Nantlle Valley History



The Sin Eater

An image depicting the practice of 'sin eating'Across the whole of Wales and the Borders also the sin-eater had a prominent role in funeral ceremonies but written evidence is quite rare. During the 19th & 20th centuries the majority of historians tended to deny the existence of such a person. As usual, the victors got to write the history, maintaining that the very idea was clear evidence of the ignorance of ordinary folk. How could anyone believe in such an idea , let alone take part in the ceremony in their modern, enlightened age? Especially, under the influence of the Nonconformists, rejecting the old beliefs was not enough. In order to create an ideal image for the Welsh, according to the standards of the age, they would deny the existence of so many of our old customs, or, worst of all, they would refuse to speak about them at all (this was chiefly in answer to the insulting insinuations which were called "The Betrayal of the Blue Books: i.e. Government reports of the 1840’s which gave a very unfavourable view of the state of Wales).

There were different ceremonies in every area:

According to one local account of the 'Coeden Bechod' (The Tree of Sin) in the Parish of Llanllyfni, the family of the deceased would place a potato or cake that had just been taken out of the oven, onto the chest of the corpse and leave it there to cool. People believed that the food would absorb all the sins of the departed. This food would then be placed under the Tree of Sin, where, at a later time, it would all be consumed by the sin-eater as he took upon himself all the sins of the deceased. Also, a small amount of money would be left for the sin-eater who was usually a person shunned by decent folk.

In other parts of Wales and the Borderland, the sin-eater would come to the house of the deceased in person and eat the cake prepared for him beside the coffin in the presence of the mourners and accept the cash. He would then have to leave amid the curses of the mourners.

It was most important to give food made from the best ingredients, to ensure that every last crumb was eaten. Hence the practice here in the parish of Llanllyfni of offering a potato in its skin underlines the importance of the wholeness of the gift and its accursed ingredients.

Some say that the custom still continues...

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