Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Scapegoats and sineaters

William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat (1854)

The scapegoat was an animal long before it became an expression that we use. In Judaic tradition, the sins of the people were symbolically laid on a goat that was then driven into the wilderness, as described in the Holy Bible: "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." (Leviticus 16: 21-22). The banishment or sacrifice of a scapegoat (or other animal) was practiced in every ancient culture to take away the sins and guilt of the community, according to The Golden Bough by Scottish Anthropologist James Frazier (1854-1941).

In a similar custom in Wales and elsewhere, a sin-eater was employed to take on the sins of a deceased person, allowing the soul to rest in peace. The sins were ritualistically transferred when the sin-eater, usually a beggar, ate bread and drank ale that had been passed over the corpse while a prayer was recited: "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," wrote Bertram S. Puckle in Funeral Customs (1926).

The sin-eater got sixpence, the goat got nothing...

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