Following the First Controversy#

In the months following the flurry of correspondence that constituted the first sin-eater controversy at the end of 1875 and start of 1876, the correspondence pages then largely fell silent on the matter. However, more general discussion of folklore and traditional customs continued to be popular, with the publication of several books on the subject and, in 1877, the launch of The Folk-Lore Society.

Around and About#

In the April 12th, 1876 issue Bye-Gones, p43, for example, we find the following column on exorcisms in Wales which derives from the Lady Verney column on Old Welsh Legend and Poetry:


(From Old Welsh Legends and Poetry in “Contemporary Review,” by Lady Verney.) An old clergyman at the beginning of this century made a profession of exorcism. He was once asked how he could lend himself to such superstition among his flock, and replied that he could not alter their belief which made them miserable, and that a 1 he did was to give them comfort and assistance. He then gave an account of what had once happened to himself. A farmer’s wife camo to tell him that they were half ruined, every thing about their place went wrong without any cause, their fences were broken, their beasts were lamed or destroyed, their poultry died, while within the house the china came to grief, the linen was burnt; she knew they were cursed, arid entreated him to come and undo the spell. He went up to the farmhouse, which was on a lonely mountain, and desired to be left alone in the kitchen. Suddenly the poor woman rushed in to say that while she was preparing tea three tea-cups had been mysteriously broken, and the servant-girl had appeared with a goose hanging to her apron. He sat considering with his head on his hand, and then desired the girl might be sent in to him. He looked at her sternly, and said, “You know something about this.” She denied it vehemently: “You want to break my character.” “You had better confess,” he said, solemnly; whereupon she became still more violent. At last he drew out his pocket book and began to write, If you don’t tell me the truth directly I will make a pair of horns to grow out of your head.” She then fell on her knees, entreating for mercy, and confessed that a neighbour, anxious to get the farm, had bribed her to do ail the mischief possible in order to induce the owners to believe themselves bewitched and to leave the place. The clergyman made her promise that nothing of the kind should ever happen again; if it did, he said, he would make the horns grow instantly. He then went out and told the farmer he had uncursed the place, and all went on rightly from that time; but he had never revealed the reason until that moment.

In another case a clergyman, celebrated for exorcisms, was sent for to a house haunted by the devil close to the sea-shore. He went and spent three night3 there alone, after which he announced that he had done the deed, “but that the devil was the hardest he had ever had to deal with.” He never would reveal what took place. It was probably some smuggling transaction. He died rich, as he was well paid for such operations.

Towards the end of 1876, a “new comer” to Cardiff enquired of the readers of the Western Mail in the edition of November 20th, 1876, p3, to what extent ancient burial and marriage customs prevailed, including that of the sin-eater, but their appeal seems to fall on deaf ears:


Sir ,— Is there among the numerous intelligent correspondents of the Western Mail one who can inform me to what extent the ancient burial and marriage customs of the Welsh still prevail? I allude particularly to the customs of watching over the dead in the manner called by the Irish “waking” – the placing of salt on the breast of the corpse, and the performance of the sin eater. I am told that these customs were still prevalent in Carmarthenshire, and other like neighbourhoods strongly Welsh, within a few years back. Do they still prevail ? A late number of the Dublin University Magazine represented the customs of this kind in Yorkshire as being only just extinct. No doubt your correspondents in Carmarthenshire could enlighten me as regards the same here; or the learned “Morien” might consent to devote a paragraph or two to the subject, which is full of interest to readers who have come to Wales from other parts. The bidding to weddings I believe is still practised in some sections, and the galloping to church may be also, but of this I have not heard. NEW COMER. Cardiff, Nov. 17.

There do not appear to have been any replies.

An article in the South London Press of Saturday 14 October 1876, p2, on “Funeral Rites and Wrongs”, describing funeral formalities made brief mention of the sin-eater ritual, although the implication is that the belief may not be regarded as “common knowledge”. The relevant part of the article is quoted at length in Notes & Queries, December 23rd, 1876, Vol 6 Iss 156, p505:

The Sin-Eater.—

This odd term, with the explanation (quoted in Brand’s Antiquities), recently turned up in a newspaper article advocating “funeral reform”:—

“Our good friend the opulent cheesemonger, or our other good friend the wealthy drysalter, is interred with ceremonies befitting a baron. Says an authority on the subject :— ‘The mutes who stand at the door represent the two porters of the castle, with their staves in black ; the man who heads the procession, wearing a scarf, is the herald-at-arms ; the man who carries the plume of feathers on his head is an esquire, who bears the shield and casque with its plume (of feathers) ; the pall-bearers, with batons, represent the knight companions-at-arms ; and the men walking with wands the gentlemen ushers’; and so on throughout the rest of the performance. There are, however, distinct indications of revolt against this absurdity, and much beside that pertains to the burial of the dead. We have won the right of being buried with or without Church sanction in consecrated or unconsecrated ground, and with entire liberty as to the sort of service to be adopted on the occasion. Those who desire it can have the attendance of a priest at the grave, but he is no more indispensable than a sin-eater. ‘And what,’ the reader asks, ‘is a sin-eater?’ Well, he is not a person easy to find in these days, but followed an indispensable occupation in the past. He was generally an old man, the Pariah of a village, who, before every funeral, went and stood at the door of the house, where was given him a sixpence, a loaf of bread, and a wooden bowl of beer or milk. And as the coffin passed out, he ate the bread and swallowed the draught, and in so doing took upon himeelf the sins of the departed, and went his way. We are well rid of the sin-eater, who throve in the last century ; but there still linger around us customs and usages hardly less preposterous.”

G. E. Watson. St. George’s Place, Dublin.

The correspondent appears unaware of previous mentions of the sin-eater in earlier volumes of Notes & Queries, although a reply in the January 6th, 1877, Vol 7 Iss 158 issue, p14, is annotated with earlier references. The reply itself draws parallels with a Yorkshire tradition

Tne Sin-Eater (5th S. vi. 505.)—

Mr. Watson may perhaps not be aware of very curious or almost identical parallel to this Yorkshire religious ceremony, superstition, or whatever it may be called, in the book on Turkistan recently published by Mr. Schuyler. He found it, if I remember right, among the Mussulmans of Khokand as a regular part of their religious observances.

A. C. B.

[See “N. & Q.,” 1st S. vi. 390, 541.]

The work referred to is Eugene Schuyler’s Turkistan, published in 1877. We will review the related item elsewhere.

In Notes and Queries, Vol 9 Iss 212, dated January 19th, 1878, p48, a query on the matter of customs surrounding “bread and salt” appears:

Bread and Salt.

Some years since I call for the first time upon Canon Percy, of Carlisle, at his residence there. When refreshment had been offered and declined, he said, “You must have some bread and salt,” with some remarks to imply that it was the way to establish a friendship. These were then brought in and eaten, without anything to lead one to suppose that this was an unusual custom at the house. Was this a practic peculiar to himself or to his family? or is such custom prevalent in the North, or in any other part of England? I have not met with it else-where.

Ed. Marshall, F.S.A

Although this does not directly relate to the ritual that was often described in a sin-eater context, I wonder if we might not co-opt this story to create a fictional sin-eater tale of our own involving a priest who takes various sincs unto himself, but then passes them on to his unkowing parishioners!

James Napier on Folk-lore of the West of Scotland, 1879#

In full length work by James Napier published in 1879, Folk lore: or, superstitious beliefs in the west of Scotland within this century, p60-62, several Scottish death customs were described:

After death there came a new class of superstitious fears and practices. The clock was stopped, the looking- glass was covered with a cloth, and all domestic animals were removed from the house until after the funeral These things were done, however, by many from old custom, and without their knowing the reason why such things were done. Originally the reason for the exclusion of dogs and cats arose from the belief that, if either of these animals should chance to leap over the corpse, and be afterwards permitted to live, the devil would gain power over the dead person.

These include a ritual involving a placement of salt on the breast of the corpse:

When the corpse was laid out, a plate of salt was placed upon the breast, ostensibly to prevent the body swelling. Many did so in this belief, but its original purpose was to act as a charm against the devil to prevent him from disturbing the body. In some localities the plate of salt was supplemented with another filled with earth. A symbolical meaning was given for this ; that the earth represented the corporeal body, the earthly house, — the salt the heavenly state of the soul. But there was an older superstition which gave another explanation for the plate of salt on the breast. There were persons calling themselves “sin eaters” who, when a person died, were sent for to come and eat the sins of the deceased. When they came, their modus operandi was to place a plate of salt and a plate of bread on the breast of the corpse, and repeat a series of incantations, after which they ate the contents of the plates, and so relieved the dead person of such sins as would have kept him hovering around his relations, haunting them with his imperfectly purified spirit, to their great annoyance, and without satisfaction to himself. This form of superstition has evidently a close relation to such forms of ancestor-worship as we know were practised by the ancients, and to which reference has already been made.

Sitting-up with the body and watching over the corpse was also common:

Until the funeral, it was the practice for some of the relations or friends to sit up all night, and watch the corpse. In my young days this duty was generally undertaken by youths, male and female friends, who volunteered their services; but these watchings were not accompanied by the unseemly revelries which were common in Scotland in earlier times, or as are still practised in Ireland. The company sitting up with the corpse generally numbered from two to six, although I have myself been one of ten. They went to the house about ten in the evening, and before the relations went to bed each received a glass of spirits ; about midnight there was a refreshment of tea or ale and bread, and the same in the morning, when the relations of the deceased relieved the watchers. Although during these night sittings nothing unbefitting the solemnity of the occasion was done, the circumstances of the meeting gave opportunity for love-making. The first portion of the night was generally passed in reading, — some one reading aloud for the benefit of the company, afterwards they got to story-telling, the stories being generally of a ghostly description, producing such a weird feeling, that most of the company durst hardly look behind them for terror, and would start at the slightest noise. I have seen some so affected by this fear that they would not venture to the door alone if the morning was dark. These watchings of the dead were no doubt efficacious in perpetuating superstitious ideas.

As to the rationale for the custom?

The reasons given for watching the corpse differed in different localities. The practice is still observed, I believe, in some places ; but probably now it is more the result of habit — a custom followed without any basis of definite belief, and merely as a mark of respect for the dead ; but in former times, and within this century, it was firmly held that if the corpse were not watched, the devil would carry off the body, and many stories were current of such an awful result having happened One such story was told me by a person who had received the story from a person who was present at the wake where the occurrence happened. I thus got it at second hand. The story ran as follows ; — The corpse was laid out in a room, and the watchers had retired to another apartment to partake of refreshments, having shut the door of the room where the corpse lay. While they were eating there was heard a great noise, as of a struggle between two persons, proceeding from the room where the corpse lay. None of the party would venture into the room, and in this emergency they sent for the minister, who came, and, with the open Bible in his hand, entered the room and shut the door. The noise then ceased, and in about ten minutes he came out, lifted the tongs from the fireplace, and again re-entered the room. When he came out again, he brought out with the tongs a glove, which was seen to be bloody, and this he put into the fire. He refused, however, to tell either what he had seen or heard; but on the watchers returning to their post, the corpse lay as formerly, and as quiet and unruffled as if nothing had taken place, whereat they were all surprised.

Slightly tangential to the immediate theme, but relevant in the wider context, it is perhaps also worth remarking on the foundation of the The Folk-Lore Society, in 1877.

A Minor Skirmish, Eddowe’s Journal, 1878-9#

Discussion around the tradition thus appears to have fallen back into obscurity. In the summer of 1878, a short piece appeared in the August 14th, 1878 edition of Eddowes’s Shrewsbury Journal, that restated the observations of Bagford’s letter, but it drew no immediate response:


An usage called sin eating (see Hosea iv. 8) undoubtedly arose in Roman Catholic times, and, however it may have been limited to the clergy in early ages, was afterwards continued, and practised as profession, certain persons called sin eaters. In letter from John Bagford, dated 1715, printed in Leland’s Collectanea, there is the following account of sin eater:— “Within the memory of our fathers, in Shropshire in those villages adjoining to Wales when a person died, there was notice given to an old ‘sire’ (for so they called him) who presently repaired to the place where the deceased lay and stood before the door of the house, when some of the family came out and furnished him with cricket (or stool) on which he sat down facing the door. Then they gave him groat which he put in his pocket; a crust of bread which ate; and a full bowl of ale which drank off at a draught. After this he got from the cricket, and pronounced with a composed gesture, “the ease and rest of the soul departed for which he would pawn his own soul.” Among the Lansdowne MSS. in the British Museum are statements, in Aubrey’s own handwriting, to the same purport.


Several months later, in an issue of the same periodical, and dated Christmas Day, December 25th, 1878, p6, the same author picks up the tale again with an ostensible correction:


SIN EATERS (August 14, 1878).

In a former article on this subject I spoke of the practice as having arisen in Roman Catholic times, this statement I have to modify, for I read, in Canon Kingsley’s Health and Education p. 224. thus— Plato speaks of lower grade of Orphic priests, Orpheotelestai, who used to come before the doors of the rich and promise by sacrifice and expiatory songs release them from their own sins and those of their forefathers, and such (the Canon says) would be but too likely to get a hearing from the man who was afraid of a weasel or an owl.” Superstition has a far-reaching pedigree. A similar practice, initiated by Orphic priests, is continued by ignorant Papists (who servilely copied most if not all of the follies of paganism), and is found existing in Shropshire villages in the 18th century. Alas! poor human nature !


This note attracted an immediate reply in the following New Year’s Day issue, dated January 1st, 1879, a short, teasing response that requests more direct evidence of the sin-eating tradition:


SIN EATERS (25 December. 1878). Can “Boileau” give any proof of the truth of his assertion that Sin Eating existed in Shropshire in the eighteenth century ? Can he name single place in the county where it was practised either in the eighteenth, or any other century ? Until he does, Shropshire Sin Eating must be regarded myth.

Proud Salopian.

Boileau responds later that month, in the edition of January 29th, 1878


SIN EATERS (January 1st, 1879). “Proud Salopian” asks (January 1st, 1879) for proof respecting this practice.

As provenance, they cite their original correspondence describing the tradition (which cites Bagford’s letter in Leland’s Collectanea):

If he will refer to Shreds and Patches of Ang. 14th. last year, he will see what authority I relied on.

as well as providing a perhaps more convenient reference in the guise of the 1813 edition of Brand’s Popular Antiquities:

In Brand’s Popular Antiquities vol ii., p. 155-6, quarto edition of 1813, he will find all the proof which can be given ; and Bagford adds, “How can a man think otherwise of this than that it proceeded from the ancient Heathens?”

Boileau then includes the Aubrey quote, with which we are increasingly familiar:

Additional details are also hinted at courtesy of Pennant, also described in Brand’s Popular Antiquities:

In the same book. Brand’s Popular Antiquities p 193, I note there is farther account of this custom from Pennant’s MS. relative to North Wales.


Unfortunately, this does not satisfy Proud Salopian, who in their letter in the following edition, of February 5th, 1879 is keen to learn of a more contemporary description of the tradition:


SIN EATERS (29 January, 1879)

Boileau stated that the custom of Sin Eating was practised in Shropshire the eighteenth century, and I asked him to mention any place in the county where it ever obtained. He is evidently unable to this, and has to seek instances in Herefordshire and Wales. The charge against Shropshire is, therefore, clearly “not proven.”

Proud Salopian.

Thus far, I have been unable to find any signs of a further response from Boileau.

British Goblins, Early Reviews#

Towards the end of 1879, reviews started to appear for a new book on “Welsh Folk-Lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions” in the form of Britsh Goblins, which appears to have had a publication date of 1880, by the Hon. Wirt Sykes.

For example, in The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard of December 12th, 1879, p3, the Literature section opens with the following:

BRITISH GOBLINS Welsh Folk-Lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions; by the Hon. Wirt Sykes, United States Consul for Wales. London, Sampson Low & Co.

THIS is, to us, one of the most attractive books of the season. Not only has Mr. Sykes carefully culled from published sources —such as Peter Roberts’s Cambrian Antiquities, Jones’s “Apparations,””Cymru Fu,” “Cambro Briton,” “Bye-gones” “Archaeologia Cambrensis” all that relates to his subject, but he has gone about amongst the people of South Wales for himself, and taken down from the lips of the elders there old stories of bye-gone customs and once prevalent superstitions. May be that the author places too much confidence in some of those narratives; whether he does or not, they add greatly to the interest of his book, and readers can judge for themselves how much to put under the head of “national superstitions,” and how much to the credit merely of the foolish fancies of the narrators. We are glad to see that Mr. Sykes has investigated the “Sin Eater” fable. We don’t believe an instance of this practice was ever proved to have been observed in Wales, or Shropshire either, and the author, after giving all the “illustrations” he can gather, says:-

“Such is the testimony. I venture no opinion upon it further than may be conveyed in the remark that I cannot find any direct corroboration of it. I have not only seen no reference to it in Welsh writings, but I have never met with any unlettered Welshman who had ever heard of it.”

[The review then goes on to cover other matters covered in the work.]

The Wrexham Guardian of December 27th, 1879, p5, qualifying the author as United States Consul for Wales, describes the work as follows:

It has been known for several months past that Mr. Wirt Sikes, who has written so much about Wales and its people in the American magazines, was engaged upon an important work treating of a most picturesque side of Welsh character. This work is now before us, in a handsome volume of 428 p.p. illustrated with several drawings full of life and movement from the pencil of a Welsh artist, Mr. T. H. Thomas. The scope of the volume is clearly indicated to sell by its title, given above. It is evidently the result of long study of Welsh literature, and of patient inquiry among the Welsh peasantry. It is divided into four books, entitled respectively “The Realm of Faerie,” “The Spirit World,” “Quaint Old Customs.” and “Bells, Wells, Stones, and Dragons.” It is impossible in the limits at our disposal to do justice to a work of this character, but it may in general be said to cover the field of folk-lore somewhat exhaustively. While not intended to to deal with the legends of the Arthurian period, these are often and gracefully referred to for purposes of interesting comparison with what the author terms the “humble goblins,” of Welsh fireside tails— the fairies, ghosts, superstitious customs, and cromlech-hunting elves. Fairies are classified in five divisions, thus: Ellyllon. or elves: Coblynau, or mine fairies: Bwbachod, or household fairies, Gwragedd Annwn, or fairies of the lakes and streams; and Gwyllion, or mountain fairies. Numberless fairy tales are told, either as taken down from the lips of the peasantry with whom the author has conversed in his rambles about the Principality, or translated from rare and curious old Welsh volumes.

“An example of the latter, taken almost at random” is then quoted in full.

The second part of the work, on ghost stories, is then briefly reviewed:

In Book II., “The Spirit World,” the author has managed to bring together a collection of the most blood-freezing ghost stories that we have ever had the pleasure of coming across. We have little doubt this will be with many readers the most popular part of the book. The ghosts are also regularly classified, and comparisons drawn between these and like creature of popular fancy in other lands. The chapters on death-omens are especially absorbing, delineating the peculiariaties of the corpse candle, the gwcarch yrhibyn, the tolaeth, the teulu, or goblin funeral, and many others.

In so doing, the reviewer quotes the following observations made by Sikes regarding the veracity of the tales:

It is on this head observed–

That these various portents are extensively believed in at the present day there cannot be a doubt; with regard to the most important of them, I am able to testify with the fullest freedom; I have heard regarding them story after story, from the lips of narrators whose sincerity was expressed vividly in face, tone. and behaviour. The excited eye, the paling cheek, the bated breath, the sinking voice, the intense and absorbed manner — familiar phenomena in every circle where ghost storie are told- evidenced the perfect sincerity, at least, of the speakers. It is unueccessary here to repeat, what I for my own part never foreet, nor, I trust, does the reader, that Wales is no exception to the rest of the world in its credulity. That it is more picturesque is true, and it is also true that there is here an unusual amount of legend which has not hitherto found its way into books.

The review of the third section, on traditions, makes note of the mention of the sin-eater tradition:

A pleasant change of subject is found in the Third Book, “where a large number of quaint old customs are described. The sin-eater, a custom long associated with Wales by writers in this field, is treated off at some length, and the evidence pro and con regarding it carefully collated.

The reviewer then comments favourably on the stance with which Sikes appears to have regarded the customs he encountered, quoting Sikes directly:

It is evident that Mr. Wirt Sikes, in the true spirit of scientific inquiry, has no preconceived theory to establish, and he frankly says he can find no evidence that there ever was such a custom in Wales. “The subject has engaged my attention from the first moment I set foot on Cambrian soil, and I have not only seen no reference to it in Welsh writings, but I have never met any unlettered Welshman who had never heard of it.”

Another tradition is then mentioned that is, however, believed to be extant:

Concerning the custom of bundling (courting a-bed), on the other hand, his testimony is that it is still practised in certain rural neighbourhoods of Wales. He adds “It is only by breathing the very atmosphere of an existance whose primitive influences we may thus ourselves feel, that we can get a just conception of underlying forces which govern a custom like this. Of course it is sternly condemned by every advanced moralist, even in the neighbourhoods where it prevails.” An instance of bundling is given which came to the author’s knowledge so lately as 1877. In this connection he pertinently recalls certain laws of the ancient Britons regarding courtship, which were so severe that “any other issue to courtship than marriage was practically impossible.” Many of the quaint old customs in Wales, our author tells us, while they “appear to be meaningless, to people of average culture, are in truth replete with meaning:”

In terms of scientific understanding of tradition, the reviewer continues:

However trivial they may seem, they are very seldom the offspring of mere fooling. The student of comparative folklore is often able to trace their origin with surprising distinctness, and to evolve from them a significance before unsuspected. In many cases these customs are traced to the primeval mythology. Others are clearly seen to be of Druidical origin. Many spring from the rites and observations of the Roman Catholic Church in the early days of Christianity on Welsh soil — where, as is now generally conceded - the Gospel was first preached in Great Britain. Some embody historical traditions, and some are the outgrowth of peculiar states of society in medieval times. Directly or indirectly, they are all associated with superstition, though in many instances they have quite lost any superstitous character in our day.

Several examples are then give of “popist” traditions, including a notable Twelfth night custom – Mary Lwyd (Mari Lwyd) – involving a horse’s head…

Among those which the author considers to be of Papal origin, but which have now no moral significance is the following :—

Among Twelfth Night customs none is more celebrated than that called Mary Lwyd. It prevails in various parts of Wales, notably in Lower Glamorganshire. The skeleton of a horse’s head is procured by the young men or boys of a village, and adorned with “favour” of pink, blue, yellow, &c. These are generally borrowed from the girls, as it is not considered necessary the silken fillets and rosettes should be new, and such finery costs money. The bottoms of two black bottles are inserted in the sockets of the skeleton head to serve as eyes, and a substitute for ears is also contrived. On Twelfth Night they carry this object about from house to house, with shouts and songs, and a general cultivation of noise and racket. Sometimes a duet is sung in Welsh, outside a door, the singers begging to be invited in; if the door be not opened they tap on it, and there is frequently quite a series of awen sung, the parties within denying the outsiders admission, and the outsiders urging the same. At last the door is opened, when in bounces the merry crowd, them the Mary Lwyd, borne by one personating a horse, who is led by another personating the groom. The horse chases the girls around the room, capering and neighing, while the groom cries, “So ho, my boy—gently, poor fellow:” and the girls, of course, scream with merriment. A dance follows — a reel, performed by three young men, tricked out with ribbons. The company is then regaled with cakes and ale, and the revellers depart, pausing outside the door to sing a parting song of thanks and good wishes to their entertainers.

The Wrexham Guardian reviewer closes the review with high regard:

British Goblins is evidently the work of an author well versed in the folk-lore of other countries, especially in that of Germany and Scandinavia. The copious index at the end of the volume, and the lists of contents before each chapter, add much to the usefulness of the book. It is dedicated, most appropriately, to the Prince of Wales, and its popularity in Wales is certain to be great — not because all the author’s views will be entirely agreed with, but because of the amount of information it affords on many subjects hitherto little known, the deeply interesting materials of which it is composed and the sympathetic and generous appreciation of all that is best in the Welsh character which Mr. Wirt Sikes has so constantly displayed in his literary work.

A later review, in The North Wales Express of January 23rd, 1880, p8, opens with the observation that it is unusual that it has taken someone who isn’t Welsh to have created such a work:

In perusing this handsome volume, which, by the way, is specially dedicated to the Prince of Wales, we are struck by the singular fact that it has remained for a stranger to bring together in proper form the vast amount of fairy lore and superstitions with which Welsh history at every period is enriched. But is not the less advantageously handled, for this great task has fallen to the lot of a writer who has thoroughly investigated the legendary lore of other countries, and his masterly treatment and classification have stood him in good stead in the present work.

The reviewer then praises Sikes for having put the work in, and that he is to be credited for it. His emotional distance and cultural independence might also be seen as being of benefit in producing such a work:

Mr Sikes apparently has suffered nothing from the probable disadvantage of investigating the traditions of a country to which he was until lately a perfect stranger, for his energy has enabled him to turn over every stone which may yield to him any fragmentary stories, from the immense mass of which he has compiled a bulky volume but on the other hand he starts upon the work untainted by those sentimental considerations which in the case of a Welshman may have influenced his treatment of some of the matter inevitably brought into the work.

This allows him to treat the subject matter in an unbiased and straightforward way:

We cannot help thinking that in the hands of many Welsh writers an apologetic tone would probably influence the ludicrous side of the subject, whilst in another direction the work may have suffered by the suppression of much of what Mr Sikes has brought very clearly to light.

A review of the content then follows:

The author in his preface admits that Wales is the cradle of fairy legend, and that from this field have been borrowed many of the first subjects of composition in the literature of all the cultivated peoples of Europe. With such enormous wealth Mr Sikes has moulded these stories into a pleasing form, and we are enabled to read with delight of the revels of elves, of fairies, and of their marvellous doings in every part of the Principality, the depredations of goblins, the horrors of ghosts, and the miraculous virtues of stones, wells, &c., which exercised an influence upon the superstitious.

Content which is too rich and comprehensive to quote from, and which should be enjoyed directly from reading the book itself:

It would be too stupendous a task for us to recapitulate the contents of the book, or to extract some of the best stories told therein. The book must be perused to be duly appreciated.

Instead, the reviewer provides an overview of the book’s structure, which might allow a potential reader to get a flavour for the treats it contains, include the legend of the sin-eater, which, the reviewer observes, is treated in a fair and balanced way:

But we may state that it is divided into four sections. Book I. deals with the Realm of Faerie, which again is sub-divided into different classes. The author has classified the fairies, and it will astonish many to know that these airy beings were so multifarious in their kind. We have the household faries, the lake faries, the mountain faries, &c., and the peculiarities of each are shown by a great number of stories. In Book II., “The Spirit World,” the author has managed to bring together a collection of the most blood-freezing ghost stories that we have ever had the pleasure of coming across. We have little doubt this will be with many readers the most popular part of the book. The ghosts are also regularly classified, and comparisons drawn between these and like creatures of popular fancy in other lands. The chapters on death-omens are especially absorbing. A pleasant change of subject is found in the Third Book, where a large number of quaint old customs are described. The Sin-eater, a custom long associated with Wales by writers in this fields is treated of at some length, and the evidence pro and con regarding it carefully collated.

Finally, the illustrations are credited:

The illustrations by Mr Thomas add to the attractions of the book, and the work of the printer has been exceedingly well done.

So, exactly, did Wirt Sykes have to say for himself about the sin-eater. “the evidence pro and con regarding it carefully collated”, and other death traditions?

British goblins : Welsh folk-lore, fairy mythology, legends and traditions, Wirt Sykes, 1880#

In the heading to Chapter VII, from p321, onwards, of the 1880 edition of British goblins: Welsh folk-lore, fairy mythology, legends and traditions, Wirt Sikes describes lists the topics to be covered in the chapter

Death and Burial— The Gwylnos— Beer-drinking at Welsh Funerals — Food and Drink over the Coffin — Sponge Cakes at Modern Funerals — The Sin-eater— Welsh Denial that this Custom ever existed — The Testimony concerning it — Superstitions regarding Salt— Plate of Salt on Corpse’s Breast— The Scapegoat— The St. Tegla Cock and Hen — Welsh Funeral Processions — Praying at Cross-roads — Superstition regarding Criminals’ Graves— Hang- ing and Welsh Prejudice — The Grassless Grave — Parson’s Penny, or Offrwm— Old Shoes to the Clerk— Arian y Rhaw, or Spade Money— Burials without Coffin— The Sul Coffa— Planting and Strewing Graves with Flowers.

The chapter opens with a introduction to funeral traditions.

Wirt Sikes on the Sin-Eater Tradition#

The topic of the sin-eater is addressed in section II, and is presented in an investigatory way:

What connection there may be between these customs and the strange and striking rite of the Sin-eater, is a question worthy of careful consideration.

One way of understanding elements of the tradition, he cliams, is as to associate it with hospitality:

It has been the habit of writers with family ties in Wales, whether calling themselves Welshmen or Englishmen, to associate these and like customs with the well-known character for hospitality which the Cymry have for ages maintained. Thus Malkin writes : ‘The hospitality of the country is not less remarkable on melancholy than on joyful occasions. The invitations to a funeral are very general and extensive ; and the refreshments are not light, and taken standing, but substantial and prolonged. Any deficiency in the supply of ale would be as severely censured on this occasion, as at a festival.[South Wales,' 68.]

But is such hospitality a relic of a sin-eating tradition?

Some have thought that the bread-eating and beer-drinking are survivals of the sin-eating custom described by Aubrey, and repeated from him by others. But well-informed Welshmen have denied that any such custom as that of the Sin-eater ever existed in Wales at any time, or in the border shires ; and it must not be asserted that they are wrong unless we have convincing proof to support the assertion.

So what, Sikes wonders, is the evidence for that tradition?

The existing evidence in support of the belief that there were once Sin-eaters in Wales I have carefully collated and (excluding hearsay and second- hand accounts), it is here produced.

He then follows a well-trodden path:

The first reference to the Sin-eater anywhere to be found is in the Lansdowne MSS. in the British Museum, in the handwriting of John Aubrey, the author. It runs thus : ‘In the county of Hereford was an old custom at funerals to hire poor people, who were to take upon them the sins of the party deceased. One of them (he was a long, lean, ugly, lamentable poor rascal), I remember, lived in a cottage on Rosse highway. The manner was that when the corpse was brought out of the house, and laid on the bier, a loaf of bread was brought out, and delivered to the Sin-eater, over the corpse, as also a mazard bowl of maple, full of beer (which he was to drink up), and sixpence in money, in consideration whereof he took upon him, ipso facto, all the sins of the defunct, and freed him or her from walking after they were dead.’ Aubrey adds, ‘and this custom though rarely used in our days, yet by some people was observed in the strictest time of the Presbyterian Government; as at Dynder (nolens volens the parson of the parish), the kindred of a woman, deceased there, had this ceremony punctually performed, according to her will : and also, the like was done at the city of Hereford, in those times, where a woman kept many years before her death a mazard bowl for the Sin-eater ; and the like in other places in this country ; as also in Brecon, e.g., at Llangors, where Mr. Gwin, the minister, about 1640, could not hinder the performance of this custom. I believe,’ says Aubrey, ‘this custom was heretofore used all over Wales.’ He states further, ‘A.D. 1686: This custom is used to this day in North Wales.’ Upon this. Bishop White Kennet made this comment : ‘It seems a remainder of this custom which lately obtained at Amersden, in the county of Oxford ; where, at the burial of every corpse, one cake and one flaggon of ale, just after the interment, were brought to the minister in the church porch.’ [Vide Hone's 'Year Book,' 1832, p. 858.]

If the tradition were widespread, we might expect others to have recorded similar rituals. But no.

No other writer of Aubrey’s time, either English or Welsh, appears to have made any reference to the Sin-eater in Wales ; and equal silence prevails throughout the writings of all previous centuries. Since Aubrey, many references to it have been made, but never, so far as I can discover, by any writer in the Welsh language — a singular omission if there ever was such a custom, for concerning every other superstitious practice commonly ascribed to Wales the Welsh have written freely.

Sikes then checks more recent literature, quoting from the report to the Ludlow meeting in 1852:

In August, 1852, the Cambrian Archaeological Association held its sixth annual meeting at Ludlow, under the Presidency of Hon. R. H. Clive, M.P. At this meeting Mr. Matthew Moggridge, of Swansea, made some observations on the custom of the Sin-eater, when he added details not contained in Aubrey’s account given above. He said : ‘When a person died, his friends sent for the Sin-eater of the district, who on his arrival placed a plate of salt on the breast of the defunct, and upon the salt a piece of bread. He then muttered an incantation over the bread, which he finally ate, thereby eating up all the sins of the deceased. This done he received his fee of 2s. 6d. and vanished as quickly as possible from the general gaze ; for, as it was believed that he really appropriated to his own use and behoof the sins of all those over whom he performed the above ceremony, he was utterly detested in the neighbourhood — regarded as a mere Pariah — as one irredeemably lost.’ The speaker then mentioned the parish of Llandebie where the above practice ‘was said to have prevailed to a recent period. He spoke of the survival of the plate and salt custom near Swansea, and indeed generally, within twenty years, (i.e. since 1830) and added: ‘In a parish near Chepstow it was usual to make the figure of a cross on the salt, and cutting an apple or an orange into quarters, to put one piece at each termination of the lines.’ Mr. Allen, of Pembrokeshire, testified that the plate and salt were known in that county, where also a lighted candle was stuck in the salt ; the popular notion was that it kept away the evil spirit. Mr. E. A. Freeman, (the historian) asked if Sin-eater was the term used in the district where the custom prevailed, and Mr. Moggridge said it was.

Having presented the evidence such as he has been able to find, he leaves it to the reader to decide, although the tone perhaps hints at his personal opinion, as previously quoted by the reviewer in the Wrexham Guardian:

Such is the testimony. I venture no opinion upon it further than may be conveyed in the remark that I cannot find any direct corroboration of it, as regards the Sin-eater, and I have searched diligently for it. The subject has engaged my attention from the first moment I set foot on Cambrian soil, and I have not only seen no reference to it in Welsh writings, but I have never met any unlettered Welshman who had ever heard of it. All this proves nothing, perhaps ; but it weighs something. [Mr. Eugene Schuyler's mention of a corresponding character in Turkistan is interesting : 'One poor old man, however, I noticed, who seemed constantly engaged in prayer. On calling attention to him I was told that he was an iskatchi, a person who gets his living by taking on himself the sins of the dead, and thenceforth devoting him- self to prayer for their souls. He corresponds to the Sin-eater of the Welsh border,' 'Turkistan,' ii., 28.]

Funeral Traditions Involving Salt#

Supersitions and traditions involving salt are described in the next section, part III of the chapter, including a mention that Sikes has witnessed such traditional practice:

Of superstitions regarding salt, there are many in Wales. I have even encountered the special custom of placing a plate of salt on the breast of the corpse. In the case of an old woman from Cardiganshire, who was buried at Cardiff, and who was thus decked by her relatives, I was told the purpose of the plate of salt was to ‘prevent swelling.’ There is an Irish custom of placing a plate of snuff on the body of a corpse ; hence the saying, addressed to an enemy, ‘I’ll get a pinch off your belly yet.’

Sikes also suggests that such funeral traditions are widespread and should not be too hastily identified with the sin-eater tradition.

The Irish also employ the plate of salt in the same manner. In view of the universal prevalence of superstitions regarding salt, too much weight should not be placed on this detail, in connection with the accounts of the Sin-eater.

He further comments on salt traditions as related to portent and omen:

Such superstitions are of extreme antiquity, and they still survive even among the most cultivated classes. Salt falling toward a person was of old considered a most unlucky omen, the evil of which could only be averted by throwing a little of the fallen salt over the shoulder. My own wife observes this heathen rite to this day, and so, I fancy, do most men’s wives — jocularly, no doubt, but with a sort of feeling that ‘if there is anything in it,’ &c. Salt was the ancient symbol of friendship, being deemed incorruptible. In the Isle of Man no important business was ventured on without salt in the pocket ; marrying, moving, even the receiving of alms, must be sanctified by an exchange of salt between the parties. An influential legend is noted among the Manx inhabitants, of the dissolution of an enchanted palace on that island, through the spilling of salt on the ground. In Da Vinci’s picture of the Lord’s Supper, Judas Iscariot is represented as overturning the salt — an omen of the coming betrayal of Christ by that personage. In Russia, should a friend pass you the salt without smiling, a quarrel will follow. The Scotch put salt in a cow’s first milk after calving. Even the Chinese throw salt into water from which a person has been rescued from drowning. All these practices point either to lustration or propitiation.

The Biblical Scapegoat#

The idea of the sin-eater is recalled in section IV, which considers the tradition as an example of a scapegoat tradition:

It has been suggested that the custom of the Sin-eater is in imitation of the Biblical scapegoat. ‘And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness. And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited : and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.’ [Levit. xvi., 21, 22.]

Sikes then mentions another tradition, that of the “cock and hen of St. Tegla’s Well”:

This brings up the subject of charms and magic, and is illustrated in Wales, if not by the Sin-eater, by the cock and hen of St. Tegla’s Well. This well is about half-way between Wrexham and Ruthin, in the parish of Llandegla, and has been considered efficacious in curing epilepsy. One of the common names of that complaint in Welsh is Clwyf y Tegla, (Tegla’s disease). Relief is obtained by bathing in the well, and performing a superstitious ceremony in this manner : The patient repairs to the well after sunset, and washes himself in it ; then, having made an offering by throwing into the water fourpence, he walks round it three times, and thrice recites the Lord’s Prayer. If of the male sex, he offers a cock ; if a woman, a hen. The bird is carried in a basket, first round the well, then round the church, and the rite of repeating the Pater Noster again performed. After all this, he enters the church, creeps under the altar, and making the Bible his pillow and the communion cloth his coverlet, remains there until the break of day. In the morning, having made a further offering of sixpence, he leaves the cock (or hen, as the case may be) and departs. ‘Should the bird die, it is supposed that the disease has been transferred to it, and the man or woman consequently cured.’ [Ab Ithel, 'Arch. Camb.' ist Se., i., 184.] The custom is associated with the ancient Druids as well as with the Jews, and its resemblance to the scape-goat is suggestive.

Other Funeral Customs#

The chapter categories several other funeral customs, which are included here for completeness.

Another funeral procession story is worth noting here, that of the “funeral rehearsal”, e.g. as told in John Rhys’ “Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx”, Volume I, 1901, p.271-3, retelling a tale published (anonymously?) by D. Silvan Evans.