder, lot's of murder, the ripples of which echo through time and are still felt today.
Unlike a previous novel of mine called Sker House, The Wretched Bones is entirely fictional, though it does incorporate some historical elements, a good example being a phenomenon called sin-eating. Traditionally, the concept of the sin-eater was most prevalent in the Welsh Marches, the historic border between England and Wales, but could well have been a feature of rural communities elsewhere in Britain and even mainland Europe. There is even evidence of similar practices being carried out by indigenous people in the Americas and the basic concept is prevalent among many ancient cultures. The origins of the sin eater are unknown, but various schools of thought suggest they can be traced back to the crucifixion, the Jewish idea of manifesting sins on goats, or even to the practice of nobles giving bread to the poor in exchange for prayers for a deceased loved one. Regardless of its beginnings, the ritual started to spread in Britain as early as the 17th century and probably peaked around a hundred years later. According to Encyclopædia Britannica, sin eaters of some description were active as late as 1893 (1).
The sin-eater was someone who, through ritual means, would take on the sins of the recently deceased, thereby absolving the soul and allowing the dead to either rest in peace or be granted safe passage to the afterlife, depending on their religious persuasion. In The Wretched Bones, the character of Elizabeth Thrower performs this ritual on the living. In this manner she comes to know the sins and secrets of the villagers around her, and this alone makes her a target. This little detail isn't historically accurate, as usual protocol was for the family of the departed to summon the local sin-eater during the mourning period between death and burial when they would turn up and eat or drink off the dead body. The details of the actual ceremony differed from place to place. One documented account from Llanllyfni, Gwynedd, Wales, says the family of the deceased would place a potato or piece of cake that had just been removed from the oven onto the chest of the corpse and leave it there to cool in the belief it would absorb sin. This food would then be placed under the Coeden Bechod (Tree of Sin) where,it would later be consumed by the resident sin-eater. It was important that the food be made using only the best ingredients, and every crumb should be eaten.
In anthropology, as well as folklore, this is classified as an apotropaic ritual, defined as an attempt to invoke a kind of 'protective' magic to safeguard against harm or evil influences. Sin-eating was a very secretive and esoteric affair, one of those things that everyone knew went on but few talked about. Perhaps for that reason it was viewed with suspicion and paranoia by outsiders, especially in the era of the Reformation and later the witch trials, and often became associated with black magic and devil worship. This is the crux of The Wretched Bones.
In many ways being a sin eater seems like a thankless task, especially when you consider that they were effectively shunned by the came community they served. Sometimes the sin-eater was paid for his or her efforts, which made it a form of employment. But in most cases it was more of a vocation and besides, no amount of compensation could make up for the social stigma as it was believed that with every ritual they performed the sin-eater grew ever more despicable and ugly under the weight of all the sins they carried. They were segregated from the community, often forced to live in seclusion, and generally treated like a cross between a necessary evil and a dirty secret.
In recent years, sin-eaters have made a belated impact on popular culture being the topic of several Hollywood movies such as the Sin Eater (also known as The Order, 2003) and The Last Sin Eater (2007), which was based on a novel by Francine Rivers and set amongst a community of Welsh settlers in America. In the The Bourne Legacy (2012), a central character who leads a US government black ops program describes himself and his team as sin-eaters, doing the "morally indefensible but absolutely necessary thing, so that the rest of our cause can stay pure.”
That just about sums things up.
(1): Vol. 25, 11th ed, Cambridge University Press, 1911, p146-47.
The Wretched Bones: A Ben Shivers Mystery is out now on Midnight Machinations, an imprint of Grinning Skull Press.