from guest editor
Though everyone seems to be intimately familiar with the seven deadly sins, no one, not even religion historians, knows their exact origin. In the fourth century, religious people counted eight: Pride, Greed, Wrath, Lust, Gluttony, Sloth, Vainglory and Dejection. Acedia, the Latin word for sloth, meant not just regular laziness but spiritual torpor and refusal of joy - a sort of cosmic indifference. Over time, Dejection combined with Sloth, Vainglory combined with Pride, and Envy was added, so that by the thirteenth century, St. Thomas Aquinas and others considered the number of sins to be seven, and the types to be those we know now.
The deadly or "capital" sins are not to be confused with the mortal sins, like lack of faith or heresy. The deadly sins are those that lead to other sins: a person who envies may commit murder; a person who doesn't care about anything may commit suicide. And of course the sins often bleed into one another: I have seen Covetousness listed as a synonym for both Avarice and Envy, for example. Gluttony may seem unlikely to lead to other sins until one learns that it encompasses drunkenness and drug addiction. And to many ways of thinking, Pride is the overarching cause of all the other sins.
The seven deadly sins are offset by the seven virtues. One source gives these as faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance; another source includes humility, liberality, love, meekness, and chastity; and another includes forgiveness and generosity.
C.S. Lewis's children's series The Chronicles of Narnia number seven, and Professor Don W. King, of Montreat College, argues that each book corresponds to a deadly sin. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, for instance, corresponds to Gluttony: an important plot point is Edmund's near-addiction to Turkish Delight. King has posted his article on the subject.
The characters on Gilligan's Island also number seven, and rumor has it that they too each personify a deadly sin. Visit here for more information, and for a nice photographic illustration of the concept.
Around 1960, the London Sunday Times published a series on the topic of the seven deadly sins, with one writer per sin (Angus Wilson on Envy, Edith Sitwell on Pride, Cyril Connolly on Covetousness, Patrick Leigh Fermor on Gluttony, Evelyn Waugh on Sloth, Christopher Sykes on Lust, and W.H. Auden on Anger.) In the front matter of the book edition of these essays (The Seven Deadly Sins, William Morrow, 1962), Ian Fleming suggests seven "deadlier" sins: Avarice, Cruelty, Snobbery, Hypocrisy, Self-Righteousness, Moral Cowardice and Malice, and claims that the deadliest sin of all is Being a Bore. Raymond Mortimer, also in the front matter, suggests a few other "forms of wickedness": racial prejudice, uncharitableness, mischief-making, and cruelty to animals.
In 1993, the New York Times Book Review published a similar series, with Thomas Pynchon, Mary Gordon, John Updike, William Trevor, Gore Vidal, Richard Howard, A.S. Byatt, and Joyce Carol Oates writing on the seven deadly sins plus Despair. These essays have been reprinted in Deadly Sins (William Morrow, 1994). And just recently, sex columnist Dan Savage published a book on his attempt to deliberately commit each of the sins: Skipping Towards Gomorrah (New York: Dutton, 2002).
Alexander Humez, Nicholas Humez, and Joseph Maguire, in their book Zero to Lazy Eight (Simon and Schuster, 1993, p. 112), suggest that Pride, Anger, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Avarice, and Sloth masquerade in the 20th century as Self-Esteem, Assertiveness, Libido, Appreciation, Gusto, Enterprise, and Stress Management. They note that Islam also acknowledges seven deadly sins: deserting a pilgrimage, disobeying one's parents, murder, idolatry, usury, falsely accusing a woman of adultery, and wasting the estate of orphans.
Steve Cramer tells me that according to a comic book, Captain Marvel has powers to fight the "Seven Deadly Enemies of Man: Pride, Envy, Greed, Hatred, Selfishness, Laziness and Injustice." Another enemy of evil, the title character in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, complains that her Watcher considers the eighth deadly sin to be tardiness.
Terri Ford, author of Why the Ships Are She (Four Ways Books, 2001), which contains a series of poems called "The Deadlies and their Aftermath," tells me that she has long had a pet project to combine days of the week underpants with the seven deadly sins. She also told a friend of hers that she was such an expert at Sloth that she could give a seminar on it; the friend said that she was such an expert that she couldn't. (And I am too slothful at the moment to figure out a grammatical way to show the antecedents of those shes, and will just hope my italics do the trick.)
Alan Sondheim's poem "Interrogation" in Disorders of the Real (Barrytown, New York: Station Hill Press, 1988) suggests sloth's true deadliness:
Why did you go on your wild crime spree?
. . . lethargy . . .
Who's responsible for the three bodies which have been dropped in the creek?
. . . everyone was exhausted. there was nothing to live for anymore . . .
Over the course of preparing for this special Snakeskin issue, in discussions with friends and writers on the subject, I became particularly interested in sins beyond the deadlies. Anne Armentrout asked, "If one is obsessive about dieting, is that a kind of gluttony in reverse or merely a variant of vanity?" and noted that the seven virtues do not include tolerance, saying that if she were to make her own list of the great American virtues, tolerance would be at the top. I suggested that ignorance ought to be considered a deadly sin, and then, under cross-questioning, amended that to willful ignorance. Marcus Bales put it even better, describing this sin as "the determination to refrain from processing information that promises to result in a conclusion contrary to one's existing opinions or beliefs."
One writer, who prefers to remain nameless, suggested "the seven semi-distinguished mediocrities": TV viewing, talking about TV, Elvis-worship, "scoring" (in the sexual sense), "I'm going to Disneyland," shopping, and Bush-thought. To this, Armentrout responded: "I really do think there are lukewarm vices and virtues - for example, apathy and boredom on the one hand; niceness and cheerfulness, on the other - and that in modern culture we celebrate the avoidance or cultivation of these more than the old, strong statements of good and bad."
Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Hieronymus Bosch have famously made art on the subject of the seven deadly sins. Many other artists have also done so, including Pierre Roche, Janice Tchalenko, and the writer William S. Burroughs.
For a good overview of the sins, including literary references, illustrations, t-shirt designs, recipes, a "lust test," and the corresponding punishments in Hell, visit http://deadlysins.com/sins/index.htm.
If you've any comments on sin, Jessy Randall would be pleased to hear from you.