Hieronymus Bosch- The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things – Pride (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Most religions have a list of proscribed behavior, or sins, that constitute unacceptable behavior for their adherents. The specific sins, or their numbers, vary from faith to faith, but generally, the number of deadly or ‘unforgiveable’ sins is seven in Christian religions, regardless of denomination. This brings up an interesting question for those who like to know these things; why are there only seven deadly sins in Christianity?
Before looking at the specific taboos, the reasoning behind the choice of seven is an interesting puzzle to ponder. It is likely that ancient astronomers in the pre-Christian age interpreted the seven visible celestial bodies (at the time) as deities who influenced and controlled their lives. This belief in the mystical influence of the bodies became a part of the major religions that developed and has become interwoven in their belief systems, codes, and rites, in European, Asian and Mayan cultures. Thus, in many of these cultures, the number seven is considered lucky as well (the exception being some East Asian cultures where the number thirteen is, unlike in the West, considered good fortune).
So, that explains perhaps why there are seven really bad sins, but why the specific infractions? Well, that becomes interesting if one does some research. The Seven Deadly Sins, also known as Cardinal Sins, are considered the sins from which all other sins flow, and which have the potential to damn one’s mortal soul. Currently, they are recognized as wrath or anger, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony.
These have not always been considered the worst of sins, however, with the Book of Proverbs listing the ‘six things the Lord hateth, and the seventh His soul detesteth’ as:
1. A proud look (similar to pride)
2. A lying tongue
3. Hands that shed innocent blood (close to wrath, but not an exact match)
4. A heart that devises wicked plots
5. Feet that are swift to run into mischief
6. A deceitful witness that uttereth lies (very similar to number 2, actually)
7. Him that soweth discord among brethren
The ancient Greeks in the 4th century had eight evil thoughts that were to be avoided:
1. Gastrimargia (gluttony)
2. Porneia (prostitution, fornication)
3. Philargyria (avarice)
4. Hyperephania (hubris or self pride)
5. Lype (sadness at the good fortune of another, or envy)
6. Orge (wrath)
7. Kenodoxia (boasting)
8. Acedia (dejection or sadness)
Translations from Greek to Latin and then incorporation into Catholic theology by Pope Gregory I in AD 590 has resulted in the seven deadly sins of today, with some minor changes of definitions and combining of behaviors, evolving over time based, one can assume, upon the political orientation of the incumbent religious leaders.
The jury’s still out on what the penalties actually are for breaking the rules on these. Some fundamentalist Christians believe that those who commit the deadly or ‘Cardinal’ sins are condemning their souls, while the Catholic practice of confession seems to hold open a possible door to redemption.
What does seem clear is that the concept did not seem to originate with religion as we know it today, but from the superstitions of ancient people seeking an explanation for that which seemed inexplicable. The seven we have today, if looked at closely, do seem to cover most of the really bad or dysfunctional behavior that disrupts society. So, maybe seven is a lucky number after all.