Time and Space in the Symbolism of Abel and Cain

René Guénon — The Signs of The Times

Cain is represented in Biblical symbolism as being primarily a farmer and Abel as a stockmaster, thus they are the types of the two sorts of peoples who have existed since the origins of the present humanity, or at least since the earliest differentiation took place, namely that between the sedentary peoples, devoted to the cultivation of the soil, and the nomads, devoted to the raising of flocks and herds. The names ‘Iran’ and ‘Turan’ have frequently been treated as if they were the names of races, but they really represented the sedentary and the nomadic peoples respectively.

It must be emphasized that these two occupations are essential and primordial in the two human types; anything else is only accidental, derived, or superadded, and to speak of people as hunters or fishers for example, as modern ethnologists so often do, is either to mistake the accidental for the essential, or it is to restrict attention to more or less late cases of anomaly or degeneration, such as can be met with in certain savages. (but the mainly commercial or industrial peoples of the modern West are by no means less abnormal, though in another way.)

Nomads direct their activities particularly to the animal kingdom, mobile like themselves; sedentary peoples on the other hand direct them in the first place to the two non-mobile kingdoms, the vegetable and mineral. The agricultural peoples, just because they are sedentary, are naturally those who arrive sooner or later at the building of towns; indeed it is said that the first town was founded by Cain himself.

Each of these two categories naturally had its own traditional law, different from that of the other, and adapted to its way of life and the nature of its occupations; this difference was particularly apparent in the sacrificial rites, hence the special mention made of the vegetable offerings of Cain and the animal offerings of Abel. As biblical symbolism in particular is now being considered, it is as well to note at once in that connection that the Hebrew Torah belongs properly to the type of law appropriate to nomadic peoples. Hence the way in which the story of Cain and Abel is presented, for it would appear in a different light in the eyes of sedentary people and would be susceptible of a different interpretation, although the aspects corresponding to the two points of view are of course both included in the profound meaning of the story.

Cain is said to be the elder, agriculture therefore appears to have some kind of interiority, indeed Adam himself is represented as having had the function of ‘cultivating the garden’ in the period before the fall. This is also related more particularly to the vegetable symbolism in the representation of the beginning of the cycle, hence there was a symbolical and even initiatic ‘agriculture’, the very same as that which Saturn was said by the Latins to have taught to the men of the ‘Golden Age’.

It could be said that the the works of sedentary peoples are works of time; these peoples are fixed in space within a strictly limited domain, and develop their activities in a temporal continuity that appears to them to be indefinite. On the other hand, nomadic and pastoral peoples build nothing durable, and do not world for a future that escapes them; but they have space before them, not facing them with any limitation, but on the contrary always offering them new possibilities. In this way is revealed the correspondence of the cosmic principles to which the symbolism of Cain and Abel is related: the principle of compression, represented by time, and the principle of expansion, represented by space.

It is also in the nature of things that sedentary peoples should tend to the making of visual symbols, images made up of various substances, and these images can always be related back, in their essential significance, more or less directly to the geometrical viewpoint, the origin and foundation of all spatial conception. Nomads on the other hand, to whom images are forbidden, like everything else that might tend to attach them to some definite place, make sonorous symbols, the only symbols compatible with their state of continual migration.

It is however remarkable that, among the sensible faculties, sight is directly related to space, and hearing to time: the elements of the visual system occur simultaneously, and those of the sonorous symbol in succession, so that there is in this respect a kind of reversal of the relations previously considered: but this reversal is in fact necessary so that some equilibrium may be established between the two contrary principles, and so that their respective actions may be kept within limits compatible with normal human existence. Thus the sedentary peoples create the plastic arts (architecture, sculpture, painting), the arts consisting of forms developed in space; the nomads create the phonetic arts (music, poetry), the arts consisting of forms unfolded in time.

Thus the complementarism of the conditions of existence is manifested in the following way: those who work for time are stabilized in space; those who wander in space ares ceaselessly modified within time. And the antimony of the ‘inverse sense’ appears as follows: those who live according to time, the changing and destroying element, fix and conserve themselves; those who live according to space, the fixed and permanent element, disperse themselves and change unceasingly. This must be so in order that the existence of each may remain possible, for at least a relative equilibrium is established between the terms representing the two contrary tendencies.

In the modern world, there is no longer any room for nomadic peoples such as formerly survived in various circumstances, for these people gradually come to a point at which they no longer find in front of them any free space; an in addition to this, all possible means are used to cause them to adopt a sedentary life. The time seems not to be far distant when the ‘wheel will stop turning’. Towns, representing something like the final degree of ‘fixation’, take on an overwhelming importance and tend more and more to absorb everything else; this is how it comes about that, toward the end of the cycle, Cain really and finally slays Abel.


René Guénon — The Signs of the Times