Plant Spirit Shamanism & Sin Eating

February 17, 2008


There is a Welsh myth which tells how the universe began when God, awakening to self-awareness, sent Three Shouts out into the world and sang His name into the Void. Within this song was light, and within this light was form, and this was the birth of all things.


The first to hear these shouts were the Gwynfydolion, who awoke in the Circle of Blessedness. They became the first shamans, travelling between Ceugant [Infinity] and Abred [the physical world], and from them all knowledge arose – of the plants, the spirit, and of inspiration. Through their teachings, the Orders of the Bards (inspired poets), Druids (priests, healers, and magicians), and Ovates (omen-readers and future-seers) were formed.


No mention is made of the sin eater, however, because he was the most important and respected of those that the Gwynfydolion taught. His healing skills – and his very existence – were protected by the mystery surrounding him.


The sin eater had the inspired, poetic, and philosophical abilities of the Bard and story-teller, but was also a seer who knew how to ‘read’ nature for signs of the future and for guidance now, and, more importantly, he was the shaman-healer who knew how to care for the soul.


At this point, the mythology ends, for sin eaters were real people; individuals who existed at the edges of society and who dealt in sin, redemption, and atonement, and whose purpose was to ensure the balance and survival of the soul and, thereby, the natural order of the universe.

 One of the most visible jobs of the sin eater was to eat a last meal of bread and salt from the belly of the dead when their bodies lay in state. By so doing, the sins of the deceased were removed and they had clear passage to the hereafter. This ritual is extremely ancient. It is even referred to, in part, in the Old Testament, where, in Leviticus, the ‘scapegoating’ or sin eating practice is mentioned. Another reference comes from John Aubrey, in Remains of Gentilism, 1688, who describes “an old Custom at Funerals” in Hereford and Wales, “to hire poor people, who were to take upon them all the Sins of the party deceased… and free him from Walking after they were dead”.  The sin eater was given a few coins for this service but, other than that, was avoided by the community who regarded him as sin-filled and unclean because of his work. For this reason, like many shamans and Holy men, sin eaters usually lived outside of society itself and often at the edge of the village. 

The nature of sin

For those interested in the spiritual practices of the British Isles, sin eating is a fascinating subject. Sin eaters had, for example, a rather different view of what constitutes ‘sin’ than that of the Bible, and one that we might find more likely – or, at least, more appealing – today. In their tradition, we are not born to Original Sin which is only redeemable through Christ. Rather, sin is an energy which we create within ourselves through unspiritual actions on Earth, and which we can remove through our own efforts.  While the energy of sin remains, it forms a kind of blemish or weight on the soul which can hold us trapped in a sort of purgatory while alive, or limbo when we die. It can be dissipated, however, through awareness of our actions, by atoning for them, or, in the last case scenario, by employing the sin eater to devour this energy of sin after our deaths, so that our souls are returned to balance.  Because of this somewhat revolutionary philosophy in the face of Christian orthodoxy, sin eaters were not popular with the Church, which regarded them as ‘false saviours and prophets’. But then, in every culture of the world, shamans have always been revolutionary spirits who are demonised by religion (just as Christians were once denigrated themselves). The ritual of eating from the corpse incorporates a number of shamanic manoeuvres. Firstly, it is a healing action which shamans call ‘spirit extraction’. The energy of sin is a spirit which is attached to us, that is, and, since spirit craves matter, it will be attracted to the stronger life force of the ‘living’ food upon the corpse than to the dead body itself. The food will therefore absorb the sins of the dead and, when that food is eaten, they will be devoured and the weight on the soul removed.   For this reason, the finest and freshest food was sometimes offered to the corpse to make it more enticing to the spirit of sin. This was of little benefit to the sin eater, however, who, in fact, would prefer a meal of salt and water since salt-water is an aid to purging, the unseen part of the sin eating ritual being for the healer to go into nature following his corpse-side duties and vomit away the sins he was carrying so that the Earth could defuse these unwholesome energies.  Secondly, as the sin eater went about his work he would pray for the soul of the corpse to be free so it might enter the world hereafter. This is psychopomp work: the escorting of the soul to the Land of the Dead.  The belief here is that the soul can become lost or confused after death because of the guilt or shame it carries as a result of Earthly misdemeanours and inappropriate actions towards others – or, indeed, because of the actions of others towards the deceased – and must therefore be helped and guided into the spirit world.  The soul, in fact, can be damaged in two ways: either because the person who carried it has acted in a way that has caused pain to another (there is a parallel here with the Buddhist notion of ‘right-living’: that no matter what our interactions with others or what they do to us, there is a correct way for us to behave in order to preserve our spiritual integrity), or because they were the victims of shameful acts and now carry a guilt which is actually not theirs to bear. Victims of abuse, for example, may sometimes come to believe, at an unconscious or deep soul level, that they were somehow to blame for, or invited such abuse. This may be incorrect, but it is the belief itself and the shame of the event, and not the reality of what happened, that causes the wound to the soul. Thirdly, the ritual of sin eating is a community healing for the people present at the wake. When a relative or close friend dies, there is often a feeling of guilt on the part of those who live on: ‘Why didn’t I do more to help?’, ‘Why didn’t I pay attention to him when he was alive?’ etc. This guilt arises as a result of the perceived sin of neglect on the part of the relative or friend. The ritual of sin eating helps to assuage this since the relative can at least say now that the deceased has been helped and healed through his employment of the sin eater, who will oversee the most important journey that the soul will ever take. 

Healing the living

Sin eaters rarely just worked with the dead, however. Many of them, because of their closeness to nature and rural locations, were also skilled in folk medicine and plant spirit shamanism. Folk medicine is ‘root doctoring’ or herbalism, which works with the medicinal properties and the spirit of plants. Thus, the sin eater might administer to a patient a tonic made from vervain to help ease depression, paranoia, and insomnia, just as a modern herbalist might. For the sin eater, however, these conditions would all be symptoms of guilt or shame as a consequence of being in the presence of sin, and it was the spirit of the plant that would remove this sin by strengthening the soul and driving away sinful energies. By the same token, marigolds were used to treat skin rashes, inflammation, and ulcers (again, stress-induced as a result of the sinful situation), and, at the same time, to soothe and calm the soul. The 13th century herbalist Aemilius Macer also knew of the power of marigolds to do this and wrote that their flowers are able to draw “wicked humours out”. Interestingly enough, marigolds are also used, even today, in places as distant from Wales as Peru, to guard against negative energy and protect against ‘the evil eye’. Patients visiting a sin eater would, first of all, however, find a confessor with whom they could unburden their sins. In this respect, the healer plays the role of anam cara – or ‘soul friend’ – whose task is to listen without prejudice to what is said, the intention being, not to judge, but to understand the nature of the patient’s problem and their impact on the soul. Even this can have a profound healing effect since it releases the energy of sin; hence its enduring practice in Catholic confessionals, as well as its modern incarnation in counselling and psychotherapy (“the talking cure”). Having heard his patient’s confession, the sin eater might then offer advice from the Land of the Dead (the spirit world) for how his sins could be recompensed. This advice was often of a practical nature, the belief being that sins need to be reversed in this lifetime rather than waiting for ‘karma’ to take its course, and with action in the world rather than simple prayer. The penitent might therefore be advised to make an offering, not to the spirits, but to the person he had harmed. In this way, he could atone for his sins in the here-and-now before they began to erode his soul and cause him ill-health and spiritual problems. Sin eating, therefore – a practice many thousands of years old – recognises a mind-body-spirit connection that modern science is only now starting to acknowledge, for its healing works on the body and mind as well as the wounds of the soul. 

The aloneness of the sin eater

The most paradoxical part of the sin eater’s life, given the importance of his role to the well-being of the community, was that he was also ostracized from it. He was typically a man who spent much of his life alone, disparaged by those he served – and yet, in one way at least, the most vital member of the community, for without him no-one would find peace when they died. Furthermore, if he was unclean, it was because of the sins of the community, not his own.  We find this solitariness among many people of spiritual power. A time of aloneness is a requisite in many shamanic initiations and, in some traditions, the shaman will also live on the outskirts of the community, representing in a physical and symbolic way his dwelling on the thresholds and boundaries of human and spiritual connection. In our fairytales and myths, crones, witches, and other people of power also tend to live alone in the woods and shadowlands. The emotional hardship of the sin eater’s life, along with the decline of spiritual belief in our modern cities, are perhaps two of the reasons why sin eating is no longer a central practice in funerary rites. It does, however, survive symbolically. In Ireland and parts of Wales, for example, it is not uncommon for a corpse to lie in state in the family home and for a glass of wine and a funeral biscuit to be handed to guests across the coffin. The burial-cakes still made in parts of rural England (Shropshire and Cumberland, for example) are also symbolic relics of the sin eating tradition. In other countries it continues in perhaps a more original form. In Bavaria, a corpse cake is placed on the chest of the deceased before being eaten by the closest relative. In the Balkans, a small bread image of the deceased is made and eaten by members of the family. In Holland, doed-koecks (dead-cakes) are eaten, each one marked with the initials of the deceased.  As the world deepens into what we might call a sin-filled age of terrorism, warfare, and invasion, perhaps it is time for a revival of this powerful healing tradition, for the sake of all our souls. Join us for an authentic experience of plant spirit shamanism and sin eating – also: ayahuasca, San Pedro, and plant spirit shamanism in the beautiful rainforests and mountains of Peru. Email for a FREE Information Pack or visit the website and look under the Sacred Journeys section.


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