Saturday, July 17, 2004

Eating sins

We rented The Order last night, or The Sin Eater as it's known outside North America.

This is not a very good film, but it was pretty compelling nonetheless. After all, there's that nugget of an idea of a sin-eater:

a man who for trifling payment was believed to take upon himself, by means of food and drink, the sins of a deceased person.

Sin eaters were not uncommon in the British isles up until the 19th or 20th century. According to this text on Funeral Customs, the practice of sin-eating derives from pagan history.

A less known but even more remarkable functionary, whose professional services were once considered necessary to the dead, is the sin-eater. Savage tribes have been known to slaughter an animal on the grave, in the belief that it would take upon itself the sins of the dead. In the same manner, it was the province of the human scapegoat to take upon himself the moral trespasses of his client--and whatever the consequences might be in the after life--in return for a miserable fee and a scanty meal. That such a creature should be unearthed from a remote period of pagan history would be surprising enough, but to find reliable evidence of his existence in the British Isles a hundred years ago is surely very much more remarkable.

Professor Evans of the Presbyterian College, Carmarthen, actually saw a sin-eater about the year 1825, who was then living near Llanwenog, Cardiganshire. Abhorred by the superstitious villagers as a thing unclean, the sin-eater cut himself off from all social intercourse with his fellow creatures by reason of the life he had chosen; he lived as a rule in a remote place by himself, and those who chanced to meet him avoided him as they would a leper. This unfortunate was held to be the associate of evil spirits, and given to witchcraft, incantations and unholy practices; only when a death took place did they seek him out, and when his purpose was accomplished they burned the wooden bowl and platter from which he had eaten the food handed across, or placed on the corpse for his consumption.

But its link to Catholicism is tenuous. I have no idea what that link might be.

Wikipedia addresses the subject, but provides no insight.

The act of being a Sin-Eater is/was generally considered a cardinal sin by the Catholic Church because it provided absolution outside the purview of the priesthood, and resulted in immediate excommunication.

Frankly, I'm surprised to turn up so little information on the practice. I'm sure I've heard of it before, that it's cropped up in books or movies. The idea of it is not unfamiliar.

The movie also deals with the last of the Carolingians, whose love of knowledge and education rivalled that of the Jesuits. (Myself, I have a lot of trouble distinguishing one order from the next.) But the existence of Carolingians at least has some basis in fact.

The educational influence of the Carolingian revival of learning was continued in some way down to the dawn of the era of university education in the thirteenth century.

Rick McGinnis has interesting things on all these subjects, and others spurred by a viewing of the film, and he includes a lot of links to published reviews.

He calls it "a film whose thematic foundation was a motley pile of rancid old anti-Catholic mythology, some of it dating back as far as Luther and King James."

(I don't know how anti-Catholic it is, though it's definitely anti–Vatican and its politics, which is what Catholicism is all about, I guess.)

If The Order, as a thriller, has any particular flaw, it's the fact that the whole story hangs on a point of theological practice that's not only absurd, but false. Or, as Bob Campbell in the Seattle Times put it:

"Gradually, it dawns on the audience that this is the entire drama. Someone is offering unearned forgiveness to the naughty! He must be stopped!

"This is a problem? The list of sinners saved by last-minute confession is already endless.

"The Order treats these acts of mercy as the ultimate in apocalyptic horror."

Really, how sinful is the eating of sins? Relative to, say, the buying of indulgences? I would eat the sins of some, if it truly eased their burden.

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