What You Eat

The future of Sleepy Hollow is uncertain. The successful FOX television program has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous scheduling over the past year and speculation abounds that the current fourth season may be its last. It has been, in my experience anyway, one of the most literate supernatural horror shows ever. Books and reading abound and an interracial team fights evil week after week. Having done some research on the first season of the program, I continue to be surprised just how detailed the homework of the writers is. My wife sent me a story from Atlas Obscura on the “sin eater.” This is a term, I readily confess, that I never heard before the introduction of Henry Parrish to Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod Crane, guilty over the death of a freed African American freedom fighter, ingests poison to kill himself and severe his connection to the Headless Horseman. Abbie Mills, believing there is another way, locates the sin eater.

The idea is fairly simple, if unorthodox. A sin eater can literally devour the sins of another. In Sleepy Hollow this comes at a considerable cost, but the article by Natalie Zarrelli demonstrates that this too reflects research on the subject. There were, it turns out, sin eaters in the early modern British Isles. Often a poor person with no other options, a sin eater would consume bread placed on the chest of the deceased, incorporating, in an almost Christ-like way, the sins of the recently passed. The dead could then be safely buried, forgiven, while for a pittance a poor soul could walk around with someone else’s sins in his or her body. Sounds like capitalism writ large, to me.

Watching Sleepy Hollow I had assumed this idea was invented for the show. Like so many details, however, it turns out that some digging had brought an obscure historical practice to the surface. Sin eating, as the article makes clear, was never sanctioned by the church. People have often worried that official religion might not deliver the salvation it so readily promised, bound up with rules and rites as it was. Here was a sacrament of the people. Bread could be visibly consumed and symbolically, or literally, sin with it. The sin eater was paid, making this a legal transaction. Although sin eating is thought to have died out, it seems that with the recent, high-level resurgence of evil-doing, perhaps it is a practice that should be recalled. In many ways Sleepy Hollow has been ahead of the times since the beginning.

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