Wednesday, April 22, 2009


The Seven Deadly Sins
Brian Colless

Only seven sins? Aren’t there ten commandments in the Decalogue, delivered by God through Moses at Mount Sinai, on two stone tablets, so there must be ten sins deserving of death, since the death penalty was applied to each of them?

While Roman Catholics and Protestants have differences over how to divide up the divine injunctions in Exodus 20, they still end up with ten as the number. Adultery is often said to be the seventh commandment, but it holds sixth place in the Roman division (because the prohibition on idolatry is passed over, as images are used in worship; and coveting is divided in two, separating the neighbour’s wife and his goods, though this is not easily done, as the wife is part of a man’s property, and is preceded by his house in the list). However, by my reckoning the total of the offences is clearly and obviously ten, as follows:

[1] apostasy (“no other gods”) (3)
[2] idolatry (4-6)
[3] blasphemy, misusing the name of God (7)
[4] working on the Sabbath day (8-11)
[5] dishonouring parents (12)
[6] murder (13)
[7] adultery (14)
[8] theft, larceny (15)
[9] perjury, false testimony (16)
[10] coveting (17)

In the Wisdom tradition of Israel we have a set of seven abominable things that God hates (Proverbs 6:16-19), introduced by a formula that goes back to the god Ba`al in the Bronze Age: “There are six things Yahweh hates, seven he loathes:
[1] haughty eyes, [2] a lying tongue, [3] hands which shed innocent blood, [4] a heart which devises evil plans, [5] feet which run hastily to evil, [6] a false witness who commits perjury, [7] a person who sows discord among brothers.”

These examples of anti-social behaviour share only perjury [2, 7] and murder [3] with the ten commandments, though adultery is treated at length in the remainder of the chapter.
In the New Testament Paul presents a list of seventeen sinful “works of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19-21), which includes a few items from the commandments, namely fornication, idolatry, and murder (in some versions, but “envy” in others, the Greek words phonos and phthonos being similar, and perhaps both should be there).

In the fourth century, Evagrios Pontikos (Evagrius of Pontus, one of the monks of the Egyptian desert) compiled a list of eight evil thoughts (logismoi in Greek) which demons could use to arouse passions and cause sin. These were:

[1] gluttony (gastrimargia, ‘belly-madness’)
[2] fornication (porneia, sexual immorality)
[3] avarice (philarguria, ‘love of money’)
[4] sorrow (lupê, pain, distress)
[5] anger (orgê)
[6] discouragement (akêdia, listlessness, boredom)
[7] vainglory (kenodoxia, vanity)
[8] pride (huperêphania)

In the fifth century, John Cassian took them from Egypt to southern Gaul (Marseilles) and established eastern monasticism there.
This Evagrian collection of vices is clearly the source of the seven deadly sins, or capital vices, promulgated by Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century:

[1] luxuria (extravagance, dissipation, lechery, lust)
[2] gula (gluttony)
[3] avaritia (greed, avarice, covetousness)
[4] acedia (sloth, negligence)
[5] ira (wrath, anger)
[6] invidia (envy)
[7] superbia (pride)

Which one of the original octet has been left out, and which ones have changed in their translation from Greek into Latin?

Invidia seems to have a rather ‘invidious’ position, apparently coming out of nowhere; but ‘envy’ (phthonos) is included among the list of logismoi once. This means that two others have been omitted.

Vainglory has presumably been subsumed under pride. And sorrow or sadness has been welded to acedia, which originally meant the restlessness and boredom a monk experienced in the daytime while waiting for the one meal of the day at 3 pm; it involves yawning, looking through the window or at the door in the hope of receiving a visitor; this distraction from manual labour or devotional practice is covered by the term ‘sloth’; the night-time is when the demon of lust and lechery would attack.

Obviously these ‘deadly’ sins are not subject to the death penalty in this life; they are personal vices not capital crimes, and if they are treated with penitence and repentance they will not send their perpetrators to Hell, but to Purgatory.

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) included the register of seven vices (presented in reverse order, from pride to lust) in his three-part narrative poem known as La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy). It starts with Dante’s mid-life crisis and gives an imaginative description of an imaginary journey through Hell (Inferno) and Purgatory (Purgatorio) to Paradise (Paradiso).
Purgatory is a penitentiary, where penitent sinners undergo punishments designed to reform them and fit them for Paradise. This is how Dante does it:

Purgatory (Cantos 10-27): the Purgatorio gate leads into the place of purgation of sinners and purification from sins, through penance. Seven circular terraces rise one above the other, connected by steps in the rock. Each level is concerned with purging one of the seven capital sins (the deadly sins) from souls who are obsessed with that particular vice. Dante divides them into three categories, related to failure in expressing love.

(1) Proud (2) Envious (3) Wrathful (Perverted Love)
(4) Slothful (Defective Love)
(5) Avaricious & Prodigal (6) Gluttonous (7) Lascivious (Excessive Love)

The Terraces of Purgatory
[10] First terrace: Pride > Humility
The proud are each weighed down by an enormous stone.
“Verily they were bent over more and less according as they had more and less weight on their back; and he who had most patience in his doing seemed to say through his weeping, I can no more.” (10:136-139)
[11] They say the Lord’s Prayer (Pater Noster, O Padre nostro) in Dante’s paraphrase translation. The benediction for this section is: “Blessed are the poor in spirit”.
[12] Graven on the floor Dante sees depictions of the proud who fell (pride goeth before a fall, of course): Lucifer (Satan), who fell like lightning (Luke 10:18); Briareus (a giant who attempted to overthrow the gods of Olympus); Nimrod (who tried to reach Heaven with his tower in Babylon); Saul (first King of Israel, who fell on his own sword); and others.

[13] Second terrace: Envy > Kindness
The envious sit in sackloth, having their eyes stitched up with wire.
“An iron wire pierces all their eyelids and stitches them up, as is done to an untamed hawk because it will not stay still.” (13:70-72)
[14] More examples of the envious.
[15] “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mathew 5:7)

Third terrace: Anger > Gentleness
The wrathful walk amid acrid smoke. “No sky darkened with cloud ever made so gross a veil to my sight, or was of such asperity to my senses, as that smoke which covered us there.” (16:2-5)
[16] Suffocating smoke envelops this area (from the blazing anger?!)
The hymn here is: Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis; dona nobis pacem (Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us; grant us peace). The beatitude is: “Blessed are the peacemakers”.
[17] Discourse on love and free will.

[18] Fourth terrace: Sloth > Zeal (Keenness)
The term translated ‘sloth’ is accidia, ‘unconcern’, spiritual torpor.
The slothful must run continually. “That whole great crowd kept running, and two in front wept and cried out, ‘Mary ran to the hill-country with haste’ (Luke 1:39)” (18:97-100)
The examples of zeal are: Mary, as the mother-to-be of Christ hastening to her cousin Elizabeth and receiving “Ave Maria, Hail Mary, full of Grace... blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:39ff). And Julius Caesar, destined to be the founder of the Roman Empire, hurrying from a siege of Marseille to defeat Pompey in Spain. Here the prayer would be the labours of love they perform. The benediction is (19.50): "Blessed are they that mourn" (Matthew 5:4).

[19] Fifth terrace: Avarice & Prodigality > Generosity
The avaricious and the prodigal must lie prostrate. “ I saw people who were weeping, all lying face downward on the ground; I heard them saying, My soul cleaveth to the dust (Psalm119.25).” (19:71-74).
Here the prayer is: Adhaesit pavimento anima mea (My soul cleaveth unto the dust, Psalm 119:25)
[20-21] The whole mountain shakes (a sign that a soul has been released from Purgatory), and all the penitents shout Gloria in excelsis Deo.

[22] Sixth terrace: Gluttony > Temperance
The gluttonous are deprived of food and drink. “Each one had dark and hollow eyes, and pallid face, and was so wasted that the skin took its shape from the bones.” (23:22-24)
The Beatitude is: "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness" (Matthew 5:6), but omitting the words "hunger and"! The prayer, which is 'wept and sung' (23.10), is: Labia mea, Domine (Lord open thou my lips, Psalm 51:15).

[23]-[24] Dante converses with his intemperate friend Forese Donati, who would have been related to Dante’s wife Gemma Donati.

[25] Seventh terrace: Lust > Chastity
The lustful are purified in a wall of flame. “ The fire burns them, and with such a cure and such nourishment the wound may conveniently be healed.” (25:137-139)
[26] The souls with this problem learn to greet one another with a holy kiss, as recommended by the Apostle Paul. (This is in stark contrast to the sinful lingering kiss of Paolo and Francesca da Rimini on the afternoon when they were reading about the love between Lancelot and Guinivere.) The prayer in this section (25.121) is a hymn from the breviary, against lust: Summae Deus clementiae (God of highest clemency).
[27] Dante is terrified of the purging cleansing fire that they must pass through.
The final beatitude (27.8) is very apt: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mathew 5:8). This is what the purging was all about, to purify the mirror of the ‘heart’, to scour away all the dross on it, so that it could reflect God in his glory. This was the teaching of the Syrian Christian mystics that have occupied my head for half of my life. John of Dalyatha in the 8th century quotes this beatitude continually, and European mystics learnt this purgative way from Pseudo-Dionysios the Areopagite: purgation > illumination (seeing God’s effulgence) > unification (mystical union with God).

The wall of flame is also connected with the fiery sword of the Kerubim guarding the entrance to the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24), which is for Dante on top of the Purgatory mountain.

Since the time of Dante, the seven deadly sins have continued to appear in art and literature, and there have been some new constructions of social and environmental offences.

Here is a set of seven modern vices issued by Mahatma Gandhi:
Politics without principle
Commerce without morality
Wealth without work
Pleasure without conscience
Knowledge without character
Science without humanity
Religion without sacrifice

Another account of the evils of our own era was set forth by Bishop Gianfranco Girotti of the Apostolic Penitentiary in the Vatican (March 2008), indicating several vices operating in the age of globalization. Journalists moulded them into a heptad thus:
Pollution of the environment
Genetic engineering
Drug taking and trafficking
Causing social injustice
Obscene riches
With regard to the last one, some commentators remarked (perhaps unthinkingly) on the great wealth of the Vatican itself.

Also in 2008, Bradley Boniface, a student of UCOL (the polytechnic of Palmerston North) produced an award-winning collection of seven artistic photographs illustrating the deadly sins as portrayed in Dante.

The seven sins with characteristics and representative characters
[1] PRIDE (superbia) > Humility
Horse – Violet – PRINCE
[2] ENVY (invidia) > Kindness
Dog – Green – PEASANT
[3] WRATH (ira) > Patience
Bear – Red – KNIGHT
[4] SLOTH (acedia) > Diligence
Goat – Light Blue – JESTER
[5] GREED (avaritia) > Liberality
Frog – Yellow – KING
[6] GLUTTONY (gula) > Abstinence
Pig – Orange – QUEEN
[7] LUST (luxuria) > Chastity
Cow – Blue – PRINCESS

These photographs can be seen in the journal MUSIC IN THE AIR (Exploring spirituality in the creative arts) Issue 27 (2009) 19-26.

Music in the Air is published by John Thornley, 15 Oriana Place, Palmerston North 4412, Aotearoa/New Zealand. Subscription (2 issues per year) $30.

Brian Edric Colless PhD ThD taught religious studies at Massey University from 1970 till 2001, and he is now a research associate of the university. His four lectures on Dante’s Divine Comedy, and an introduction to his book on Syriac Christian mysticism, are posted on his website:

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