Posted by: Harold Knight | 11/03/2010

O Vanity, Thy Name Is Us

Lincoln Cathedral

Lincoln Cathedral

(I began this writing in time to post it on All Souls Day—November 2—but didn’t finish it until today.)

The Lincoln Imp is one of the great works of Christian art.

Lincolnshire is on the east coast of England (for those who’ve forgotten their history or geography), halfway up the island from Hastings, where William the Conqueror defeated the Englanders in 1066 to become their first Norman king. William plowed through the countryside building castles and fortresses. At Lincoln, he built Lincoln Castle atop the ruins of a Roman fortress. The newly-important city needed a cathedral.

Construction of Lincoln Cathedral began in 1072. Fires and earthquakes (yes, in England) destroyed the cathedral a couple of times. It finally reached its present shape in 1235. There is controversy over the matter, but apparently the cathedral spire (a wooden frame sheathed in copper) was the tallest manmade structure on earth from then until 1548 when a storm toppled it. The Great Pyramid is 487 feet tall, and it was 524 feet.

The Lincoln Imp is a Medieval creature frozen in stone, sitting atop one of the gothic columns holding up the vault of the choir of the cathedral. He was apparently running around in the vaulting of the cathedral while it was being built throwing stones at people, and an angel swooped down and froze him in stone at the top of the column (1). So goes the story.

The Imp

The Imp

The burning question for All Souls day is, “Does the Lincoln Imp have eternal life?” What happens to the soul of an impish little creature that some angel turns to stone?

Now onto what will seem to be an unrelated sidetrack.

The familiar opening of the book Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew scriptures reads, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”  A few verses later, the author Kohelet, amplifies his assertion saying, “I have seen everything that is done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” In the RSV of the Christian scripture, this “vanity and striving after wind” appears a total of nine times in the book.

One of my college professors, an Old Testament scholar, translated Kohelet’s words, “Soap bubbles of soap bubbles, all is soap bubbles and striving after wind.” That is, I always assumed, a proper understanding of the word “vanity”—not “vain” but “in vain.”

It is not, however. The Hebrew word (I’m not pretending to be a Hebrew scholar) translated as “vanity” is Hevel. Here’s where the idea gets interesting. Hevel is also the name of the second son of Adam and Eve, the son we call “Abel” (2). So either we need to read “vanity” as the man’s name we know as Abel, or we need to read the Adam and Eve son as “vanity.” Or both and.

As Ethan Dor-Shav observes, the connection between the two uses of the word is striking. Abel/Hevel is, in the Genesis story, the first human being to die. He dies because he is the first human being whose action (making an offering of one of his sheep) pleases God. “And the Lord had regard for Abel/Hevel and his offering” (Genesis 4:4, RSV). The familiar story ends with Cain murdering Abel/Hevel because God does not have regard for Cain’s offering (presumably because it wasn’t a blood-offering). But more important, Abel/Hevel achieves another first.

A far cry from the guilt of Adam, Eve, and Cain, all of whom were rebuked by God, Abel was the first human whom God clearly likes. Before him, we did not even know it was possible. (3)

A human whom God clearly likes.

And the first human God clearly likes becomes dead. He becomes dead at the hand of his brother. We don’t know if Cain buries Abel/Hevel/Vanity or if he simply leaves his body to rot. God says to Cain, “The voice of your brother is crying to me from the ground. . .which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from you hand” (Genesis 4:10-11).

The strangest aspect of the story may be that the human whom God clearly likes is murdered because he makes the right kind of offering to God. Is that offering-making a prayer? You’d think brothers would have the same understanding of making offerings to God. Apparently they have two religions. They have different ways of praying.

It is dangerous (if not downright absurd) to explain texts by laying over them ideas that could not possibly have been part of the thought in the background of the text—which is what academic writing is all about—but I found this idea and it spurred me to think about vanity and Abel. Oh, and about the Lincoln Imp, too:

In the context of religious organizations, one encounters a similarly expansive understanding of one’s relation to others and the self.  . . . By purporting to bind humans together, prayer offers practitioners access to fulfillment of pragmatic needs such as companionship from one’s peers and non-threatening touch. Prayer is unique in that even when practiced in isolation, practitioners commonly claim experiences related to the sense of the presence of others. . . (4)

A similarly expansive understanding of one’s relation to others and the self.

Murder? Expansive? Prayer. Cain kills his brother Abel/Hevel (“Vanity”) because of a difference of religion. God curses Cain—oh what mischief has been caused in Western history by that curse—based as much, perhaps, on the obvious natural process of Abel/Hevel/Vanity’s blood crying from the ground as on the murder. The curse is about work, about consumption, about survival. The first record of death in the Western religious tradition is not so different from some very modern ideas:

. . . . death, alongside sex and eating, is one of the ‘‘ecstasies’’ of consumption. It is a mode of the general economy of expenditure and excess, not the limited economy of ‘‘utilitarian’’ production. The dead body poses in the starkest terms the problem of the sacred and the profane. When a dead body becomes a corpse, it becomes a profane thing. (5)

Before you jump to the conclusion that I’m some sort of ghoul (although I may be), I revert to the beginning.

All Souls Day is a day to remember the dead. Those of the Abel/Hevel/Vanity variety of creatures who have passed before us (pun intended on the euphemism for “died”). The angel in the choir at Lincoln Cathedral wanted us to remember. The Imp needed punishment, and we needed a reminder that all is Hevel. The Lincoln Imp sits atop his column as a perpetual memorial to the reality that even the liveliest of us live in a state of Hevel. We are not our brothers’ keepers.  The only way to avoid becoming part of the “general economy of expenditure and excess” is somehow to manage to be turned to stone rather than to die. And then to remember that, even in England, earthquakes can destroy the column atop which we sit.
(1) Penhey, R.J. “Plan and Description of Lincoln Cathedral from an Anonymous guide booklet printed near the end of the Nineteenth Century.” Bourne Archive. Lincoln Cathedral Guide. 9 Oct 2010. Web. 2 Nov. 2010.
(2) Dor-Shav, Ethan. “Ecclesiastes, fleeting and timeless: part I.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 36.4 (2008): 211+. (Ethan Dor-Shav is an Associate Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.)
(3) Idem.
(4) Ladd, Kevin. L. and Daniel N. McIntosh. “Meaning, God, and prayer: Physical and metaphysical aspects of social support.”  Mental Health, Religion & Culture 11.1 (January 2008): 23-28.
(5) Bogard, William. “Empire of the living dead.” Mortality 13.2 (2008): 187.


  1. I visited the Lincoln Imp about four years ago when we lived in the Midlands. I don’t think I imagined quite so much thought could go into an exploration of a flight of fancy of the stone masons as you’ve expounded here.
    I feel quite shallow now!!!
    Thanks for the excellent article; interesting food for thought.



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