In the Ghost Rider comic issue #74, Marvel Comics introduces us to Centurious, who in a Faust-esque manner, sold his soul to Mephisto to fight the demon Zarathos and save the woman he loved. Unknowing to him, the punishment for losing his soul was that he would roam the world and became a soulless immortal. While studying the mystic arts many centuries ago, he acquired the Crystal of Souls. In issues #80 and 81 of the same series, Centurious uses a sin obsessed pastor, Ethan Domblue, who longed for his congregation to be sinless. After being approached by the devilish Centurious, Domblue was given the power to ‘eat’ his congregation’s sins; which left them in a ‘sinless’ but passive state. The parishioners of the town of Holly were trapped inside the Crystal of Souls. The zombie-like slaves were then loyal to Centurious. The Ghost Rider showed up and defeated Centurious and freed the townspeople from the Crystal. As a last act to redeem his own soul, Pastor Domblue helped removed Zarathos from Johnny Blaze and placed the demon inside the Crystal of Souls, which therefore freed Johnny from the curse of the Ghost Rider. This may have been one of the first times that a sin eater had been introduced in comic book culture; but the real life occupation had been around for a long (and I do mean long) time.
The sin-eater is someone who eats a ritual meal in order to take on the sins of that person or persons. The food is believed to have been the vessel to carry the sins of the deceased person and therefore the sin-eater ‘eating’ the sins of this deceased person would absolve them of their sins. Allowing that person’s soul to be clean in the afterlife and based on the religious beliefs of the believer, would be allowed into Heaven/afterlife/wherever. In most mythologies, the sin-eater lives a slightly morbid life, isolated from the rest of the community because of his ‘unclean’ life. The sin-eater in the Ghost Rider comic, is not the only mention of the occupation in popular culture as it has appeared in movies, books, and other comic books. Despite its mention in certain venues; it is a relatively unknown thing.
I had never heard of the sin-eaters until my mom insisted that I watch this 2007 movie entitled The Last of the Sin Eater. The Last of the Sin Eater takes place in 1850s Appalachia and centers around a young girl who while grieves for the loss of her beloved grandmother, who is the only person in her family that loves her because the rest of her family thinks that she is responsible for the death of her sister. During her grandmother’s funeral, the young girl looks onto the face of the village’s sin-eater (because according to lore, the sin-eater became a worse and worse with every ceremony he attended). The girl, who is distraught by the litany of deaths and pain that she feels finds comforts in the teachings and Bible of the preacher that is camping on the outskirts of the village. Since I thought that this was just a Christian tale, my mother insisted that it was a real thing. So of course I had to investigate.
The sin-eaters and the interactions of the sin-eater to the people of the villages has remained a relatively unstudied part of our human history and remains as folklore for the most part. In mythology, the Aztec goddess of earth, motherhood and fertility, Tlazolteotl, had a role in the Huastec religion of the pre-Columbian Meso-American civilization. In Aztec culture, the individual who was close to death, would confess his/her sins (specifically sexual misdeeds) to the deity, and she would cleanse his/her soul by ‘eating their filth’.
We find sin-eaters in not only the Aztec culture but the occupation has been found in many other regions of the world. A letter by renowned English antiquarian, writer, and collector John Bagford (circa 1650-1716) where he wrote about the sin-eating ritual:
Notice was given to an old sire before the door of the house, when some of the family came out and furnished him with a cricket (a low stool), on which he sat down facing the door; then they gave him a groat which he put in his pocket, a crust of bread which he ate, and a bowl of ale which he drank off at a draught. After this he got up from the cricket and pronounced the case and the rest of the soul departed, for which he would pawn his own soul.
The practice was prevalent in the Marches (which is the land around the England-Wales border) and in northern Wales but mostly died out by the early 19th century. The last known sin-eater in England was Richard Munslow, who died in Ratlinghope in 1906. The English tradition finds that most sin-eaters were generally poor people and earned a small wage (normally a half-shilling) from ‘eating the sins’. This practice was frowned upon by the Christian church despite having origins based in early Christian customs where the early Israelites’ transferred their sins to a ‘scapegoat’ (found in Leviticus 16). This custom was never widely practiced but starting dying out completely in the 19th century. The gravestone of Richard Munslow is found in the small Shropshire churchyard of the St Margarets’s Church in the Ratlinghope village (of only about 100 residents) in England. The inscription is minimal but while most sin-eaters were poor, Munslow was a prominent farmer in the area. His time as the village’s sin-eater would find him ceremoniously partaking in the meal and recanting the phrase:
“I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. Amen.”
The now-defunct practice which supposedly died out with men like Richard Munslow did move to America with the influx of Irish, Welch, and British immigrants to the Appalachian mountains during the 18th and 19th centuries. The author of “The Last Sin Eater” book and subsequently the movie; was intrigued by the idea of sin-eaters because of the movie The Incredible Journey of Dr. Meg Laurel starring Lindsay Wagner and James Woods which also centered around a sin-eater. Her message for all of her novels is that, “God is there waiting when you ask forgiveness;” much like the way the Aztecs worshipped the Goddess Tlazolteotl. Am I thankful that I can just go to God and ask forgiveness instead of finding someone to eat crusty bread from the chest of a dead person before drinking cheap wine just to absolve someone who they hardly know of their sins? Most definitely because I think that I’d rather starve to death than to do that job. I’d go back to digging ditches….which I actually only did for a day and a half.
Cover Image: Scanned Cover of the pulp magazine Weird Tales (December 1938, vol. 32, no. 6) featuring The Sin-Eater by G.G. Pendarves. Cover art by Ray Quigley. Accredited to Weird Tales, Inc. – Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8376605
Ghost Rider (1st Series) cover photo, Issue #80, May 1983 accredited to Marvel Comics.
British Museum Huaxtec 1 accredited to Gryffindorderivative: Ophelia.summers (talk) – British_Museum_Huaxtec_1.jpg, fair use, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15254577
Richard Munslow Gravestone images courtesy of https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/58880934/richard-munslow