Cain, Abel, and the Protection of Sacred Knowledge

By Molly Kluck

Cain and Abel were first introduced by the DC universe as caretakers and tenants of The House of Mysteries and The House of Secrets respectively (Cain and Abel). Connected to these houses are two horror-themed comic book series named after the houses. The comic book series used the brothers as narrators (House of Mystery Vol. 1; House of Secrets Vol. 1). They lived in these adjacent houses as neighbors. Both houses are a repository for stories and have mutable features as well as locations that shift between a specific location in Kentucky, and an alternate world thought of as the Dreaming (House of Mystery; House of Secrets).

Cain and Abel, the comic book characters, are based on their biblical counterparts. In the DC universe, Abel calls himself the first Victim and Cain calls himself the first Predator in reference to the Biblical story wherein Cain kills Abel in a fit of jealousy (Moore, Bissette, & Totleben, 2012, p. 194;  Gaiman, Kieth, Dringenberg, & Jones, 2010; Holy Bible). In the DC universe, by contrast, this murder was committed over a woman and not over God’s preference for Abel’s sacrifices (Abel (New Earth)). In Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, Cain and Abel’s history is that Dream brought both to the Dreaming (Gaiman, Kieth, Dringenberg, & Jones, 2010). He did this because he felt sorry for Abel’s status as the first victim (Abel (New Earth)). However, in Swamp Thing Book Two, in the issue “Abandoned Houses,” after Cain has murdered Abel in front of Abby, he says that they must continue this cycle over and over again because they are the first story and that this is “punishment for doing it the first time” (Moore, Bissette, & Totleben, 2012, p. 194). Whether their presence in the Dreaming is cosmic punishment, an act of pity, or a combination of the two, is unclear.

Regardless of origins, Cain carries on traits of the biblical Cain: murder of his brother; a mark that punishes those who harm him 7-fold, usually using odd disasters; and his act of murder is usually a compulsive one sometimes brought on by a fit of jealousy (Cain (New Earth); Moore, Bissette, & Totleben, 2012). Abel revives after each murder and has the power of storytelling (Abel (New Earth)). A story he tells himself often is a story of two brothers love each other, live in the same house, and would never hurt each other (Gaiman, Kieth, Dringenberg, & Jones, 2010). Why though, is Abel caretaker of The House of Secrets, and Cain is the caretaker of The House of Mysteries? The original creators may have meant this as an arbitrary distinction, but Alan Moore makes it out to be a bit deeper than that.

Alan Moore makes a distinction between a secret and mystery in The Swamp Thing. He makes the claim that a mystery is a story that may be shared with others, while a secret is not a secret if it is shared (Moore, Bissette, & Totleben, 2012, p. 191).  When Abel divulges the secret of the Swamp Thing to Abby, Cain claims he must punish Abel for not safeguarding this secret. He kills Abel so that as the dream Abby is having fades, she will not remember the details of the secret passed on to her. Abel shouts that Cain is jealous that Abby picked Abel and not Cain (Moore, Bissette, & Totleben, 2012, p. 192).

I propose that this murder scene is, indeed, inspired by jealousy, though not over Abby. Instead, as Cain stated, he murdered Abel because Abel has divulged a secret to Abby as he stated, but it is not only because a secret was shared. It is because the secret of an ultimate truth was shared—an ultimate truth that Cain is not privy to as the guardian of mysteries, not the guardian of secrets. Cain murders Abel in this scene because Abel is closer to the truth than Cain is and this makes him jealous.

That Abel, as a symbolic figure, is closer to truth causes him to be the caretaker of The House of Secrets, while Cain becomes caretaker of a shrouded truth, of The House of Mystery. Their places as respective hosts of each house further reinforce their cycle of violence and also their punishment. Furthermore, it does more than punish these two. It also showcases the danger of violence. Violence is not only dangerous because it is mimetic (Girard, 2001).  It must not only be assuaged with sacrifice because violence begets violence (Girard, 1977). Sacrifice exists to protect sacred truth and to perpetuate it into the future.

Man seeks out the sacred because participating in the sacred world provides him with a greater being. To be a part of the sacred offers man up to something that is greater than himself. This greater, truer, sense of being is what draws man to the sacred (Eliade & Trask, 1987). The phenomenological experience of an encounter with the sacred is often cited as being one in which the human feels less real than the sacred. There is a sense that the sacred is truer than yourself. Being connected with this object of greater realness is the driving force of man’s obsession with the sacred (Westphal, 1987). Those who are closer to this realness have greater being in the eyes of those who are not as close. This puts those who have greater being in some amount of danger from those who have less. Biblical Cain, in an act of jealousy, kills his brother, Abel, when the sacred favors Abel instead of Cain. The Christian God favoring Abel’s sacrifices displays to Cain that Abel knows more about having greater being since he is in better communion with the sacred. Jealousy caused Cain to kill Abel, extinguishing Abel’s knowledge of the sacred (Holy Bible). The result of the murder of Abel not only leaves Cain cursed (Holy Bible) but also leaves him without the truth that Abel had discovered in his personal journey to become closer to the sacred.

Sacrifice has been conceptualized as being necessary for a variety of reasons. It prevents more violence from perpetuating from an initiatory violence, it puts an end to a crisis using a decision made by an entire community, it eases a community’s distress over natural events (Girard 1977; 2001), and it may also be an evolutionary mechanism for social control and order (Watts, Sheehan, Atkinson, Bulbulia, & Gray, 2016). Another possible reason is that sacrifice acts as the protector of sacred knowledge—knowledge of being more human and whole. Without acts of sacrifice to cure the disease of violence, sacred knowledge would be eroded as more and more victims with greater being are killed.

Like the Biblical Cain and Abel myth, DC Cain acts against his brother, Abel, in a jealous manner. Abel is killed only to be revived again in a perpetual cycle. Abel, like his biblical counterpart, embodies a greater sense of being. In the Bible, he is closer to the sacred, so his brother kills him, losing any knowledge as to how to become closer to the sacred. In the DC Universe, Abel is the caretaker of The House of Secrets. A house that hears all stories and understands the truth in these stories. He is closer to the truth of the universe. When Abel tries to impart these secrets unto Abby, Cain becomes jealous and kills his brother again. He claims a moral superiority to Abel by proclaiming he is punishing Abel for divulging secrets (Moore, Bissette, & Totleben, 2012).

However, I believe him to be jealous of Abel for his knowledge of secrets and of Abby for learning these secrets. For Cain, if he cannot be the keeper of the truth, he will take it out on the person who is. Even if that person is his own brother. If that brother chooses to divulge this truth to another person, Cain will act to destroy Abel. Their story in the DC Universe showcases what happens when violence wins this fight. Abel was unable to pass on truth to Abby and she was unable to ease the path of the Swamp Thing’s spiritual journey (Moore, Bissette, & Totleben, 2012). Cain’s jealousy prevents Abby from finding and understanding the truth. In the DC Universe, their story is not that violence begets violence, but that violence halts those on their quest for enlightenment. Cain’s jealousy causes his brother to remain the keeper of secrets because the truth cannot escape and remains unknown. In a stroke of irony, it also keeps DC Cain from the truth and the sense of wholeness he is jealous of. His own actions cause him to remain shrouded in mystery just as Biblical Cain’s murder of Abel did not move Cain any closer to the sacred. In fact, the murder of his brother set him back several steps because a piece of sacred knowledge is murdered at the same time Abel is. When an individual murders another individual, not only is violence perpetrated, but wisdom and sacred knowledge are destroyed. When a sacrifice is not offered and violence continues, the collective’s sacred knowledge continuous to erode.

Molly Kluck is an undergraduate Human Factors and Applied Cognition Psychology major, in her fourth year, at George Mason University. Her minor is in neuroscience. However, her academic “hobby” interests often lean more towards philosophy, ethics, AI, and religion. She hopes to use her psychology and neuroscience training to inform her philosophical positions and understanding of what it really means to be human.


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