To Begin At the Beginning

To Begin At the Beginning#

Here, then, is where this journey started for me. The setting of a story told by Ceri Phillips for the (virtual) Beyond the Border storytelling festival in 2020.

I came across the video a long way down the results list whilst searching for something other, (Welsh storyteller harp, if I recall correctly), and then struggled to find to again more directly (the recording’s permissions are set such that it is not that easy to find! In case this is deliberate, I’m not sharing the link here…).

The following is a transcript of the opening of the story, where the scene is set:

Hello there guys, my name’s Ceri Phillips, at croeso ar Dinefwr, welcome to Dinefwr. I’m here in front of the old ice house on the Dinefwr estate and I thought it might be a great place in order to tell you a ghost story. Now a long long time ago there was a tradition that is said to have originated here in Wales.

Now this tradition to a modern listener might sound a little bit macabre and even quite scary but back in the day it was seen as a necessity that was the tradition of having a sin eater in the community.

Now the tradition went a little something like this: essentially if somebody in your family had died you would call in a “sin eater”. The night before the funeral you would lay the body of the recently deceased out preferably in its coffin or casket on a table in your home’s largest room. You would set up some candles, and you would light them. You would then proceed in the evening before the witching hour at midnight, the night before the funeral, to produce a paltry meal anything you could spare - a bowl of cawl, or broth, maybe a slice of bread or two, and put it in a bowl. Then you would get a cup of beer, small beer, something you could easily afford. Then you would set it in front of the body on the table, and some have even suggested that many put the meal on the corpse itself. You would then sit and wait for the sin-eater to arrive; and once you heard the knock on the door, you would let him in. He would enter the largest room of the house, you would do the necessary prayers, whatever you’d like to send the body on its way, and the sin eater would start the ritual, which involved the eating of the bread, or the soup, or the cawl, and the drinking of the beer, while standing over the body. The sin-eater would then place the bowl and the cup, now empty, onto the corpse.

Now what did this ritual signify? Well, the sin eater, quite literally in the minds of people back then, who are highly superstitious, would be devouring the sins of the deceased, thus allowing for them to enter the kingdom of heaven with a clean bill of moral health.

Now how were these sin eaters treated? Because this was a necessity for the people back then to have in their community. Well, given that they were so full of not only the sins of your dead relative, but everyone’s dead relatives in the community, they were treated like pariahs: forced to live outside of the community, at the very edges of the village, or the town, in all the rural areas of Wales. And even in the counties across Offa’s Dyke, on the Welsh marches of England they were. They had to live in hovels, in cottages that were ramshackle and run down, because no one could come and help them if they needed some DIY doing. These cottages and ramshackle hovels were quite often in forests like I’m standing in now.

But in the case of the story I’m about to tell you, it was up on a mountain side. This sin eater, the sin eater of the Swansea valley of Cwmtawe, lived on the Daryn mountain, above the village of Ystalyfera. And this particular sin eater would consume the sins of all the deceased in the whole of the Swansea valley. From Pontardawe, up to the edge of the Brecon Beacons. So he was particularly unclean in the eyes of the natives.

He lived around 1850; and all the parents of the valley would tell their children, especially, to stay away from the sin eater of Ystalyfera.

You couldn’t even look at him; and you must avert his eyes when he ventured forth into the community.

But 1850, the age of reason had already descended upon south Wales. So many parents didn’t believe in such traditions. Such was the case with the parents of Mog Bach, little Morgan…

And as that tale began, a ghost tale that explored how a sin-eater might be relieved of all the sins that he bore, so mine begins too, albeit taking a path of a completely different kind…

In the meantime, if you feeling a little peckish, how about some cawl?

Cawl - Traditional Welsh Recipe

According to the venerable editors of Wikipedia, “[i]n modern Welsh the word is used for any soup or broth; in English it refers to a traditional Welsh soup, usually called cawl Cymreig in Welsh. Historically, ingredients tended to vary, but the most common recipes are with lamb or beef with leeks, potatoes, swedes, carrots and other seasonal vegetables. Cawl is recognised as a national dish of Wales.

For a recipe, see for example how to make cawl