The Myth of Cain and Abel


Cain Murders Abel (17th century).  P. Novelli.

Myths are explanations about conflict between the supernatural and natural worlds, about the struggle between ancient humankind and the supernatural powers they believed in. Myths can be spoken stories, written epics, legends, sagas, and folk tales. Myths involved ancient peoples in the struggle with the natural world. Humankind invented myths to help in a world they did not really understand. Myths can show us therefore what earlier peoples thought about their world and the time that they lived in.

The myth of Cain and Abel is presented in the Old Testament as a breakdown of family life when a brother kills his brother. But is this the real meaning of the myth of Cain and Abel? As real live men Cain and Abel did not exist. The myth of Cain and Abel is one of a number of ancient Palestinian legends to be found in Genesis in the old testament. The story of Cain and Abel has therefore been linked to the myth of creation. The myth of Cain and Abel comes from a different source and tradition than the story of creation. In the myth a number of unconnected strands or stories have been joined up to give a running narrative.


Cain and Abel (1542-44).  Titian.

The composers, writers and editors of the early Hebrew myths were divided into two schools of thought. One school was known as the Yahwist and they followed in the tradition of Yahweh or Jehovah as the creator of the world and man. The other school believed in the creation by Elohim, and who were the priestly tradition and were active during the early Hebrew monarchy. The word Elohim is a word in Hebrew which means ‘God’. The name Yahweh also means ‘God’ but is especially used to mean ‘God of Israel’. According to the Yahwist version Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve. Both Cain and Abel were born after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Cain was an agriculturalist – he grew crops and tilled the soil. However, Abel was a pastoralist – he was a shepherd. Thus “Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.” (Genesis. 4:2). Pastoralists were nomads who wandered with their herds in search of fresh pastures. As such, unlike the agricultural peoples, they had no settled homes.

The brothers made their offerings of sacrifice to Yahweh. Cain gave the fruits of his labour on the soil. Abel gave the first born lambs of his flock (Genesis 4:4/5). However, Cain’s offering was rejected by Yahweh but Abel’s was accepted. In anger at the rejection of his sacrifice Cain kills Abel. Thus “…when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and slew him.” (Genesis 4:8). The result of this act was that Yahweh curses Cain and thereafter he fled into the desert. Before running away to The Land of Nod, which was somewhere East of Eden. There he builds a city and also becomes the ancestor of peoples who are credited with building civilisation. Cain in Hebrew means ‘smith’.

An examination of the myth can now be made. According to the Yahwist Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel were the only people alive on earth at this time. But in the story Cain goes in fear of human vengeance. Not only does he fear the anger of other humans, who according to the Old Testament, are supposed not to exist, he finds people who accept him in the Land of Nod where he builds his new city. From this part of the myth we can see that civilisation already existed. Not only with cities, which were associated with agriculture, but also metal work and musical instruments. Cain we have seen was an agriculturalist and he also had the name ‘smith’. We can also assume from the myth that there was also ritual human sacrifice. This shows that religious practices were also in existence. Religion, ritual and priests were a feature of the early city states of the Near-East. All this civilisation is incompatible with the story of the beginnings of life and Paradise.

Cain and Abel

Cain and Abel (1552).  Tintoretto.

There are three strands in the myth of Cain and Abel that come from three different sources. The Yahwists wove them into one story for their own religious purposes. Firstly we have the ancient feud between the desert and cultivated land. The feud between the nomads and herders and those who tilled the soil. This is also the subject of the much earlier ancient Sumerian myth of Dumuzi and Enkimdu. Dumuzi was the shepherd god and Enkimdu was the farmer god of Sumeria. Both competed with offerings for the favours of the goddess of love and fertility called Inanna. In this myth nobody came to the tragic and that Abel did. In later Babylonian times Dumuzi became Tammuz and Inanna became known as Ishtar. The name of the goddess eventually became the Aphrodite of the ancient Greeks. The Sumerians came to ancient Mesopotamia about 4000 BC and took over from the Al Ubaid peoples living there. They founded their city states near the Persian Gulf between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. At about 1720 BC the Babylonians took over from the Sumerians. The Israelites came to live in Palestine around 1300 BC. This shows that the origins of the myth of Cain and Abel go back about 6000 years before today.

Secondly, the ritual in the myth shows a developed society with proper religious institutions. Cain and Abel represent therefore two different communities. Each community has its own sacrifices and rituals. The rejection of Cain’s offering really means crop failure. In order to make amends for this a special ritual has to be carried out. As Yahweh said to Cain about Abel’s sacrifice “Thou shalt rule over him.” (Genesis. 4:7). In the same verse it says that Yahweh told Cain that “sin lieth at the door.” Not only does Yahweh tell Cain that a ritual must be carried out for the crop failure. He also in doing so tells Cain he must kill Abel. In the religious belief of the time there existed a demon power that had to be appeased. This demon was the robes. The word lieth or croucheth was translated from an Akkadian word rabisu. This word rabisu meant ‘evil croucher’.  Akkadian was the later Babylonian period. This demon rabisu, or robes, was thought to lie in wait for his offering and is often mentioned in ancient Babylonian magical texts. This demon had to be offered a human sacrifice. Cain then invites Abel into the field. Just as Dumuzi invited Enkimdu to pasture his sheep in his fields. It is in this field of tilled soil where Abel is killed. This shows that a ritual killing took place. It was a communal killing and not a jealous fight between two brothers. The ritual killing was done to soak the soil in blood in order to fertilise it. As genesis says “…the earth has opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand.” (genesis. 4:11). The blood “from thy hand” was thus deliberately and ritually sprinkled onto the tilled soil.


Cain Kills Abel (1610).  B. Manfredi.

There follows the cursing of Cain by Yahweh (Genesis. 4:11). He then fled from the scene of the killing. In the meantime Cain has been given a protective mark by Yahweh (Genesis. 4.15). The explanation is that the mark prevented Cain from being attacked by others as ‘unclean’ for his part in the ritual sacrifice. Cain was thus subject to a taboo. As well as preventing him being recognised by the ghost of Abel. Again, God has forgotten that there were only supposed by now to be three people alive.

There were similar beliefs in the ancient world to that of Cain and Abel. For example, the Babylonian New Year Festival. Also the ritual of the Bouphonia in ancient Athens. The purpose of the Babylonian New Year  Festival was wholly to do with agriculture and cultivation. A priest and an exorcist indulged in a sacrifice of a sheep. Its blood was smeared over a shrine to purify it in honour of the god Nabu. After this ritual the two fled into the desert to be purified until the festival was over. Similar to this is the Hebrew ritual of the Day of Atonement. This was originally part of the autumn New Year Festival. This also had a combination of a ritual killing and then a flight into the desert. The Hebrews at that time had replaced human sacrifice by two goats. One goat was killed and the other driven out into the desert.

The ritual of Bouphonia means the killing of an ox. It was a cult ritual in ancient Athens. An ox was ritually killed by two men who then fled away for a while. The running away of Cain is very similar. It means that Cain, the one who carried out the sacrifice was defiled by his act. He was then driven out of the community until he was purified. His guilt was in this sense a communal one. It was not seen as the guilt of the single man alone. It follows then why Cain was given a mark. He was given the right of ritual protection. Cain was not seen as a common murderer because he had performed a ritual and religious act for the benefit of all of his community. He was only banished temporarily but whilst away he was sacrosanct.

The mark of Cain was a tattoo mark which showed that he was a member of a sacred or priestly class. Examples can be found in the Old Testament where many of the prophets also had such tattoos. Marks which showed their sacred position. Such marks also distinguished those who worked for the temples, it meant that they were the property of god.

The myth of Cain and Abel is really a ritual myth that explains the ritual killing in order to ensure the fertility of the ground for the next crops. The killing was followed by the flight of the killer who was protected by a mark which showed his sacred position. During time the myth acquired other meanings. These include that of a feud between settled peasants and the pastoral nomads who continually tried to enter the tilled lands. The journey of Cain after the sacrificial killing comes from a different tradition. This tradition is that of the ancient Palestinian Kenite tribe. This was the tribe of Kenan. The Kenite tribe were always nomads or semi-nomads, and therefore tent dwellers.

According to the Yahwist writers Adam had Cain and Abel by Eve. Cain killed Abel and ran away to the Land of Nod where he married and had a son called Enosh. Cain the built a city which he named after his son. Enosh then had a son called Irad. This Irad had a son called Mehjael who in turn had a son called Methushael. This man in turn had a son called Lamech. However, the Priests had another list of descendants of Cain. It was very similar to the list of the Yahwist writers. According to the Priests the father of Kenan was Enosh. This name is Hebrew for ‘man’ and it is also a synonym for Adam. A synonym is a word that means the same as another different word. This means that in both lists the first man was the father of Cain.

The Priests had a list of Adam’s descendants. This was: Adam; Seth; Enosh; Kenan; Mahalalel; Jared; Enoch; Methuselah; Lamech; and Noah. Irad then is the same as Jared. Mehujael is the same as Mahalalel, and Methuselah is Mathusala. In Genesis the list of descendants is used to explain the origins of civilisation. After Abel’s death Adam and Eve had another son called Seth. It was Seth, according to the Priests, who was the father of Enos or Enosh. Today the Old Testament combines both the Yahwist and the Elohist ( priests) lists of descendants.

There are many examples in ancient myths throughout the world of killing humans as a sacrifice so that the land will become fertile. It is important to see then that just because ‘mumbo jumbo’ has a history  it does not mean that history itself is ‘mumbo jumbo’. It becomes absurd when ancient Bronze Agee myths are taught today as though they are real facts. The secret is to look at the ancient myths, as a form of ideology, to discover what really happened and why the priests did these things in order to keep their power and influence. Without offerings the priesthood would have starved.


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