Yes, Virginia, There Are Sin Eaters
"Well, Les, it took a lot of years, but I finally got 'er done."
Merry CHRISTmas, to you, Sheri, the boyz, and families
Writer's note: Seriously, this hub has been in the making for over 16 years. This is not an attempt to be funny about a serious topic. This is the culmination of facts versus my personal doubts that I have collected through dedicated research about Sin Eaters. And frankly, this hub's existence is to be credited to my best buddy and long time friend and former boss, James Lesley "Les" Walters, Managing editor of the Journal Record newspaper, Hamilton, Ala., where I worked for 23 years. This hub is sadly, not (entirely) about Les. Nor is it (entirely) about Sin Eaters. Just read this and form your own opinion. And being that Christmas season is upon us and with that special event comes lots of eating, not necessarily sin eating, I feel that this is the fitting time to publish this piece. Finally, "thanks, Les." Kenneth
To gain understanding
of this piece, you would have to know Les Walters, my long-time friend whom I first met in 1979. Yes, sir, a long time back there. Les and I (at that time) worked for seperate newspapers in Hamilton, my hometown for now 63 years. Walters had migrated from nearby Fulton, Miss., where he had worked for The Itawamba County Times and publisher, Rubye Del Hardin who had her heart set on starting up a brand new newspaper in Hamilton. Naturally she sent Les Walters to be her editor.
You would think that Walters got the easy job, but you would be dead wrong. Walters was saddled (truthful term) with the awesome, almost undaunted responsibility of being everywhere for everything that happened in Hamilton. If you (in this time-frame) were about to start up a newspaper in a new town, this was the norm. People somehow just love to see their names in print along with the names of their children and grandchildren.
And although Les and I were friendly competitors, we became fast friends for both of us operated from an abstract thought process when we approached anything or anyone.
Skip back to
the year 2000 and now I had came back to the Journal Record which I left in 1984 to work for Les at his paper, The Hamilton Progress. We both parted ways thanks to the short-sightedness of the paper's former owner and new owners who did not know that much about how a true weekly newspaper operates thus Les and I at different times were told to "hit the bricks," for standing up to the new "power mongers," whose ego's blinded them to our truthful advice on how to make a successful newspaper operate.
Can you imagine that? Being terminated for just speaking the truth? It happened and Les and I are living proof of that statement.
Turn back to 1989
when Les, who had been named Managing editor of the Journal Record, called me at a "mom and pop" printing company and offered me a job over the phone. I talked to him in person that very evening and bam! Okay, ka-boom! We were back together again. Les was the boss and I worked the darkoom, wrote a column and designed display ads. Not a bad gig, if I do say so. And certainly not at the same time.
Four years later, the Journal Record had outgrew the building we were in and our owner, Horace Moore, Haleyville, Ala., who is still the owner and publisher, bought us a bigger building smack dab in the middle of Hamiton. What a move. Smooth and convenient, I must say.
It's now 2000, and you see me sitting at my Macintosh computer staring (without batting an eye) into the screen wondering what and how I was to make an ad appear that our ad salesperson had given me. I was stumped. But Les, without as much as a "I will help you," came by my work station and said, "why don't you write a column about a Sin Eater?"
Huhhh? Yeaaahhhh, I think I will just sit here and pretend to have heard him ask me this somewhat bizarre question. But Les was dead-serious. Not an everyday thing if you know Les like I do. I told you earlier that his mindset was abstract thought and this Sin Eater thing was out there to say the least.
To the innocent, unassuming passerby, Les and I looked like Bret or Bart Maverick staring down a "green horn" gambler too big for his briches thinking that his two of a kind would be our full house. We simply stared at each other until I broke, "what? A Sin Eater? Come on, Les. You are nuts," I replied hoping that he was kidding.
He wasn't. He went into deep detail explaining where Sin Eaters originated and what they did. Little did he realize that as he was explaining the background of a Sin Eater, I was growing hungry by the minute. Let me explain. In this time-frame, I could eat anything I liked and wanted. Fact is, I might have made a decent Sin Eater. We will never know.
History teaches that . . .
A sin-eater is a person who consumes a ritual meal in order to magically take on the sins of a person or household. Traditionally, the food was believed to absorb the sins of a recently deceased person, thus absolving that person's soul. Consequently, sin-eaters supposedly carried the sins of all people whose souls they "ate." In anthropology and the study of folklore, sin-eating is classified as apotropaic ritual and a form of religious magic.
Although the figure of the sin-eater has had various references in modern culture, the questions of how common the practice was, what regions of the world in which it was most common, and what the interactions between sin-eaters, common people, and religious authorities were, remain largely unstudied and in the realm of folklore.
In theology, Tlazolteotl, the Aztec goddess of earth, motherhood and fertility, had a redemptive role in the religious practices of the Meso-American civilization. At the end of an individual's life, he was allowed to confess his misdeeds to this deity, and according to legend she would cleanse his soul by "eating its filth".
And in Appalachia . . .
The Appalachian culture is rich in history and custom. Many beliefs and traditions, such as snake-handling Christians, are often viewed as strange by the mainstream. When I started researching an ancient practice I had heard about, I was surprised to find that Sin-Eating had a not-so-distant history in Europe and right here in Appalachia. The Sin-Eater was a societal outcast and would be summoned upon the death of a loved one, to come wearing their dark cloak and hood and cloak and eat a meal that had been placed upon the corpse, usually reciting whispered lines, thus absolving the deceased of all their worldly sins, thereby affording them passage into heaven rather than being damned to wander the earth.
Now to the present time
and how I forged this hub about Sin Eaters. I need to at this time, share the heavy questions that arose in my mind at the precise time that Les was first telling me about Sin Eaters and let you be guided by your common sense as to if you agree with my queries or not.
- How would the parents of Sin Eaters know at what point their child or children were destined to be Sin Eaters? I can see an Appalachian Mountain, salt-of-the-earth family sitting around their humble dining table and the father who had an eagle eye had been spying their youngest, "Jimmy John Bacon," (fitting name for a Sin Eater), get his third helping of chicken and dumplings. "Ma, look at that boy eat! He's gonna be a Sin Eater for sure," he might exclaim with pride.
- If you were the parents of an up and coming Sin Eater, what would you name him or her? "Billy Biscuit," "Henry O'Ham," or maybe "Benjamin Beef?" I think that a common name like "Bill," "Joe," or "Susie," would not fit the bill if the child was a born Sin Eater.
- If "I" had been in the enviable position of a Sin Eater early on in human history, what would I do if I grew tired of the whole sides of beef, pounds of bacon, tons of biscuits and so many cakes and pies the soul would faint? Would I be demoted to just an "over-eater?" What a shame. There I was one day the top of my game eating the sins of my neighbors so they could enter Heaven upon Judgement and the next day, burned out on chowing down on fine foods. Why oh why did I not just keep my big mouth (really) shut and not mildly-complain to the cooks inside the deceased person's kitchen to kinda "slow down with the bacon dishes because I was getting sick to my stomach?"
- Did Sin Eaters, (depending on their talent), gain a measure of fame with their traveling around the countryside to "eat the sins" of their friends who were stuck in Purgatory awaiting someone back in real life to step up and "eat them into eternal life?" And by fame, I mean catchy names like: "Mighty Mouth Marvin," "Lightning Lips Leonard," and "Golden Goozle Gerald." Now to "borrow," the late U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy's signature line: "Some people dream dreams and ask why? I have dreams and ask why not?" If a Sin Eater has gone to so much trouble to eat someone's soul out of the danger of eternal damnation, then give them a famous nick-name. It's the American thing to do.
- How, if any, did Sin Eaters, upon discovering their unique calling, train for such a task? Here is where this story gets sticky. Fact: Sin Eaters are not to be confused with or put into the same league as Competitive Eaters such as the famous Joey Chestnut (2008–2014), who is recognized as the World Champ at Nathan's Annual Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island and Adam Richman, who ate like Chestnut on TLC's "Man versus Food." Sin Eaters allegedly serve a deep spiritual service of preventing an unsaved sinner from entering the Lake of Fire while the Joey Chestnut's only eat and eat and okay, eat, to beat some other person who wants to wear the Championship Belt as bad as they do.
- If the amount of food a Sin Eater eats equals the sins of the deceased sinner ( . . .how much wood would a woodchuck, No! stop) then if there is only a meager amount of grub, then are we to draw the conclusion that the sinner person did not commit that many sins? Hey, I didn't draw up the rules.
- (You knew that this question was coming). If the Sin Eater chosen to eat the sins of the deceased of the day fails to consume all of the food, can the Sin Eater have a "doggie bag?" Or if the Sin Eater has a huge family and the Sin Eater is the breadwinner is unemployed, would it be appropriate for the Sin Eater to take the remainder of the left-overs to his family?
- What if there is the rare occasion of more than one member of a said family who died in an unsaved condition, did, or can Sin Eaters work as a tag-team? This is a serious question. Me? I see no problem with one Sin Eater per unsaved sinner.
- What would be the consequences if a named Sin Eater were to start devouring a very long dining table filled with eats, but finds a bowl of boiled eggs that triggers his allergy, what does the deceased sinner's survivors do now, call in a "Pinch Sin Eater?"
Enough of my questions
- at this point. I would like to close this first-time lecture with one final observation which could easily fit into a question. (plug for Alex Trebek, Jeopardy). "The Bible does speak of in the Book of Revelation of The Great Marriage Supper where the saved of earth (who trusted Jesus as their savior) sitting down at His table to dine with those who were saved under the Mosaic Law, so not to be cute, but ask, "when a Sin Eater enters the dining area, will he or she receive this great honor of being invited to eat with King Jesus? or will the Sin Eater simply smile, bow, rub their stomach and say, "Precious Lord, no thanks, I know that I've had enough."
Good night, Biloxi, Mississippi.
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© 2016 Kenneth Avery