Faustus and the History of the Seven Deadly Sins

In each permutation of the centuries old Faustus myth, the Seven Deadly Sins are paraded before its eponymous antihero in their various personifications.

And from literature and poetry to music and art to theatre and latterly films, the idea of this septet of terrible vices has also been a cautionary subject matter for many hundreds of years.

The phrase ‘seven deadly sins’ is part of our learned language. But where does it come from, and what exactly are they?

Let’s start with the second question first.

The deadly, otherwise described as cardinal, sins are categorised as pride, lust, greed (avarice), envy, sloth, gluttony and wrath.

Conversely, the seven ‘virtues’ are said to be humility, chastity, charity, kindness, diligence, temperance and patience.

The dictionary definition of sin is an offence against religious or moral law – the former being a ‘transgression against God’.

Interestingly, although sin is mentioned throughout both books of the Bible, from the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and the 10 Commandments in the Old Testament to the Gospel of St Mark in the New – they are never actually described under one single banner.

In fact, the nearest to a complete list as we know it comes in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians.

Here he categorises the ‘works of the flesh’ which will prevent the faithful from inheriting the kingdom of God as “adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings and such like.”

It was the 4th Century Eastern Christian mystic and writer Evagrius Ponticus who was responsible for the first reference to what he at that time described as ‘eight principle vices’.

Two centuries later, the future Pope Gregory I dispensed with the eight vice, vainglory, distilling the remaining list into the Seven Deadly Sins of today.

The sins were a popular morality subject for writers and artists in the Middle Ages, including Geoffrey Chaucer whose pilgrims in his Canterbury Tales exhibit signs variously of pride (the Knight), greed (the Pardoner), envy (the Nun) and gluttony (the drunken Miller). His Parson pontificates on all seven sins during the 60-mile journey from Southwark.

In Paradise Lost meanwhile, Milton has each of his devils representing a specific sin, while in Dante’s epic poem the Divine Comedy the reader encounters each of the sins in his seven circles of purgatory.

Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens are among many other writers who have explored the idea of the sins in their works, while the anthology Seven Deadly Sins – Seven Motives for Murder brings together a collection of Agatha Christie whodunnits where avarice, envy and gluttony are among the vices that take centre stage.

They often take centre stage on canvas too.

Like Dante’s infernal tale, there are circles in The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, a key painting in the Prado in Madrid which is attributed to the early 16th Century Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch.

Meanwhile three years ago, London’s National Gallery staged an entire show called Sin which included works by a wide range of artists from Breughel, Rubens and Lucas Cranach the Elder to Hogarth, Holman Hunt and Tracey Emin.

It seems even in our modern-day world, the ‘sins’ continue to act as a source of inspiration for artists in different genres.

Consider songs like John Lennon’s Jealous Guy (envy), the Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together (lust) and Right Said Fred’s tongue-in-cheek I’m Too Sexy (pride).

If David Fincher’s movie Se7en sees a serial killer using the Seven Deadly Sins as his motive for murder, there’s rather lighter relief in the scenarios explored in the 1971 short film series The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins (starring among others Bruce Forsyth, Leslie Phillips, Spike Milligan and Harry H Corbett).

And DC Comics’ 1940 publication Whizz introduced the world to both Captain Marvel and The Seven Deadly Enemies of Man, the latter popping up again in the 2019 big screen action-adventure Shazam! while the ‘biblical’ sins have even inspired a Japanese fantasy Manga series.


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