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Marvel's Ghost Rider character always reminded me of tales of the headless horseman for intuitive reasons I was not able to explain, so I always wondered whether there is a connection between this modern superhero and the old North American legend. After doing research I was not able to find an explicit link, as all searches for "Ghost Rider origins" or similar queries returned results related to the hero's origin story within the Marvel universe. However, I did find that the tale of the headless horseman is related to older wild hunt myths. I also found that in many wild hunt myths the riders are demonic in nature and their prey are the souls of sinners. These themes are pretty clearly shared by Marvel's Ghost Rider. I also found that the folklore surrounding western legends about ghost riders (as in "ghost riders in the sky," Stampede Mesa, etc.) is descended from/connected to the wild hunt myths, and I'm pretty sure that these legends are the origin of the superhero's name. Thus, I think that I can conclude pretty surely that Marvel's Ghost Rider can be considered a modern link in the chain of wild hunt myths, regardless of whether his creators intended this consciously.

There is one aspect of the Ghost Rider character, however, which I have not been able to connect to the wild hunt, and it is the aspect about which I am most curious. Ghost Rider was originally a human being, and not always a demon. Furthermore, though he works for the Devil, and so is associated with evil, there is a sense in which his victims "deserve" what comes to them, since they are vile sinners and are being given payment for the actions they chose to commit. To generalize, there is an idea represented which I would express as something like "the line between good and evil is blurry," or "sometimes the things which repulse/horrify us are necessary/used for good."

My Question: Is there a way to connect this motif to the wild hunt? If so, what is the earliest example of this motif in folklore/mythology as it relates to the wild hunt? If not, is there another thread of folklore entwined in the Ghost Rider which would explain this motif?

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The second part of Ghost Rider's mythological roots is simply that of a cursed soul or literally a ghost that rides, like Herne the Hunter, who also rattled with chains. The idea that members of the Wild Hunt might be cursed is obviously a product of Christianization. They were often hunting on a Christian holiday like Good Friday. That was enough to damn their souls for eternity.

Tales from Northern Germany mention that the Wild Hunt hunts a female demon, like moss people or wood folk.

The deal with the devil reminds me a bit of Jack O'Lantern and it is not uncommon to see Headless Horsemen depicted with a pumpkin as a head. Now combine this with the classic Faustian pact, that shows up in North American legends like the one of blues musician Robert Johnson, and mix it all together.

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  • I like what you say about the Faustian pact. I hadn't thought of that. And the Robert Johnson precedent is worth noting. Thank you. I'm not sure it quite gets to what I'm looking for though. A bargain with the Devil on its own doesn't necessarily entail the idea that there is any good involved. I'll look into your ideas more, though, and see if maybe it's there after all.
    – The Ledge
    Jul 26, 2022 at 15:06
  • As for the hunt being cursed as a Christian influence, you could be right, though I thought I recalled a pagan/pre-Christian wild hunt variant in which a king and his riders are cursed to ride forever after centuries pass while they attend a magical dwarf's wedding. It could be that this was also a Christianized variant without me noticing, though.
    – The Ledge
    Jul 26, 2022 at 15:08
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    I think I found another layer of the Headless Horseman/Ghost Rider connection. The Headless Horseman in German legends was originally a harmful revenant, later the restless soul of a sinner who was meant to be a warning for others not to do the same mistakes in life as him. Here he overlaps with the figure of the Feuermann (Fireman) or Flammenmann (Flame Man, Flaming Man), a more obscure variety of a damned soul who is engulfed in the flames of purgatory, walking the earth, hoping for redemption.
    – Obskuro
    Jan 19, 2023 at 17:40
  • Thanks for the follow-up. Is that pervasive enough in German legends that I would easily find it if I simply look for "German headless horseman" or something similar, or should I look for a particular legend?
    – The Ledge
    Jan 20, 2023 at 22:22

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