The Sin-Eater


I recently came across mention of a strange custom which existed among our ancestors, know as sin-eating. The sineater was a person who for a trifling payment or remuneration, given in the form of food, took upon him the sins of a deceased person. It was usual for nearly every village to have its professional sin-eater. As soon as a death occurred this official was notified, and, repairing straightway to the house of the deceased, he was given at the door a groat and also bread and ale. Having partaken of the latter, he took upon him the sins of the deceased, for whom he had thus pawned his own soul. An earlier and cruder form of the ceremony was to bring the sineater into the chamber of the deceased, where he received, sometimes with money, food across the body of the corpse. Having eaten the food in the presence of the dead, he was driven out of the house with execrations and abuse, sticks, cinders and every available missile being hurled at him. The superstition of sin-eating, which has been widely practised in various countries, prevailed in the Highlands of Scotland, Wales and England, especially in Shropshire and Hereford, down till the close of the last century. It is supposed to be survival from the expiatory use of the scapegoat mentioned in the 16th chapter of Leviticus.

The Irish Times, February 24th, 1931.