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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 ross@thefourgates.com for a FREE Information Pack or visit the website http://www.thefourgates.com and look under the Sacred Journeys section.

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In the ceremony of limpia – cleansing – the patient may sit on a wooden chair below which is a bowl of smoking copal incense. This will purify the patient’s body and is relaxing to any spirit intrusions, which are made drowsy by the smoke. As the limpia takes place, the shaman circles the patient, chanting, blowing tobacco smoke over her and stoking her body with flowers. The tobacco smoke eases the passage of the intrusion, which is then caught by and ‘re-housed’ in the flowers. Sometimes an offerenda is also made in thanks for the healing – or to the intrusion for leaving – in which case a gift of some kind may be tied up with the flowers. The whole bundle is then taken into nature and buried so the spirit will not be disturbed and others won’t be infected by it. Coastal shamans may take the flowers to the sea instead and cast them to the waves so the tide takes them away from the shore.  In the Amazon rainforest, it is not flowers that are used, but the leaves of the chacapa bush. These are approximately nine inches long and, when dried, are tied together to make a medicine tool which is used as a rattle during ceremonies. In a healing, the chacapa is rubbed and rattled over or near the patient’s body to capture or brush out the spirit intrusion. Once he has it in his chacapa, the shaman then blows through the leaves to disperse the intrusion into the rainforest where the spirits of the plants absorb and discharge its energy. Another way of dealing with intrusions is the use of cleansing leaf baths, a method practiced in Haiti as much as in Peru. Haitian shaman, Loulou Prince, explains: “There are specific leaves, strong-smelling leaves, which help people who are under spiritual attack. I mix these leaves with rum and sea water to make a bath for the person, then I bathe her and I pray to the leaves to bless her. I sing songs for the spirits and the ancestors as well, and ask them to come help this person.   “The rest of the bath that is left over, I put in a green calabash bowl or a bottle, and before the person goes to sleep at night, I have her rub her arms and legs with it. When that is done, no curse can work on that person and the evil is removed”.  How this ‘evil’ comes to infect a patient in the first place has to do with jealousy.  As an example, Loulou was asked to perform a healing for a young child brought to him by a woman who had four children, two of whom had already died through the actions of spirits that came to her house at night to suck the life force from them. The woman was a market trader who had made a little money (a rare commodity in Haiti). Her neighbour was jealous and had sent spirits to kill her children. “I bathed the child to break the bad magic. Then I gave him leaves to make his blood bitter, so it would taste and smell bad to the spirits, and they would go away. After that, the child got better; he got fat and he grew. That boy is a young man now”.

Intrusive spirits like these are believed, in Haiti, to make their home in the blood, which is why Loulou uses herbs to make the blood taste bitter and the body smell “strong”. This makes the host less appealing to the intrusion which then finds its way from the body. ‘Fire baths’ are often used in these treatments as well, where kleren becomes the base for a herbal mix which is set on fire and rubbed over the skin. The alcohol burns quickly and doesn’t hurt the patient, but it destroys the intrusion as it makes its way out of the body. Dr Stanley Krippner, professor of psychology at Saybrook Institute, concludes from his study of traditional healing that the power of our thoughts alone – whether positive or negative – has a profound effect on our health. When we accept the psychic emanations of others, pick up on their negativity and – crucially – when we allow their negativity to be absorbed within us so we find ourselves in agreement with our enemies, we open ourselves to illness.  This, too, is the basic philosophy of sin eating. In this old Celtic tradition, a sin is viewed as a weight or ‘blemish’ on the soul which will keep it Earthbound when the sinner dies and suffering while alive. The perception of sin is a powerful force towards illness, but it is our perception that we have done wrong which creates the weakness in our souls. The shame and guilt we carry is the spirit intrusion. The Tuvan shaman, Christina Harle-Salvennenon gives another example of spirit intrusions related to guilt: two young boys, patients of hers, who got carried away one day while they were playing and castrated a dog. When they came to their senses and realised what they had done, the boys ran home in shock. Both of them immediately became ill, one symptom of which was inflammation of their testicles.  Recognising the illness as buk, Christina demanded that the children tell her what they had done to cause its onset. The children, however, were overcome with guilt at their actions and refused to confess. Had they done so, it would have relieved the traumatic pressure in their bodies and given the shaman a direction for healing, but they simply could not. Both children died. Spirit extraction (the removal of intrusions) was sometimes performed by the sin eater by stinging the patient’s body with nettles, paying particular attention to the ‘corners and angles’ – the backs of the knees, elbows, back of the neck and belly – where intrusions tend to congeal.  The nettle stings would heat the skin and draw the intrusion to the surface, in a similar way to the ‘fire baths’ of Haiti. It could then be washed off in a cold bath containing soothing and cooling herbs such as chamomile, lavender, rose water, and mint.  Once this was done, the patient would also be reminded of the need to make reparation to the person they had sinned against or else their guilt – and so the intrusion – might well return. One simple tradition that has survived as a way of making amends for minor sins, of course, is to send a bunch of flowers. Sin eating philosophy, again, is in many ways consistent with the Haitian experience. Maya Deren writes, for example, that therapeutic actions may be “executed by the priest but must be carried out, in major portion, by the patient himself under guidance of the priest. The patient must himself straighten out his difficulties with the loa [spirits]… In other words, the patient treats himself, and this is another boost to his morale. Almost inevitably, no matter how ill the person is, he must take part in the rituals relating to his treatment”.   Join us for an authentic experience of ayahuasca, San Pedro, and plant spirit shamanism in the beautiful rainforests and mountains of Peru. Email ross@thefourgates.com for a FREE Information Pack or visit the website http://www.thefourgates.com and look under the Sacred Journeys section.