Envy is commonly recognized today as one of the “seven deadly sins.” To really analyze its origins I need to go way back. Although envy seems to have its roots based in Christianity the actual personification of envy and its roots predates the Christian religion. I plan on exploring the origin of envy and explaining how it relates to Renaissance literature as well as modern literature.
The first glimpses of envy were personified in around the year eight. The book Metamorphosis of Ovid was the earliest writing that I could find, that mentioned envy. The concept of envy had been around long before then. It had not yet been personified. It was Ovid who brought envy to life. Ovid did two things for envy: First he embodied envy and second he personified her. I separate these two very familiar terms for a reason. I am using the term embodiment as an abstract term. Embodiment is referring to envy (Invidia) as a whole, whereas envy was personified into an entity (person) know as Invidia. The separation of embodiment and personification is crucial to understanding that it was the concept of envy that was personified into the character Invidia and that the embodiment of Invidia includes everything about Invidia including her home and the symbols that are scattered throughout her property (even the weather that “follows her” around).
We are initially introduced to Invidia’s home. Her home is referred to as a “disease.” The embodiment of envy begins with her home. We learn that people who get near her property waste away. According to Matthew W. Dickie and the American Journal of Philology, the idea of wasting away and envy was introduced in about the fourth century BCE. This idea was introduced in the form of a painting. The painting was called “Slander” by Apelles of Diabole. The painting was that of a man who had wasted away from envy. It is believed that the idea for this painting was taken from the book, Metamorphosis. Furthermore there are additional references in the Anthology Menander backing up this claim and adding additional claim to the concept that envy is a disease, with the result of wasting away.
Rust and rust coloring were often used to represent envy. The Greeks liked to use the color bronze to convey this message, whereas the Romans liked to use the color black to represent the same thing. The black cloud over Invidia’s house is a clear representation of this. The home is not a symbol within itself. The home is connected to envy (Invidia) and therefore Invidia’s home and property are actually embodied together into one entity…Invidia. I could argue that the home cannot represent envy without Invidia. It is this personification of envy that has brought Invidia to life and with her came everything that she embodies. That is just what we see. What we can’t see is even more prevalent. This is important because envy was commonly referred to as the “hidden vice.” This fits well when viewing Invidia’s home as a metaphor for envy.
During the fourteenth century, the Catholic Church took on Ovid’s idea of envy being a bad thing. The church took his concept of envy and determined that it would be re-classified into a category known as “the seven deadly sins.” So, a bunch of new rules to live by were also born. Now that Catholicism had a connection with the sin of envy, a lot of its origins became lost. Several sources all of which are connected to religion have taken claim for “discovering” the sin of envy. Most are failing to look back to Ovid’s time. One source in particular credits a Greek theologian, Evagrius Pontus for coming up with the idea of envy being a sin. The only problem was that Ovid had employed that concept about 350 years prior to Evagrius’s claim. It was claimed that there were actually eight deadly sins and at some point during the late sixth century it was reduced to seven deadly sins. According to Pope Gregory the sin of envy was the second most serious sin. The sins have all evolved in some ways. For example the sin of sloth was originally called “sadness.” It was the church who changed it. There were other varying terms in different languages that caused the original concepts and ideas to change into new concepts and ideas. However the original sin of envy is still the same as it was in the metamorphosis.
People routinely needed a way to spread the message of the sins. A great way this was done was through a list of “Heavenly Virtues” or “Contrary Virtues.” Spiritual manuals were produced from these virtues. The virtues originally derived from a poem from the Psychomachia it was also known as The Battle of the Soul. It was written in the fifth century by Prudentius and is considered to be an epic poem. It was through literature that the message of the seven deadly sins the word was able to “travel” throughout the world. The psychomachia poem, Battle of the Soul is a play where there is a battle between the sins and virtues of different individuals. It clearly has a political message about sinning. In the end, the virtues beat out the vices. The poem also helped to spread the word of Catholicism; the religious elements seemed to “piggy back” with the messages of sin throughout the poem. More specifically the poem ABC des simples gens was taken directly from the psychomachia and was also widely distributed to tell the story of good beating out evil.
During the sixteenth century, a lot of the images were transferred into the form of pictures. Now even the illiterate could understand what was going on. This gave yet another “outlet” to communicate the seven deadly sins. It was during the Renaissance time that the news of the sins and the telling of what not to do and what to do really took off. The sins evolved to the point where the punishment for the sins was also determined. It was known that if you violated one of the seven deadly sins, your punishment in hell was already determined. The punishment for envy was that the individual would be put into freezing water. It was during this period that the color green was added to represent envy. It was William Shakespeare in Othello that first referred to envy as being green. He also used the term in The Merchant of Venice. At this point there is some speculation that Shakespeare may be the one responsible for the emotion of envy being connected to the color green.
Along with the Metamorphosis being a book that is about change, so is the sin of envy. According to the book The cement of Society A study of social orde” by Jon Elster, envy isn’t about wanting something that someone else has, but it is about simply not wanting them to have whatever it is that they have. Elster breaks the envious person down into two categories, the strong envious and the weak envious. A person who is weakly envious simply doesn’t want the other person to have what they have. However, a strongly envious person is willing to give up what they have in order for the other person to not to have what they have. In other words they want to take away whatever it is that they are envious over. It is that concept that Ovid spoke of in the Metamorphosis. The person who will do anything to take away from others, not so they can have something but so that the other person can’t have it, is morally and ethically corrupt and this corruption is represented by Invidia and her home. The decay is helpless. Once a person experienced decay brought on by envy there was no stopping it. There was no cure. The only cure for envy was not to experience it. That basically involved staying away from Invidia and her house. It is worth mentioning that before one experiences envy (in The Metamorphosis) the individual sees Invidia’s house. It is at that point the person must make a conscious decision to “visit” Invidia or to turn around. The home is not inviting and obviously represents something bad.
Invidia is represented in many forms. There are a few pictures showing what Invidia would look like. Throughout the fourteenth century, the seven deadly sins were commonly displayed in the form of art. I mentioned earlier that this was a way to send a message and to communicate to those who couldn’t read. One of the more remarkable pieces of art is a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. He was an artist and was very well known in the fourteenth century. He was especially known for a painting that he did entitled, The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things. This was a painting on a square surface. In the middle of the square was a circle and within that circle the seven deadly sins were painted. In each of the four corners were four small circles which contained the four last things. The four last things were added to the seven deadly sins in around the fourteenth century. It seems that this was a remarkable time for growth. The Renaissance period was new to all sorts of things and things seemed to be in a constant flux and growth; the four things that were added to the seven deadly sins were Death, Judgment, Hell and Heaven. That is a far cry from the original concept of envy that was introduced fourteen hundred years prior. It just represents the metamorphosis that occurred and continually occurs throughout time.
Whether envy is represented in the form of written text such as the Metamorphosis or rendered in early fourteenth century paintings, the use of personification is clearly abundant. Even the play, Psychomachia personified envy. It wasn’t just envy that was personified. All of the sins were personified. In order to have a battle between good and evil we must first make them human or give them some human traits. This helps us better relate with the sins.
As we continue throughout the Renaissance time, we can clearly see the Catholic churches need to communicate the sins to the general public. Envy started showing up everywhere. Geoffrey Chaucer even integrated the seven deadly sins into the Pardoners Tale. During the Middle Ages, a lot of people owed Ovid a debt of gratitude. This included Chaucer, Dante and Boccaccio. Even the modern day authors have mentioned that Ovid was their inspiration; among these authors were Dryden, Pope and Milton. They all have their own unique takes on the subject of sin.
According to Brother Jacob, a monk at Mt. Angel Abbey, the book, Metamorphosis is taught at the Mount Angel Abbey as part of a class. It is taught as mythology and is actually taught because of the exceptional use of language. According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, “Ovid is popular in Christian culture; Ovid set the standard for the usage of metrics, prosody and poetic diction.” As we move out of the Renaissance Era and into more modern times we can see that the seven deadly sins are still around and are still being preached by numerous religious groups, not just Catholicism.
The sins were viewed differently by everyone. Dante actually grouped the sins into three categories: Perverted love; The sins were pride, envy and anger. The next category was insufficient love; sloth was the responsible sin. Finally the last category was excessive love of object; greed, lust and gluttony were the responsible sins. This idea of sins being categorized into different groups is nothing new. It seems that since the inception of the sins they have been categorized. Originally the Catholic Church divided the sins up into two categories, venial sins and capital sins. The venial sin was a minor infraction whereas the capital sin such as envy was a mortal sin. That may explain why once an individual becomes infected by Invidia, they simple wither away. Ovid didn’t give the victims of envy a way out. That could be because of the seriousness of the infraction. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Article 8, sin “Sin is a personal act. Moreover, we have a responsibility for the sins committed by others when we cooperate in them.” According to their website, sin is a personal thing. Furthermore by helping others commit a sin, you are directly responsible for committing the sin as well. The responsibility of who is guilty for the sin rests in the knowledge of who committed the sin and who helped them commit the sin. If you “advise praise or approve the sin,” you are guilty of the sin. If you don’t stop someone from committing a sin, you are also guilty of the sin. This aligns with Invidia and her house and the conscious decision to approach her. These are personal decisions made by the individual. Now, if someone were to advise an individual to go visit Invidia, then that individual would be just as guilty of the sin as anyone else.
The “modern” day rendition of the seven deadly sins can be seen in movies. It seems that the current modern day concept of “the seven deadly sins” has changed (metamorphosis) from the original concept. It has kept true with the original idea. The idea that envy is a process of withering away is still the same idea. The images have changed that are used to represent the original ideas. Some newer concepts have arisen from the original ideas. For example the original color of envy was copper and now it is green. I’m uncertain whether or not to give Shakespeare credit or not for changing the color of envy from copper to green. He was the first that I could find to mention the new color of envy. There seem to be two modern “outlets” that seem to specialize on the subject of envy. The first is Catholicism. The second are psychologists. Each group has pronounced in no uncertain terms that their views on envy including its orgins are the correct view. It became very difficult to determine the reliability of information. I have used an exasperating number of sources to best show accuracy and consistency within the topic. I have fact checked all my sources and they all seem to be consistently in line and in agreement with each other. I have noted any inconsistencies such as my indication of not knowing for sure if Shakespeare coined the phrase, “green with envy,” or not. I think I have clearly made a case for the origins of envy and have successfully shown the metamorphosis of envy.
Benziger Brothers, and Michael Augustine. “THE FOUR LAST THINGS.” CATHOLIC TRADITION. Archbishop of New York 1899, 5 Oct. 1899. Web. 31 May 2010. .
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Dickie, Matthew W. “Ovid Metomorphosis 2.760-64.” Ovid Metomorphosis 2.760-64 Winter 96.4 (1975): 378-90. Print.
Elster, Jon. The Cement of Society a Study of Social Order. Cambridge [u.a.: Cambridge Univ., 1989. Print.
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Hurd, John Coolidge., and Bradley H. McLean. Origins and Method: towards a New Understanding of Judaism and Christianity : Essays in Honour of John C. Hurd. Sheffield, Eng.: JSOT, 1993. Print.
Brother Jacob “Questions about Ovids Connection with Religon.” Personal interview. 22 May 2010.
Psychomachia “Aurelius Purdentius Clemens The Battle For the Soul of Man” Web 25 May 2010
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