The Slaying of Abel in Apocryphal Tradition

The account of Abel’s slaying in Genesis represents one of those moments where the desire for more detail is frustrated utterly by Scripture’s silence. How did Cain murder his brother? Where did he learn to kill? What did he do with the body? And so on and so forth in this manner, without recourse to satisfactory answers from the primary sources.

Much like Nature, however, ancient and medieval scriptural commentators abhorred a vacuum; wherever lacunae existed in the biblical narratives, many were more than happy to fill the gaps with clever conjecture, rationalistic explanations, and apocrypha sourced from a variety of traditions. Perhaps the grandest example of this taste for a veritably encyclopedic concatenation of biblical trivia is what Bernard Bischoff economically called Das Bibelwerk (or the Reference Bible), the massive eight-century Irish biblical commentary bearing the Latin title Pauca problesmata de enigmatibus ex tomis canonicis (“Little Questions on Obscurities from Canonical Books”). Unsurprisingly, then, there arose in both the early Jewish and Christian textual communities a number of traditions dealing with the precise method of Abel’s murder.

The neck or head, for example, is identified in a number of early Jewish sources, including the Genesis Rabbah, as the anatomical locus of Abel’s murder. Similarly, the Babylonian Talmud explains how Cain, unfamiliar with the mechanics of death, effectively unleashes a flurry of wild blows until he finds the sweet spot of the neck. The neck and its vital organs are further implicated in the act of strangulation or suffocation, a method alternatively suggested both in Ambrosiaster’s Quaestiones Ueteris et Noui Testamenti CXXVII and the Reference Bible.

Cain strangling Abel. Ivory panel from Salerno Cathedral, c. 1084, now in the Louvre.

Tucked away in a quirky little sermon on tithing dating from at least the eighth century (a copy of which survives in British Library, MS Royal 5. E. XIII, ff. 9r-11r ), we also find the jarring explanation that Cain both suffocated and decapitated Abel with the jawbone of an ass, perhaps even implying that he used animal’s remaining teeth to saw off his brother’s head. Yikes! In fact the earliest literary source to specify the jawbone of an ass as Cain’s murder weapon is a comment on Genesis IV. 8 found in glosses originating from the Canterbury school of Theodore and Hadrian in the seventh century.

Cain striking Abel with a jaw-bone. The “Taymouth Hours.” British Library, MS Yates-Thompson 13, f. 28r, s. xiv (2/4).

Among others, J. E. Cross and T. D. Hill have also noted the presence of this tradition both in the later Old English prose dialogue Solomon and Saturn, as well as in the mid twelfth-century Irish Lebor Gabála Érenn, where the jawbone is said to be that of a camel.

Cain striking Abel with a jaw-bone (of a camel? ass?). The “Huth Psalter.” British Library, MS Additional 38116, f. 9r, s. xiii ex.

The extra-scriptural tradition that Cain used a jaw-bone (whether that of an ass, camel, or otherwise) to slay his brother may ultimately derive, as M. Shapiro and A. A. Barb have suggested, from his designation as a tiller of the ground. In trying to account for the murder-weapon, early literal-minded commentators may have sought an instrument germane to Cain’s agrarian occupation, such as a scythe.

Cain killing Abel with a scythe. Bible historiale. British Library, MS Harley 4381, f. 10r, 1403-1404.

Such an implement would not, of course, have been made from metal, since the forging of metal tools only began generations later with Tubal-Cain, as any early biblical scholar worth his salt would have remembered. In the absence of metallurgical science, then, a scythe or sickle would have been made of animal bone, perhaps even a jawbone (or so the argument goes). As it happens, excavations of Near Eastern palaeolithic settlements have discovered just this sort of object, animal jawbones inset with flint blades as a replacement for the original teeth.

That his agrarian occupation did encourage other creative conjectures, however, is clear enough from the statement, found in the eighth or ninth-century Vita Anstrudis, that Cain killed his brother with a hoe; or from Benzo of Alba’s Ad Heinricum Imperatorem Libri VII where, this time, Cain is said to have used a shovel.

Cain cleaving Abel’s head with a shovel. The “Psalter of St. Louis.” Bibliothèque nationale, Lat. 10525, f. 2r, 1270-1274.

Yet by far the most macabre explanation comes to us from the thirteenth-century Joca monachorum (“Monks’ Jokes”) dialogue. There, in response to the question how Cain decapitated his brother, the interrogator is told matter of factly that, since he didn’t have a sword, Cain used his teeth, and then buried Abel twelve feet deep. One of the very earliest sources to allude to this outrageously primal method of killing is the apocryphal Latin Life of Adam and Eve (or the Apocalypse of Moses in the Greek version), a collection of texts largely considered to be Jewish in origin and dating to the first century AD. Here Eve is said to have dreamt of Abel’s murder, seeing in her vision Cain mercilessly drinking up every drop of his brother’s blood and vomiting it forth upon the earth. A striking depiction of this scene can be found in the so-called “Alba Bible” from Maqueda, Spain (c. 1430).

Some such source as this must also lie behind the account given in the Zohar (a thirteenth century collection of esoteric and Kabbalistic scriptural exegesis), where Cain is said to have bit his brother like a serpent because he did not know how to separate body and soul.

It is worth pointing out as well that the Book of Enoch, an apocryphal Jewish text dating from around the third to first century BC, describes the antediluvian giants of Genesis 6 as cannibalistic monsters who drank the blood of their own race. These very giants, according to the tradition preserved in both the Irish Reference Bible and the Old English poem Beowulf, among others sources, had sprung directly from the murderous seed of Cain. The Book of Enoch, or at least a fragment of its Latin translation, was also definitely known in Anglo-Saxon England by the tenth century at the latest, and it is perhaps this very bit of apocryphal lore that the Beowulf poet had in mind when describing the monstrous kin of Cain, among whom the blood-drinking horror of the marches—Grendel—numbered.

While certainly not exhaustive, the above little discussion will have shown, if nothing else, how wonderfully (or frightfully) imaginative and diverse apocryphal tradition could be in the face of Scripture’s silence. For questions remained, and answers were demanded—and when every detail, no matter how seemingly trivial, potentially held deep symbolic significance, such silence was indeed unacceptable. Luckily, there existed a robust inheritance of extra-biblical sources and authorities to satisfy even the most inquisitive of minds.

Christopher Scheirer

PhD Candidate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Further Reading:

Bischoff, Bernard and Michael Lapidge, eds., Biblical Commentaries from the Canterbury School of Theodore and Hadrian (Cambridge, 1994), p. 499.

Barb, A. A., “Cain’s Murder-Weapon and Samson’s Jawbone of an Ass,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 35 (1972), pp. 386-87.

Cross, J. E., “Cain’s Jawbone: Earlier Allusions” in KM 80: A Birthday Album for Kenneth Muir, Tuesday, 5 May, 1987, ed. A. Kettle (Liverpool, 1987), p. 33.

Cross, J. E. and T. D. Hill., The Prose Solomon and Saturn and Adrian and Ritheus (Toronto, 1982).

Henderson, G., “Cain’s Jaw-Bone,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 24.1/2 (1961), pp. 108-114.

Mellinkoff, Ruth, “Cain’s Monstrous Progeny in Beowulf: Part I, Noachic Tradition,” Anglo-Saxon England 8 (1979), pp. 143-162.

Orchard, Andy, Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript (Toronto, 1995), pp. 58-85.

Shapiro, M. “‘Cain’s Jaw-bone That Did the First Murder’,” The Art Bulletin 24.3 (1942). Pp 205-212.

W. Suchier, ed. Das mittellateinsche Gespräch Adrian und Epictitus: nebst verwandten Texten (Joca Monachorum) (Tübingen, 1955), no. 23, p. 124.

Genesis Rabbah: The Judaic Commentary to the Book of Genesis. A New American Translation, trans. J. Neusner (Atlanta, 1985), p. 248.

Sanhedrin, ed. I. Epstein, trans. Jacob Shachter, 2 vols. (London, 1935), I, 37b, p. 237.

Vita Anstrudis Abbatissae Laudunensis V, 25-26, ed. W. Levison, MGH: Scriptorum Rerum Merovingicarum 6 (Hannover, 1913), p. 68: “Semper enim pars malorum infesta est parti piorum, ex quo Cain fregit sarculo guttur fraternum.”

Woden: Allfather of the English

Last week we learned about the deified Woden, often identified with the Old Norse god Oðinn. But not everyone agreed that Woden was divine.

No detailed account of Woden and his mythic adventures survives from the Anglo-Saxon era; nevertheless, this ancestral figure remains present in the cultural imagination of the English people even centuries later. The famous ecclesiastical historian Bede is the first known Anglo-Saxon author to describe this mythic genealogy in Book I, Capitula 15 of his Historia claiming: Duces fuisse perhibentur eorum primi duo fratres Hengist et Horsa….Erant autem filii Uictgilsi, cuius pater Uitta, cuius pater Uecta, cuius pater Uoden, de cuius stirpe multarum prouinciarum regium genus originem duxit, “From the first their leaders (the Anglo-Saxons) were held to be two brothers, Hengest and Horsa….They were sons of Wictgils, whose father was Witta, whose father was Wecta, whose father was Woden.”

Image from the Peterborough Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 636, f. 1r. © All Rights Reserved.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, surviving in nine extant manuscripts and probably completed under King Ælfred the Great in the 9th century, reiterates Bede’s Wodinic genealogy. Almost a century later, in a Latin adaptation known as Chronicon Æthelweardi, the 10th century historian Æthelweard (descended from the 9th-century King Æthelred I, the elder brother of the King Ælfred the Great) laments Woden’s divine status within the Norse Pantheon. In his chronicle, Æthelweard complains that ignorant Scandinavian pagans have mistakenly deified Woden, whom Æthelweard identifies as king of the barbarians. He bemoans how these pagans honor Woden as a god rather than the ancestral chieftain that Æthelweard, like so many Anglo-Saxon authors, understood him to be.

Well after the Norman Conquest of 1066, Woden was still making his way into English manuscripts, especially in depictions of Anglo-Saxon royal lineages. At roughly the same time as Snorri was composing his Edda, and Geoffrey of Monmouth his Historia, Wodinic genealogy remains present in the English written record, remembering the Anglo-Saxon kings of old who trace their ancestry back to this deified chieftain.

Woden: Allfather of the Anglo-Saxon Kings. The British Library Board Cotton Caligula A.viii f. 29r © All Rights Reserved.

The Libellus de primo Saxonum uel Normannorum adventulocated in a 12th-century manuscript (London, British Library Cotton Caligula A. viii) and often attributed to Symeon of Durham—contains an illustration of Woden, crowned as ancestral king of the Anglo-Saxons. The text surrounding the illustration describes the royal lineages of the kingdoms of Kent, Mercia, Deira, Bernicia and Wessex respectively, each claiming descent and the right to rule from this legendary figure.

Woden genealogically linked to King Henry II of England. The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 66 p.69 © All Rights Reserved.

A strikingly similar image of Woden as a crowned English ancestral figure surrounded by his royal descendants accompanies the 12th-century Historia Anglorum by Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon (located in Cambridge Corpus Christi College MS 66). This text connects Woden with Henry II, the contemporary king of England.

Ernulf’s Wodinic genealogy for the Kings of East Anglia. From Rochester Cathedral Library, MS A.3.5 © All Rights Reserved.

Likewise, Ernulf, Bishop of Rochester describes the kings of East Anglia as descendants of the legendary Woden in his 12th century Textus de Ecclesia Roffensi (found in Rochester Cathedral Library, MS A.3.5).

In medieval English historiography, Woden appears to have been used to establish dynastic legitimacy for kings in Anglo-Saxon England. Long after Woden may have been worshiped as a god, well past the Anglo-Saxon conversion and even through the Norman Conquest, the importance of this legendary figure continues to loom large in the cultural imagination of those living and ruling in medieval England. Although today nowhere near as popular or well known as Arthur, the so-called king of the Britons, the earliest kings ruling in England turned to Woden, not Arthur, in order to affirm and legitimize their royal lineages.

Richard Fahey

PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Special thanks to David Ganz, Andrew Klein and Christopher Scheirer for their contributions to this post.

 

Further Reading:

Davis, Craig R. “Cultural assimilation in the Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies.”  Anglo-Saxon England 21 (1992): 23-36.

Hill, Thomas. D. “Woden and the pattern of nine: numerical symbolism in some old English royal genealogies.” Old English Newsletter 15.2 (1982): 41-42.

John, Eric. “The Point of Woden.” In Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 5. Oxford University Committee for archaeology, 1992.

Lutz, Angelika. “Æthelweard’s Chronicon and Old English Poetry.” Anglo-Saxon England 29 (2000): 177-214.

Meaney, A L. “Woden in England: a reconsideration of the evidence.” Folklore 77.2 (1966): 105-115.

—. “St. Neots, Æthelweard and the Compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Survey.” In Studies in Earlier Old English Prose: Sixteen Original Contributions. State University of New York Press, 1986: 193-243.

Meehan, Bernard. A reconsideration of the historical works associated with Symeon of Durham: manuscripts, texts and influences. University of Edinburgh, 1979. Dissertation.

Moisl, Hermann. “Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies and Germanic oral tradition.” Journal of Medieval History 7.3 (1981): 215-248.

North, Richard. Heathen gods in Old English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Rowsell, Thomas. Woden and his Roles in Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogy. Medievalists.net, 2012.

Whitbread, L. “Æthelweard and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.” The English Historical Review 74.293 (1959): 577-589.

 

Primary Sources mentioned concerning Woden/Oðinn:

Æthelweard. Chronicon Æthelweardi (The Chronicle of Æthelweard). A. Campbell (ed and trans). Oxford University Press, 1962.

Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Colgrave, Bertram, Mynors, R.A.B. (eds). Oxford University Press, 1969.

Ernulf, Bishop of Rochester. Textus Roffensis: Rochester Cathedral Library manuscript, A. 3.5.

Henry of Huntingdon. Historia Anglorum (The History of the English People). D. E. Greenway (ed). Oxford Medieval Texts, 1996.

Symeon of Durham (possible author). De primo Saxonum adventu. In  Symeonis Dunelmensis Opera et Collectanea I. Blackwood and Sons, 1868: 202-203.

Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Anthony Faulkes (trans and ed). David Campbell Publishers, 1987.

Swanton, Michael, (trans and ed). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Phoenix Press, 2000.

 

Woden and Oðinn: Mythic Figures of the North

King Arthur is not the only legendary figure used to legitimize rulership in medieval England. Long before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century Historia Regum Britannium, the most influential mythic ancestor of the English people was Woden.

Woden is presumably derived from a common god of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples and is often identified with the pagan god Oðinn, who was worshiped in early medieval Scandinavia and called the Alföðr (“Allfather”) in Old Norse. This legendary figure was later understood to be an ancestral chieftain from whom the Anglo-Saxon kings claimed descent and thus the authority to rule in England.

18th century image from Icelandic MS, Reykjavík, Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, SÁM 66 © All Rights Reserved.

Woden remains an obscure and enigmatic figure in the extant written records from Anglo-Saxon England. Like Oðinn, he is often understood in surviving narratives as a deified chieftain who becomes the godhead of the Norse pantheon. It is impossible to tell precisely how analogous the Anglo-Saxon chieftain Woden and the Norse god Oðinn might have been by the time the Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded, conquering the once Roman island of Britannia. Scholars have debated the role and significance of these respective pagan deities and their potential relationship with each other.

Woden, from Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica and a medical charm with Odinic parallels from the so-called Lacnunga (found in British Library Manuscript Harley 585), seems to be a warrior-god; however, the sparse evidence undermines any clear portrait of this mythic figure. Ælfric, Abbot of Eynsham, (whose homilies are preserved in four extant manuscripts) composed a 10th century sermon titled De falsis Diis “Concerning false gods” that contains a fairly involved discussion of the gods, equating them to figures in the Roman pantheon, likening Woden to Mercury. Woden weirdly makes his way back to Iceland, via Ælfric’s sermon recorded in the 14th century Hauksbók (Icelandic National Library, AM544 4to). Wulfstan II, Archbishop of York, later expands on Ælfric’s work in his 11th sermon by the same name (found in Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 113).

18th century image of Oðinn riding Sleipnir. From Icelandic MS, Reykjavík, Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, SÁM 66, f.80v © All Rights Reserved.

More regularly attested and clearly defined is the Norse god Oðinn, who is associated with runic wisdom and reigns in Valhalla (The Hall of the Slain). One-eyed Oðinn rides on his magical, eight-legged horse called Sleipnir, and according to surviving Icelandic literature from the 12th century onward, he will battle the wolf Fenrir, child of Loki, during the final apocalyptic battle known as Ragnarǫk.

Illustration of the wolf Fenrir biting the right hand off the god Týr, from an Icelandic 18th century manuscript, SÁM 66, f.78v © All Rights Reserved.

Oðinn is featured throughout Norse literature in texts such as Snorra Edda or Prose Edda, written by the famous Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson in the early 13th century, which survives in seven extant Icelandic manuscripts some from as late as the 18th century such as SÁM 66 (housed at Stofnun Árna Magnússonar), ÍB 299 4to (housed at the Icelandic National Library) and NKS 1867 4to (housed at the Danish Royal Library). The anonymous collection of so-called eddic poems, often referred to as the Elder Edda or Poetic Edda (and located in Reykjavík, Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, GKS 2365 4to—pet-named “Codex Regius”), is another wealth of Odinic knowledge. This collection begins with the famous Old Norse poem Vǫluspá, in which a prophetic vǫlva (“seeress”) describes the creation and end of the world to Oðinn.

Image from Snorra Edda, showing Oðinn, Heimdallr, Sleipnir and other figures from Norse mythology. From the late 17th century Icelandic manuscript ÍB 299 4to © All Rights Reserved.

But in post-conversion England, Woden was not usually considered to be the father of the gods. More often, he was viewed as the ancestral patriarch English royal lineages.  Check back next week for more on this enigmatic figure!

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Special thanks to Tim Machan for his contributions to this post.

 

Further Reading:

Abram, Christopher. Myths of the Pagan North. Continuum, 2011.

Davis, Craig R. “Cultural assimilation in the Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies.”  Anglo-Saxon England 21 (1992): 23-36.

Hill, Thomas. D. “Woden and the pattern of nine: numerical symbolism in some old English royal genealogies.” Old English Newsletter 15.2 (1982): 41-42.

John, Eric. “The Point of Woden.” In Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 5. Oxford University Committee for archaeology, 1992.

Meaney, A L. “Woden in England: a reconsideration of the evidence.” Folklore 77.2 (1966): 105-115.

Meehan, Bernard. A reconsideration of the historical works associated with Symeon of Durham: manuscripts, texts and influences. University of Edinburgh, 1979. Dissertation.

Moisl, Hermann. “Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies and Germanic oral tradition.” Journal of Medieval History 7.3 (1981): 215-248.

North, Richard. Heathen gods in Old English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Rowsell, Thomas. Woden and his Roles in Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogy. Medievalists.net, 2012.

 

Primary Sources mentioned concerning Woden/Oðinn:

Ælfric, Abbot of Eynsham.  Homilies of Aelfric: Volume 2 . John C.Pope (ed). Oxford University Press, 1968.

Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Colgrave, Bertram, Mynors, R.A.B. (eds). Oxford University Press, 1969.

Grattan, J. H. G (trans). Anglo-Saxon magic and medicine: illustrated specially from the semi-pagan textLacnunga.” Oxford University Press, 1952.

Orchard, Andy. The Elder Edda. Penguin Classics, 2011.

Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Anthony Faulkes (trans and ed). David Campbell Publishers, 1987.

Wulfstan. Homilies of Wulfstan. Dorothy Bethurum (ed). Oxford University Press, 1957.