Death has always fascinated me, simply because I don’t want it to ever happen to me. I cannot conceive of not being, the idea of stopping for good – of being no more – is beyond me. I am always the last to leave a party because I cannot bear goodbyes; I hate it when things end. Whilst I think immortality would be terribly lonely, to me the idea of missing things, of not seeing what happens next, is so much worse. So I knew when I started writing that death, and the mysteries of it, would be a large part of my work.
From the very moment I first read the term ‘Sin Eater’, it haunted me. I came across it in a short story called ‘The Sin Eater’, part of Margaret Atwood’s collection of short stories, Dancing Girls. It was the title that drew me to it, the need to know what a sin eater was. I read the story, enjoyed it, but later found I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What a terrible, spine-chilling concept; that a person could take on the sins of another, literally pawning their soul for a little food and coin.
Traditionally, a sin eater was a man, poor, likely homeless or a vagrant, someone who had little choice but to jeopardise their own soul’s peace in the next world as a means of survival in this one. It’s a Christian tradition, though the Christian church has never condoned the practice, believing that only God could determine when a sin was atoned for. There’s the possibility it grew out of the Jewish scapegoat, or that it was a way for those who died unconfessed to be allowed fairer consideration, or to escape the fires of hell. Very little is actually known about it, though it was commonly practised it was unofficial, undocumented.
But whatever the reasons, the idea of it horrified me, even beyond the death aspect. How desperate must a person be, in a time when people believed almost universally in heaven and hell, to add sins they’d never committed to their own repertoire? To willingly damn themselves eternally for a full stomach in this life? No matter what you believe in, the thought of bearing the sentence for crimes you hadn’t committed is an appalling one. So if an innocent could stockpile sins, what would that do to them? Would they become darker, wickeder, under the weight of these sins? I thought about secrets, and how they can weigh on you. Could sins do the same?
And so she was created, the Sin Eater, this monstrous character who held the key to a peaceful, eternal life in her hands. I elaborated on the foods eaten, making different sorts the embodiments of sin. In my world the Sin Eater can piece together a life and a character from the food served from a coffin top. She could see who was jealous, who was cruel, who was petty. There was a delicious darkness to that, that from this life-giving sustenance the deepest secrets of a soul could be known. That in order to guarantee peace to their loved one, a family would have to use food to confess the very worst of the deceased and allow this woman to know it, to carry it, and to pass it on.
I wanted my sin eater to be drenched in sin, to feel the weight of every single one. I wanted it to be an eternal thing, passed down a family line, life after life inheriting more and more, every generation more despised, more shunned. I wanted the sin eater in my world to be part goddess, part monster, respected and feared, the perfect dark counterpart for the glory of the royal family.
They would have to trust her. To trust the souls of those they loved, and eventually themselves, into this unknown quantity, who would know the very worst of them and carry it with her forever. This woman who was both blessing and curse. The Sin Eater.
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