The Mark of Cain

The story of Cain and Abel in the Book of Genesis, and of how Cain slew his brother Abel and thereby became the first murderer, is something that still intrigues. All sorts of interpretations — even some purporting to be “scientific” — are on offer, and most of them are far from the mark (so to speak). Thus, in some of the more common current interpretations — the anthropological interpretations framed within the structure and horizons of the mental-rational consciousness itself — Abel the herdsman is the symbol of the pastoral civilisation that was displaced and suppressed by the agricultural and settled civilisation. Some religious interpretations are even weirder and even more pointless.

Such interpretations reveal only the mind’s tendency to merely touch upon the surface of things, and to mistake what are only secondary qualities and peripheral features as being, in fact, primary and essential.

Abel and Cain (along with Adam and Eve) are patterns of what we might call “the human archetype” or human mold. Abel is the mythological consciousness, Cain is the mental-rational consciousness. To that extent, it is true that they can be associated with civilisational types — the pastoral and the agricultural, or the wild and “civilised”, respectively. But those roles are only secondary to their meaning as representative symbols of the meaning of the age in which they were conceived — Cain is the emergence of the ego-consciousness and the mental-rational consciousness from out of the matrix of the mythical consciousness. As such, it is a precursor and point of reference to that period Karl Jaspers referred to as the “Axial Age“.

Cain is the “Prodigal Son” later represented in the New Testament, a wanderer and fugitive upon the earth, and as such an “everyman”.

Consider the conflicting elements of the narrative. For his “crime” as such, Cain receives a mark upon his brow — not upon his heart or arm or anywhere else on his anatomy, but upon his “brow”. While Abel’s life is identified with the blood, Cain’s is henceforth upon his brow, which is the seat of the mental-rational or intellect. The mark of Cain rests upon his brow — the furrows of reflection and thoughtfulness.

To employ the Greek terms: Abel is the mythos. Cain is the logos. And when it is said that Plato was the first to separate the logos from the mythos (or, concept from symbol, logic from story, the eidola or “Ideas” or abstract “Forms” from the gods), this parallels the story of Cain and Abel. Plato also bears the mark of Cain upon his brow, and his exclusion of the poets from his academy is, in effect, the same “murder” of Abel. “The poets lie too much”, is his judgment upon the mythological consciousness. The tendency to equate myth with “lie” is the same “murder”.

And when Wordsworth complains “we murder to dissect”, it is the same old blood of Abel that still cries loudly from the Earth.

Cain lives a life of contradiction. Not only is he described as an agriculturalist and the first builder of cities, but he is also a wanderer and fugitive upon the surface of the Earth. Agriculture and city-building are works of reasoning, ordering, organising time and space, in contrast to the pastoralist who belongs to nature and follows nature’s ways and seasons. And so it is the Earth that receives his blood when he dies and yet his blood it is also which continues to “cry out” from the ground. The mark of Cain is description, demarcation, partition, declension, definition….

The mark of Cain is ambiguous. Not only is it a sign of his “crime” as such — which results in his exile, separation, and apartness — it is also described as the guarantee of God’s “protection”. The mark is both curse and blessing, just as the emergence of this new faculty, intellect, was witnessed as profoundly ambiguous. Cain’s progressive spirit was simultaneously a distantiation and alienation from his roots, but also the promise and guarantee of enhanced physical survival.

Cain is the ego-consciousness or intellect awakening to itself and its own mystery, to its own problematic character. By the faculty of reason or intellect, we enhance our ability to survive physically by planning, organising, defining, distributing the natural world and commanding the phenomena of space and time. This is the holiness and sanctification of intellect. But there is also the sense that something essential is also being lost in the process. It is that loss of something “essential” which brings Cain to weeping at the burden of fate he now has to bear — his exile and estrangement from the holy and the sacred, and his own participation in the holy and sacred. This is his paradox — he is sedentary, yet he is also a wanderer and an exile, to be cursed forever as a stranger in a strange land.

This is the paradox of man that one finds so prominent a theme throughout this period Jaspers calls “the Axial Age” — the “irruption” of the intellect and ego consciousness in the midst of the mythical civilisation as an awakening to “selfhood” and self-consciousness.

But that Cain will learn, and will have a home-coming — this is the meaning of the parable of the Prodigal Son.

And only then will one be able to speak truly — or “verily, verily”, as it were  — of an “end of history”.

At least, that was the Promise. But it is still up to Man to respond affirmatively, or to remain a homeless fugitive, wandering over the face of the Earth as “a stranger in a strange land”.

9 responses to “The Mark of Cain”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Just to summarise the above: Cain, as “wanderer and fugitive” is the intellect in perpetual quest for its “ground of being”, as it is referred to today.

    Nietzsche is a little behind the times when he suggests that “since Copernicus, man has been rolling from the centre towards X”. That was already Cain’s problem.

  2. alex jay says :

    “Abel the herdsman is the symbol of the pastoral civilisation that was displaced and suppressed by the agricultural and settled civilisation. Some religious interpretations are even weirder and even more pointless.”

    Perhaps not all that symbolic? The shift from hunter-gatherers to agricultural cultures goes back to Gaia’s dramatic makeover after the Ice Age (after all, the current British landmass was still connected to Europe proper up to 8,000 B.C.) — until the great flood (ice melting to increase sea levels drowning out lands in the Northern Hemisphere), which was possibly/probably – in the collective consciousness, passed down orally through the generations – the origins of all the ancient creation myths from Gilgamesh to Genesis. Indeed, quite recently, an intrepid maverick researcher (whose name escapes me at the moment), utilising satellite tech, has identified the Pishon (east Saudi Arabia) and Gihon (from the mountains of Iran) rivers connected to the Tigris and Euphrates at a point that forms into one major river that flows directly into the “Garden of Eden” as described in the Book of Genisis; now located in the Persian Gulf, south of Iraq, east of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and west of Iran (a geo-alternative identification to the land of Kush). This again is argued that the area described – in this rich repository of abundance that fits in with the Garden of Eden story – was wiped out by the great flood. The Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah etc. stuff afterwards is open to licence of all kinds of weird and wonderful ways of interpreting our biography from diffferent aspects … some perspective (phenomena); others aperspective (noumena). Therein lies the rub? And scientists and philosophers have been having this childish bun-fight ever since. I think, Scott, you are excellent at demolishing this idiotic – delusional – dialectic, yet … irrespective of consciousness shifts, there are also “axial” points that are/have been totally (in the Germanic death sense) individuals/cabals that have influenced the tide of history to the point that we, as an imperative (a vocation), have to re-incarnate our own critical capabilities to overcome this monsterous onslaught of brain-washing, which has deadened our very souls.

    Having said that … I, as usual, love your Gebserian structure-of-consciousness interpretation … even though the metaphor of Cain and Abel – as most do – is open to all kinds of other interpretaions of our greatest gift: imagination … ergo our judgment.

    And only God can judge … the rest is open to opinion : )

    • Scott Preston says :

      “Anything possible to be believ’d is an image of truth” — Blake. That applies particularly to the Genesis story as well, although one must bear in mind that the authors of those books weren’t the slightest bit interested in historicism or observation or geography or science. They were trying to interpret and understand the workings of the spirit and of its manifestation in and through man. They did not have that “objective” and “disinterested” attitude that is characteristic of the mental-rational consciousness. They didn’t think discursively, but symbolically. The stars, mountains, rivers were not objects, but those symbolic forms that “declare the majesty and glory of God” and the heavens. This way of perception is what Blake refers to as “the Poetic Genius” in man, or the Prophetic spirit.

      The spiritual and its transformations (or God) are the “subject” of all reality and history. All reality is God’s poem. That’s how they understood it. The “objective” attributes of that reality were only of the remotest interest, which, if not self-evident, required the special skills of prophets, auguries, soothsayers, astrologers, etc to interpret. In other words, “revelation” was the norm. Reality was the perpetual self-revealing of the spiritual — the core of all being, the true subject of reality.

      It’s not that they were incapable of wielding the the mental-rational or objective attitude, as such. They just didn’t consider it normal. The one book of the Old Testament in which descriptive logic is employed — the genealogies, the records and accounts of lineages, the endless “begats” — is the most boring and tedious book of the entire corpus. Why was it allowed to remain? Precisely because of its stark contrast with the mood and approach of the others — precisely to demonstrate that the objective attitude of description, numbers and numbering, and of accountancy was not the norm.

      These are, of course, the norm with us. But this attitude would have been considered quite aberrant in earlier times — to the Homeric man or the prophets.

      Hence the significance of Herodotus and his “Histories” to us. Here you start to see an early separation of the mythical and mental-rational or “logical” structure of consciousness — the beginning of a separation of myth and history — an early attempt at the objective attitude, yet which is still evolving inside, or gradually emerging from, the cocoon of the mythical consciousness. One could say that Platonic Man is beginning to emerge from Homeric Man in Herodotus, but is still strongly under the influence still of the mythical and poetic. “Observation” still has its religious meaning, but also now a “natural” or objective aspect — as “natural reason” — so it is ambiguous. Herodotus mixes myth and history, and his geography has both aspects. Landmarks are now “described”, even as they retain, to a great extent, their significance as the “inscriptions” of the gods. This is a consciousness in transition from one structure or form into another.

  3. abdulmonem says :

    The story of Abel and Cain in the Quran goes like this, these two brothers offered their sacrifices to the god, god way of accepting the gift is through sending fire to burn the accepted one and leave the unaccepted one unburned. When Cain saw that he was furious and instead of looking inside himself . he projected his anger on his brother and killed him, then the story move from the narrative mode to the imperative mode ,saying and because of that we imposed on the Israelite that he who kills without good cause, as if he has killed all humanity and those who give life to one ,as if they have given life to all humanity. It is a pivotal era in giving legislation to humanity.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Cain puts the key question — perhaps it is the very keystone of the entire story “Am I my brother’s keeper?” What’s involved in that question? A radical change in attitude, for amongst tribal groups, blood and kinship have priority over self-assertion. For Cain to even ask that question he would have to have broken with the law of blood-kinship, family, and the tribal “we”. Cain is the ego-consciousness that no longer locates its identity solely in blood kinship. Cain could not have asked that question if he was still identified with the tribal “we” or the supremacy of the family unit and the blood bond.

      Cain broke the blood-bond. His “I” asserts itself (even as a liar). And yet, God blesses him for it and grants him holy protection and the inheritance of the earth, when he could have favoured Seth instead. (“Seth” — the incredible disappearing man. Why does the narrative introduce this “Seth” and then drop him just as suddenly from the narrative, so that Seth becomes the hidden, the secretive, the mystery not yet revealed perhaps?).

  4. abdulmonem says :

    I like to add that it is not our stories regardless of the stories of the god, but the synchronicity of our story with the story of god, that is the two wills. nothing take place without this agreement , even if we are not aware of it.

  5. LittleBigMan says :

    A very delightful and illuminating essay and a very enlightening comment that began with a quote by Blake.

    Especially, this next excerpt nails my interests, too:

    “…….the authors of those books weren’t the slightest bit interested in historicism or observation or geography or science. They were trying to interpret and understand the workings of the spirit and of its manifestation in and through man.”

    Your archetypal interpretation of the story about Abel and Cain – as they relate to Gebser’s structures of consciousness – is, I believe, the most in-depth, meaningful, and accurate interpretation of the message in the story. My earliest interpretation of the story – as I was taught as a kid – was the never ending manachaean struggle between good and evil. As I outgrew the dualistic narrative, I thought of the story as man’s never ending struggle with himself and his desires and wants.

    Your essay casts valuable light on the story. Thank you.

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