Involuted Mysteries: Unwrapping Meanings in Literature, Theory, and Art before 1800. The Symbolism of Numbers, and Their Associated Topoi, Part XII

Seven, cont’d…

Seven Deadly Sins…As the Branches of the Tree of Knowledge…

As the Heads of the Dragon of the Apocalypse…

Spenser’s Pride Parade…

The representation of the Seven Deadly Sins as the Tree of Knowledge rooted in Pride is – since Pride caused the Fall – probably the commonest commonplace of all. As Chaucer’s Parson explains,

Of the roote of thise sevene synnes, thanne, is Pride the general roote of alle harmes. For of this roote spryngen certein braunches, as Ire, Envye, Accidie or Slewthe, Avarice or Coveitise (to commune understondynge), Glotonye, and Lecherye. And everich of thise chief synnes hath his braunches and his twigges, as shal be declared in hire chapitres folwynge.

Sometimes Pride is depicted as the crowning bough, rather than the root of the Tree, as we see in a frontispiece woodcut decorating a late-fifteenth-century edition of Boccaccio’s De Claribus Mulieribus (On Illustrious Women), which shows the Seven Sins perched within the branches of the Tree of Knowledge. Pride, at the top, holds a mirror; Envy gnaws upon a heart; Avarice counts her coins in a box; Wrath brandishes a sword; Lechery kisses a woman; Gluttony is drinking; and Sloth is sound asleep.

Instead of Superbia, sometimes the Evil Tree has Avaritia as its root, in keeping with the verse (1 Tim. 6:10) Radix omnium malorum est cupiditas. (This was the favourite preaching text of Chaucer’s Pardoner, and the means by which he convinced his congregants to empty their pockets to buy his pardons, and so satisfy his own avarice.)

In some cases, too, the Deadly Sins are depicted as the Tree’s seven roots, and these roots are at the same time the seven heads of the Dragon of the Apocalypse.

This was another ubiquitous commonplace: we find it in Gregory the Great, Richard and Hugh of St. Victor, Honorius of Autun, Albertus Magnus, Bonaventure, and so on. We find it, once again, in the Somme le roi. Frere Lorens’ third tract on the Seven Deadly Sins begins with a description of John’s “beast that arose out of the sea”; accompanying the manuscript illuminations of this seven-headed beast, each head labeled a Deadly Sin, is the text, “Ceste beste senefie le deable.” The Beast is Satan, who is also the Leviathan, whose heads of sin the Christian knight on his way to salvation must cut off. As the rebel angel Lucifer, Satan is the archetypal embodiment of Pride, from whose body the heads of sin emerge, just as the boughs of sin ramify from the trunk and root of Pride at the base of the Evil Tree.


No less popular than their depiction as the heads of the Satanic Dragon or the branches of the Tree of Death, was the Pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins, a favourite theme of the writers of the medieval morality plays. Our example comes, however, from Spenser’s Faerie Queene I, iv, since it will serve at the same time to illustrate some of those other conventional themes and topoi that populate practically every stanza of his, and many other Elizabethan poems.

Spenser’s protagonist, Red Cross Knight (a type of Adam who falls, and then gradually conforms himself to the image of the Second Adam – King Arthur in Spenser’s allegory), has been seduced by Duessa (Duplicity, Fraus, False Religion Posing as True, Eve, the Whore of Babylon), who appears to him in the guise of Una (the One, Truth, the Second Eve, the Church, the Bride of Christ), whom a deluded Red Cross fecklessly abandons. As canto iv opens, the False Una, weary of the “toilsome way”, has led Red Cross to one of her accustomed pleasure haunts, the House of Pride.

Leading to its wide gate is a broad highway, made bare and smooth by the feet of the legions who have trampled it down: this is, of course, the broad highway of Matt. 7:13-14 that leadeth to destruction (another theme of universal dispersion). The House of Pride itself is a stately palace, magnificently faced in gold foil, and topped by lofty towers, the tallest of which displays a clock. The towers thus identify it with the Tower of Babel, and the clock is the fit symbol of Augustine’s City of Man, subject to the ravages of time. Like the goods and pleasures of this world, moreover, its apparent beauty is a tinsel of glitter, a thin and corruptible facade that seeks to imitate the true and lasting beauty of the Heavenly City. Beneath this false veneer, Spenser describes the Palace as “cunningly” constructed of brick without mortar, evoking the verse from Ezekiel 13:10, “So will I [Yahweh] break down the wall that ye daubed with untempered mortar, and bring it down to the ground, so that the foundation thereof shall be discovered, and it shall fall, and ye shall be consumed in the midst…” And indeed, the House of Pride is precariously erected upon a “weak foundation”, a sandy hill, in fact, that shifts with every breeze, evoking another well-known text from Matthew, “A foolish man…built his house upon the sand; and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell.” (Matt. 7:26)

Hidden in the depths of this sumptuous mansion, as we discover later, is a hideous dungeon, in which the corpses of those who once frolicked in the state rooms above now lay rotting. The House of Pride is thus beautiful above and repulsive below, like Duessa herself, as we also discover later, when at the conclusion of Book I she is stripped by Arthur, revealing her “nether regions” as those of a misshapen hag. (The symbolism is, obviously enough, of the retributive underworld to which the life of sin and falsehood inevitably leads.)

The building’s “hinder parts, that few could spy” were similarly “ruinous and old, but painted cunningly”. In this, the Palace reflects the iconography of the Goddess Fortuna, who is typically described as alluringly beautiful in front, but hiding a serpent’s tail and sting under her mantle in the rear, symbolic of the worldly goods that promise fair and deliver ill.

As Red Cross and Duessa are inauspiciously ushered into the Palace by the porter Malvenu (Ill Welcome), they are overwhelmed by the “endless riches and sumptuous shew” on display. Perched on a dais high above her fawning courtiers, they see the Queen, Lucifera, striving to outshine, with her “blazing beauty”, the “brightness of her glorious throne” . But Lucifera’s blazing beauty is thereupon compared by Spenser with the ill-fated brilliance of the son of the sun-god Apollo, Phaethon, who demanded the keys to his father’s solar chariot. Phaethon was another stock exemplum of the sin of overweening ambition or Pride, whose fable (as told especially in Ovid’s Metamorphoses) was commonly allegorized as a mythic type of the biblical Lucifer’s aspiration and fall.

Lucifera is herself identified as the daughter of Lucifer, or rather of another mythological type of Lucifer, the Roman god Pluto, Lord of the Underworld. Of course, she is too proud for such dubious ancestry, so she pretends that her father is Jupiter. On her throne she sits gazing toward the heaven whither, like her true Satanic parent, she aspires, when she is not, that is, gazing contentedly at the reflection of her peerless beauty in a mirror.

She rules the kingdom she has unlawfully usurped by tyrannical force and fraud, in which she is abetted by her foppish and sycophantic courtiers, including her six evil counselors.

After Duessa has been received as a familiar by the court, the Pageant ensues:

Sudden upriseth from her stately place
The royal dame and for her coach doth call…

So forth she comes and to her coach does climb,
Adorned all with gold and garlands gay,
That seemed as fresh as Flora in her prime
And strove to match in royal rich array
Great Juno’s golden chair, the which they say
The gods stand gazing on when she does ride
To Jove’s high house through heaven’s brass-paved way,
Drawn of fair peacocks, that excel in pride
And, full of Argus’ eyes, their tails dispreaden wide.

But this was drawn of six unequal beasts,
On which her six sage counselors did ride,
Taught to obey their bestial behests,
With like conditions to their kinds applied.
Of which the first, that all the rest did guide,
Was sluggish Idleness, the nurse of sin.
Upon a slothful ass he chose to ride,
Arrayed in habit black and amis thin,
Like to an holy monk, the service to begin.

And in his hand his portess still he bare,
That much was worn but therein little read;
For of devotion he had little care,
Still drowned in sleep and most of his days dead.
Scarce could he once uphold his heavy head
To looken whether it were night or day…

From worldly cares himself he did esloin
And greatly shunned manly exercise;
From every work he challenged essoin,
For contemplation sake. Yet otherwise
His life he led in lawless riotize,
By which he grew to grievous malady;
For in his lustless limbs, through evil guise
A shaking fever reigned continually.
Such was Idleness, first of this company.

And by his side rode loathsome Gluttony,
Deformed creature, on a filthy swine;
His belly was up-blown with luxury,
And eke with fatness swollen were his eyne,
And like a crane his neck was long and fine,
With which he swallowed up excessive feast,
For want whereof poor people oft did pine.
And all the way, most like a brutish beast,
He spewed up his gorge, that all did him detest.

In green vine leaves he was right fitly clad,
For other clothes he could not wear for heat;
And on his head an ivy garland had,
From under which fast trickled down the sweat.
Still as he rode, he somewhat still did eat,
And in his hand did bear a boozing can,
Of which he supped so oft that on his seat
His drunken corse he scarce upholden can,
In shape and life more like a monster than a man.

Unfit he was for any worldly thing,
And eke unable once to stir or go,
Not meet to be of counsel to a king,
Whose mind in meat and drink was drowned so
That from his friend he seldom knew his foe,
Full of diseases was his carcass blue,
And a dry dropsy through his flesh did flow,
Which by misdiet daily greater grew.
Such one was Gluttony, the second of that crew.

And next to him rode lustful Lechery
Upon a bearded goat whose rugged hair
And whally eyes (the sign of jealousy)
Was like the person self whom he did bear;
Who rough and black and flilthy did appear,
Unseemly man to please fair lady’s eye,
Yet he of ladies oft was loved dear,
When fairer faces were bid standen by.
O who does know the bent of woman’s fancy?

In a green gown he clothed was full fair,
Which underneath did hide his filthiness;
And in his hand a burning heart he bare,
Full of vain follies and newfangledness.
For he was false and fraught with fickleness,
And learned how to love with secret looks,
And well could dance, and sing with ruefulness,
And fortunes tell, and read in loving books,
And thousand other ways to bait his fleshly hooks.

Inconstant man, that loved all he saw
And lusted after all that he did love;
Nor would his looser life be tied to law,
But joyed weak women’s hearts to tempt and prove
If from their loyal loves he might them move.
Which lewdness filled him with reproachful pain
Of that foul evil, which all men reprove,
That rots the marrow and consumes the brain.
Such one was Lechery, the third of all his train.

And greedy Avarice by him did ride
Upon a camel loaden all with gold;
Two iron coffers hung on either side,
With precious metal full as they might hold;
And in his lap an heap of coin he told;
For of his wicked pelf his god he made,
And unto hell himself for money sold.
Accursed usury was all his trade,
And right and wrong alike in equal balance weighed.

His life was nigh unto death’s door y-placed,
And threadbare coat and cobbled shoes he ware,
No scarce good morsel all his life did taste;
But both from back and belly still did spare
To fill his bags and richness to compare.
Yet child ne kinsman living had he none
To leave them to; but thorough daily care
To get and nightly fear to lose his own,
He led a wretched life, unto himself, unknown.

Most wretched wight, whom nothing might suffice,
Whose greedy lust did lack in greatest store,
Whose need had end, no end covetise,
Whose wealth was want, whose plenty made him poor,
Who had enough, yet wished ever more–
A vile disease. And eke in foot and hand
A grievous gout tormented him full sore,
That well he could not touch, nor go, nor stand.
Such one was Avarice, the fourth of this fair band.

And next to him malicious Envy rode
Upon a ravenous wolf, and still did chaw
Between his cankered teeth a venomous toad,
That all the poison rank about his chaw.
But inwardly he chawed his own maw
At neighbors’ wealth, that made him ever sad;
For death it was when any good he saw,
And wept that cause of weeping none he had;
But when he heard of harm, he waxed wondrous glad.

All in a kirtle of discolored say
He clothed was, y-painted full of eyes;
And in his bosom secretly there lay
An hateful snake, the which his tail upties
In many folds and mortal sting implies.
Still as he rode, he gnashed his teeth to see
Those heaps of gold with gripple Covetise,
And grudged at the great felicity
Of proud Lucifera and his own company.

He hated all good words and virtuous deeds,
And him no less that any like did use;
And who with gracious bread the hungry feeds,
His alms for want of faith he doth accuse;
So every good to bad he doth abuse.
And eke the verse of famous poets’ wit
He does backbite, and spiteful poison spews
From leprous mouth on all that ever writ.
Such one vile Envy was, that fifth in row did sit.

And him beside rides fierce revenging Wrath
Upon a lion loath for to be led;
And in his hand a burning brand he hath,
The which he brandisheth about his head.
His eyes did hurl forth sparkles fiery red,
And stared stern on all that him beheld,
As ashes pale of hue and seeming dead;
And on his dagger still his hand he held,
Trembling through hasty rage when choler in him swelled.

His ruffian raiment all was stained with blood,
Which he had spilt, and all to rage y-rent,
Through unadvised rashness woxen wood;
For of his hands he had no government,
Ne cared for blood in his avengement.
But when the furious fit was overpassed,
His cruel facts he often would repent;
Yet willful man, he never would forecast
How many mischiefs should ensue his heedless haste.

Full many mischiefs follow cruel Wrath;
Abhorred bloodshed and tumultuous strife,
Unmanly murder and unthrifty scath,
Bitter despite, with rancor’s rusty knife,
And fretting grief, the enemy of life.
All these, and many evils mo, haunt ire,
The swelling spleen and frenzy raging rife,
The shaking palsy and Saint Francis’ fire.
Such one was Wrath, the last of this ungodly tire.

If you are fortunate enough to live in a World-Class City, you will have witnessed such Pageants before. Last week in Toronto, the Black Bloc showed us Idleness, Envy, Avarice, and, especially, Wrath. This Sunday, the gay revelers will demonstrate Lechery, Gluttony, and, above all, Pride. Enjoy the parade.