Friday, 8 October 2010

The story of Cain and Abel in mythology

The story in Genesis chapter 4, which tells of the first murder is a personification of the strife that existed between the settled agrarians (farmers) and the nomadic herders. It is yet another story taken from what was already told in the local area

Cain, the elder, became a farmer, while Abel became a shepherd. They offered sacrifices to Yahweh, or God. Cain brought fruit and grain; Abel brought lambs. When Yahweh accepted Abel's offerings but rejected those of Cain, Cain was hurt and angry. In a jealous rage, he killed his brother.
As punishment, Yahweh ordered Cain to go forth and become "a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth." Then he placed a sign, known as the mark of Cain, on the murderer's forehead to protect him from further punishment. Tradition holds that Cain's son Enoch founded the first city and that other descendants of Cain invented music and metalworking. Cain may be a mythological representation of a Near Eastern people called the Kenites, who practiced metalworking and musicianship and who may have worn tattoos.

Symbolic Interpretations. Conflicts between brothers abound in world mythology, reflecting the widespread view that conflict between good and evil is an inescapable part of human life. In Persian mythology, the rival brothers are the gods Ahriman and Ahura Mazda. Islamic tradition calls them Kabil (Cain) and Habil (Abel).

In the mythology of the Early Near East:
Among the ancient pantheon, the god Anu can be identified as the Biblical Cain. According to the Hittite epic "Kingship in Heaven," Anu attacked his more favored brother Alal and caused him to go "down to the dark earth."e This is a metaphor for murder. After vanquishing his superior Alal (Abel), Anu (Cain) was then attacked by a mysterious avenger named Kingu.

In critical scholarship, the prevailing theory is that the story is composed of a number of layers, with the original layer deriving from the Sumerian tale of the wooing of Inanna. In the tale, seen as representing the ancient conflict between nomadic herders and settled agrarian farmers, Dumuzi, the god of shepherds, and Enkimdu, the god of farmers, are competing for the attention of Inanna, chief goddess. Dumuzi is brash and aggressive, but Enkimdu is placid and easy going, so Inanna favors Enkimdu. However, on hearing this, Dumuzi starts boasting about how great he is, and exhibits such strong charisma that Enkimdu tells Inanna to marry Dumuzi and then wanders away. Source

In his book, Ishmael, the author, Daniel Quinn', compares the story in Genesis to the modern world:
Cain and Abel is actually a symbolic narrative from the time when man began to practice agriculture. The farmers, advancing mile after mile as the centuries passed, sought to capture the wild lands and adapt them for use by humans. The hunter-gatherers were slowly driven to extinction - a pattern matched by the conquest of "savages" by "civilized" humans.

In my post about creation, I mentioned that it may appear that Greek and Roman mythology did not influence the mythology as written in the Bible, but the similarities are there, especially when it is considered that the Greek control in the area began in 332 and only ended in 63 BCE when Palestine was invaded by the Romans, and that Greek culture continued to influence the culture of the Roman world.

In the Bible, (Genesis Chapter 4) the first brothers, Cain and Abel were both warned by God that they would be tempted by the sin of coveting what the other had.  God tested this when he showed favor to the offering Abel gave Him and rejected Cain’s.  Cain became so overcome with envy that rather than searching his heart to find a way to offer something worthy to God, he instead killed his own brother.  In Greek mythology, the twins Acrisius and Proetus were born to detest each other.  The intent was for the two of them to inherit the Greek city of Argos, however they each wanted full reign.  They fought bitterly, with Acrisius coming out ahead and exiling his brother.  Different stories, true…but the same emphasis on brother against brother.

The following text demonstrates how sibling rivalry is present throughout the Old Testament:
The theme of rivalry between two brothers plays an almost obsessive role in Jewish history. The Bible is full of such  rivalry—Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Solomon and Adonijah, and now Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, sons of Alexandra. This rivalry was to have disastrous consequences. As no queen could become High Priest, Alexandra had appointed her eldest son, Hyrcanus, a Pharisee, to that office. When she died, Hyrcanus seized the throne also. His brother, Aristobulus, a Sadducee, led a rebellion against this usurpation and, with the help of the priesthood, Hyrcanus was deposed. Civil war broke out. With the aid of the neighboring Nabateans, Hyrcanus wrested his throne back from his brother. Seeking revenge, Aristobulus appealed to the Romans for help. Fate had so timed it that at the outbreak of civil war in Palestine, in 67 B.C., the Romans, under Pompey, had finished their conquest of Syria, placing their armies right at the border of Palestine. The Romans ordered Hyrcanus off the throne and out of the country. Such was the fear of Rome's military might that Hyrcanus did just that. Aristobulus was back in power.
Max Dimont, Jews, God and History, page 90.
The Old Testament, far from being a literal record of the history of the Jewish people, at least until the time of David and Jerusalem, is merely a rewriting of the mythology that already existed in the area. It is influenced by what the elders of all the groups of people were telling to their descendants. When it was written down, possibly during the exile in Babylon, which I’ll discuss in some depth later, the influence expanded to include all the people who entered the sphere of their experience.


  1. Well done!

    Nice that you took the time to elaborate so well on the story and its origins.

    While not so eloquently, I took a stab at the story of Job here:

  2. Thank you. I wrote that a long time ago.

  3. I think the story of Cain and Abel represents man offering his best to God. WE should not be jealous when a person has more to give God. The writers of the events try to interpret Gods position, which are not always relevant. I don't think God was displeased with Cains offering.

    1. You might like to read this newer discussion of the chapter on Cain and Abel, here: