The name Cain is explained in Genesis 4:1 as being derived from the Hebrew verb qanah ‘to acquire’, or sometimes, ‘to create.’ The real meaning of Cain (Hebrew Qayin) is ‘smith’, or ‘metal-worker.’ There was actually a tribe called cain, more commonly known as the Kenites, but this name is derived from the generic name of the tribe (corresponding to such names as Israel or Ammon or Ashur), which is the name of the mythical hero from which the tribe claimed descent. The Kenites, therefore, claimed descent from someone called Cain (in Numbers 24:22, where the Hebrew has ‘Cain’ and the New English Bible translates ‘Your refuge is doomed to burning . . . . . O Cain’).

It is probable, in view of their name, that the Kenites were a tribe of smiths, especially as it is known that smith-tribes did exist in the ancient world, and indeed one is known among the Arabs to the present day. (Known as the Sleib, they are travelling smiths following regular trade routes and supplementing their income by acting as musicians and fortune-tellers). The characteristics of such a tribe are that it is nomadic (since its skills are required over a large area) and that it tends to acquire a reputation for magic, because of the awe aroused by the ability to work metals. Another characteristic of such a tribe is that it tends to be skilled in music and to provide entertainment. The descendants of Cain are associated with all these characteristics in the fourth chapter of Genesis; they are described as inventors of musical instruments and metalworking, as tent-dwellers, and as having some kind of magic about them.

It’s impossible to say that Cain, the ancestor of the Kenites, and Cain, son of Adam and murderer of his brother Abel, are one and the same. Evidence suggests, according to the Septuagint, that Moses’ father-in-law was called Cain in addition to the names of Jethro and Hobab. This suggests that the name Cain was a title rather than an ordinary name in the Kenite tribe, and that it’s ruler was always called Cain, or ‘smith’ (as if to say the ‘Smith of Smiths’), rather like the perpetual title Pharaoh in Egypt. The present-day Sleib have a character more similar to the gypsies than to the Kenite tribe and have perhaps declined from a previously high status. A tomb at Beni Hasan dated to the 19th century BC portrays a group that has been credibly identified as nomadic metalworkers. Both copper and iron are known to have been mines at around this date in the Jordan Valley. The date of the Flood, according to Biblical Chronology, was about 2500BC, so there is nothing unlikely about the inauguration of a tribe of metalworkers shortly after that time. The working of iron for tools and weapons is dated considerably later, in the 12th and 11th centuries BC. A tribe that began as bronze-workers, and perhaps making iron ornaments, would later add large-scale iron-working to its repertoire, and then anachronistically ascribe this to the early days of its history.

The fact that there are smith-gods in several pantheons (e.g. Hephaestus, Vulcan, Wayland the Smith) shows the high esteem in which smiths were held. Metalworking is regarded as a kind of magic in primitive communities and its techniques were closely guarded secrets confined to a particular family that would eventually grow into a tribe. The nomadic character of such a tribe would arise from the need to visit clients, but also from the very freedom from attachment to the soil given by the possession of a portable skill. Hephaestus was a cripple, and it has been suggested that this defect (matched by crippled smith-gods in other mythologies) arose from a practice of crippling smiths to prevent them from wandering to another tribe. An important piece of archaeological evidence points to the existence of a tribe of metal-workers, with a distinctive religion and system of symbols, whose work is found all over the countries bordering the Mediterranean. Their centre is thought to have been in Asia Minor. Greek writers also refer to a people called the Chalybes, who were a tribe of ironworkers.

Reference: The Sacred Executioner Human Sacrifice and the Legacy of Guilt
By Hyam Maccoby, Thames and Hudson 1982

The Ray Smith Notebook of Metalworking Orgins - Copyright © 2002 Ray Smith
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