Pride. Greed. Gluttony. Lust. Sloth. Envy And, of course...the Wrath of Khan. These are the Seven Deadly Sins, a list of seven forbidden acts from Christianity that, if committed, equal a one-way ticket to the Bad Place. But they’re also a widely used trope in fiction, a way for some people to contextualise, and compartmentalise, things considered to be deadly wrong. But are they really so bad, and where do they even come from?
In this article, we look at the history of the Seven Deadly Sins and how they’re used in modern-day storytelling. Turns out, they didn’t actually start out so deadly.
Around the third and fourth centuries, there was this trend where monks would head out into the desert to practice their faith. One monk, by the name of Evagrius Ponticus, wrote up a list of eight evil thoughts he and his fellow monks should try to overcome. They were: gluttony, prostitution/fornication, avarice, acedia — the state of listlessness and torpor — pride, wrath, boasting... and sadness? If sadness was a sin, I think we’d all be screwed.
You’ll note how Ponticus says “evil thoughts,” not deeds, because at the time it wasn’t about committing sins, but the attitudes that could lead to them. And they weren’t seen as the worst things in the world, either. Just nasty thoughts that monks should seek to overcome.
The list made rounds among the religious order and started to gain traction. A couple hundred years later, Pope Gregory — a monk himself with a history of strict rule-keeping — brought the list of feared thoughts to the masses, made a few “these are totally forbidden now” changes, and eventually it became the Seven Deadly Sins we know and fear today. However, it took about a millennium to get the final version, as sadness was only replaced by sloth in the 17th century. I guess eventually the Pope realised sadness is basically life itself.
These vices became an important part of everyday life — and storytelling. Not only did priests have to teach them every year, but they were also in tons of medieval art, morality plays, and classic works, like Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and Marlowe’s Tragedy of Dr. Faustus. In works like Richard Tarlton’s Seven Deadly Sins, an Elizabethan-era play which has sadly been lost to time, the sins were portrayed as distinct characters, each one a specific vice the hero needed to overcome. Centuries later, we’re still doing that — I mean, there’s an anime and manga literally called Seven Deadly Sins!
That are a couple of ways the Seven Deadly Sins are represented in modern fiction. For example, they can be a plot device. Like how the killer in Se7en targets people based on what deadly sin they committed, or that episode of Charmed where the Halliwell sisters are possessed by a demon that curses each of them with one of the seven sins.
You can also look at the actions of the Alliance in Firefly and Serenity, including when the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) asks his victims to name their “sins.” It can even guide a whole series. According to showrunner Ryan Murphy, each season of American Horror Story is centered around each of the Nine Circles of Hell… which come from Dante’s Divine Comedy, where each tier of the underworld is connected to the deadly sins.
For the most part, the Seven Deadly Sins are represented by the characters themselves. Just like morality plays from centuries before, some shows and films tend to create caricatures modelled after each of the sins. 1927’s Metropolis features cameos from each of the sins, along with the original Bedazzled (something that didn’t come into play in the Brendan Fraser remake). In Shazam, they’re full-on monsters.
But in other cases, the characters represent the sins metaphorically. Jim Henson modelled the Skeksis in The Dark Crystal around the sins. There were 10, so a couple of them were repeated. But you can see those character tropes even more in the prequel show.
And yes, even Gilligan’s Island got in on the sinning! Years after the show ended, creator Sherwood Schwartz revealed that each of the seven characters on the island represented a different sin. The idea was that having all those distinct vices in one place would naturally equal conflict. And he was right, even if most of it took the form of: “Should we try and make another coconut radio?”
That’s not even getting into all the fan theories about characters and shows using the sins trope. One theory suggests the characters in Spongebob Squarepants represent the sins. Another tracks the trials of Scar from The Lion King as his own journey through each of the sins.
Even Game of Thrones got some fans believing the Houses of Westeros represent each of the sins. Of course, there are nine, so some of them would have to share. I’m sure that’s something Westerosi nobles would have no problem with.
It seems like you can’t throw a stick without hitting a movie, TV show, or comic book that’s at least informed by the idea of the Seven Deadly Sins. Even Batman has faced them. But why do creators continue to use them — even those who don’t actually believe they’re all-that deadly?
Well, much like how some believe the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles represent the Four Humours, the Seven Deadly Sins are clear-cut character tropes that are easy to understand and just as easy to apply. But in this case, these tropes aren’t bravery, selflessness, or other typical hero characteristics, they represent ingrained vices and weaknesses — the things heroes fear doing, or becoming. And since they’re all so different, it’s easy to use them to create conflicts between characters and ideals.
Plus, there’s sometimes the added challenge of finding ways to humanise these so-called evils, and give them context. Helping the audience understand, or maybe even appreciate, the thoughts and deeds that are supposedly forbidden to us.
Ponticus, the desert monk, may have seen these vices as something to avoid... but in the world of fiction, they make for one hell of a good story.