Religion21 Jan 2008 03:56 am
Race of Cain! Hearts hot with hate,
Leave all such appetites behind.
Race of Abel! grow and graze,
Like woodlice that on timbers prey.
Race of Cain! along rough ways
Lead forth your family at bay.
-Charles Baudelaire, “Abel et Caïn”
The purely Good Son is never the interesting one: audiences love a tale that ends in redemption or perdition, and the Cain archetype is certainly full of the latter. The wanderings of Cain (and his indelible divine marking) dog the tracks of literary history—he seems to show up in each new reimagining of the cosmos. Here he is in Hebrew folklore, sometimes teaching his offspring to procreate with fallen angels, sometimes building the first cities in the land of Nod. There he is in 1300, his lunar settlement casting shadows on the Dantean moon. Islamic sources say he migrated to Yemen. The Beowulf poet claimed Grendel for a descendant. Cain also had audience with early Mormons in Colorado and Tennessee, lamenting his fate as the primeval Master Mahan (father of secret societies and criminal organizations). In Steinbeck’s East of Eden, he appears in successive generations as Charles and Caleb, respectively, a red streak on the American prairie.
This is but a cursory glance at the legends of wandering Cain; no such list can be compiled for his brother. There is something deeply appealing in a curse, something that speaks to and captivates the human imagination, always sympathetic to the martyr but empathetic to the sinner. Abel, the slain son, moulders in the fields of Canaan, a byword for innocence slaughtered and nothing more; his murderer—the first murderer, a brother murderer—is doomed forever to walk the earth, a ghost made corporeal in the welt of his bloody endless hauntings. And, lord knows, we all love a good ghost story.
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