© 2010 by Evan Henderson & John Smelcer; used with permission

Cain’s Enduring Vilification in Western Literature

by Seth Lerer, John Smelcer, and Bard Young


Who is Cain? Why have so many cultures sheltered the myth of Cain in one form or another, the story of the cursed wanderer, grievous sinner against God and brother?


What is it that sustains the timelessness of that tale of displeasing sacrifice and vengeful murder?


Beyond the opening seventeen verses of Genesis 4, the entire Judeo-Christian corpus of scriptural verses mentioning Cain comes to six passing references: two in later Genesis, one in 4 Maccabees, and three brief asides in the New Testament, based on what was, by then, a long tradition of mythic stereotyping — Cain as offerer of unrighteous worship or, even more simple-mindedly, as murderer portrayed in 1 John 3: “Be not like Cain who was from that evil one and murdered his brother.”



In his betrayal of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas may have seen himself as Cain. Indeed, it has been suggested that Abel is a kind of proto-Christ figure, his innocent blood shed because of sin.
One of the best examples of fascination — and struggle to deal — with the Cain myth is Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who, along with William Wordsworth, attempted to explode into full-blown prose the epic story of the mysterious vagrant. The two poets were likely inspired by the great success of the translation of Salomon Gessner’s Death of Abel (Der Tod Abels, 1758, available in English by at least 1770).



In a little-known piece published late in his life, Coleridge describes how he came to grips with the idea of Cain, set out a full outline of the piece in three cantos, wrote Canto II while Wordsworth was working on Canto I, and then met with Wordsworth to compare notes. When Wordsworth admitted his utter failure to master the challenge and the “exceeding ridiculousness of the whole scheme,” the meeting “broke up in a laugh.” Years later Coleridge made another attempt, a version of the narrative in poetry, only to put that aside as well.



But why the laughter? And why “ridiculous?” What is it that the two most renowned figures of the Romantic Movement in English literature found laughable and ridiculous in their attempt to produce a work based on the sin and wanderings of Cain? Perhaps they recognized as comic their failing to find the right voice for Cain, the “first born man.” Lines like these from Coleridge’s prose canto certainly suggest comedy to the modern ear:


Yea, I would lie down, I would not rise, neither would I stir my limbs till I became as the rock in the den of the lion, on which the young lion resteth his head whilst he sleepeth.


And Coleridge’s later poetic fragment offers parallels of voice just as foreign to current tastes:


The moon was bright, the air was free,
And fruits and flowers together grew
On many a shrub and many a tree:
And all put on a gentle hue.


And yet, Coleridge in his prose fragment does find a more timeless way to express the power of the myth, where he describes the image of Cain frontally:


For the mighty limbs of Cain were wasted as by fire; his hair was as the matted curls on the bison’s forehead, and so glared his fierce and sullen eye beneath: and the black abundant locks on either side, a rank and tangled mass, were stained and scorched, as though the grasp of a burning iron hand had striven to rend them; and his countenance told in a strange and terrible language of agonies that had been, and were, and were still to continue to be.


Perhaps their laughter was less provoked by the narrative voice and more by the impossible difficulty of telling anew one of the oldest of stories. If Coleridge’s Edenic language is a pale shadow of Milton’s, so perhaps was his confidence to project onto the epic stage — with full suspension of disbelief (a term coined by Coleridge) — the potentially wonderful tale of Cain, at the onset of a cultural moment ill-equipped to joust with tales eternal. And even Milton’s confidence in this regard was singular. As a doubtful Andrew Marvell said on seeing a manuscript of Paradise Lost, “I liked his project; the success did fear.”


As Coleridge plainly states, his attentions turned to a smaller stage he had already been constructing, one far more autobiographical and “romantic” in its treatment of the cursed wanderer. And his vision within a shorter horizon was not blurred. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” — that mysterious, cursed, and wandering sinner — is permanently anchored in the canon of English literary treasurers.
Coleridge and Wordsworth are certainly not the only English writers influenced by the myth. Centuries before them, Shakespeare made reference to Cain in I Henry VI (1.3.40), twice in Richard II (2.1.99 and 5.6.207), twice in Hamlet:


O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,
A brother’s murder. (3.3.40)


That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once: How the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it were Cain’s jaw-bone, that did the first murder! (5.1.77)


and even in Love’s Labor’s Lost:


You two are book-men; can you tell me by your wit what was a month old at Cain’s birth, that’s not five weeks old yet? (4.2.40)


Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s contemporary and in many ways the more fearless playwright, alluded to Cain in Tamburlaine and to Abel’s blood crying out in Edward II: “For murder, though it have no tongue will speak / with most miraculous organ” (2.2.544).


Centuries later, in Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, Cain Ball is named by his mother who erroneously thought it was Abel who killed Cain. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is a modern retelling of the familiar trope, and C. S. Lewis alluded to Cain in The Screwtape Letters: “Remember the elder brother in the Enemy’s story?” (Screwtape to Wormwood). Not to be outdone by his friend and fellow Inklings writer, it is no stretch to imagine that J. R. R. Tolkien created his own cursed wanderer when the Hobbit Sméagol, later Gollum, murders his fellow Hobbit for ownership of the Ring and is transfigured, or marked, by his sin.

Of course, Cain had his reputation and his legacy long before Coleridge and Tolkien. The earliest commentators on the Old Testament found in him the epitome of evil: the first murderer, the first exile. Later exegetes imagined an entire race descended from him, monsters and giants who inhabited the borderlands of civic and imagined worlds. For the poet of Beowulf, Cain stands as the forefather of that monster Grendel, and scholars have long argued about the relationship between a figure from the Bible and a creature conjured out of old Germanic myth and moorland.



wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold,
fen ond fæsten; fifelcynnes eard
wonsæli wer weardode hwile,
siþðan him Scyppend forscrifen hæfde
in Caines cynne— þone cwealm gewræc
ece Drihten, þæs þe he Abel slog;


“The grim spirit was called Grendel
Walker in the borderlands, he who held to the moors,
The fen and the wasteland. This miserable creature
Dwelt in the home of the race of monsters,
Ever since the Lord had condemned
The descendants of Cain – he whom the Lord avenged
Because he had slain his brother Abel.” (Beowulf, Lerer, 102-108)


How much of this backstory is includedfor the feel of biblical effect, and how much is for the whole poem? In this passage, is Cain a kind of post-Conversion varnish for the poem, an attempt to sell an ancient story to a newly-Christianized readership? Or is there something deeply resonant about Cain and his progeny, something that spoke — regardless of learned exegesis or dogma — to an audience of Anglo-Saxons?

First off, it is important to recall that Anglo-Saxon literate and literary culture was, for all the newness of the Christian faith, deeply imbued with stories from the Bible and with the attempt to recast its religious heritage into the idioms of Germanic vernacular experience. Caedmon’s Hymn is generally understood to be the earliest surviving poem in Old English, probably composed in the last years of the seventh century, and certainly recorded in manuscripts from the beginning of the eighth. That poem recasts the tale of Creation into native, Germanic terms. God is the shaper here; he takes the names of the old deities and temporal powers; earth is that “middle-yard,” the space between, in a term powerfully evocative of old Germanic and Old Norse mythology (mið-gard), as well as its mutation into Tolkien’s fantasy (middle-earth).

In the centuries after Caedmon, Bible stories filled the Old English imagination. Genesis, Exodus, and the Book of Daniel each received full treatment in the vernacular. Characters from scripture populated the discourses of the pulpit and the court. But perhaps nowhere does Cain appear with such enigmatic vigour and with such poetic resonance to Beowulf as in the “gnomic” poem of traditional wisdom known as Maxims I. Preserved in the Exeter Book of Old English poetry (a manuscript that was probably written down about the same time as the Beowulf Manuscript and that has been carefully held in Exeter Cathedral Library since its original donation by Bishop Leofric in the year 1072), Maxims I shares in the Anglo-Saxon taste for pithy statement and elusive folk wisdom.

Along with other poems of the so-called wisdom tradition (Maxims II, The Order of the World, Vainglory, and others), Maxims I offers tautologies as profundities. It describes the world as it is, and thus as it should be. It valorizes speech among men as the medium of knowledge. “Frige mec frodum wordum,” question me with wise words, it begins, and it avers: “Ræd sceal mid snyttro” (good advice goes with wisdom). To read Maxims I against Beowulf is to see how the ideals of heroism, friendship, domestic service, and good rule all come together.


While these wisdom poems have the feel of ancient lore, and while much of Beowulf, too, evokes the truism of folk belief, there is nothing in these poems that is inconsistent with basic Christian teaching or scriptural example. “Dol biþ se þe his dryhten nat.” A man who does not know his lord is a fool. This line from Maxims I may be both secular and sacred. Foolish is the man who does not understand his place in service. This is good advice for any member of a court, a retinue, an army, or a tribe.


But foolish, too, is the man who does not acknowledge The Lord as his. That word dryhten, ultimately from a Germanic root meaning a leader of men (it survives in the words for “king” in the modern Scandinavian languages, Icelandic drottin, Danish drot, and Norwegian and Swedish drott), was early on applied to God himself. In Caedmon’s Hymn, God is the ece dryhten, the eternal lord. So, too, in Maxims I, statements of ordinary experience can take on religious resonance:


Tu beoð gemæccan.
Sceal wif ond wer in woruld cennan
Bearn mid gebyrdum.


“Two people are mates.
A man and a woman will bring a child into the world
through birth.”


Such a statement is obvious. We might say, So what? But with our minds in the Bible, we might say, So well. Adam and Eve brought children into the world, but what of its consequence? At the close of Maxims I, we learn at last one answer:


Wearð fæhþo fyra cynne, siþþan furþum swealg
eorðe Abeles blode. Næs þæt andæge nið,
of þam wrohtdropan wide gesprungon,
micel mon ældum, monegum þeodum
bealoblonden niþ. Slog his broðor swæsne
Cain, þone cwealm serede. Cuþ wæs wide siþþan,
þæt ece nið ældum scod. Swa aþolware
drugon wæpna gewin wide geond eorþan,
ahogodan ond ahyrdon heoro sliþendne.


Violence came into being for the race of men, from the time when earth swallowed Abel’s blood. This was no one-day crisis. From the drops of his blood, from that crime, great evil for men sprung up far and wide, terrible hatred and evil for many people. Cain killed his own brother and planned the murder. It was known everywhere afterwards that an everlasting hatred afflicted mankind. Thus, the people of earth suffered the clash of weapons throughout the whole wide world, creating and tempering wounding swords.


This poem offers, if not a specific gloss on Beowulf’s Cain, then at the very least a resonance. The death of Abel, it makes clear, had a legacy for all history. His blood drops are like bad seeds, generating evil. Two brothers may be born of the same parents, but when one kills the other, the amity of families and nations is destroyed. Cain’s legacy is more, here, than a race of monsters. It is the condition in which all of us live now, a kind of second fall.
This is a fall not simply into strife but into weaponry. For at the heart of Beowulf is not just human prowess but human craft. What defeats Grendel may be Beowulf’s own handgrip; but what protects him is his unique mail-coat. So, too, when he seeks Grendel’s mother — he who came to avenge her son’s death — it is only the magical sword lying in the monster’s lair that can defeat her.

The brave man must have a helmet: helm sceal cenum. Maxims I closes with this simple statement. And yet, like everything in this poem, and like everything in Beowulf, there is a double meaning. For the helmet here is more than just a work of human craft. It is the helmet of salvation itself. In the New Testament, Paul wrote to the Ephesians to take up the “helmet of salvation” and the sword of the Holy Spirit. This armor of God finds its way into the Anglo-Saxon world in a Latin prayer attributed to the eighth-century, English scholar Alcuin, a prayer preserved in several manuscripts of the pre-Conquest period:


Fiat mihi quaeso, domine, fides firma in corde, galea salutis in capite, signum Christi in fronte . . .


“Let there be for me, I pray you, O Lord, a faith firmly in the heart, a helmet of salvation on my head, a sign of Christ on my forehead . . .”


The armor of faith was a familiar idiom for Anglo-Saxon readers, and to come upon the armor of the old warrior, in whatever context, could (in the minds of those so inclined) provoke exegetical interpretation. Of course, it need not, and a phrase such as helm sceal cenum can mean just what it says. A cigar, regardless of how wrapped in Christian leaves, can still be a cigar.

But it can also be a marker of something more.


The reference to Cain in Beowulf is of a piece with the entire, double sense of the poem: a poem that compels at the level of personal heroism as well as scriptural history, a poem that rings true in this life and in any other. By setting Grendel’s genealogy against these other texts, some Old English, some Latin, we can see how Cain came to be appreciated as a source of historical disruption. We live in Cain’s world, one in which the clash of weapons rings aloud and swords wound. What Beowulf and his companions must learn in the poem is that this world must be held and helmeted against aggression — that is, until (as Tolkien himself knew) the dragon comes.

Who is Cain? The myth lingers among us because we all know who he is. Cain is all of us. He is grotesque and he is wonderful. He is a monster, and he is a self-aware sinner. He is me. He is you.



About the Authors

Distinguished Professor of Literature at the University of California, San Diego, Seth Lerer, Ph.D., is one of the world’s foremost scholars of Medieval and Renaissance studies and Old and Middle English grammar and pronunciation, having studied at Oxford in the Faculty of English shortly after the death of its star faculty member, J. R. R. Tolkien. He is the author of numerous books on the subject, including Inventing English and the award winning, Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter. His The History of the English Language is a popular lecture series produced by The Teaching Company.


A Shakespearean trained at Oxford and Cambridge, John Smelcer, Ph.D., is the author of fifty books, including an unpublished novel about Cain and a retelling of “The Tempest,” written in part over pints in the Eagle and Child, the Oxford pub where the Inklings met regularly to discuss their work throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s. With Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath’s widower, he co-wrote a poem about Beowulf.


A former professor of English Renaissance literature, Bard Young, Ph.D., served as assistant editor of the Milton Quarterly and retired after a decade as Managing Editor at Vanderbilt University Press. He is the author of several scholarly articles on the poetry of Edmund Spenser and John Milton.