|3. Everything / Deep Thought / Religion & Spirituality / Religions, Beliefs, Artefacts, Doctrines & Practices|
The Seven Deadly Sins
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
Influence in Literature
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:
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 Todsü nden') 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. Brechtís 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 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.
People have been talking about this Guide Entry. Here are the most recent Conversations:
Please note that the BBC is not responsible for the content of any external sites listed.
Most of the content on this site is created by h2g2's Researchers, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of any external sites referenced. In the event that you consider anything on this page to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please click here to alert our Moderation Team. For any other comments, please start a Conversation below.