Cain and Race

I still haven’t had the chance to see the new Beowulf but advertisements for the film and anticipation of seeing it eventually prompted me to use my daily commute to re-read the epic poem a couple of months ago. It was very rewarding.

Beowulf was originally composed in the seventh or eighth century describing people known to have existed and events known to have occured in the sixth century in Denmark and Southern Sweden. The poet mixes historical figures, places, and deeds with the mythical tale of Beowulf and his enemies, the monster Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon that terrorizes the people after its horde is plundered. The poem survives in a single manuscript that dates to around 1000 A.D.

Given its early date of composition sometime during the 600s or 700s, I was surprised to see the Cain story used in the context of race in the poem:

The grim spirit was called Grendel, a famous march-stepper, who held the moors, the fen and the fastness. The hapless creature sojourned for a space in the sea-monsters’ home after the Creator had condemned him. The eternal Lord avenged the murder on the race of Cain, because he slew Abel. He did not rejoice in that feud. He, the Lord, drove him far from mankind for that crime. Thence sprang all evil spawn, ogres and elves and sea-monsters, giants too, who struggled long time against God. He paid them requital for that. (Beowulf, R.K. Gordon, trans., J.M. Dent & Sons, London 1926 (reprint Dover 1992), pg. 3.)

In explaining the origin of the monster Grendel, the poet explains that Grendel is of the “race of Cain” and goes on to explain that this race encompassed all evil spawn, ogres, elves, sea-monsters, and giants.

This reference to the “race of Cain” surprised me because I had the sense that associating the “curse” or “mark” of Cain (Genesis 4:15) with race was a very late development in the Christian world, largely arising after the seventeenth century. Stirling Adams provided a very useful summary to this effect of the development of the application of the “curse of Cain” to black Africans among Christians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries here at BCC back in June, 2007:

In his 2003 book, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Jewish Studies scholar David Goldenberg explains that a belief that Cain’s “mark” was black skin is a relatively recent phenomenon. It began first — and slowly — with a mistranslation in apocryphal Armenian literature from around the sixth century A.D.; the initial mistake was mistranslating the Genesis statement that Cain’s “countenance fell” as meaning Cain’s face turned dark. By the 17th and 18th centuries, he shows, a belief that the curse was black skin was becoming common in Europe, due in large part, presumably, to the economic usefulness of the belief in supporting the practice of enslaving black Africans. By Joseph Smith’s time, the belief was widespread among Christians in slaveholding America.

With regard to the “curse of Ham” which also came to be defined in terms of race, Stirling summarizes Goldenberg and others as follows:

How, why, and when did readers direct the curse at black Africans? After his exhaustive research of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic sources, Goldenberg concludes that seventh century Arabia is when and where an explicit link between blacks and slavery is made with the curse. He writes that this occurred precisely “when the Black became strongly identified with the slave class in the Near East, after the Islamic conquest of Africa.” It first appeared in the Christian West in the fifteenth century as Europe discovered Africa and started to trade slaves. Then, “As the Black slave trade moved to England and then America, the Curse of Ham moved with it.”


Religious historian Benjamin Braude explains that over time the story of Ham and the curse was interpreted in many and inconsistent ways . . . . Among Christian readers, up until the 18th and 19th centuries, the “Curse of Ham” was likely to be viewed by Christians as an indictment of Jews, not blacks. In fact, Braude . . . claims no Christian artist depicted Ham as a black person until the American Presbyterian Josiah Priest included a drawing of a black Ham in his 1843 book Slavery, as it Relates to the Negro.

Braude concludes that it was only in 18th and 19th century Europe and America, where scriptural support for slavery of black Africans became economically useful, that the story of Ham became commonly interpreted as a story of curse that involved dark skin.

How does the association of the curse of Cain with race surface in the seventh or eighth centuries in England in Beowulf? Of course, of paramount importance here is the fact that “race” in Beowulf, at least in this instance referring to Grendel and his mother, is used more in the sense of “species” in that the “race of Cain” was the evil spawn that terrorized people’s dreams then as now — ogres, elves, sea monsters and giants. No humans are made to be subhuman here based on the accusation that they carry the curse or mark of Cain by virtue of a certain physical characteristic. Still, Genesis 4 does not invoke race at all in telling the story of Cain and his “mark”. In truth, Beowulf is not exactly an “early” source, despite its age — it was written long after Genesis. And, as Stirling’s summary points out, Armenian sources relatively contemporary with Beowulf began equating the Cain’s fallen countenance (Genesis 4:5-6) with dark skin. Did people connect the curse or mark of Cain with race even earlier than these Armenian sources?

Whatever the answer to that question is, we can only wish that such association between the curse or mark of Cain and some racial or other physical characteristic had remained in the realm of epic poetry and bigfoot legends.


  1. Steve Evans says:

    re: your last paragraph: hear, hear!

  2. Genesis is, however, full of the eponymous ancestors of various Near Eastern nations. I think the idea that Cain would spawn a “race” of nasties is not that surprising.

    I think it’s cool that he’s in Beowulf. Do you think that this is a later biblicising of the oral tradition?

  3. Steve Evans says:

    Ronan, there’s enormous speculation on your latter question, from what I’ve read. Harold Bloom considers Beowulf a Christian text, but “just barely.” It’s true that the Christian elements seem tacked onto what is really an heroic narrative.

  4. Ronan, the existing manuscript seems to have been compiled by two different scribes from the earlier oral tradition. As such it is difficult to know when the Christian elements entered into the story — whether these scribes were the source of it or some earlier evolution of the legend, but, as Steve pointed out, there is a lot of debate about whether the story has gone through a process of Christianization from an earlier, purely pagan story. Whatever the case may be, the poem strongly mixes elements of earlier pagan beliefs in fate and heroism with tenets of the Christian faith.

  5. Lilith and Cain were often tied to monsters.

  6. Fascinating that Josiah Priest, of all people, would be the first to depict Ham with a dark skin. Josiah Priest’s American Antiquities and Discoveries in the West and The Wonders of Nature and Providence have both been examined due to parallels with The Book of Mormon.

  7. The movie is terrible. I would recommend the Seamus Heaney translation of the poem, which is quite good. People have used Cain to describe ethnic differences since there was a Cain. most people feel he was the eponymous ancestor of the Kenites/Qenites (have Ronan spell this).

  8. Aaron Brown says:

    Bigfoot is actually John the Beloved, not Cain. He told me this personally when I picked him up as a hitchhiker back in 1997.

  9. Let me ask here, as more religious scholars frequent BCC. Are there any other records of the story of Cain and Abel besides that of Moses?

  10. Dan, are you asking about scriptural accounts, or anecdotal records? In terms of the standard works, we have only Genesis, occasional BoM references and the PGP.

  11. Are there any other records of the story of Cain and Abel besides that of Moses?

    No, unless you count the Book of Abraham.

  12. Dan might be referring to how the Flood story is found in the religious texts or myths of numerous peoples.

  13. Thanks for writing this, John. It’s truly fascinating to me. I love it!

    Please excuse this facile question, but if the idea of Ham being depicted as someone with dark skin (presumably of African descent) is relatively new – circa 1843, what were the common beliefs of Christians who believed in Noah’s flood before then? (i.e. – if the human race was wiped out by the flood, where did Africans come from?) Isn’t Ham a son of Noah? Why would one son have dark skin? Don’t some believe that Ham’s wife was Black? Has that always been the belief of most Christians pre-1800’s?

    Sorry for such long and stupid questions.

  14. John,

    Among the publishing set of early-Enlightenment scientists and intellectuals in all of England, France, and the United States, the provenance of ethnic groups with different language and physical features (“races”) was a dominant topic.

    One of the issues being debated was whether all humans had descended from common parents (presumed to be Adam and Eve) or whether different ethnic groups might have come from completely different parentage (the theory of “polygenesis”).
    Among the polygenesis set, there were at least a few that considered Cain to have married into beings that were not descendants of Adam and Eve.
    Some of the speculations about these alternate human paths call to mind legends of “evil spawn” and the like.

    I’ve seen a few, not many, hints at polygenic thinking among 19th century Mormons, but we ended up solidly following the general Christian trend of coming down on the side of monogenesis, as that fit better with a view of the Bible as history.
    Colin Kidd’s new book, The Forging of Races has quite a bit of info about this topic. In the next issue of BYU Studies, I think you’ll see a review of that book by Armand Mauss.

  15. Thanks Stirling. Among the polygenesis set, there were at least a few that considered Cain to have married into beings that were not descendants of Adam and Eve. I’ve seen a few, not many, hints at polygenic thinking among 19th century Mormons, but we ended up solidly following the general Christian trend of coming down on the side of monogenesis, as that fit better with a view of the Bible as history.

    I was also aware of the polygenic thinking of the Enlightenment period and of some related nineteenth-century speculation among early Church members about such theories, but I hadn’t brought the idea together necessarily with “evil spawn” as used in Beowulf. That is certainly worth thinking about and perhaps even looking into how “evil spawn” might have been used in literature contemporary with or earlier than Beowulf.

    meems, I am not sure about the exact history of how that was viewed but perhaps someone else who has studied the transmission of these ideas can chime in here.

  16. Thanks, John. Again, an interesting topic!

  17. Meems (13), See the bycommonconsent post “Curses (on Cain and Ham), foiled again!” for a start on the answers to your questions. That may whet your appetite for Goldenberg’s book, which is well worth reading for anyone interested in when Christians (in particular, but also Jews and Muslims)started assuming what about the provenance of people with darker skin.

  18. Thank you, Stirling!

  19. Steve, Nitsav, john,

    I’m asking about all accounts that could possibly corroborate Moses’ account. I’m trying to see just how accurate is Moses’ telling of the story of Cain and Abel.

  20. #19 – With all due respect, how in the world can we possibly know that?

  21. Steve Evans says:

    Dan, Moses is the only one who tells the full story, although Abraham in the PGP tells the Creation.

  22. Thanks Steve.

    How about anecdotal accounts non-scripture. Anything?

  23. See, I’m trying to understand just how racist Moses may have been, how raw of feelings he may have had against the sons of Ham—after all Egyptians come from the line of Ham—and whether that colored, forgive the pun, his account of the story of Cain.

  24. Steve Evans says:

    Dan, there are lots of latter-day anecdotes, from Joseph Smith onwards, regarding Cain and Abel. Anyone who gave a sermon on the topic, really, from talks on murder to people who claim to have seen Cain walking the earth (a la Bigfoot). Nothing really substantial (although SMB and others can probably correct me).

  25. Dan, I am no authority by any stretch, but speculating about this issue in regard to the beliefs of Moses (or whoever recorded the accounts of the Old Testament) is what led to Elder McConkie’s statement to disregard everything he and his predecessors ever said about it after the ban was lifted. I don’t think there is any way to answer your question without it being pure speculation.

  26. read Matt Bowman on Bigfoot and Cain. it’s in JWHA last issue.
    re: Cain and Abel, if you think of it as theomachy (the war of the gods) then there’s plenty in mesopotamian literature. if you mean, does the Hebrew story about the Garden at Eden show up specifically with the same participants in other cultures, then not really that I’m aware of.
    Josiah Priest didn’t have a single original thought that I’ve been able to find. He was a wonderful popularizer, but he didn’t generate new ideas. And Nick is right, that Priest’s works were important to early LDS–some in fact attributed their conversion to reading Priest, though that was all US aboriginal culture as Hebrew material.
    Most scholars I’m aware of think of Cain as the eponymous ancestor of a tribe the Hebrews were aware of and disliked.
    Abel in many traditions is the first martyr; there’s a great deal of material on that.
    Joseph Smith tended to obliterate the multihierarchical taxonomy of created human-ish beings, teaching that everything basically hominid was part of the same vast kindred, though I would be curious if anyone has exegesis by him on the nephilim and related giantish parahumans from Biblical narrative. there is that strange material about extraterrestrial life, and I seem to recall some speculations fairly early in 19th cent. about how they might have looked different (one late reminiscence about them looking like Quakers I recall).

    and i agree with 25, I wouldn’t go looking to resurrect racist myths from our scriptures. Our prophets and seers have helped move us beyond that sad position.

  27. Journal of Mormon History, Sam. But thanks for the plug.

    In the folktales, Cain has a variety of stories about what exactly happed to him. They all assume that it was a ‘curse,’ something that Genesis, actually, is ambiguous about. This probably comes from the archetype that associates homelessness/wandering with inability to rest in death – everything from the Flying Dutchman to the Wandering Jew. One tale I recall presented a Cain who was literally unable to stop walking, and thus couldn’t ride a cart because of it.

    Most of the folktales place Cain among the legions of hell, but a minority – particularly later tales, leave this out as well.

  28. Sam, your 26 is full of interesting bits (and cool words I typically wouldn’t come across in a month of Primary Tuesdays), thanks.
    Regarding your comment that, “Most scholars I’m aware of think of Cain as the eponymous ancestor of a tribe the Hebrews were aware of and disliked,” that does seem like a potentially promising speculation. A couple of other takes I’ve run across are from interpreters who view the Abel-Cain story as an etiological myth that either touches upon sibling rivalries competing for scarce goods/blessings, or wrestles with the move by humans from a hunter-gatherer to agriculture-based economy.

  29. Matt’s JMH article (27) is well worth reading. Or, you get some of the info by listening to the audio of his MHA presentation on the same topic.

  30. The issue you raise is one of translation, particularly with the term “race.” Let me echo smb’s comment (#7), if you enjoy the Beowulf tale, you really should read Seamus Heaney’s translation. Here’s his translation of the same passage:

    Grendel was the name of this grim demon
    haunting the marches, marauding round the heath
    and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time
    in misery among the banished monsters,
    Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed
    and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
    the Eternal Lord had exacted a price:
    Cain got no good from committing that murder
    because the Almighty made him anathema
    and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
    ogres and elves and evil phantoms
    and the giants too who strove with god
    time and again until He gave them their reward

    Beautiful literature, but I’m not sure we can use this text to teach us anything about the curse of Cain. It seems to me that by using the term race, R.K. Gordon shows his biases more so than what possibly existed with the original writer(s) of Beowulf.

  31. See, I’m trying to understand just how racist Moses may have been, how raw of feelings he may have had against the sons of Ham—after all Egyptians come from the line of Ham—and whether that colored, forgive the pun, his account of the story of Cain.

    Moses married an Ethiopian.

  32. re # 30, thank you for the second recommendation of Heaney’s translation of Beowulf.

    The issue with the word “race” used in Gordon’s prose translation might not be so much a translation issue between Gordon and the manuscript as a semantics issue between Gordon and Heaney.

    The selection concerned here is found in lines 102 through 114 of the poem. The Old English uses cynne which can be perhaps best rendered as “progeny” (Beowulf, Michael Alexander, ed., Penguin 1995, 8-9). For Heaney, “Cain’s progeny” might not have been sufficiently poetic; for Gordon, it might have been out of place with the rest of the prose in the section or with the vocabulary choice altogether. At any rate, the notion of Cain as progenitor of monsters (evil spawn) fits with the progenitor of a race, not merely a clan, so an argument exists that Gordon actually captures the sense here more accurately.

    The inquiry is therefore not entirely off-base, as implied in comment # 30, although it is indeed somewhat forced for the reasons listed in the penultimate paragraph of the main post and not necessarily because of an equivocation between “race” and “clan” as a translation of the Old English cynne. Note, for example, that the Old English uses man-cynne for “mankind” (line 110).

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