Recent rereading of Riane Eisler’s book The Chalice and the Blade (Harper San Francisco 1987) on the origin and development of early European human culture and society, sparked again memories of my discomfort with the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:2-16) - less for the issue of fratricide than for the image of God as apparently capricious and unfair, rejecting the offering of grain in favour of blood sacrifice. In this book I found another way of understanding what might be at the core of this tale.
In her book Riane comments that in virtually every present-day culture there exists a myth of a golden age in which everyone and everything flourished, art and culture were highly developed and people lived in peace before being destroyed by some cataclysmic disaster. She suggests that this might actually be folk memory of Palaeolithic and Neolithic societies “where the first great breakthroughs in material and social technology were made” and a common feature was the worship of the Goddess - provider of life and all that sustained it.
Archaeological evidence from many sites suggests that in these early societies social organisation was basically co-operative rather than hierarchical, the fruits of the earth were seen as belonging to all members of the group and there were no ranked distinctions of class or sex. Everybody contributed to the welfare of the group and to the worship of the Goddess in increasingly elaborate rituals including offerings of grain and fruit. Societies were based on equality and partnership.
A golden age indeed in spite of inevitable tensions and hardships!
By about 5000 BCE there is evidence of natural catastrophes and ‘a long line of invasions from the Asiatic and European north by nomadic peoples. Ruled by powerful priests and warriors, they brought with them their male gods of war and mountains.’ (p44) This caused large scale disruption and dislocation as strength and hierarchy replaced partnership and equality. Sweeping away the worship of the Goddess with its grain and fruit offerings, they imposed worship of their warrior God to whom only blood sacrifice was acceptable. Among other nomadic invaders were the Hebrews who invaded Canaan and also brought with them a fierce and angry god of war and mountains (Yahweh) and imposed their ways on the peoples of the lands they conquered.
I now wonder whether the biblical account of Cain and Abel might also be folk memory of a time when the old ways were wiped out by invaders, bringing in and imposing their own culture and religion; when those who clung to the old values and old ways were driven out to become ‘wanderers on the earth’.
What do you think?
© Joy MacCormick
Image Cain and Abel, stained glass window, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Wikimedia Commons)