What Are the Seven Deadly Sins?

By: Dave Roos  | 
cast of Gilligan's Island
The creator of "Gilligan's Island" once said that each of the show’s castaway characters represented one of the seven deadly sins. From L-R, we have Sloth (Gilligan), Anger (Skipper) and Pride (the Professor). CBS/Getty Images

The concept of the "seven deadly sins" is so embedded in Western culture that it pops up in the unlikeliest of places. Like the 1995 movie "Seven" starring Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman and Gwyneth Paltrow. The Hannibal Lecter series. Even the TV show "Gilligan's Island" (see Now That's Wild).

But where did the seven deadly sins come from, and why has this shortlist of mankind's chief vices endured for centuries? We reached out to David A. Salomon, author of "The Seven Deadly Sins: How Sin Influenced the West from the Middle Ages to the Modern Era," to learn why medieval artists became obsessed with portrayals of the seven deadly sins and what "sin" even means in a secular world.


Which Sins Made the List?

Before we dive into the history of the seven deadly sins — also known as the "seven cardinal sins" or "seven capital sins" in Roman Catholicism — here's the list:

  • pride
  • greed
  • lust
  • anger
  • envy
  • gluttony
  • sloth

The sins have gone by different names over the centuries — pride used to be called "vainglory" and some early commentators included "sadness" or "melancholy" instead of sloth.


But if you go looking for the seven deadly sins in the Bible, you won't find a neat and tidy list like the one above. The concept of sin or "transgression" is introduced in the Old Testament account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, when they disobey God and eat the forbidden fruit.

That "original sin" hangs over all humanity, but in the Bible, God never hands down a list of seven sins as he does with the Ten Commandments. The closest you might find is a list in Proverbs 6:16-19 of "seven things that the Lord hates:" 1) haughty eyes, 2) a lying tongue, 3) hands that shed innocent blood, 4) a heart that plots evil, 5) feet that are quick to rush to do wrong, 6) a false witness and 7) a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.

"The whole concept of the seven deadly sins was something introduced by early [Christian] Church fathers and writers," says Salomon, starting with a monk and mystic from the fourth century.


The 'Eight Evil Thoughts'

Evagrius Ponticus, born in 345 C.E., gets credit as the first person to codify the seven deadly sins or as he called them, the "eight evil thoughts," says Salomon.

Ponticus was a Christian theologian and ascetic monk who spent the last years of his life living in the Egyptian desert and surviving on a meager diet of wild herbs and spoonsful of barley. Ponticus spent his days in prayer, fasting and meditation, eschewing all unholy thoughts.


In a work called "Antirrheticus," Ponticus detailed the eight evil thoughts that lead to sin, namely gluttony, lust, avarice (greed), anger, sloth, sadness (depression), vainglory and pride. Notice that Ponticus substituted sadness for envy and included both vainglory and pride. Vainglory is akin to "excessive boasting," while pride, in a religious sense, is "hubris" or thinking too highly of yourself and your abilities.

But Salomon says that Ponticus didn't write up his list of sins as a warning for everyday Christians. "His main concern was with the behavior of monks at the monastery. These were not laid out for the general public."

For the seven deadly sins to really go mainstream, they needed the seal of approval of a pope.


The Seven 'Principal Vices'

seven deadly sins graphic
The list of seven deadly sins was created in the fourth century by a monk named Evagrius Ponticus. DeymosHR/Shutterstock

St. Gregory the Great lived two centuries after Ponticus and was also a monk and a respected theologian. Gregory eventually became Pope Gregory I, but before his papacy he wrote his masterwork: a line-by-line theological analysis of the biblical Book of Job called the "Moralia in Job."

In this hugely influential text, Gregory elaborated on Ponticus' list with his own seven "principal vices" and the myriad sinful behaviors and attitudes associated with them (Gregory listed the deadly sin pride separately as the "root" of all sin from which the seven vices all emerge):


  • Vainglory ("disobedience, boasting, hypocrisy, contentions, obstinacies, discords and the presumptions of novelties")
  • Envy ("hatred, whispering, detraction, exultation at the misfortunes of a neighbor and affliction at his prosperity")
  • Anger ("strifes, swelling of mind, insults, clamor, indignation, blasphemies")
  • Melancholy ("malice, rancour, cowardice, despair, slothfulness in fulfilling the commands, and a wandering of the mind on unlawful objects")
  • Avarice ("treachery, fraud, deceit, perjury, restlessness, violence, and hardnesses of heart against compassion")
  • Gluttony ("foolish mirth, scurrility, uncleanness, babbling, dullness of sense in understanding")
  • Lust ("blindness of mind, inconsiderateness, inconstancy, precipitation, self-love, hatred of God, affection for this present world, but dread or despair of that which is to come")

Gregory's seven vices were picked up by prominent medieval Christian writers like Thomas Aquinas. By the 13th century, the "Tree of Vices" was a popular piece of religious iconography, portraying pride as the root of the sinful tree, and the seven principal vices as the branches bearing the "fruit" of sin.


Sin, Confession and the Black Death

“Tree of Vices”
The “Tree of Vices” was a popular piece of religious iconography in the Middle Ages.

It was common to see the "Tree of Vices" painted on church walls throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. That's because, after the Fourth Lateran Council (1214), all Christians were required to confess their sins at least once a year to their local priests. To faithfully confess your sins and receive absolution, you had to know what they were!

Serious sins like Gregory the Great's seven vices were considered "mortal" or "deadly" sins because, if the sinner failed to confess them and perform the necessary penance, they would result in spiritual death. And spiritual death meant that when your soul departed this Earth, it would spend eternity in hell.


"During the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, because of the constant resurgence of the Black Death (bubonic plague), people had an unusual obsession with what happens after you die," says Salomon. "How do I live my life and what does it mean to sin? They didn't want to be stuck in an unsavory location."

Religious sermons on the seven deadly sins were so common in the 14th century that they even made it into Geoffrey Chaucer's literary classic "The Canterbury Tales" in the form of "The Parson's Tale."


The 'Monstrous' Sins of Renaissance Art

"The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things", painting by Hieronymus Bosch
Hieronymus Bosch painted "The Table of the Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things" between 1505 and 1510.
Wikipedia/Public Domain

As early as the fourth century, the Christian poet Prudentius described the cardinal vices as vicious monsters doing battle with virtues like faith, charity and chastity for the fate of men's souls. (Catholicism teaches that the seven deadly sins can be overcome by practicing the seven virtues, which are humility, gratitude, charity, temperance, chastity, patience and diligence.)

In the Renaissance, there was an explosion of "emblem books," pamphlet-sized publications illustrated with eye-catching engravings of sin in all of its monstrous and animal forms.


"The emblematic artist was encouraged to create the most unusual image possible in order to make the strongest impact on the reader's memory," wrote the Getty Museum. "The interaction of bizarre allegorical imagery with moralizing mottoes and poetry became the source of some of the most creative artistic uses of visual symbolism in early modern Europe."

Peter Brueghel, the 16th-century Dutch artist, took the monstrous iconography of emblem books to the next level in his nightmare-inducing series of seven engravings on the deadly sins.

Hieronymus Bosch's "Table of the Seven Deadly Sins" is tame in comparison, but the stunning work — a 360-degree tabletop featuring seven individual paintings — packs a moralistic punch with everyday scenes of sinful behavior. In the middle of the table is an image of Jesus Christ and the words (in Latin) "Beware! Beware! God is watching."


The Seven Deadly Contemporary Sins

Religious belief and the authority of the church are waning in the Western world. So, what does that mean for a traditionally religious concept like the seven deadly sins?

"I do think that the concept of sin is still significant today and still relevant," says Salomon. "It's just that we've changed from thinking about strictly as a religious/theological idea to being something more secularized. It's becoming more about how we interact with each other and the world around us than it is solely about offending God."


Even the Vatican recognized the need to update its list of mortal sins. In 2008, the Roman Catholic Church leadership warned against seven contemporary sins aimed at individuals, nations and corporations:

  • Genetic modification
  • Carrying out experiments on humans
  • Polluting the environment
  • Causing social injustice
  • Causing poverty
  • Becoming obscenely wealthy
  • Taking drugs