From Demons, Vampires, Fallen Angels, and other subversive spirits
The Christian West
The seven deadly sins were grouped together by Saint Gregory the Great in the sixth century. The seven later appear importantly in the Summa Theologica of the thirteenth century, where they are defined and described by Saint Thomas Aquinas as “appetites.” The Sins are agents of serious moral offences, transgressions of the divine law that lead to eternal damnation. They are one of the most virulent and chronic of the possession species that roost within the psyche. They are seen as tendencies, temptations, passions – all interconnected strands of the fabric of the human condition, the stuff of exaggerated cravings that cause mortal suffering.
Why seven? It is a powerful number. There are seven days of the week, seven seas, and seven heavens; and seven is a popular number in ancient magical incantations. The most extreme use of seven may occur in the following Talmudic prescription for a fever:
Take seven prickles from seven palm trees, seven chips from seven beams, seven nails from seven bridges, seven ashes from seven ovens, seven scoops of earth from seven door sockets, seven pieces of pitch from seven ships, seven handfuls of cumin, and seven hairs from the beard of an old dog, and then tie them to the neckhole of a shirt with a white, twisted thread.
Seven of the Babylonian Evil Spirits railed against in incantations are specifically identified in this fragment:
Of these seven, the first is the south wind.
The second is a dragon with mouth agape that none can withstand.
The third is a grim leopard that carries off the young.
The fourth is a terrible serpent.
The fifth is a furious beast, after which no restraint.
The sixth is a rampant [missing] against god and king.
The seventh is an evil windstorm.
These seven evil spirits are “workers of woe,” “bear gloom from city to city,” cause “darkness over the brightest day,” and “wreak destruction,” and can be said to define the traits of the sins, that are also usually seen riding animals or as animals that represent their specialties. In their medieval heyday, the Sins were impersonated by actors in morality plays, standing against the Seven Virtues that neatly opposed them to remind audiences to be ever-vigilant.
The Seven Deadly Sins were seen as agents of actions that always led to worse and worse sins. From Avarice, for a familiar example, springs fraud, treachery, deceit, violence, perjury, and hardness of heart. Each Sin has its own escalating consequences. They also have an ordered sequence that is generally agreed upon. Five of the Sins are spiritual in nature, and two, Lust and Gluttony, carnal. All of the Seven Deadly Sins are notable in their selfishness. They each isolate person from person and act within to inflame personal ambitions, needs, and gratifications to the neglect of family, community, or spiritual development. Medieval scholars placed seven fallen angels as promoters of the seven specific temptations. The efforts of these fallen angels was tireless because their goal was to hinder humankind from goodness and keep it from the presence of the Divine, as they themselves had been when they fell from Heaven. Because the Sins are each so vividly depicted, and recognizable, these hypostatized passions that reside in the psyche follow in separate glory:
One: Pride † Lucifer
Pride is considered the root of all evil. It is for Pride that Lucifer (Satan, Iblis) fell from the celestial to the subterranean realm. The selfish sin is to be “vainglorious” and think oneself better than others. Arrogance blocks the Divine as well as other persons from the heart. Pride is invariably seen as a lion. Its opposing virtue is Humility.
Two: Avarice † Mammon
“By Mammon is meant the devil who is the lord of money,” wrote Thomas Aquinas. Avarice is a worldly sin, creating misers, thieves, and even murderers. The wolf is the animal usually depicted in medieval bestiaries, coming up from hell carrying Mammon to inflame the human heart with Greed.
Like the “hungry ghosts” of the Buddhist hell, the greedy always crave more no matter how much they have. Wretched and envious, Avarice escalates to a state of infinite dissatisfaction, and the sin’s obsession with worldly goods promotes neglect of spiritual wealth. The opposing virtue is Sufficiency.
Three: Lust † Asmodeus
Lust is carried up from hell by the goat, an animal long considered lascivious, or the ass, who played the same role in ancient Rome. This “sin of the flesh” is said to lead to “uncleanliness” and away from its opposing virtue, Chastity.
Four: Envy † Leviathan
That the “twisting serpent” from the primordial deep, Leviathan, is Envy incarnate seems appropriate. Dante saw the spirit of evil as a huge serpent, who so entangled himself with his victim that they became utterly intertwined and no longer distinguishable, one from the other.
Envy is a “sin of the Devil,” for “Thou shalt not covet,” is one of the Ten Commandments. The Sin usually is represented by a dog, and often depicted as a heart being eaten away, as in “Eat your heart out.” Overconcern with the possessions of others is seen escalating to hinder sympathetic human relationships. When one is consumed by Envy, the opposing virtue, Charity, is completely erased.
Five: Gluttony † Beelzebub
Beelzebub, seen as Gluttony, started out as a Canaanite deity whose name in Hebrew (Baal Zebub) meant Lord of the Flies, and who later came to be equated with Satan. In the Gospels, Beelzebub is called Prince of the Demons. As a Sin, he rules over all excessive eating and drinking.
The endless maw of the glutton is never satiated, and he or she is never satisfied. The glutton lives to eat, a state that soon escalates to forgetting gratitude. The pursuit goes on and leads to a specific damnation: the glutton in hell will dine on toads and be forced to drink putrid water. The opposing virtue is Sobriety.
Six: Anger † Satan
Anger is another Sin of the Devil and one of the immense important and fiery power. It is usually embodied by a sharp-toothed animal such as a leopard with bared fangs, or a wild boar, raging, attacking, ready to commit bloodshed. The consequence of this inflaming indwelling passion is to feel vengeance in one’s heart. This sin escalates to rage, obliterating all but negativity within, and results in murder and war. Often seen in icons, Anger is a creature stabbing himself in the heart with a knife. The opposing virtue is Patience.
Seven: Sloth † Belphegor
Belphegor is depicted as Sloth incarnate. This Sin is considered one of the flesh. Usually it is represented by scenes of falling asleep on the job, especially if the job is done by a monk. When in a state of Sloth, negligence and apathy soon set in. The donkey, a slow-moving, lazy creature, is Sloth’s representative animal.
Thomas Aquinas wrote that all sins that are due to ignorance are due to Sloth. One needs to be awake and alert to even begin to set out on and maintain a spiritual practice, thus the opposing virtue is Diligence.
Disarming and dispelling techniques
The seven penitential psalms were sometimes illustrated by the Sins in medieval manuscripts to remind the reader which psalm was effective against which Sin, and the recitation of these psalms was considered a way of obtaining forgiveness. The opposing virtue to each Sin is mentioned separately as an antidote, and the practice of Patience, Humility, and Diligence were intended to subdue Anger, Pride, and Sloth