The Morbid Tradition of Sin Eating Was Every Bit as Terrifying as it Sounds

The Morbid Tradition of Sin Eating Was Every Bit as Terrifying as it Sounds

Trista - November 19, 2018

Jesus of Nazareth frequently taught of the need to have one’s sins forgiven before God, and much of the religion that bears his name concerns itself with the issue of how one can be forgiven. Of particular concern to the church, mainly as it grew and gained power over people and the culture, was of what the fate was of people whose sins had been forgiven for the most part, but who may have had unconfessed sins before they died. Several ideas, each more bizarre than the one before, emerged as to how to deal with this particular predicament.

The idea of purgatory developed as an intermediary place for people whose sins were forgiven but were not yet able to enter heaven, possibly because they had unconfessed sin before death. In the Middle Ages, before the Protestant Reformation, the practice of buying and selling indulgences was a means for the church to make money by essentially selling forgiveness. If someone had already died and was waiting in purgatory, you could buy an indulgence to get them to heaven more quickly. In some areas, particularly those with a strong Celtic, pagan background (notably Scotland and Wales), the idea of sin eating developed, possibly as a fusion between pagan culture and Christianity.

The Morbid Tradition of Sin Eating Was Every Bit as Terrifying as it Sounds
Two Old Mean Eating by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, one of the black paintings from the Quinta Del Sordo, Goya’s House, 1819-1823. Allposters.

The idea of sin eating was simple: someone was hired to “eat” another person’s sins. As a person lay dying, someone would place a piece of bread on his or her chest, which would “absorb” that person’s sins. However, where would that person’s sins go to after that? After all, bread only lasts for a few days at best. A local pariah, known as the sin eater, would come and eat the piece of bread, thereby “eating” the deceased person’s sin. The person who died would go to heaven, and the sin eater would get paid for his or her services.

Essentially, the sin eater traded his or her own soul in exchange for the bit of money earned by sin eating. He or she would absorb the sins of so many people that eternal damnation was assured. This concept was not the only example during the Middle Ages and beyond of people who traded their souls for material gain; the Faustian legend is about a man who sold his soul to the devil for another year of life on earth. Witches were believed to sell their souls to the devil in exchange for magical powers. What set the sin eater’s exchange apart was that he or she was able to allow another person to enter heaven.

The Morbid Tradition of Sin Eating Was Every Bit as Terrifying as it Sounds
A scene from The Last Sin Eater. The Last Sin Eater Movie/FoxFaith Films/elitereaders.

Today, anthropologists view the practice of sin eating as an aspect of magic that protected other people from harm. One might expect that they were respected for safeguarding people’s loved ones from damnation. Far from being appreciated for the valuable service that they gave to the community, however, sin eaters were believed to be defiled with the sins that they consumed. They didn’t merely absolve the deceased of their sins but actually absorbed them, effectively becoming sin on behalf of the community. On top of being outcasts in the next life, they were outcasts in this one, as well. It was not a pleasant job.

The Morbid Tradition of Sin Eating Was Every Bit as Terrifying as it Sounds
The Sin Eater by Tillinghast23. Deviant Art/elitereaders.

Sin Eaters Had to Work Clandestinely

The church has long had a firm grip on what it believes to be divine truth, whether that truth is biblical or not. Anyone who practiced a doctrine or ritual outside of the church’s purview was at best excommunicated, which meant that the guilty were banished from the church and would undoubtedly spend eternity in hell. At worst, they were tortured and killed. As you might imagine, sin eating wasn’t a practice advocated by the church. After all, it might have taken away money to be earned by selling indulgences! Anyone caught engaging in sin-eating could be harshly punished, so communities that adhered to the practice had to do so clandestinely.

That said, the ritual of sin eating was immensely important; without it, the dearly departed ran the risk of not being holy enough to enter heaven. As soon as someone was in the throes of death, the piece of bread would be placed on his or her chest. Once death had occurred, someone would run through the village to find the sin eater. This task alone could not be an easy job, as the sin eater was not allowed to look anyone in the eye, at the risk of forcing eternal damnation on whoever should behold him or her.

When the sin eater was brought to the home of the deceased, a stool would be brought out for him or her to sit on while eating the cursed meal. The “meal” might consist of nothing more than an old crust of bread. Once it was consumed, he or she would usually be paid (half a shilling, just a few dollars in today’s money, was the going rate) before being chased off, sometimes with yelling, sometimes with bricks or stones. Care had to be taken if a church minister was nearby, as the threat of execution always hung over the heads of those who engaged in the sin eating culture.

The Morbid Tradition of Sin Eating Was Every Bit as Terrifying as it Sounds
Scene from Night of the Living Dead. Blogspot.

So, were the ultimate social pariahs. The people believed that looking at them would lead to damnation, and they had absorbed so many sins that they would never be able to enter heaven. One might think that someone with that cursed a life might look to the church for a chance at, well, anything but that experience. Go to confession, buy an indulgence, anything that the church prescribed for one’s sins to be absolved. Unfortunately, sin eaters knew that coming into any contact with church authorities would mean certain execution. There was no way out.

As such, sin eaters were basically a sub-human species. They performed the ultimate service for the community, possibly the most important job there was, and were hated for it. Only the most destitute of all people would ever sign up for such a role, people who may have already thought of themselves as condemned for eternity for some sin that they had committed in the past which could never be absolved. They really were screwed.

The Morbid Tradition of Sin Eating Was Every Bit as Terrifying as it Sounds
A picture of a sin eating ceremony. Oriel Washington Gallery/omgfacts.

Sin Eaters Were the Ultimate Scapegoats

A scapegoat is essentially someone who, willingly or unwillingly, takes upon himself or herself the violent or otherwise sinful actions of another. The ultimate scapegoating act is that of sacrifice, in which sins are transmitted to an innocent animal, which is then ritually slaughtered. It can also occur through someone unfairly taking the blame for something that he or she did not do and being likewise punished. Sin eaters were the ultimate scapegoats, bringing upon themselves sins that they did not commit and the punishment for those sins, both in this world and the one to come.

Imagine a backed-up toilet that has been in that state for not weeks, not months, but years. Moreover, people keep using it, making its condition increasingly worse. That was pretty much the psychological state of the sin eater. He or she continually consumed the excrement of society, the people’s sins, and they just festered inside. His or her soul was believed to be so tarnished as to be beyond any redemption. Perhaps the only relief to be found was getting drunk at the end of the day with the small pittance that was earned from doing the vital task of eating sins.

The Morbid Tradition of Sin Eating Was Every Bit as Terrifying as it Sounds
A painting of a 19th century Scottish funeral called ‘A Highland Funeral’ by James Guthrie. omgfacts.

Still, without the sin eater to completely absolve the deceased of their sins, society simply would not function. People believed that not only did sin eaters enable the dearly departed to enter heaven, but they also prevented spirits from returning to earth as ghosts. After all, if their contented souls were able to reach heaven, they had no reason to wander the earth and haunt its inhabitants. The sin eater, however, would certainly return as a restless, wandering spirit. After all, he or she had absorbed the sins of so many people that entrance to heaven would indeed be denied.

There won’t be many more restless, wandering spirits of sin eaters roaming the earth for the time being, as the last known sin eater died in 1906. That person was Richard Munslow, and he ate the sins for the people of Shropshire in England. He was buried in all of the ignominies of a sin eater, but a century after his death, £1000 was raised to restore his gravesite and give him the recognition that he deserved for the sacrificial yet ill-informed service that he provided to his community.

The Reverend Norman Morris, who presided over the restoration, was pleased that Munslow was finally able to put his grave in “an excellent state of repair.” However, he also stated that he had no desire to reinstate the rather macabre ritual of sin eating. Though there is no official knowledge of the practice of eating sins today, there is no reason to believe that there is not a single community that practices it. Perhaps sin eating will resurface, or some other macabre, bizarre means of exculpating people of their sins.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Sin eater.” Wikipedia.

“The Last Sin Eater” by Francine Rivers. Tyndale House Publishers. 1998.

“Why Sin Eating Was Once The Worst Job In The World,” by Vincent Alocada. Elite Readers.

“History’s Worst Job: Village Sin Eater,” by Mariam Sharia. OMGFacts. Medium.Com. 2016.

“The Worst Freelance Gig in History was Being the Village Sin Eater,” by Natalie Zarrelli. Atlas Obscura. July 14, 2017.

“Last ‘sin eater’ celebrated with church service.” BBC. September 19, 2010.