Following the First Controversy
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:
EXORCISM IN WALES.
(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:
BURIAL CUSTOMS IN WALES. TO THE EDITOR.
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.
Lady Verney, Sister of Florence Nightingale
Lady Verney, sister of Florence Nightingale, author and second wife of Harry Verney, 2nd Baronet, MP for Buckingham.
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:
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.
The Folk-Lore Society, 1877
In a letter to the Athenaeum written under the pseudonym Ambrose Merton, issue 982, August 22nd, 1846, pp. 862-3, William Thoms, a recently appointed clerk in the House of Lords, coined the phrase folk-lore. Thoms went on to coin the motto, and become founding editor of, the nascent Notes & Queries magazine in 1849,in which notes and queries appertaining to “folk-lore” frequently appear.
In the pages of Notes & Queries of 1876 and 1877, several contributors corresponded on the need for a specialist society to study such matters. A prospectus was duly raised to propose the society in 1877.
As the Graphic of Saturday, December 8th, 1877, p7 described in its Scraps column:
A FOLK-LORE SOCIETY, the formation of which has been under discussion for some time past in Notes and Queries, is now definitely proposed by Mr. William J. Thoms, who suggests the following points as a basis. – That the headquarters of the Society must be in London, and that there should be a yearly subscription of 1l. 1s. Regarding the first suggestion, Mr. Thoms writes: “I insist on this because the Folk Lore Society must not only have a local habitation and a name, but that habitation must be central and permanent,” and as to the second he very naturally says that from the very motives of the Society the incidental expenses will be large, apart from the paper and printing ; and paper and print are luxuries which must be paid for. Mr. Thoms proposes that one of the duties of the Society will be to gather in the various local journals which indulge in folk-lore columns, and to mount and preserve these columns for future use, and, next to gathering together the relics of our folk-lore, the collecting of analogous folk-lore of other countries. The more important items of their researches would be published in an annual volume. Mr. G. Laurence Gomme, whose name is familiar to readers of Notes and Queuries, has consented to act as Honorary Searetary, and any lady or gentleman (for, remarks Mr. Thom, the Folk-Lore Society is one which may be greatly promoted by ladies) who may be disposed, is requested to communicate his orher intentions to that gentleman, at 26, Merthyr Terrace, Castelnau, Barnes, S. W.
The history of the origins of the Folk-Lore Society based on the Notes & Queries correspondence will appear at a future date as an appendix to this current work.
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:
SALOPIAN SHREDS AND PATCHES.
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:
SALOPIAN SHREDS AND PASTURES
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.
Boileau responds later that month, in the edition of January 29th, 1878
SALOPIAN SHREDS AND PASTURES
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:
Boileau, quoting Aubrey
Aubrey further remarks. “In the county of Hereford was an old Custome at Funeralls hire poor People, who were to take upon them the Sinnes of the Party deceased. One of them (he was a long, leane, ugly, lamentable poor Raskal) I remember lived in Cottage Rosse high-way The manner was that when the Corps waa brought out of the House and layd on the Biere, a Loafe of Bread was brought out and delivered to the Sinne Eater, over the Corps, as also a Mazar Bowle 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 Sinnes of the defunct, and freed him or her from walking after they were dead. This Custome alludes, methinks, something to the Scape Goate in the old Lawe— Levit. chap xvi , v 21. 22. ‘And Aaron shall lay,’ &c. This Custome (though rarely used in our dayes) yet by some people was observed even in the strictest time of the Presbyterian Government; as at Dynder (volens nolens, the Parson of the Parish) the Kindred Woman deceased there had this 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 yeares before her death, a Mazard Bowle for the Sinne-Eater; and the like in other places in this Countie: as also in Brecon (a). I believe Custom was heretofore used all over Wales (b)
“(a) E.g. at Llangors, where Mr. Gwin. the Minister, about 1640. could not hinder the performance of this ancient Custome.
‘(b) MS. Lansd, 226, fol. 116.’ In another page. Mr. Aubrey says:— “A.D. 1686 This Custom is used this day in North Wales, where milk seems to have been the substitute for beer.”
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:
SALOPIAN SHREDS AND PASTURES
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.”
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 father of a fairy damsel
Once more this legend appears, this time with a feature I have nowhere else encountered in fairy land, to wit, the father of a fairy damsel. The son of a farmer on Drws Coed Farm was, one foggy day, looking after his father’s sheep, when crossing a marshy meadow he beheld a little lady behind some rising ground. She had yellow hair, blue eyes, and rosy cheeks. He approached her, and asked permission to converse whereupon she smiled sweetly and said to him, “Idol of my hopes, you have come at last!” They there and then begun to “keep company,” and met each other daily here and there along the farm meadows. His intentions were honourable, he desired her to marry him. He was sometimes absent for days together, no one knew where, and his friends whispered about that he had been witched. Around the Turf Lake (Llyn y Dywarchen) was a grove of trees, and under one of these one day the fairy promised to be his. The consent of her father was now necessary. One moonlight night an appointment was made to meet in this wood. The father and daughter did not appear till the moon had disappeared behind the hill. Then they both came. The fairy father immediately gave his consent to the marriage, on one condition, namely, that her future husband should never hit her with iron. “If ever thou dost touch her flesh with iron she shall be no more thine. but she shnll return to her own.” They were married— a good-looking pair. Large sums of money were brought by her, the night before the wedding, to Drws Coed. The shepherd lad became wealthy, had several handsome children, and they were very haopy. After some years, they were one day out riding, when her horse sunk in a deep mire, and by the assistance of her husband, in her hurry to remount, she was struck on her knee by the stirrup of the saddle. Immediately voices were heard singing on the brow of the hill, and she disappeared, leaving all her children behind. She and her mother devised a plan by which she could see her beloved, but as she was not allowed to walk the earth wiih man, they floated a large turf on the lake, and on this turf she stood for hours at a time holding converse with her husband. This continued until his death.
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:”
The Tradition of “Bundling”
Sikes describes the tradition of bundling in the following terms, or rather, doesn’t describe the tradition:
The Welsh custom of Bundling, or courting abed, needs no description. The Welsh words sopen and sypio mean a bundle and to bundle, and they mean a squeezed-up mass, and to squeeze together ; but there is a further meaning, equivalent to our word baggage, as applied to a strumpet.
[The Rev. Dr. Thomas, late President of Pontypool College, whose acquaintance with Welsh customs is very extensive, (and to whose erudition I have been frequently indebted during the progress of these pages through the press, tells me he never heard the word sopen or sypio, synonymous with bundling, used for the old custom, but only 'caru yn y gwclu,' (courting abed.)]The custom of bundling is still practised in certain rural neighbourhoods of Wales. To discuss its moral character is not my province in these pages ; but I may properly record the fact that its practice is not confined to the irreligious classes. It is also pertinent here to recall the circumstance that among these people anciently, courtship was guarded by the sternest laws, so that any ther issue to courtship than marriage was practically impossible. If a maiden forgot her duty to herself, her parents, and her training, when the evil result became known she was to be thrown over a precipice ; the young man who had abused the parents’ confidence was also to be destroyed. Murder itself was punished less severely. Customs of promiscuous sleeping arose in the earliest times, out of the necessities of existence in those primitive days, when a whole household lay down together on a common bed of rushes strewn on the floor of the room. In cold weather they lay close together for greater warmth, with their usual clothing on. Caesar’s misconception that the ancient Britons were polyandrous polygamists evidently had here its source.
It is only by breathing the very atmosphere of an existence whose primitive influences we may thus ourselves feel, that we can get a just conception of the 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 came to my knowledge but a short time ago, (in 1877,) where the vicar of a certain parish (Mydrim, Carmarthenshire) exercised himself with great zeal to secure its abolition. Unfortunately, in this instance, the good man was not content with abolishing bundling, he wanted to abolish more innocent forms of courting ; and worst of all, he turned his ethical batteries chiefly upon the lads and lasses of the dissenting congregation. Of course, it was not the vicar’s fault that the bundlers were among the meeting-house worshippers, and not among the established church-goers, but nevertheless it injured the impartiality of his championship in the estimation of ‘the Methodys.’ I am not sure the bundling might not have ceased, in deference to his opinions, notwithstanding, if he had not, in the excess of his zeal, complained of the young men for seeing the girls home after meeting, and casually stretching the walk beyond what was necessary. Such intermeddling as this taxed the patience of the courting community to its extreme limit, and it assumed a rebellious front. The vicar, quite undaunted, pursued the war with vigour ; he smote the enemy hip and thigh. He returned to the charge with the assertion that these young people had ‘schools for the art of kissing,’ a metaphorical expression, I suppose ; and that they indulged in flirtation. This was really too much. Bundling might or might not be an exclusively dissenting practice, but the most unreasonable of vicars must know that kissing and flirtation were as universal as the parish itself ; and so there was scoffing and flouting of the vicar, and, as rebounds are proverbially extreme, I fear there is now more bundling in Mydrim than ever.
As to what the tradition actually involved, and whether it existed in Wales, is the subject of another controversy, which shall be described in a later chapter.
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.
Mari Lwyd in A tour through part of North Wales in the year 1798
The Mari Lwyd custom is also described in A tour through part of North Wales in the year 1798, by John Evans, 1800, p403, although the name of the tradition is not given:
Another very singular custom, I never could learn the rationale of is, that of a man on new year’s day, dressing himself in blankets and other trappings, with a factitious head like a horse, and a party attending him, knocking for admittance, this obtained, he runs about the room with an uncommon frightful noise, which the company quit in real or pretended fright ; they soon recover, and by reciting a verse of some ancient cowydd, or, in default, paying a small gratuity, they gain admission. A similar custom is prevalent in the Highlands ; (Vid. Johnson) and, from Du Cange, we find it was a practice of Heathenism.
[Ludi profani apud Ethnicos & Paganos solchant in Kalendis Januarii ; belluarum, pecudum, & Vetularum, assumptis formis, huc.]
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.
I. Funeral Traditions
With the growth of modern refinement the people of every land have become constantly more decorous in their grief. The effort of the primitive and untutored mind to utter its sorrow in loud and wild lamentations, and of friends and neighbours to divert the mind of the sufferer from his bereavement, gave rise to many funeral customs of which we still find traces in Wales. Pennant, while travelling in North Wales, noted, with regard to one Thomas Myddleton, a fact which he held ‘to prove that the custom of the Irish howl, or Scotch Coranich, was in use among us (the Welsh) ; for we are told he was buried “cum magno dolore et clamore cognatorum et propin- quorum omnium.”’ No such custom now exists ; but there is a very impressive rite, of a corresponding character, but religious, called the Gwylnos. It is a meeting held in the room where the corpse is lying, on the night before the funeral. The Irish cry, ‘Why did ye die ?’ is replaced by pious appeals to Heaven, in which great and strong emotion is expressed, the deceased referred to in stirring sentences, and his death made a theme for warnings on the brevity of earth-Hfe and the importance of the future life of the soul.
On the day of the funeral, however, the customs are not always in keeping with modern notions of the praiseworthy. Indulgence in beer-drinking at funerals is still a Welsh practice, and its antiquity is indicated by a proverb : ‘Claddu y marw, ac at y cwrw’ — (To bury the dead, and to the beer.)
[So the Spanish say, 'The dead to the bier, the living to good cheer.']The collection of Welsh writings called ‘Cymru Fu’ refers to the custom thus, (to translate :) ‘Before the funeral procession started for the church, the nearest friends and relatives would congregate around the corpse to wail and weep their loss ; while the rest of the company would be in an adjoining room drinking warm beer (cwrw brwd) and smoking their pipes ; and the women in still another room drinking tea together.’
[' Cymru Fu,' 91.]The writer here speaks of the custom in the past tense, but apparently rather as a literary fashion than to indicate a fact ; at any rate, the custom is not extinct. Occasionally it leads to appearances in the police-court on the part of injudicious mourners.
['Two Llancaiach men named Servis and Humphrey were arrested for fighting. 'They had *been to a funeral*, had done the customary honours by the remains of the departed brother or sister who had suffered, died, and was "chested," and then, after drowning their grief in the "cwrw," finished up in the police-court with a *finale** involving the payment of 5s. and costs, and 8s. 8d. damage, or in default twenty-one days' hard labour.' — 'Western Mail,' Jan. 31, 1877.]After taking the coffin out of the house and placing it on a bier near the door, it was formerly customary for one of the relatives of the deceased to distribute bread and cheese to the poor, taking care to hand it to each one over the coffin. These poor people were usually those who had, in expectation of this gift, been busily engaged in gathering flowers and herbs with which to grace the coffin. Sometimes this dole was supplemented by the gift of a loaf of bread or a cheese with a piece of money placed inside it. After that a cup of drink was presented, and the receiver was required to drink a little of it immediately.
[Pennant, quoted by Roberts, 'Camb. Pop. Ant.,' 175]Alluding to this subject the Rev. E. L. Barnwell
['Arch. Camb.' 4th Se., iii., 332.]says : ‘Although this custom is no longer in fashion, yet it is to some extent represented by the practice, especially in funerals of a higher class, to hand to those who are invited to attend the funeral, oblong sponge cakes sealed up in paper, which each one puts into his or her pocket, but the providing and distribution of these cakes are now often part of the undertaker’s duty.’
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.
V. Funeral Processions
The funeral procession, in rural districts where hearses are unknown, wends its way graveward on foot, with the corpse borne by the nearest relatives of the deceased, a custom probably introduced in Wales during their residence here by the Romans. The coffin of Metellus, the conqueror of Macedon, was borne by his four sons. The coffins of Roman citizens held in high esteem by the Republic, were borne by justices and senators, while those of the enemies of the people were borne by slaves and hired servants. As the Welsh procession winds its way along the green lanes, psalms and hymns are sung continually, except on coming to cross-roads. Here the bier is set down, and all kneel and repeat the Lord’s Prayer. The origin of this custom, as given by the Welsh, is to be found in the former practice of burying criminals at cross-roads. It was believed that the spirits of these criminals did not go far away from the place where their bodies lay, and the repeating of the Lord’s Prayer was supposed to destroy and do away with any evil influence these spirits might have on the soul of the dear departed.
['Cymru Fu,' 92.]
The Welsh retain much of the superstitious feeling regarding the graves of criminals and suicides. There is indeed a strong prejudice against hanging, on account of the troublesome spirits thus let loose. The well-known leniency of a ‘ Cardigan jury ‘ may be connected with this prejudice, though it is usually associated with a patriotic feeling. ‘What ! would you have hur hang hur own countryman ?’ is the famous response of a Cardigan juror, who was asked why he and his brethren acquitted a murderer. The tale may be only a legend ; the fact it illustrates is patent. It is related that in a dispute between two Cardigan farmers, some fifty years ago, one of them killed the other. The jury, believing the killing was unintentional, acquitted the homicide ; but ‘ whether the man was guilty or not, his neigh- bours and the people who Hved in the district, and who knew the spot where the farmer was killed, threw a stone upon it whenever they passed, probably to show their abhorrence of the deed that had been perpetrated in that place. By this means a large heap of stones, which was allowed to remain for many years, arose.’
['Bye-gones,' March 22, 1876.]They were then removed to repair the turnpike. This custom is apparently Jewish. Hangings are almost unknown in Wales, whether from the extra morality of the people, or the prejudice above noted.
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.
The Funeral Rehearsal, collected by D. Silvan Evans, in John Rhys, Celtic Folklore,
From John Rhys, Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, Volume I, 1901, p271-3, “so charmingly told by Silvan Evans, which he got from the mouths of the farmer and his wife, whom he considered highly honest and truth- ful persons, as well as comparatively free from superstition. The last time they talked to him about the incident they were very advanced in years, and both died within a few weeks of one another early in the year 1852.”
The harvest of 1816 was one of the wettest ever known in Wales, and a man and his wife who lived on a small farm in one of the largest parishes in the Hundred of Moedin (see p. 245 above) in the Demetian part of Cardiganshire went out in the evening of a day which had been compara- tively dry to make some reaped corn into sheaves, as it had long been down. It was a beautiful night, with the harvest moon shining brightly, and the field in which they worked had the parish road passing along one of its sides, without a hedge or a ditch to separate it from the corn. When they had been busily at work binding sheaves for half an hour or more, they happened to hear the hum of voices, as if of a crowd of people coming along the road leading into the field. They stopped a moment, and looking in the direction whence the sounds came, they saw in the light of the moon a number of people coming into sight and advancing in their direction. They bent them again to their work without thinking much about what they had seen and heard ; for they fancied it was some belated people making for the village, which was about a mile off. But the hum and confused sounds went on increasing, and when the two binders looked up again, they beheld a large crowd of people almost opposite and not far from them. As they continued looking on they beheld quite clearly a coffin on a bier carried on the shoulders of men, who were relieved by others in turns, as usual in funeral processions in the country. * Here is a funeral,’ said the binders to one another, forgetting for the moment that it was not usual for funerals to be seen at night. They continued looking on till the crowd was right opposite them, and some of them did not keep to the road, but walked over the corn alongside of the bulk of the procession. The two binders heard the talk and whispering, the noise and hum as if of so many real men and women passing by, but they did not understand a word that was said : not a syllable could they comprehend, not a face could they recognize. They kept looking at the procession till it went out of sight on the way leading towards the parish church. They saw no more of them, and now they began to feel uneasy and went home leaving the corn alone as it was ; but further on the funeral was met by a tailor at a point in the road where it was narrow and bounded by a fence (clawct) on either side. The procession filled the road from hedge to hedge, and the tailor tried to force his way through it, but such was the pressure of the throng that he was obliged to get out of their way by crossing the hedge. He also failed to understand a word of the talk which he heard. In about three weeks after this sham funeral, there came a real one down that way from the upper end of the parish.
VI. The Grassless Grave
The legend of the Grassless Grave is a well-known Montgomeryshire tale, concerning a certain spot of earth in the graveyard of Montgomery Castle, upon which the verdure is less luxuriant than in other portions of the yard. One dark November night, many years ago, a man named John Newton, who had been at Welshpool fair, set out for home. Soon after, he was brought back to Welshpool in the custody of two men, who charged him with highway robbery, a crime then punishable with death. He was tried, and executed, in spite of his protestations ; and in his last speech, admitting he had committed a former crime, but protesting he was innocent of this, he said : ‘I have offered a prayer to Heaven, and believe it has been heard and accepted. And in meek dependence on a merciful God, whom I have offended, but who, through the atonement of His blessed Son, has, I trust, pardoned my offence, I venture to assert that as I am innocent of the crime for which I suffer, the grass, for one generation at least, will not cover my grave.’ For thirty years thereafter, the grave was grassless ; a bare spot in the shape of a coffin marked, amidst the surrounding luxuriance, the place where lay the penitent criminal, unjustly executed. Then a sacrilegious hand planted the spot with turf ; but it withered as if blasted by lightning ; and the grave is still grassless — certainly an unnecessary extension of the time set by the defunct for Its testimony to his innocence.
VII. The Parson’s Penny (Offrwm)
A curious surviving custom at Welsh funerals is the Offrwm, or parson’s penny. After having read the burial service In the church, the parson stands behind a table while a psalm Is being sung, and to him go the mourners, one and all, and deposit a piece of money on the table. The parson counts it, states the amount, and pockets it. If the mourner depositing his offrwm be wealthy, he will give perhaps a guinea ; if a farmer or tradesman, his gift will be a crown ; and if poor, he will lay down his sixpence.
The next part of the description is quoted from Cymru Fu, but the text is very close to that give in Evans’ A tour through part of North Wales in the year 1798.
‘Each one that intended making an offering of silver, would go up to the altar in his turn, and after each one had contributed there would be a respite, after which those who gave copper as their offering went forward and did likewise ; but no coppers were offered at any respectable funeral. These offerings often reached the sum of ten and even twenty pounds in the year.’ Thus the Welsh work, ‘Cymru Fu,’ speaking as usual in the past tense ; but the custom is a present-day one. The Welsh believe that this custom was originally intended to compensate the clergyman for praying for the soul of the departed. It has now ceased to mean anything more than a tribute of respect to the deceased, or a token of esteem towards the officiating clergyman.
The traditions continue:
In the parish of Defynog, Breconshire, there was a custom (up to 1843, when it seems to have ceased through the angry action of a lawless widower,) of giving to the parish clerk the best pair of shoes and stockings left behind by the defunct.
['Arch. Camb.,' 2nd Se., iv., 326.]
A still more curious form of the offrwm, which also survives in many rural neighbourhoods, is called the Arian y Rhaw, or spade money. At the grave, the gravedigger rubs the soil off his spade, extends it for donations, and receives a piece of silver from each one in turn, which he also pockets. In Merionethshire the money is received at the grave in a bowl, instead of on the spade, and the gift is simply called the offrwm. ‘I well recollect, when a lad,’ says an entertaining correspondent,
['Bye-gones,' Oct. 17, 1877.]‘at Llanrhaiadr-yn-Mochnant, seeing the clerk or sexton cleaning his spade with the palm of his hand, and blowing the remaining dust, so that the instrument of his calling should be clean and presentable, and then, with due and clerk-like gravity, presenting his polished spade, first to the “cyfneseifiaid” (next-of-kin), and then to the mourners one by one, giving all an opportunity of showing their respect to the dead, by giving the clerk the accustomed offrwm. At times the old clerk, “yr hen glochydd,” when collecting the offrwm, rather than go around the grave to the people, to the no small annoyance of the friends, would reach his spade over the grave. At the particular time referred to, the clerk, having nearly had all the offrwm, saw that facetious wag and practical joker, Mr. B., extending his offering towards him from the opposite side of the grave. The clerk, as was his wont, extended the spade over the grave towards the offered gift. The opportunity for fun was not to be lost, and whilst placing his offrwm on the spade, Mr. B. pressed on one corner, and the spade turned in the hands of the unwitting clerk, emptying the whole offering into the grave, to the no small surprise of the clerk, who never forgot the lesson, and the great amusement of the standers-by.’ It is noted in this connection that the sexton’s spade ‘was a terror to the superstitious, for if the gravedigger would but shake his spade at anyone, it was a matter of but short time ere the sexton would be called upon to dig the grave of that person who had come under the evil influence of the spade. “Has the sexton shook his spade at you ?” was a question often put to a person in bad health.’
Until a recent date, burials without a coffin were common in some parts of Wales. Old people in Montgomeryshire not many years ago, could remember such burials, in what was called the cadach deupen, or cloth with two heads. Old Richard Griffith, of Trefeglwys, who died many years ago, recollected a burial in this fashion there, when the cloth gave way and was rent ; whereupon the clergy- man prohibited any further burials in that church- yard without a coffin. That was the last burial of the kind which took place in Montgomeryshire.
['Bye-gones,' Nov. 22, 1876.]
In the middle ages there was a Welsh custom of burying the dead in the garment of a monk, as a protection against evil spirits. This was popular among the wealthy, and was a goodly source of priestly revenue.
IX. Sul Coffa / Sul Coffa of Ivan the Harper
Sul Coffa is an old Welsh custom of honouring the dead on the Sunday following the funeral, and for several succeeding Sundays, until the violence of grief has abated. In the Journal of Thomas Dinelly, Esquire, an Englishman who travelled through Wales and Ireland in the reign of Charles II.,
[Quoted in the Proceedings of the Kilkenny Arch. Soc., 1858.]this passage occurs, after description of the wake, the keening, etc. : ‘This done ye Irish bury their dead, and if it be in or neer ye burying place of that family, the servants and followers hugg kiss howle and weep over the skulls that are there digg’d up and once a week for a quarter of an year after come two or three and pay more noyse at the place.’ The similarity in spirit between this and the Welsh Sul Coffa is as striking as the difference in practice. The Welsh walk quietly and gravely to the solemn mound beneath which rest the remains of the loved, and there kneeling in silence for five or ten minutes, pray or appear to pray.
The Sul Coffa of Ivan the Harper is a well-known anecdote. Ivan the Harper was a noted character in his day, who desired that his coffa should be thus : ‘I should like,’ said he, on his death-bed, ‘to have my coffa ; but not in the old style. Instead of the old custom ask Williams of Merllyn and Richard the Harper to attend the church at Llanfwrog, and give these, my disciples, my two harps, and after the service is over, let them walk to my grave ; let Williams sit at the head and Richard at the feet, of my grave, and let them play seven Welsh airs, beginning with Dafydd y Garreg Wen,’ (David of the White Stone) ‘ and ending with, Toriad y Dydd,’ (the Dawn.) ‘The former is in a flat key, like death, and the latter is as sober as the day of judgment.’ This request was religiously obeyed by the mourners on the ensuing Sul Coffa.
X. Flowers on Graves
Reference has been made, in the chapter on courtship and marriage, to the Welsh practice of planting graves with flowers. There are graves in Glamorganshire which have been kept blooming with flowers for nearly a century without interruption, through the loving care of descendants of the departed. By a most graceful custom which also prevailed until recently, each mourner at a funeral carried in his hand a sprig of rosemary, which he threw into the grave. The Pagan practice of throwing a sprig of cypress into the grave has been thought to symbolize the annihilation of the body, as these sprigs would not grow if set in the earth : whereas the rosemary was to signify the resurrection or up-springing of the body from the grave. The existing custom of throwing flowers and immortelles into the grave is derivable from the ancient practice. But the Welsh carry the association of graves and floral life to the most lavish extreme, as has already been pointed out. Shakspeare has alluded to this in ‘Cymbeline,’ the scene of which tragedy is principally in Pembrokeshire, at and about Milford Haven:
Arv. With fairest flowers,
Whilst summer lasts, and I live here, Fidele,
I’ll sweeten ithy sad grave : Thou shalt not lack
The flower, that’s like thy face, pale primrose ; nor
The azur’d harebell, like thy veins ; no, nor
The leaf of eglantine, whom not to slander,
Outsweeten’d not thy breath.
['Cymbeline,' Act iv., Sc. 2.]