I found The Sin Eater's Last Confessions: Lost Traditions of Celtic Shamanism a fascinating book. In it Ross Heaven provides us with a window on Celtic healing techniques of the past. The old Celtic tradition of ‘sin eating’ has been lost now, but once it was customary here in Wales to invite the local sin eater to perform a ritual of eating food from the body of the corpse in order to cleanse the soul of sin and allow it free passage to the afterlife.
Ross Heaven was fortunate enough to meet one of the last Welsh sin eaters in the small Herefordshire village where he grew up. This is his account of a remarkable friendship between man and boy and of an informal apprenticeship that put Ross firmly on his path to become one of the UK’s foremost shamanic practitioners.
The setting is not far from my home in Mid Wales, just over the English border; there is always extra satisfaction in reading about familiar places and I could easily picture this sleepy village. Even now the pace of many Herefordshire villages feels several decades behind that of modern towns.
Adam Dilwyn Vaughan lived on the outskirts of the village, performing his healing services for the community, but somehow shunned by the villagers as if dirty. As he points out if the sin eater is ‘dirty’ it is only by virtue of consuming the sins of others. Despite many warnings to avoid Adam’s little ramshackle cottage it seems Ross and Adam were predestined to meet. Without ever saying so a series of remarkable teachings began which lasted until Ross become a young adult and left the countryside for university.
There is a great deal of wisdom in Adam’s methods of healing. He had a wonderful understanding of plant remedies and gardened weeds as others would cultivate flowers and vegetables. “A weed is simply a gift from nature that we don’t care to receive.”
Many of his teachings can be recognised as shamanic ways of understanding the world which are found to agree from culture to culture. For example Adam speaks of bad spirits gathering in the corners of the body, elbows, knees and other joints. This reminded me of the old wisdom of living in round spaces, such as tipis to avoid corners where dark spirits can gather.
I recognised some of Adam's techniques from my partner’s own instinctive healing methods. Like Adam he experiences dry retching after sucking out energetic debris from places of congestion in the body, a need to 'get it all out of his system'. It used to concern me but now I recognise that it is part and parcel of what he does. Adam teaches Ross that it is important the debris is cleared from the healer’s body, as to hold onto it would make the healer ill. Adam warns that there are some healers who choose to retain the dark energies within themselves as part of their power.
“It is a real possibility and an illness among healers that they can grow dependent on their patients for their own well-being, and then they do not serve God but steal from others and work with a darkened heart.”
I probably would have dismissed this as unlikely in the past, seeing those who choose healing as motivated to help their fellow humans, but I have had first hand experience of several established and experienced healers who are doing exactly this. It was a great relief to see the warning there in print and to know that others have detected this too. This abuse of power is shocking to think of, but the public should be aware that some healers can become distorted in their purpose, in the same way I suppose any other caring profession contains its 'rotten apples'. If you feel drained after visiting a healer and this sensation happens more often than not you would be well advised to go elsewhere.
Ross gives us wonderful insight into many of the lessons he learned from Adam. We join Ross as he writes his sins down in stream of consciousness to be transmuted by fire, follow him into Nature looking for omens and experience a vision quest with him. At the back of the book he provides a guide to some of the exercises Adam put him though, so that the book is partly a guide for those ready to explore the world and themselves in this way.
I found a huge amount of synchronicity happening around me as I read; the book seemed to have arrived at the perfect moment for me and confirmed so much of what I have been perceiving and thinking in recent months. For that I must say a big thank you to Ross for setting these experiences down on paper and send my gratitude to Adam Dilwyn Vaughan too, whether he has passed over or is still living.
I can heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in healing or Celtic traditions as an engrossing and entertaining read, a moving biography of a powerful, wise and humble man.