Cain and Abel: the function of myth

I wanted to cite Cain and Abel because I was writing about it for this. Wikipedia was the top Google result. I read it and—lo and behold—it’s a deep treatment of the story’s many layers of profound meaning. It’s a treatment written by people who take the story seriously, perhaps historically, or at least as an important allegory.

There have been thousands of pages written to explain the story. Seeing this impressive volume would surely persuade any innocent witness into believing that the story must be theologically important. Importance today is number of Google results. In either case: lots have been written about the most trivial thing.

I think there are three layers to a myth or fable.

  1. Some trivial event happens. It is well-remembers and oft retold by the tribe. Say, a landowner preferred meat to veggies and gave the meat serf more seashells than the veggie serf. [This step is optional. The myth can also be made whole cloth.]
  2. The priest class wants to shape society again. So they release a new story that shows people how to behave. “X did a and was rewarded. But Y did b and was punished. Have a nice day.”
  3. Talmudists go beyond the original propagandic meaning and explode the thing into 1000 sub meanings and meaning vectors that fit the story into a vast and already-existing system.

The purpose of appropriating and canonizing (or simply inventing) the story in the first place was simply to transfer more meat from believers to priests. This original intent is lost over time—and then replaced by a vast archeology of its deep allegorical or metaphysical meaning.

But the funniest thing is: most of what makes a religion persuasive is simply the quantity and complexity of its self-referring reflection in the third step.

How could so much possibly be written about a lie? 1000s of pages? Wow, that’s really important!

To summarize: There’s some insignificant incident. The story lingers. Some orator uses the story to illustrate something else entirely. Totally exploits it, transposes it into another context, and converts it into an object lesson to illustrate some new value. The more crowd control you can pack into divine command, the less time you have to spend actually ruling.

And then, 1000 years later, Talmudists read the even as a Kabbalistic metaphor in the unfolding biography of a process God.

That’s what we do.