SIN-EATING IN THE AMMAN VALLEY
By Dr. Huw Walters, B. Lib.
Carmarthen Historian, Volume XV (1978)
A biography which recently proved to be of considerable interest to me was that written by Paxton Hood on the life and times of that fiery Welsh preacher, Christmas Evans (1). In the first chapter of the work, the author deals with the characteristics of Welsh preaching during the period 1750-1850, and also deals in a somewhat romantic manner with the Welsh language and its speakers' superstitions. Whilst dealing in detail with some of these superstitions, he says:
"No doubt the proclamation of the Gospel and the elevated faith which its great truths bring in its train, broke the fascination, the charm and power of many of these superstitions, but they lingered even until the last forty or fifty years-indeed the superstition of the sin-eater is said to linger even now in the secluded vale of Cwmaman in Carmarthenshire." (2)
Being a native of the Amman Valley, my interest and curiosity in the sin-eater were naturally aroused. Subsequent research revealed that the duty of the sin-eater was to take upon himself the sins of a deceased person. Upon the death of an inhabitant of a locality, the sin-eater would be summoned and would place a plateful of salt covered with a slice of bread upon the breast of the deceased. After the recitation of appropriate charms over the body, the sin-eater would then proceed to eat both bread and salt, and wash them down with a tankard of beer. It was generally believed that the sins of the deceased were transferred to the unfortunate wretch through his consumption of the salt and bread. A paltry sum of sixpence or a shilling would then be paid to him before he was driven over the threshold to the sound of oaths, and threats never to return again.
It would appear that the first to describe the ritual was the English antiquary and biographer, John Aubrey (1626-1697), writing in a manuscript-'Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme'-which is now deposited in the British Library. Though a native of Wiltshire, Aubrey was of Welsh descent, his great-grandfather being William Awbrey (1529-1595), of Cantref, Breconshire, who was in turn, according to Aubrey, related to the Puritan martyr, John Penry (3). Here is Aubrey's description of the ritual in Herefordshire:
"In the County of Hereford was an old Custome at funeralls to hire poor people, who were to take upon them all the sinnes of the party deceased. One of them, I remember, lived in a Cottage on Ross-high way. (He was a long, leane, ugly, lamentable poor raskal.) The manner was that when the Corps was brought out of the house and layd on the Biere ; a Loafe of Breade was brought out, and delivered to the Sinne-eater over the Corps, as also a Mazar-bowle of maple (Gossips bowle) full of beer, which he was to drinke up, and sixpence in money, in consideration whereof he tooke upon him (ipso facto) all the Sinnes of the Defunct, and freed him (or her) from walking after they were dead . . . The like was donne at ye City of Hereford in these times, when a woman kept many yeares before her death a Mazar-bowle for the Sinneeater ; and the like in other places in this Countie ; as also in Brecon, e.g. at Llangors, where Mr Gwin the minister about 1640 could no hinder ye performing of this ancient custome. I believe this custome was heretofore used over all Wales . . . "(4)
Aubrey compares the sin-eater to the "scape-goat" as referred to in Judaic legal codes and quoted in Leviticus XVI, 20-22:
"When Aaron has finished making expiation for the sanctuary, for the Tent of the Presence, and for the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. Lie shall lay both his hands on its head and confess over it all the iniquities of the Israelites and all their acts of rebellion, that is all their sins ; he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness in charge of a man who is waiting ready. The goat shall carry all their iniquities upon itself into some barren waste and the man shall let it go, there in the wilderness."
Specialists in folklore also began to search for similarities in other countries. Sidney Hartland came across such practices in Germany, Ireland, Scotland, and even amongst an Indian tribe in the Valley of Uapes in South America. (5) J. G. Frazer also mentions similar rituals practised by native tribes in Uganda, Travancore and Tahiti.(6)
What then of the practice in the AmmanValley? It is highly probable that Paxton Hood had seen references to the custom in the minutes of the Cambrian Archaeological Association. Here mention was made of the practice of sin-eating, in a meeting of the Association on 28th August, 1852 by a certain Mathew Moggridge. Particularly worthy of notice is this passage:
"In Carmarthenshire, not far from Llandebie, was a mountain valley, where, up to the commencement of the present century, the people were of a very lawless character. There the practice (of sin-eating) was said to have prevailed to a recent period, and going thence to those parts of the country where, from the establishment of works, and from other causes, the people had more early become enlightened, he found the more absurd portions of the custome had become abandoned, while some still remained." (7)
In the wake of Moggridge's comments, another member of the society, Jelinger C. Symonds, declared that it was a complete farce to send missionaries to evangelize amongst pagans in darkest Africa whilst such practices were still evident amongst the Welsh. (8)
As the Rev. Gomer M. Roberts has shown, large areas of the Amman Valley lie within the parish boundary of Llandybie, and it is highly probable that it was to the valley that Moggridge referred in his coments. (9) There is no doubt at all however about the fact that the inhabitants of the area were "of a very lawless character", for Dr. John Thomas and Dr. Thomas Rees refer in a chapter written by them on the history of Ebenezer chapel, Swansea, to the riotous and drunken butchers of the Amman valley and the neighbouring parish of Llan-giwg, who kept stalls at Swansea market during the first half of the last century:
" Some of them on a Saturday night, after selling their meat, would drink until the following Sunday morning. Many of the older people swore that one endangered one's life by venturing out Onto the streets on a Saturday paying out night, when the butchers had closed their stalls, for there would be many drunken and malicious louts always ready to set upon anybody who went too close to them, both in the town and the outlying villages. " (10)
Indeed, so unruly were the inhabitants of the Amman Valley at this time, that someone composed the following verse as a testimony to their behaviour:
All men in Cwmamman born,
You are each one the Devil's spawn.
Repent most quickly you must do
Or he will take you, two by two. (11)
When Paxton Hood's biography of Christmas Evans was published in 1881, the reference to the existence of the sin-eater in the Amman Valley caused considerable excitement in the community. There was much enthusiastic letter-writing in the press, and the inhabitants of the valley did their utmost to convince the public at large that the whole question was without substance. The Reverend Jonah Morgan of Cwm-bach, Aberdare, wrote to Y Tyst ; he was a native of the valley, and he claimed that he had never heard of such a practice. His opinion was reinforced in a letter written by Dr Thomas Rees, Swansea, to Y Dysgedydd. Thomas Rees, a distinguished historian and author of The History of Protestant Nonconformity in Wales, had been brought up in Capel Isaac, some ten miles from the Amman Valley, and he had a not inconsiderable knowledge of the folk customs of the surrounding district.
The Reverend Watkin Hezekiah Williams, more popularly known by his bardic apellation-Watcyn Wyn-also mentions the sin-eater in his writings, though the reference is, as usual, somewhat superficial, and he advises that the whole affair be taken with a pinch of salt! (12) The Reverend Gomer M. Roberts noted an article in The Herald of Wales by one who called himself 'Joan Aman', referring to the practice of sin-eating at Brynamman ; this is believed to be the only reference to the custom in that part of the valley. (13) However in November 1924, the late Rev. Dr. D. Tegf an Davies, minister of the Christian Temple Congregationalist chapel, Ammanford, lectured on local customs and traditions at Llandybie, and he was convinced that the practice thrived in the Amman Valley during the first half of the nineteenth century. (14) Unfortunately, it is not known upon what evidence Dr. Davies made these comments.
In November 1875, Canon Silvan Evans, the rector of Llanymawddwy, Merioneth, and a lexicographer of wide repute, wrote a letter to a London weekly magazine referring to an article he had read in Blackwood's Magazine entitled 'Legends and Folklore of North Wales'. This article asserted that the practice of sin-eating remained common in both North and South Wales during the latter half of the nineteenth century, but Canon Evans declared that he had never heard of the practice, even though he had been born and brought up in Cardiganshire, and had lived in North Wales for a considerable period of time. Furthermore he says:
"My profession often brings me into contact with funerals ; but I have never found a trace of such a custom, and I have but little hesitation in saying that it is altogether unknown in the principality. If the writer of the article will give me the name of any locality where the superstition flourishes, I will at once visit the place and institute enquiries on the spot." (15)
In a note written by John Rowlands (Giraldus, 1833-1891), it is mentioned that Canon Silvan Evans visited the parish of Llandybie, but failed completely to come across any mention of the custom. (16) John Rowlands himself had lived in the parish for some years, being the first schoolmaster of Llandybie Church School. He later became personal secretary to the eminent antiquarian and book collector, Sir Thomas Phillipps of Thirlstaine House, Cheltenham. Rowlands declared positively that he had never heard of the practice of sin-eating in any part of the parish of Llandybie. (17)
Wirt Sikes knew nothing of the custom, (18) and Professor T. Gwynn Jones failed completely to come across any reference to sin-eating in Welsh. (19) Is there however any significance in the fact that H. Elwyn Thomas gives a vivid description of sin-eating in his novels? The following passage for example, occurs in his The Forerunner, Port Talbot, n.d., (c. 1911), p. 292:
"Roberts was talking in a low, earnest manner to a small audience of farmers and country labourers one Sunday afternoon outside the gate of Llandeilo church. Suddenly the speaker's eye caught sight of a strange figure approaching the congregation at a slow measured pace, as if the elements of time and distance had never entered any of his calculations. Hywel thought, as he observed his shuffling gait, he had never, even among the veriest rustics, and groundlings of the most untamed communities, seen such a tatterdemalion. His face was not only dirty, but grimy, and his hair seemed matted together with dry mud . . . when he was within a few yards of the small crowd, someone looked back and recognised him, and he had no sooner done so than he took to his heels as if he had just caught sight of the most dreaded object in the world, shouting wildly as he ran, "The Sin-Eater! The Sin-Eater!" In half a minute every man, woman and child had vanished." (20)
Elwyn Thomas was after all, a native of Llandybie, and as the Rev. Gomer M. Roberts notes, (21) he knew a great deal about the traditions of his native district. Many of his novels are based around Llandeilo and Llandybie, his characters are drawn from the area, and it is the dialect of the district that they speak. Watcyn Wyn also mentions in his article that it was once a custom in Carmarthenshire to place a plateful of salt upon the breast of a dead person in order that the air might be kept fresh. (22) He adds that this might well be the practice from which the whole question of sin-eating later evolved. George Eyre Evans also records a recollection of his father's about sin-eating at a Llanybydder funeral in 1823. (23)
To prove or disprove conclusively the custom of sin-eating in the Amman Valley would be a difficult task. It should be remembered at the same time that the valley was a wild and inaccessible area before the sinking of coal pits and the development of industry, and as Dyfnallt, one who knew the district well, said: "It was a lonely area, cut off from the outside world, and such areas are the strongholds of legend, superstition, ancient practices and long-held customs. The imagination is nourished by old superstitions, and old customs die hard in areas where the ancient fabric of society remains undisturbed." (24)
This article first appeared in the Welsh language quarterly Y Genhinen. I wish to thank the editor, the Rev. Rhys Nicholas for allowing me to have the article translated, and to my friend Mr. David Jenkins, B.A., of Tregynon, Powys, for providing the translation.-H.W.
1 Christmas Evans, the Preacher of Wild Wales, London, 1881. 2 ibid., p. 23. 3 See 'The life and times of John Aubrey' in Oliver Lawson Dick Aubrey's Brief Lives, London, 1975, p. lxxxviii, where the author quotes from one of Aubrey's manuscripts; " ...In Queen Elizabeth's time, one Penry of Wales, wrote a book called Martin-Mar-prelate. He was hanged for it. He was kin to my great-grandfather " 4 Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme, John Aubrey, London Folklore Society, 1881, pp. 35-36. 5 'The Sin-Eater', E. Sidney Hartland. Folk-Lore, Vol. III, 1892, pp. 145- 147. 6 The Golden Bough, The Scapegoat, J. G Frazer, London, 1913, pp. 42-47. 7 Archaeologia Carnbrensis, 2nd series, Vol. III, pp. 330-332. 8 ibid., p. 331. 9 Hanes Plwyf Llandybie, Gomer M. Roberts, Cardiff, 1939, p. 271. 10 "... Byddai rhai ohonynt bob nos Sadwrn ar ôl gorffen gwerthu eu cig, yn mynd i'r tafarndai, ac yn yfed yno hyd fore'r Saboth. Tystiai amryw hen bobl oedd yn ddiweddar yn fyw, ei bod yn berygl bywyd i gerdded ystrydoedd y dref a'r pentrefi cyfagos ar 'nos Sadwrn y cyfrif', am y byddai heidiau o ddihirod meddw a chreulon yn wastad yn barod I ymosod ar y neb a âi yn agos atynt " Hanes Eglwvsi Annibynnol Cymru, J. Thomas, & T. Rees, Liverpool, 1872, Vol. II, p. 40. 11 "Gwy'r Cwmaman oll ac un / Y diawl a'ch pia bob yr un. / Os na wnewch droi, a throi yn glau. / Fe ddaw i'ch hôl chwi-bob yn ddau!" Y Tadau Annibynnol, ed, L. D. Jones (Llew Tegid), Caernarfon, 1900, Vol. II, p. 33. 12 'Hen Arferion Dyffryn Aman', Watcyn Wyn, Y Geninen, Vol. XX, 1902, pp. 142-143. 13 'Colofn Hanes a Hynafiaeth', ed Gomer M. Roberts, Amman Valley Chronicle, October 31, 1940. 14 'The Omnibus', ibid., November 27, 1924. 15 The Academy, November 13, 1875. 16 Carmarthenshire Notes, ed. Arthur Mee, Llanelli, 1890, Vol. I. p. 100. 17 Western Mail, September 16, 1875. Quoted in Welsh Folk Customs, Trefor M. Owen, Cardiff, 1968, p. 184. 18 British Goblins, Wirt Sikes, London, 1880, pp. 325-327. 19 Welsh Folklore and Folk Custom, T. Gwynn Jones, London, 1929, p. 214. 20 A similar passage occurs in a Welsh language novel by the same author, Ifor Owain; Nofel am Gymru yn Amser Cromwell, Wrexham, 1911, p. 129. 21 op. cit., p. 241. 22 Cf. Sidney Hartland, op. cit., p. 152. 23 Transactions of the Carmarthenshire Antiquarian Society, Vol. 20, p. 85. 24 "Ardal unig, pell o'r byd ydoedd, ac ardaloedd o'r fath yw cynefin chwedl, coel, arfer a thraddodiad hen. Porthir dychymyg gan hen goelion, a glyn arferion yn hir lle ni byddo anesmwytho ar hen fywyd cymdeithasol ardal". Rhamant a Rhyddid, J. Dyfnallt Owen, Aberystwyth, 1952, pp. 10-11.
This article, by Dr Huw Walters of the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, was first published in the Carmarthen Historian, Volume XV (1978), pages 70 76. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of Dr Walters.
Dr Huw Walters is a native of Glanamman and was educated at Amman Valley Grammar School and University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. He was appointed to the staff of the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth in 1981. He has published several bibliographies and various articles on the nineteenth century Welsh press, but his main interest is in literature as it relates to society. He was awarded his doctorate in 1985 for his study of poetic culture in the Amman Valley. Elected F.S.A. [Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London] in 2001, an honour rarely bestowed on Welshmen (Fellows of the FSA are limited to 2000 in number). He lives in Aberystwyth.
Erwau'r Glo, [ie "Coal Acres"] (Swansea: Gwasg Christopher Davies, 1976). An anthology of prose and verse depicting life in the anthracite coalfield.
Canu'r Pwll a'r Pulpud: Portread o'r Diwylliant Barddol Cymraeg yn Nyffryn Aman, [ie "Songs of Pit and Pulpit: A Portrait of the Poetic Culture of the Amman Valley"], (Swansea, 1987), which won the Welsh Arts Council Prize and the Sir Ellis Jones Ellis-Griffith, University of Wales Board of Celtic Studies Prize for the best work of literary criticism published in Welsh in 1987.
Dyffryn Aman 'Slawer Dydd, [ie "The Amman Valley Long Ago"], edited (with D. A. Evans), (Gwasg Gomer, 1987). Photographs of old Ammanford and the Amman Valley.
Date this page last updated: October 1, 2010