Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Sin-Eating in Appalachia

The Appalachian culture is rich in history and custom.  Many beliefs and traditions, such as snake-handling Christians, are often viewed as strange by the mainstream.  When I started researching an ancient practice I had heard about, I was surprised to find that Sin-Eating had a not-so-distant history in Europe and right here in Appalachia.  The Sin-Eater was a societal outcast and would be summoned upon the death of a loved one, to come wearing their dark cloak and hood and cloak and eat a meal that had been placed upon the corpse, usually reciting whispered lines, thus absolving the deceased of all their worldly sins, thereby affording them passage into heaven rather than being damned to wander the earth.

Traditional Sin-Eater cloak

Throughout history many professions have risen from death rituals, including the undertakers and morticians of today.  In days of old, professional mourners were hired to wail and lament the passing of a family member, while others were hired to sit with the dead until the time of burial.  While sin-eaters were paid for their services, it was a very small amount of money.  There was a dark stigma attached to the sin-eaters, who were believed to carry the sins they ate along with them, the sum of which made them unclean and evil in the eyes of their neighbors who shunned them.  The question has been put forth of who eats the sin-eaters' sins.  It was commonly believed that for voluntarily taken the sins of others upon them, the sin-eater was damned to eternal life in hell.  

Tracing its origins to ancient Egypt and Greece, the practice of sin-eating also stems from the Catholic rite of absolution, the forgiveness of sins by a priest as near the time of death as possible.  In order for those who died unexpectedly to be absolved, sin-eaters became common in Wales and Ireland in the 18th and 19th century, with immigrants bringing the practice with them to the mountains of Appalachia. 

While the ritual of sin-eating varied by region, the sin-eater usually lived in a remote area away from others.  The practice was somewhat taboo, and few accounts survived.  In Appalachia, the sin-eater seemed to be an anonymous member of the community, his identity secret while he lived a regular life in his community.  The sin-eater would be summoned upon the death of a loved one, and would enter the home, where the family would have prepared a meal and placed it on the chest of the corpse, or passed it over the body.  Once the food was eaten and the sin-eater would say something to the effect of, “I give easement now to thee…and for they earthly sins dear woman, I pawn my own soul.”  His job done, the sin-eater left without saying another word, only to appear again when he was summoned.  

The practice seems to have died out around the turn of the 20th century in Europe, though a handful of reports continued through the 1930s.  In America, tales of sin-eating persisted in North Carolina, West Virginia, and Virginia were claimed to occur through the 1950s, with alleged accounts occurring in remote areas within the last decade, although these reports have not been validated.  

An episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, titled ‘Sins of the Fathers’ featured a sin-eater. The 2003 movie The Order, Heath Ledger plays a priest who is a sort of sin-eater and can be found on Hulu. Francine Rivers’ 1996 book The Last Sin Eater was adapted into a film in 2007. While not the best movie ever made, it tells the story of a community of second generation Welsh immigrants living in the Appalachian mountains and a dark secret they share.  It is said to portray the ritual of sin-eating closely to what actually occurred in the mountains long ago. 

Overlook the foreign language dubbed over the dialogue and check out the ritual:


Like many old traditions, sin-eating seems to have died out in Europe and Appalachia, but whispering here and there allude to the possibility of sin-eating still being practiced in remote areas of the mountains.  If anyone has a first or second-hand account of sin-eating, please contact us!

Links of interest:
Funeral Customs - includes section on sin-eating
Watch The Last Sin Eater - complete movie on Youtube

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Louisville Purge Frenzy

A tweet from a 16 year old boy led to the cancellation of a high school football game last night in Louisville, and had the metro police department on highest alert.  The Iriquoi High School student tweeted “Whos trying get a Louisville Purge Started With Me?” on August 10, and has since told sources that he didn’t think it would get taken seriously, until it did. The flyer that accompanied the tweet spread like wildfire on social media sites and the city of Louisville was a powder keg yesterday evening as residents anticipated the possible events that had been hyped on local media outlets.  The meme evolved to include warnings to residents of Jacksonville, Detroit, Kansas City, Miami, and Cleveland to be prepared to undergo a Purge in their cities as well.

The brilliant minds behind the Metro Purge forgot the apostrophe to make Louisvilles possessive. SMH

Word spread that participants were to go out and incite chaos, vandalizing, assaulting, and taking over the city.  A rough plan was formed that directed would be participants to congregate at the Louisville St. Xavier-Simon Kenton high school football game and at the Katy Perry concert on the state fairgrounds.  The problem with their lack of structure was that the concert wasn't until tonight (Saturday), so anyone who stormed the arena would have found it empty.  A report was made to the police of suspicious people being inside a large unnamed public complex some social media users believed to be the KFC YUM Center where Perry performed tonight.  School officials took the threat seriously enough to postpone the scrimmage football game until this morning. 

Soon after the announced Purge starting time, Twitter was abuzz with calls users heard coming over police scanners they were listening to via internet sites and apps.  Scanner sites were down sporadically from the overwhelming traffic. While many residents went on about their daily activities unconcerned, some residents were terrified, having been caught up in the frenzy of the hype.  This was spurred on by outlandish prank 911 calls, along with the usual Friday night in a larger city criminal activity being reported.  #PurgeLouisville and #LouisvillePoliceScanner were among top trending topics on Twitter throughout the night as users tweeted the entertaining dispatches they were hearing.  

A friend and I listened for a bit on a scanner app, and heard several ‘shots fired’ reports, and vague calls made about suspicious people in bushes and traveling the streets.  Among the more entertaining reports to come across Metro radios last night were a man in a panda suit beating on a woman’s backdoor, hipster teenagers breaking into the zoo and freeing a giraffe that was then seen walking downtown, a man stealing beer and a pickle, a dildo being thrown at a windshield in an intersection, and a shirtless black man raping a kitty cat.  Several prank callers recorded their 911 calls and posted them to the internet, like this one, in which the caller reports being ran off by “black men with afros in suits wearing masks yelling ‘the pool is closed because of stingrays infected with AIDS.’”  I would think the calls could be traced and would personally fear prosecution for filing a false police report.

Old pic that got recirculated last night

As entertaining as all these events were, what it says about our society is troubling.  The anonymity of the internet encourages these little pseudo-anarchist movements.  In this case, it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, but was fueled and the next thing you know people are in the streets of Louisville scaring other people.  Life is trying to imitate horror.  

The notion was based on the 2013 film that depicted our country in the not too distant future, where a new government sanctioned a 12-hour Purge for one night each year, during which all crimes were legal and emergency services were suspended.  There was a message in the film’s subtext, power out of control.  Would-be Purgers in Louisville didn’t seem to realize the activities they hoped to carry out were just as illegal as they always have been.  It almost seemed like Halloween came early this year. Well, maybe ‘Corn Night.’  There were numerous reports of people in masks or with their faces painted roaming the streets, sometimes supposedly hiding in backyards or banging on garage doors.  It wasn’t clear whether several reports of people seen in the streets with knives, machetes, hammers, and swords were valid or more pranks, but we’re betting on the latter.

Local media outlets reported heavily on the possible ‘Purge,’ but failed to deliver any substance.  Nearly all the related stories were carbon copies: tweet passed around, people afraid it will happen, quotes from random people on how they felt about it. They did nothing to quell the rumors, report on the lack of any real Purge activity, or put people at ease.  

There were many different reactions to the events.  Some social media users were actively watching out for threats, reporting in that all was clear.  Others made jests of the fiasco.  On a Reddit discussion about the whole thing, users discussed why people would make these prank calls, knowing resources would be pulled to check them out, while spreading personnel thin to deal with actual emergencies.  ‘Chootee’ said, “Some people in a scary situation try to be tough and make light of things. Some people don’t take things seriously, ever.”  User “Limetreehermit” replied, “Yeah, but I’ve got my pistol out anyway.”  Youtube was flooded with gag videos of 'Purging,' with tense introductions that led to someone cutting the tag off a mattress or kicking over a garbage can. Trollers took amateur footage of armored personnel carriers firing tear gas in Ferguson, MO earlier this week and claimed it had just occurred in Louisville.

Some criminal activity is to be expected in a city with a population the size of Louisville’s, especially on a summer Friday night.  Accidents, drunks, domestic incidents, occasional murder, a home invasion here and there;  that’s to be expected.  Twitter, 4Chan, and Reddit users commenting on the police calls referred to hearing someone being dispatched to the scene of a homicide and others followed suit.  One dead person doesn’t seem like much of a Purge to me, though.  

I have no doubt that one of the main reasons the ‘Purge’ notion spread so fast was a direct result of the recent events in Ferguson, MO after the shooting of 18 year old Michael Brown by a police officer, who’s name was withheld until yesterday, when heavy pressure from the online group ‘anonymous’ may have influenced officials into releasing information earlier than they would have, but more on that next time.  Calls for peaceful demonstrations there have been overshadowed by violence and looting.  It almost seems that there is a population among us who are just waiting on the catalyst to spark these moral panics in our society .

With the exponentially growing trend of ridiculous faux news being propelled without question by social media, I shudder to think what we should anticipate next.  Perhaps everyone will be watching the next meteor shower believing they’ll see Transformers flying down to earth.  No doubt everything will turn out okay, as someone will start a Twitter trend that the military-industrial complex has successfully mutated some turtles into teenage mutant ninjas who will save us from a resulting military state of martial law.


Links of Interest:
Live Blog user posts supposed dispatches
Broadcastify - online police scanner.
Audio of police dispatches, the bestiality complaint at 3:00