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”.