The Cain and Abel Myth.


Cain slaying his brother Abel (1660).  Peter Paul Rubens.

[Hooke. Middle Eastern Mythology. Pelican].

Definition of myth – explanations about conflict between natural and supernatural powers. About a world man does not know or understand. Involve man in the struggle in and with the natural world. Myths show how early people thought about the world. Myth can be spoken stories, written epics, or sagas etc.

The Myth of Cain and Abel – myth = breakdown of family relationship – brother slays brother. Cain and Abel myth – from different sources/tradition than creation myth (A & E). The myth – artificially linked to Hebrew creation myths – to give a continuous narrative. Myth = unrelated strands of tradition.

Composers, writers, editors of early Hebrew myths = 2 schools. The Yahwist (tradition of Yahweh or Jehovah), and Elohist (from Elohim). Elohim = plural of Hebrew Eloah = god. Jahweh =  Yahwe or Jehovah – Hebrew for the God of Israel. Active – period of early Hebrew kingship. Thus – two schools of thought = creation by Elohim and creation by Yahweh.

The Yahwist story = Cain + Abel = sons of Adam and Eve. Born after expulsion from Eden. Cain = agriculturalist. Abel = pastoralist (shepherd). Thus ‘And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.’ (Genesis 4.2).

Brothers > offerings to Yahweh. Cain > fruits of his labour on soil. Abel . firstlings from his flock (Genesis 4.4/5). Cain’s offering is rejected while Abel’s is rejected.

In anger at rejection of his offering 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 = Jahweh curses Cain; flight of Cain; Jahweh = protective mark on Cain. Can then settles in Land of Nod (East of Eden). Cain builds a city – becomes ancestor of descendants in whom origins of civilisation are attributed (Cain = Smith).

Examination of the myth – according to the Yahwist – Adam, Eve, Cain + Abel = only people alive. Bith in the myth – Cain goes in fear of human vengeance. From this myth it can be assumed – civilisation + cities = metal, musical instruments + rituals of sacrifice (human).

All this civilisation = incompatible with beginnings of life and the expulsion from Paradise. There are 3 strands in the myth from three different ancient sources. The Yahwist wove them into one story.

Strand 1 = ancient feud between desert and sown land, between tillers of soil and nomads. This = subject of the earlier Sumerian myth of Dumuzi (Tammuz) and Enkidu. Dumuzi (shepherd god) and Enkidu (farmer god) contend with offerings to favour Inanna.

[Sumerians – Tigris and Euphrates > Persian Gulf. 5000 > 3000 years ago (4000 BC) = Sumerian city states. Time scale – 1750 BC = Babylonians conquer Sumer. The Sumerian Inanna = Babylonian Ishtar – goddess of love and fertility. Ishtar = Greek Aphrodite.

Strand 2 = Ritual myth – implies a developed society = established religious institutions. Cain + Abel = two communities – each with its own regular sacrifices. Rejection of Cain’s agricultural offering – represents crop failure. This requires a special ritual in expiation (Genesis 4.6-7). Thus – “Thou shalt rule over him.”  Agricultural cities shall triumph over pastoralists.

There exists a demonic power (robes) which has to be propitiated. Thus “…sin lieth at the door.” (Genesis 4.7). Lieth or croucheth was translated from a word of Akkadian or rabisu = the evil croucher. This demon lies in wait for his offering according to ancient Babylonian magical texts.

Cain invites Abel into the field. Just as Dumuzi invites Enkidu to pasture his sheep in his fields. It is in the field, in the tilled soil (crop failure) where Abel is killed. This suggests a ritual killing. A communal killing not a jealous fight between two brothers.

The ritual killing was done to soak the soil in blood in order to fertilise it. Thus “…the earth has opened her mouth to receive thy brothers blood from thy hand.” (Genesis 4.11). The “…blood from thy hand…” was therefore deliberately and ritually sprinkled.

There follows the curse of Cain (4.11) and his flight from the scene of the slaying. Cain receives a protective mark from Yahweh (4.15).

The explanation is that the mark prevented Cain from being attacked by others as ‘unclean’ for his part in the ritual sacrifice, as well as preventing him being recognised by the ghost of Abel (human assailants?). There are parallels to the Cain and Abel myth = (a) Babylonian New Year Festival; (b) Athenian ritual of Bouphonia.

The Babylonian New Year Festival – purpose = wholly agricultural. A sacrificing priest, an exorcist – purified a shrine of the god Nobu with the blood of a slain sheep. After this they fled to the desert until the festival was over.

Similarly – the Hebrew ritual of the Day of Atonement (originally part of the Autumn New Year Festival). This = combination – ritual slaying and flight. Humans were replaced by two goats. One goat killed – the other driven out into the desert. The Athenian Bouphonia – an ox was ritually killed by two men who then fled.

The flight of Cain = a ritual flight. Hence sacrifice = defiled by his act, and was driven out of the community until – purified. His guilt = communal – not individual. Explains why the killer enjoyed ritual protection.

He was not a common killer. He had performed a ritual/religious act for the benefit of the community. Hence his temporary banishment – but he was sacrosanct. The mark of Cain = tattoo mark = sacred class member. Example = Old Testament = such marks. Such marks distinguished temple staffs as the property of god.

Summary – the myth of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4.1-15) = ritual myth depicting a ritual slaying in order to secure the fertility of crops. The slaying was followed by the flight of the slayer, who was protected by a mark which showed his sacred character.

During time it acquired other meanings = a feud between settled peasants and pastoral nomad peoples who continually tried to enter the tilled lands.

Strand 3 = the adventures of Cain after the killing = different source. A distinct and different tradition. This tradition is that of the ancient Palestinian Kenite clan (of Kenan). Kenites = always nomads, semi-nomads, tent dwellers.

In one tradition (told by the Yahwist) = Adam had Cain and Abel by Eve. Cain killed Abel and went to the Land of Nod where he married and had a son called Enoch (Enosh). Cain built a city which he named after his son.

Enoch had a son (Irad). Irad’s son was Mahujael. Mahujael’s son was called Methushael. His son was called Lamach.

However, the priests had another list of descendants which was very similar to that of the Yahwist. According to the priest list – the father of Kenan was Enosh. Enosh is a Hebrew word for ‘man’. It is a synonym (?) for Adam. Kenan is another Hebrew form of Cain.

So – in both lists the first man was the father of Cain. The priest’s list of Adam’s descendants was as follows = Adam; Seth; Enosh; Kenan; Mahlalel; Jared; Enoch; Methushael; Lamech; Noah.

Irad then is the same as Jared, Mehujael is Mahalalel, and Methushalah is Mathusala (Methuselah). In Genesis the list of descendants is used to explain the origins of civilisation.

After Abel’s death, according to the myth, Adam and Eve had another son called Seth. Seth, according to the priests’s list, was the father of Enoch (Enosh). The Old Testament Genesis of today combines both the Yahwist and priestly myths.

[Hornblower, G. D.  (1944).  Cain and Abel. Man 44 (Mar/Apr].

The story of Cain and Able is “…a relic of a rite of human sacrifice formerly practised to assure fertility in the fields.” The Hebrews “…despite their dependence on cereals, gave flesh offerings to their god, or gods…”.

The story of Cain and Abel points – “…to the very fundamental change in human life from the hunting or pastoral stage to the agricultural.”

[Hooke, S. H.  The Siege Perilous.  (1956).  SCM Press, London]. 

The myth of Cain and Abel is “…an ancient biblical story of what is commonly regarded as the first fratricide…”.In contemporary terms “…it seems possible in the light of recent researches into the nature of the religious pattern of early civilisations of Mesopotamia and the regions under its cultural influence to place the story in a fresh setting…”.

The Mark of Cain = decoration – Cain may go abroad “…without the least fear of being recognised or molested by his victims ghost.”.

Historically “…the saga of Cain and Abel can be only understood in the light of a knowledge of the religious and social conditions of the time…”. It follows that the story “…reflects the existence of two types of primitive social organisation, pastoral and agricultural…”.

Pastoral and agricultural = own characteristic rituals. Hebrew – appearance in history > middle 2nd millennium BC. General ritual pattern of period = seasonal fertility rituals. thus the “…purpose of the ritual in the original form of the Cain and Abel story was fertility…”

So-called fratricide > curse of Cain > flight from scene of slaying and adorned with the protective mark. The object “…of the ritual slaying was the fertilisation of the soil…”. Later Hebrew writers – ignored their ancestors participation in such rituals.

Flight of Cain = motive of ritual flight. The sacrifice “…is defiled by his act and is driven out by the community until he is purified, his guilt is communal not and individual guilt.” He is therefore “…no common murderer but a priest or sacred person who has performed an act for the benefit of the community…ceremonial defilement – consequent temporary banishment.”



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