Sunday, March 21, 2010

Blood on the Earth

Carried on a makeshift pallet of hides and wooden poles, an elderly woman (below) attempts to comfort her two listless grandchildren. The woman's back is supported by a deer: a trophy of the hunt. Four men, their bodies straining with the effort, carry the heavy pallet forward. Other figures trudge wearily alongside it, or trail to the rear, their heals kicking up dust from the dry and seemingly-barren earth. It is a formidable tableau: the unforgiving parched landscape, muscle and sinew, hides and skins, primitive axes and spears, all combine to convey a rough and bleak desolation. But what commands our attention is not so much this striking central group, as the gaunt figure who leads it.

We can assume by his advanced age that it is the man's *wife who is being borne on the pallet, and it is therefore his sons and extended family who form the escorting group. But who is this greybeard patriarch? Every knotted sinew of his body seems taught with inexpressible remorse. His shoulders appear as if bent under some terrible unseen burden (detail, below). His gaze is not raised to the horizon which he walks to meet, and towards which his hand mutely gestures, but downwards to the dry earth at his feet. The title of the painting tells us all that we need to know. It is Cain, by the 19th-century artist Fernand Cormon. We might think that we are familiar with Cain's story, but here is my brief take on those terrible events.

Imagine a supreme being with, apparently, such an acquired taste for blood that he accepts the sacrifice of first-born lambs offered to him fresh from a shepherd's own flock, but turns up his nose at the offering of crops - the bounty of the earth - made to him by that shepherd's farming brother. A little far-fetched, perhaps? We might expect to find such a picky deity among the pantheon of petulant pagan gods, but this is the serious scenario presented to us in the Bible's *Book of Genesis. The brothers in question are, of course, the children of Adam and Eve: Cain and Abel. Abel being the shepherd who offered the blood sacrifice, and Cain being the well-intentioned (and undoubtedly equally hard-working) agriculturalist.

Whatever inscrutable reason God had for rejecting Cain's offering, human nature being what it is, God must have realised that his seemingly illogical choice of one brother's offering over the other's was asking for trouble. And it came. For as we are told, jealous Cain slew his brother (*Gustave Doré's image, above), thus inventing both homicide in general and fratricide in particular. In the next part of the story, God, to whom all things presumably are known, then has to ask Cain where his missing brother is. 'Am I my brother's keeper?' Cain famously replies.

God, seeing the *bloodsoaked earth, then utters a curse upon Cain. The worst curse, in fact, that a farmer could endure: the earth will no longer yield its bounty to Cain. But as a gesture of mercy God gives the murdering brother a mysterious mark - the Mark of Cain - as a protection against vengeance from others. The accursed farmer then wanders the Earth, finally settling 'in the land of Nod, east of Eden', to found the first city. The city eventually collapses upon the aged Cain, *killing him in the same year that his father Adam dies.

Now, whether this story is for you a matter of faith or a folktale, it's certainly a story with a lot going for it. Jealousy, murder, retribution: all the right plot buttons are pushed. And of course its drama appeals as a classic theme for artists to portray. Some choose the moment of greatest physical drama: the act of murder itself. Others such as Doré opt for the immediate aftermath, laden with the implied consequences of the horrific deed. Unusually (and perhaps more originally), Cormon portrays the wandering Cain. Cormon's painting carries the implication, through the aged Cain and his attendant generations (detail, above), of just how long Cain's wanderings have lasted.

Cormon evidently was at home with such material. He would later go on to portray various scenes from our Neolithic and bronze-age past (The Return from a Bear Hunt in the Stone Age, and other scenes, above) for the Musée des Antiquities Nationales in Paris. Although this project was never completed, even his sketches for the proposed mural scenes are full of the aura of an ancient past (his sketches portraying Spinning and Fishing, below left, and Hunting and Agriculture, below right).

The transition from Cormon's portrayal of the Biblical Cain to these archaeological museum murals is a seamless one. The group of figures in Cain walk straight out of the Stone Age, even if the artist's vision of the Neolithic is typically a 19th-century one. In portraying the story from Genesis in such a way, Cormon makes his subjects not merely Biblical, but epic: figures, not from folklore, but from our archaeological collective past. In these straggling outcasts we see our own ancestors, and Abel's spilt blood on the earth is still as fresh as today's headlines.

Artist: Fernand Cormon
Work: Cain, c.1880
Medium: Oils
Location: Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Artist: Fernand Cormon
Work: Return from a Bear Hunt in the Stone Age, 1884
Medium: Oils
Location: Musée des Antiquités nationales, Saint-Germain-en-Laye

Artist: Fernand Cormon
Works: Spinning and Fishing, Hunting and Agriculture, 1897
Medium: Thinned oils over pen and ink
Location: Musée du Petit Palais, Paris

*The ex-canonical Book of Jubilees identifies Cain's wife as his sister, Awan. This is, after all, just one generation removed from the first man and woman, and Cain had only his siblings from which to choose a partner. The gene pool sure was limited back then.
*Genesis 4: 1-16. For all those various Biblical 'begattings', read on from verse 17.
*Doré perhaps included the snake in his scene as a nod to the Hebrew tradition that Cain was actually the son of Eve and the serpent, and therefore intrinsically a doer of 'evil'. Maybe it's just my overheated imagination, but you practically can hear the serpent saying to Cain, 'Good job, Son..'
*Apparently God had no problem with Abel soaking the earth with the blood of innocent animals (who also were, nota bene, His own creations) in His name.
*In the Book of Jubilees' version.


  1. A very interesting and lovely site you have created here.

    Hmmm, perhaps the issue with Cain's gift was that it was not the first of his crops, his finest produce, that he offered to God? Where as Abel offered up the firstborn and finest of his herd.

    And maybe God simply asked a simple and direct question of Cain even though He knew the answer just to see if Cain would freely tell Him truth. It's an old trick parents use when children think they know more and are smarter then them. Apparently Cain missed the honesty mark completely!

  2. Thank you for your interesting and perceptive comment, Moontyde. To come clean, I wrote this particular post in the hope that someone, somewhere, would comment as you have!

    Genesis does not tell us the reason for God's choice, but you offer a good explanation of your own within the story's context; as you do with your second point about the parent/child psychology aspect. However, I still think that a deity who grooves on blood sacrifices in his name has more than a touch of the heathen about him! But that's personal, of course.

  3. Ah! Then perhaps that explains why my ears were ringing so! LOL!

    Why, however, do you connect a deity who grooves on blood scarifice, as you say, with Cain and Abel? No where in the tale did God command them to do as they did that I can recall. In fact, to the contary, God warned Cain in advance of where his unjustified anger would lead him. And God was very displeased with the outcome of Cain next great sacrifice ... the innocent blood of Abel!

    Nothing personal, as you say, but that's just how I understand it.

  4. I'm sorry, Moontyde. I was under the impression that Abel selected and sacrificed "the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering", because this is what Gen 6:4 actually says. Maybe you have some other version of the story which I have not read, but in my dictionary here on Planet Earth this is considered a blood sacrifice, because animals were killed with the specific intention of offering them to a deity. True or not? And indeed, the deity in question found that blood sacrifice both agreeable and acceptable; more so, as it turns out, than a purely agrarian non-blood sacrifice. True or not? Genesis tells us that this was indeed the case, so are you taking issue with me or with the Book of Genesis?

  5. Whoa! Issue with? With neither! I'm sorry if you took my attempt at further conversion on this topic in this manner. That was not my intent so I'll simply leave you be.

  6. Why do you assume that this is a conversation, Moontyde? Do you have any comments to offer on the art of Fernand Cormon? That would be more to the point than continuing to question what I clearly state in my post is essentially and subjectively 'my take' on the events described here.

  7. Wonderful article! Cormon's Cain is even as I described him in build, just old.

    I rather think the whole thing with Cain and Abel's sacrifices was a sly manipulation of the rocky transition between First and Second Temple sacrifices. What was acceptable in the First Temple had more to do with Asherah and Ba'al as vegetation deities. The 'new and improved' Yahweh (i.e. Ba'al done up EL style) was about blood sacrifices. What was it he asked Abraham to do? Sacrifice his first born son. But then at the last minute he substitutes a 'ram in the thicket' for Isaac. The Ram in the Thicket goes back to Babylonia and to the Harappan civilization where it was apparently a symbol of Shiva-Pashupati - the horned god of smiths and serpents and the shamans, and Lord of the Beasts.

    Cain symbolizes the pagan native agriculturalist of Canaan, while Abel is the keeper of flocks ...
    which is exactly what the Hebrews were. Animal sacrifice took the place of human sacrifice. Have a read about the Khond people and their 'meriah' sacrifices. This is exactly what McCoy is going on about in Xiberia - which echoes back to the shamanic cultures that once inhabited the mountains of Western Pakistan. There is a good chance, genetically speaking (and as Samuel N. Kramer thought) that the Hebrews were the 'black-headed' people who came out of India...what was once Dilmun/Eden.


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