In his 1919 superb novel Demian, the 1946 Nobel Prize winning author Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) suggested, despite the biblical text clearly stating that Cain criminally murdered his brother Abel, that it is possible to interpret the biblical story of Genesis 4 hinting that Abel was the brother who acted improperly.
The 1919 novel
Hesse’s Demian is not as great a work as his Magister Ludi, his last novel, which is considered to be his greatest achievement, but is still a marvelous seldom surpassed work of art. After reading Demian, Thomas Mann, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, argued for years that Hesse should also be a recipient.
The novel portrays how a ten-year-old boy Emil Sinclair from a well-to-do religious German family learnt to understand himself as he grew older and came to know what is important in life. We read about a larger and older bully tormented Sinclair and blackmailed him until Sinclair met a strange young man, Demian, who saved him from the bully and began to teach him about life.
During the decade that followed, Demian taught Sinclair that people are obliged to learn to understand themselves and act based on this knowledge, a basic human requirement that most people cannot do because they are naturally passive. Demian also introduced Sinclair to his understanding of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. One of Demian’s views concerned the Cain and Abel story and the meaning of the Mark of Cain.
Demian explained that the Mark of Cain is a symbolic way of saying that people could see intelligence showing on Cain’s face and on others who are exceptionally intelligent, such as Demian. The biblical story is suggesting that people are frightened by people who carry this mark and prefer to avoid them. If this is impossible the lesser intelligent people, such as Abel, harass those who carry the mark. Thus, Cain killed his brother in self-defense, and this is why Cain was never punished for his act.
The novel depicts how Sinclair goes through various stages as he grows older, including a phase where he indulges in drink, where he is impressed by a beautiful woman, where he meets a man with good intelligence who is unable to apply what he knows, until Sinclair realizes that he is carrying the Mark of Cain.
The first account extolling Cain
Hesse was, of course, not the first person the praise Cain. During the second century, the Cainites, also called Cainians, had a similar, but not identical view about Cain. They were mentioned by Tertullian and Irenaeus as a relatively small Gnostic and Antinomian sect existing in the eastern Roman Empire. One of their religious texts was the Gospel of Judas. Just as they praised Cain, they argued that Judas was the best of Jesus’ disciples and only he knew the truth. They believed that the god mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament was the Demiurge, who was not the supreme deity, but a heavenly being who is subordinate to the supreme God, and that this subordinate god and not the supreme God controls the material world and is antagonistic to all that is spiritual and good. The Demiurge was antagonistic to Cain, whom the Cainites venerated, and included the false account of his encounter with Abel in his Hebrew Bible to defame him.