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The Seven Deadly Sins

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Seven is a number which has a mystical significance for many cultures and traditions. The early Christian church listed a number of things in sevens. One of the most influential of these lists is that of the Seven Deadly Sins, made by Pope Gregory the Great (540 AD - 605 AD). The medieval theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas discussed these sins in detail in his Summa Theologica, which made the idea widely known. The list of the Seven Deadly Sins was often contrasted with that of the Seven Cardinal Virtues, though, as Thomas Aquinas was careful to explain, they are not direct opposites. In Christian terms, a 'deadly' or 'capital' sin is one that cuts the sinner off from God. For a believer this is truly a fate worse than death, since it is thought to lead to eternal damnation. In non-Christian terms, these sins may be seen as character faults, which damage a person's spiritual development. Many writers and artists have used the idea of these sins in their work.

The Seven Deadly Sins

  • Pride - This is a feeling of superiority and an excessive belief in a person's own abilities. This is usually considered the worst of the sins.

  • Anger (or Wrath, or Ire) - This is a feeling of hostility or rage, often leading to violence.

  • Lust (or Lechery) - This is the desire for physical and especially sexual pleasure.

  • Covetousness (or Greed or Avarice)- This is the desire for material gain.

  • Gluttony - This is consuming too much of something which might be good in moderation. It most usually refers to food, but can be used about any material goods.

  • Envy - This is the desire to possess what others have, including both material goods and personal attributes.

  • Sloth - This refers to spiritual apathy as well as simple laziness.

Influence in Literature

Dante's Inferno

The Inferno is the section of Dante's Divine Comedy where his guide Virgil brings him down through the nine circles of Hell. Sinners condemned for the less serious sins of the flesh (lust, gluttony, avarice and sloth) were in the upper circles of Hell. Those condemned for sins of the spirit (pride, envy and anger) were placed in the deepest circles of Hell.

Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales

The Parson's Tale, the last of the Canterbury Tales, is in the form of a sermon about penitence. It includes a long discussion of the Seven Deadly Sins, but since it is in prose rather than poetry, and is considered the dullest of the Tales, most readers are inclined to skip it.

Spenser's The Faerie Queene

Edmund Spenser's long poem The Faerie Queene makes great use of allegory and symbolism. In the fourth canto of the first book, the Seven Deadly Sins make a dramatic appearance. Pride is the Queen Lucifera, with an attendant dragon. The other sins are personified as her six counsellors, each riding an appropriate animal:

  • Sluggish Idlenesse, on a slouthfull Asse
  • Loathsome Gluttony, on a filthie swyne
  • Lustfull Lecherie, on a bearded Goat
  • Greedy Auerice on a Camel loaden all with gold
  • Malicious Enuie on a rauenous wolfe
  • Reuenging Wrath on a Lion, loth for to be led

Medieval and Renaissance Art

Church frescoes in the Middle Ages and Renaissance often showed scenes to terrify sinners. Usually, these were of the Last Judgment, where condemned souls were being sent to Hell, but there are some examples showing the Seven Deadly Sins. In England, many of these medieval murals were whitewashed after the Reformation. The most famous individual painting of The Seven Deadly Sins is by Hieronymous Bosch.

Some 20th Century Interpretations

Kurt Weill's 1933 Ballet

In the 1920s, the composer Kurt Weill and the writer Bertolt Brecht collaborated to write two operas, The Threepenny Opera ('Die Dreigroschenoper') and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny ('Aufsteig und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny'). These were highly successful in Weimar Germany, but with the rise of the Nazi party both men fled to France. In 1933, Weill was commissioned to write a ballet containing songs, for which Brecht supplied the libretto.

The Seven Deadly Sins ('Die Sieben Todsünden') follows the heroine Anna, who leaves Louisiana to try and make enough money to save her family home. She is represented by Anna I, the hardheaded singer, and Anna II, the softhearted dancer. In each city she visits, Anna II commits one of the Seven Deadly Sins, but is kept on track by the single-minded Anna I. From Brecht's Marxist viewpoint, these are only sins for the middle classes, and Anna is perfectly justified in her career. For him, the true evil in the story is the American capitalist system. Brecht’s ideological commitment allowed him to keep this view all through his years of exile in California. Weill, on the other hand, became an American citizen, contributed to the American war effort, and was highly successful writing musicals for Broadway.

CS Lewis' Narnia Books

CS Lewis wrote a number of theological books for lay people, including The Screwtape Letters which dealt particularly with the idea of sin. Some commentators have pointed out that the seven Chronicles of Narnia each highlight a different deadly sin.

  • The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe - Gluttony. Edmund's taste for Turkish Delight leads him to a point where he betrays his siblings.

  • Prince Caspian - Luxury or Lust. Lewis would probably have considered the normal meaning of Lust unsuitable in a children's book. In Prince Caspian, King Miraz shows a lust for power, which can be seen as one meaning of the older Luxury.

  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - Greed. Eustace Scrubb's greed for gold gets him turned into a dragon.

  • The Silver Chair - Sloth. Jill and Eustace are told of four signs they must remember, but apathy and carelessness lead them to forget at the crucial moments.

  • The Horse and His Boy - Pride. The horse Bree, the girl Aravis and Prince Rabadash all have their pride humbled by Aslan.

  • The Magician's Nephew - Anger. Both Digory and Polly are inclined to lose their tempers and fight. One of these angry quarrels results in Digory waking Jadis the White Witch, whose own bad temper brings trouble to Narnia.

  • The Last Battle - Envy. Shift the ape is envious of the respect given to Aslan. His scheme to have Puzzle the donkey impersonate Aslan brings the whole world of Narnia to an end.

The Film Se7en (1995)

In many modern books and films, the serial killer is seen as the ultimate embodiment of evil. The 1995 film Se7en, directed by David Fincher, combines the idea of a serial killer with that of the Seven Deadly Sins. Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt star as two detectives investigating a particularly gruesome murder. As the body count mounts and the gloomy atmosphere intensifies, the detectives realise that the killer is choosing his methods and victims to follow the Seven Deadly Sins.

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