Seven deadly sins

Seven vices [with] subdivisions, etc. Circa 1420-30.
“Seven vices [with] subdivisions, sophistry, its subdivisions, magic, its subdivisions, twenty abuses (twelve monastic, eight secular).” Circa 1420-30
From: MS 49, The Apocalypse. Wellcome Library, London.

There is a scene in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus in which demons personify the Seven Deadly Sins, already familiar to the theatre-going crowd from numerous morality tales and sermons. Here, Faustus has just met the Devil, Lucifer, and in his terror has renounced God. Lucifer then leaves Faustus to be entertained with the procession of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Marlowe’s version of the tale likely comes from his having read a recent English translation of the original German publication. In that earlier text, a procession of seven primary demons are similarly paraded before Faustus, but as themselves, not as the Seven Deadly Sins, yet also following his question about God, and an appearance and introduction by Lucifer.

Marlowe’s substitution of the seven deadly sins in place of the original demons is one of his major departures from the original story.

The following is from “The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, by Christoper Marlowe“.

      LUCIFER. We come to tell thee thou dost injure us;
     Thou talk'st of Christ, contrary to thy promise:
     Thou shouldst not think of God:  think of the devil,
     And of his dam too.

     FAUSTUS. Nor will I henceforth:  pardon me in this,
     And Faustus vows never to look to heaven,
     Never to name God, or to pray to him,
     To burn his Scriptures, slay his ministers,
     And make my spirits pull his churches down.

     LUCIFER. Do so, and we will highly gratify thee.  Faustus, we are
     come from hell to shew thee some pastime:  sit down, and thou
     shalt see all the Seven Deadly Sins appear in their proper shapes.

     FAUSTUS. That sight will be as pleasing unto me,
     As Paradise was to Adam, the first day
     Of his creation.

     LUCIFER. Talk not of Paradise nor creation; but mark this show:
     talk of the devil, and nothing else.—Come away!

       Enter the SEVEN DEADLY SINS.

     Now, Faustus, examine them of their several names and dispositions.

     FAUSTUS. What art thou, the first?

     PRIDE. I am Pride.  I disdain to have any parents.  I am like to
     Ovid's flea; I can creep into every corner of a wench; sometimes,
     like a perriwig, I sit upon her brow; or, like a fan of feathers,
     I kiss her lips; indeed, I do—what do I not?  But, fie, what a
     scent is here!  I'll not speak another word, except the ground
     were perfumed, and covered with cloth of arras.

     FAUSTUS. What art thou, the second?

     COVETOUSNESS. I am Covetousness, begotten of an old churl, in an
     old leathern bag:  and, might I have my wish, I would desire that
     this house and all the people in it were turned to gold, that I
     might lock you up in my good chest:  O, my sweet gold!

     FAUSTUS. What art thou, the third?

     WRATH. I am Wrath.  I had neither father nor mother:  I leapt out
     of a lion's mouth when I was scarce half-an-hour old; and ever
     since I have run up and down the world with this case
     of rapiers, wounding myself when I had nobody to fight withal.
     I was born in hell; and look to it, for some of you shall be
     my father.

     FAUSTUS. What art thou, the fourth?

     ENVY. I am Envy, begotten of a chimney-sweeper and an oyster-wife.
     I cannot read, and therefore wish all books were burnt.  I am lean
     with seeing others eat.  O, that there would come a famine through
     all the world, that all might die, and I live alone! then thou
     shouldst see how fat I would be.  But must thou sit, and I stand?
     come down, with a vengeance!

     FAUSTUS. Away, envious rascal!—What art thou, the fifth?

     GLUTTONY. Who I, sir?  I am Gluttony.  My parents are all dead,
     and the devil a penny they have left me, but a bare pension, and
     that is thirty meals a-day and ten bevers,—a small trifle
     to suffice nature.  O, I come of a royal parentage! my grandfather
     was a Gammon of Bacon, my grandmother a Hogshead of Claret-wine;
     my godfathers were these, Peter Pickle-herring and Martin
     Martlemas-beef; O, but my godmother, she was a jolly gentlewoman,
     and well-beloved in every good town and city; her name was Mistress
     Margery March-beer.  Now, Faustus, thou hast heard all my progeny;
     wilt thou bid me to supper?

     FAUSTUS. No, I'll see thee hanged:  thou wilt eat up all my victuals.

     GLUTTONY. Then the devil choke thee!

     FAUSTUS. Choke thyself, glutton!—What art thou, the sixth?

     SLOTH. I am Sloth.  I was begotten on a sunny bank, where I have
     lain ever since; and you have done me great injury to bring me
     from thence:  let me be carried thither again by Gluttony and
     Lechery.  I'll not speak another word for a king's ransom.

     FAUSTUS. What are you, Mistress Minx, the seventh and last?

     LECHERY. Who I, sir?  I am one that loves an inch of raw mutton
     better than an ell of fried stock-fish; and the first letter
     of my name begins with L.

     FAUSTUS. Away, to hell, to hell!
          [Exeunt the SINS.]

The following is from The English Faustbuch (1592), the P. F. Gent. translation of original German History of Doctor Faustus:

At which words the spirit stole away the heart of Faustus, who spake in this sort: “Mephistophiles, tell me how and after what sort God made the world and all the creatures in it? And why man was made after the image of God?”

The spirit hearing this, answered Faustus: “Thou knowest that all this is in vain for thee to ask. I know that thou art sorry for what thou hast done, but it availeth thee not; for I will tear thee in a thousand pieces if thou change not thy opinions.” And hereat he vanished away.

Whereat Faustus, all sorrowful that he had put forth such a question, fell to weeping and to howling bitterly, not for his sins towards God, but that the devil was departed from him so suddenly in such a rage. And being in this perplexity, he was suddenly taken with such extreme cold, as if he would have frozen in the place where he sat, in which the greatest devil in hell appeared unto him, with certain of his hideous and infernal company, in most ugly shapes, that it was impossible to think upon; and traversing the chamber round about where Faustus sat, Faustus thought to himself, “Now are they come for me, though my time be not come, and that because I have asked such questions of my servant Mephistophiles.” At whose cogitations the chiefest devil, which was the lord unto whom he gave his soul, that was Lucifer, spake in this sort: “Faustus, I have seen thy thoughts, which are not as thou hast vowed unto me, by the virtue of this letter [and showed him the obligation which he had written with his own blood]; wherefore I am come to visit thee, and to show thee some of our hellish pastimes, in hope that will draw and confirm thy mind a little more steadfast unto us.”

“Content,” quoth Faustus: “go to, let me see what pastime you can make.”

At which words the great devil in his likeness sate him down by Faustus, commanding the rest of his devils to appear in the form as if they were in hell. First entered Belial; in form of a bear, with curled black hair to the ground, his ears standing upright; within his ears were as red as blood, out of which issued flames of fire; his teeth were at least a foot long, and as white as snow, with a tail three ells long at the least, having two wings, one behind each arm; and thus one after another they appeared to Faustus in form as they were in hell. Lucifer himself sate in a manner of a man all hairy, but of brown colour like a squirrel, curled, and his tail curling upwards on his back as the squirrels use. I think he could crack nuts too like a squirrel. After him came Belzebub in curled hair of a horse-flesh colour, his head like the head of a bull, with a mighty pair of horns, and two long ears down to the ground, and two wings on his back, with two pricking things like horns; out of his wings issued flames of fire; his tail was like a cow’s. Then came Astaroth in the form of a worm, going upright on his tail, and had no feet, but a tail like a glow-worm; under his chops grew two short hands, and his back was coal black; his belly thick in the middle,’ yellow, like gold, having many bristles on his back like a hedgehog. After him came Cannagosta, being white and grey mixed, exceeding curled and hairy; he had a head like the head of an ass, and a tail like a cat, and claws like an ox, lacking nothing of an ell broad. Then came Anobis: this devil had a head like a dog, white and black hair; in Shape like a hog, saving that he had but two feet — one under his throat, the other at his tail; he was four ells long, with hanging ears like a blood­hound. After him came Dithican: he was a short thief, in form of a large bird, with shining feathers, and four feet; his neck was green, and body red, and his feet black. The last was called Brachus, with very short feet, like a hedgehog, yellow and green; the upper side of his body was brown, and the belly like blue flames of fire, the tail red like the tail of a monkey. The rest of the devils were in form of unreasonable beasts, as swine, harts, bears, wolves, apes, buffes, goats, antelopes, elephants, dragons, horses, asses, lions, cats, snakes, toads, and all manner of ugly odious serpents and worms; yet came in such sort that every one at his entry into the hall made their reverence unto Lucifer, and so took their places, standing in order as they came until they had filled the whole hall, wherewith suddenly fell a most horrible thunder-clap, that the house shook as if it would have fallen unto the ground; upon which every monster had a muck-fork in his hand, holding them towards Faustus as though they would have run a tilt at him; which, when Faustus perceived, he thought upon the words of Mephistophiles, when he told him how the souls in hell were tormented, being cast from devil to devil upon muck-forks, he thought verily to have been tormented there by them in like sort.

If you want to learn about the seven deadly sins, following is an older excerpt from the Wikipedia article “Seven deadly sins:”

Seven deadly sins

The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, completed in 1485, Hieronymus Bosch.
The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, completed in 1485, Hieronymus Bosch (or follower of), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The seven deadly sins, also known as the capital vices or cardinal sins, are a classification of vices used in early Christian teachings to educate and protect followers from basic human instincts. The church divided sin into two types: venial (forgiven without the need for the sacrament of Confession) and capital (meriting damnation). Beginning in the early 14th-century, the popularity of the 7 deadly sins with artists of the time engrained them in human culture around the world. The generally accepted deadly sins are superbia (hubris/pride), avaritia (avarice/greed), luxuria (extravagance, later lust), invidia (envy), gula (gluttony), ira (wrath), and acedia (sloth). Each deadly sin is opposed by one of the corresponding Seven Holy Virtues.

In the 5th century, A.D., Evagrius of Pontus (349-399), a Greek theologian, introduced the concept of eight offenses and passions that a human could fall victim to while on earth. They were the result of an abnormal obsession with self. The cure for each of these was an adoption of selfless attitudes towards the world.

In the later part of the 6th-century A.D., St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) in his work Moralia in Job, introduced the seven deadly sins. The goal of the seven deadly sins was to illustrate for laypersons of the church the need to be mindful of capital sin, or sin which requires penance in Hell. Capital sin is graver than venial sin, which can be forgiven through confession.

Pope Gregory’s list was different from the one used today and the ranking of the Sins’ seriousness was based on the degree to which they offended against love. From least serious to most, they were: lust, gluttony, sadness, avarice, anger, envy, and pride. Sadness would later be replaced by acedia (sloth), putting off or failing to do what God asks of you.

Throughout the Middle Ages and the Tridentine era, many important theological and confessional works were structured around the seven deadly sins. Together with the Ten Commandments, it was one of the most popular models for discussions of ethics and examinations of conscience.

In the official Catechism of the Catholic Church, consisting of 2,865 numbered sections and first published in 1992 by order of Pope John Paul II, the seven deadly sins are dealt with in one paragraph. The principal codification of moral transgression for Christians continues to be the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes, which are a positive statement of morality and part of the Sermon on the Mount. While no list of these seven deadly sins appears as such in the Bible itself, each of them is condemned at various points in the text. A list of seven sins that God hates is found in Proverbs 6:16-19:

There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers. (New International Version)

Later iconography of the Sins was derived from the descriptions of battles between the Virtues and Vices in the Psychomachia, a poem by 4th-century poet Prudentius.

Dante Alighieri

The Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), a significant figure in Christian religion in the 13th century A.D., wrote three epic poems (known collectively as the Divine Comedy) titled Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. In his book Inferno, Dante recounts the visions he has in a dream in which he enters and descends into hell. According to Dante, he is told by his guide that a soul’s location in Hell is based upon the sins that they commit when they are alive. In each ‘ring’ of hell, a specific punishment is doled out. As they descend lower and lower, the punishments (and consequently sins) become worse and worse until he reaches the bottom and discovers Satan.

The Inferno is not structured around the seven deadly sins, but Dante encounters various sins in the following order (canto number): Lust (5), Gluttony (6), Avarice (7), Wrath (7-8), Heresy (10), Violence (12-17), Blasphemy (14), Fraud (18-30), and Treachery (32-34).

The Purgatorio, on the other hand, closely follows the traditional scheme of the seven deadly sins. Since Pride is the root of all sins, the souls in Purgatory must be purged of that sin first, and as they ascend the mount, they experience progressively diminishing punishments to expiate the other six deadly sins. Once they are freed of sinful inclinations, the souls can regain the earthly paradise forfeited by Adam and Eve.

St. Thomas Aquinas

The eminent Italian theologian and philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), like most Scholastics, systematically examined the seven deadly sins in his works. Aquinas did not believe that the seriousness of the capital sins should be ranked.

St. John Cassian

In one of his most famous works, “Conferences”, French monk St. John Cassian (360-435), introduces the concept of an interconnected relationship between sins when he explains that excesses of any one vice will lead to other, more severe vices. For example, an excess of gluttony will lead to fornication, and an excess of fornication will lead to avarice and so on.

The Sins

Listed in order of increasing severity as per Pope Gregory the Great, 6th-century A.D., the seven deadly sins are as follows:

Lust (Latin, luxuria)

Lust (fornication, perversion) —
Depraved thought, unwholesome morality, desire for excitement, or need to be accepted or recognized by others. Obsessive, unlawful, or unnatural sexual desire, such as desiring sex with a person outside marriage or engaging in unnatural sexual appetites. Rape and sodomy are considered to be extreme lust and are said to be mortal sins. Dante’s criterion was “excessive love of others,” thereby detracting from the love due to God. Lust prevents clarity of thought and rational behavior. Lust is symbolized by the cow and the color blue.

Gluttony (Latin, gula)

Gluttony (waste, overindulgence) —
Thoughtless waste of everything, overindulgence, misplaced sensuality, uncleanliness, and maliciously depriving others. Marked by refusal to share and unreasonable consumption of more than is necessary, especially food or water. Destruction, especially for sport. Substance abuse or binge drinking. Dante explains it as “excessive love of pleasure”. Associated with pigs and the color orange.

Avarice (Latin, avaritia)

Greed (treachery, covetousness) —
A strong desire to gain, especially in money or power. Disloyalty, deliberate betrayal, or treason, especially for personal gain or when compensated. Scavenging and hoarding of materials or objects. Theft and robbery by violence. Simony is the evolution of avarice because it fills you with the urge to make money by selling things within the confines of the church. This sin is abhorred by the Catholic Church and is seen as a sin of malice; Dante included this sin in the first poem of the Divine Comedy (the Inferno). Simony can be viewed as betrayal. Thomas Aquinas on greed: “it is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, in as much as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things.” Greed is represented by the frog and the color yellow.

Sloth (Latin, acedia)

Sloth (apathy, indifference) —
Apathy, idleness, and wastefulness of time. Laziness is particularly condemned because others must work harder to make up for it. Cowardice or irresponsibility. Abandonment, especially of God. Sloth is a state of equilibrium: one does not produce much, one does not consume much. Dante wrote that sloth is the “failure to love God with all one’s heart, all one’s mind and all one’s soul”. Associated with goats and the color light blue.

Wrath (Latin, ira)

Wrath (anger, hatred) —
Inappropriate (unrighteous) feelings of hatred and anger. Denial of the truth to others or self. Impatience or revenge outside of justice. Wishing to do evil or harm to others. Self-righteousness. Wrath is the root of murder and assault. Dante described wrath as “love of justice perverted to revenge and spite”. Wrath is symbolized by the bear and the color red.

Envy (Latin, invidia)

Envy (jealousy, malice) —
Grieving spite and resentment of material objects, accomplishments, or character traits of others, or wishing others to fail or come to harm. Envy is the root of theft and self-loathing. Dante defined this as “love of one’s own good perverted to a desire to deprive other men of theirs”. Associated with the dog and the color green.

Pride (Latin, superbia)

Pride (vanity, narcissism) —
A desire to be more important or attractive to others, failing to give credit due to others, or excessive love of self (especially holding self out of proper position toward God). Dante’s definition was “love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one’s neighbor”. In Jacob Bidermann’s medieval miracle play, Cenodoxus, superbia is the deadliest of all the sins and leads directly to the damnation of the famed Doctor of Paris, Cenodoxus. Pride was what sparked the fall of Lucifer from Heaven. Vanity and narcissism are good examples of these sins and they often lead to the destruction of the sinner, for instance by the wanton squandering of money and time on themselves without caring about others. Pride can be seen as the misplacment of morals. Associated with the horse, the lion, the peacock, and the color violet


Early church fathers around AD 1000 began to view the capital sins as not seven equal sins, but rather each sin having its own weight based on its grievousness. This began with an interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17, which states, “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.”

Their interpretation of this chapter leads to the notion that some sins (those resulting in death or harm to others) are more grievous than others (those that result in death or harm to self).

Several of these sins interlink and various attempts at causal hierarchy have been made. For example, pride (love of self out of proportion) is implied in gluttony (the over-consumption or waste of food), as well as sloth, envy and most of the others. Each sin is a particular way of failing to love God with all one’s resources and to love fellows as much as self. The Scholastic theologians developed schema of attribute and substance of will to explain these sins.

In the original classification, Pride was considered to be the ‘deadliest’ of all sins, and was the father of all sins. This relates directly to Christian philosophy and the story of Lucifer as interpreted from the Bible. Some Christians believe that Lucifer, the highest angel in heaven, surrendered to the sin of pride and demanded that the other angels worship him. This being a violation of God’s will, Lucifer and his followers were cast from heaven.

More recently, Greed has been treated as the keystone of the seven deadly sins. The other deadly sins are tributaries of wanton greed:

  • Lust: Greed for Sex, Attention
  • Gluttony: Greed for Self-Indulgence
  • Envy: Greed for Possessions, Personal Gain
  • Sloth: Greed for Avoidance
  • Pride: Greed for Greatness
  • Wrath: Greed for Revenge

Alternatively, one could consider Lust to be the central sin:

  • Lust: lust for attention and sex
  • Gluttony: lust for self indulgence
  • Sloth: lust for avoidance
  • Envy: lust for possessions and personal gain
  • Wrath: lust for vengeance
  • Greed: lust for money and power
  • Pride: lust for greatness and supremacy

Another sin that branches out into the father of sins can be the sin of sloth for instance

  • Lust means they are too lazy to love
  • Gluttony means they are too lazy to consider others
  • Sloth means they are too lazy to do anything
  • Envy too lazy to think about anything but money and personal gain
  • Wrath too lazy to consider the consequences of their vengeful actions
  • Greed too lazy to think about anything other than money and power
  • Pride too lazy to understand that there is more to life than money and power

Traditionalists counter that any attempt to identify one sin as the root of all others is reductionistic – reducing both greed and lust so that they are synonymous with “desire,” or misunderstanding the true nature of sloth. The traditional argument is that Pride represents an initial break from proper submission to God, but that the other deadly sins still have their own unique character.

Catholic Virtues

The Catholic church recognises the seven virtues as opposites to the seven sins.

Seven Vices, Seven Virtues. Check off your best (it’s purely visual, no data are collected, no analysis is done, there are no connections, but (from the Bosch painting above) “cave cave dominus videt” (“beware, beware, the Lord sees”))



Lust (undesired love)Chastity (purity)
Gluttony (overindulgence)Moderation (self-restraint)
Greed (avarice)Generosity (vigilance)
Sloth (laziness)Zeal (integrity)
Wrath (anger)Meekness (composure)
Envy (jealousy)Charity (giving)
Pride (vanity)Humility (humbleness)

The Punishments

  • Lust: Smothered in brimstone and fire
  • Gluttony: Force-fed rats, toads and snakes
  • Greed: Boiled in the finest oil
  • Sloth: Thrown into a snake pit
  • Wrath: Dismembered alive
  • Envy: Submerged in freezing water
  • Pride: Broken on the wheel

Similar punishments are imagined in Dante’s Inferno

Associations with demons

In 1589, Peter Binsfeld paired each of the deadly sins with a demon, who tempted people by means of the associated sin. According to Binsfeld’s classification of demons, the pairings are as follows:

  • Lucifer: Pride
  • Mammon: Greed
  • Asmodeus: Lust
  • Leviathan: Envy
  • Beelzebub: Gluttony (lord of the flies)
  • Satan: Wrath
  • Belphegor: Sloth

Further reading

  • Summa Theologiae, by Saint Thomas Aquinas
  • Inferno, by Dante Alighieri
  • Purgatorio, by Dante Alighieri
  • The Concept of Sin, by Josef Pieper
  • The Traveller’s Guide to Hell, by Michael Pauls& Dana Facaros
  • Sacred Origins of Profound Things, by Charles Panati
  • Faerie Queene, by Sir Edmund Spenser
  • Oxford Univ. Press series on Seven Deadly Sins (seven vols.), 2006.

External links

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article “Seven deadly sins“.

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