Triggering the First Controversy, 1875

Triggering the First Controversy, 1875#

In November, 1875, an article, author unknown, appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine on the subject of “Legends and Folklore of North Wales”. Although it offered no new information on the subject of the sin-eater, it did bring the tradition to wider attention. And in so doing triggered what we might refer to as the first controversy as the historical existence, or otherwise, of this peculiar practice.

But before we introduce the article that spawned the “first sin-eater controversy”, let us first review an earlier article in Blackwood’s magazine from 1818 “On Some Popular Superstitions in Wales”.

Blackwood’s Magazine, 1818#

Over eight or so pages (p188-196), the article entitled “On Some Popular Superstitions in Wales” by T. P. C. of Bristol, provides various reported personal stories and reminiscences collected in Wales presumably during the early years of the 19th century.

The article opens with reflection on the relative recognition of Scottish and Welsh folklore, before introducing a previously little known Welsh work as a possible prompt for more serious studies into the collection of Welsh traditions.

Mr Editor

The popular superstitions of the Scotch Highlanders have been often and ably treated of, —and many are the singular and striking stories on record, illustrative of their imaginative character. In Wales, the popular superstitious creed cannot but be poetical, and probably similar, in many striking points, to that of Albyn. I am but little conversant with the history of the Welsh, and am unable to supply you with much authentic information on the subject of their popular superstitions ; but now I venture to throw out a hint to the zealous natives of the Principality, that some detailed philosophical account of their ghosts, spirits, demons, fairies,&c. could not but participate of deep and universal interest.

I lately laid my hands upon a curious enough little book, entitled, “A Relation of Apparitions of Spirits, in the County of Monmouth, and the Principality of Wales ;” By the late Rev. Edmund Jones of the Tranch.— The worthy Divine maintains, in a prefatory Vindication of his Treatise, “That they are chiefly women, and men of weak womanish understanding, who chiefly speak against the account of spirits and apparitions. In some women it comes from a certain proud fineness, excessive delicacy, and a superfine disposition, which cannot bear to be disturbed with what is strange and disagreeable to a vain mind. But why should the daughters of mother Eve be so averse to hear of the adversary Satan, with whom first conversed, and whom she first believed, and was deceived by him ?” With the Rev. Edmund Jones, a disbelief in ghosts is equivalent to disbelief of immortality, and all incredulous persons are by him uniformly called Sadducees. He has collected a number of well-authenticated ghost-stories to overwhelm the Sadducees with confusion, more particularly those who are such thorough-paced infidels as to despise, not only corpse-candles and Kyhirraeths, but itinerant preachers and baptist meetings. Yet I suspect, that in his work, silly, and absurd, and ill arranged as it is, we can discern the leading features of the Welsh superstitions. As Mr Jones’ book. is circulated only among the lower orders of his own countrymen ; as few copies of it have ever penetrated into England, and probably none at all into Scotland, I have thought that few selections from a work so little known, may perhaps amuse many of your readers more than any original dissertations with which I could have favoured them. Perhaps, too, they may be the means of directing the attention of your more learned contributors to a new field of inquiry, alike interesting to the philosopher and the antiquarian, as to those who seek, in their reading, for nothing more than amusement, I have classed my extracts under different heads. In Mr Jones’ book no attempt at any sort of arrangement is made. The fears with which his mind was agitated, were too powerful to leave him either power or wish to distinguish dogs of hell from fairies, or demons from witches.

The stories then appear in the following sections: I. Witch Stories. II. Stories of Ghosts, Evil Spirits, Demons, &c. III. Stories of Fairies. IV. Dogs of Hell. V. Corpse Candles. VI. The Kyhirraeth.

Blackwood’s Magazine, November, 1875#

In the November edition of Blackwood’s Magazine, volume 118, pages 590-607, an unnamed author provided an article on the Legends and Folk-lore of North Wales.

The article is a long one and is presented without section breaks to separate out different types of tradition.

As we might expect, the tradition of the corpse-candle is one of the traditions featured:

We have heard it asserted that the premonitory token of a death, known as “corpse-candles,” is known only to the diocese of St David’s. But in the interesting publication ‘Bygones’ already alluded to we find a remarkable account of their incidence at Criggion, [Bygones, 1871-3, p. 36. The account has been somewhat shortened and altered qua language, to suit the limits of our article.] in the county of Montgomery and diocese of Hereford, and we have little doubt that the superstition has small regard for distinctions of North and South Wales.

The account from Bye-gones is one we have met previously, but as the language has be revised, let us hear the story again:

The statement of an old inhabitant will explain its nature and peculiarities. “During a heavy snow, when he was a boy, his mother, as she went up-stairs to bed, pointed out to him a light proceeding slowly from a neighbouring farm-house towards the church. A servant coming up-stairs at the time was also witness to it. The light traversed a line where there was no road or gate into the churchyard, and in a moment or two all the windows of the Church were lighted up, and then gradually the light went back by the course it had come, and vanished at the farm-house. Its tenant, they knew, was unwell, but, as the snow was so deep, it was not till the second day that they heard he had died at the very time they saw the light. The snow continued, and the roads became more and more blocked up, so that, on the day of the funeral, it was found impossible to take the procession by the usual route, and a portion of the church-wall had to be taken down, to admit the entrance of the bier. That portion of the wall was the exact spot which the deponent saw the light cross on the evening of the death.”

A footnote then suggests it is best for the wary traveller to avoid contact with a corpse candle if they can.

According to Borrow, Wild Wales, vol. iii. p. 223, these corpse-candles are dangerous to those who casually meet them. Men die from contact with them, then the candle is abroad on another errand.

As well as the predictive-of-death corpse candle, various death bed traditions are also described:

Of all the many death-tokens we are acquainted with —such as the “hooting of owls,” “the solitary crow at the tree,” “the howling of dogs,” “the crowing hen,” the sudden stopping of the family clock-none is so weird and impressive as this of the corpse-candles, none less soluble by natural causes, or even by the freaks of human credulity.

Among deathbed customs prevalent in the Principality, it is not easy to explain that which removes from under the dying head a pillow that has pigeon’s feathers in it; nor is it by any means a sufficient reason for the custom, widely prevalent, of placing a deep pewter plate filled with salt upon the chest of the corpse immediately after “laying out,” that it is done to prevent the body swelling. Salt is rather, as is explained by the learned and curious Brand, the emblem of eternity and immortality, and as such a sort of “satan-fuge,” for “the devil loveth no salt in his meat,” and the righteous are “the salt of the earth.” As Herrick writes-

“The body’s salt the soul is, which, when gone,
The flesh soone sucks in putrefaction.”

But then we reach the paragraph that was to trigger a whole series of letters regarding the actual existence, or otherwise, of one very particular tradition: that of the “sin-eater”.

The First Trigger

It is a darker and narrower superstition, still surviving in North and South Wales, and the Border, which at a funeral hands over to a hireling, who lives by such services, a loaf of bread, a maple bowl full of beer or milk, and a sixpence, in consideration of which he takes upon him all the sins of the defunct, and frees him or her from walking after death. It is hard to say which is most degraded, the employers or the employed, in such a transaction. The scapegoat in this case is currently called a “Sin-eater.” Of such it would be no stretch of imagination to believe that, like Sion-y-Cint, the Welsh Faust, they had sold themselves to the devil.

This all seems innocuous enough, restating the tradition as we have heard it described before, albeit without any provenance. That the tradition is claimed to be “still surviving” might perhaps pique the interest of the curious reader, as might the claim that either, or both, the “the employers or the employed” might be “degraded”. And then there is an appeal to that ultimate sense of jeopardy, that it is not hard imagining that the sin-eater might have “sold themselves to the devil”.

The article then went on, without paragraph break, to mention some burial rituals.

Amidst odd graveyard etiquette, we may notice that in some parishes of Montgomeryshire it is all-important to rest the corpse under the shade of the mountain-ash, whose magical virtue lies in the belief that it was the wood of the Saviour’s Cross. More common is the usage of mourners and others who attend a Welsh funeral, carrying a sprig of rosemary and dropping it into the grave with the last words of the service. These floral rites are very pretty, and we hope not soon likely to die out. Who that has any acquaintance with Monmouthshire can easily forget Flowering Sunday? Or who would wish to see discontinued the lingering Shropshire custom of hanging garlands in the churches at the death of a maiden? …

But charming though it is, the continued tradition of casting a sprig of rosemary into a grave, was not to provoke consequences that the mention of the sin-eater tradition did: consequences in the form of a public correspondence debate that was to play out over the next four months.