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13 September 2004 @ 07:14 pm
Ten random things: Reader Request Month, day 13  

Ten characters from pre-1400 literature who were major sinners, and the sins they were guilty of:

  1. Vanni Fucci (Inferno by Dante Alighieri; stole holy objects from a cathedral in Pistoia)
  2. May ("The Merchant's Tale," The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer; committed adultery with her husband's squire)
  3. Grendel (Beowulf; murdered several of Hrothgar's warriors)
  4. Goronwy ("Blodeuedd," The Mabinogion; attempted to murder Lleu Llaw Gyffes after committing adultery with his wife Blodeuedd)
  5. Ganelon (The Song of Roland; betrayed Roland to the Saracens)
  6. Oedipus (Oedipus Rex by Sophocles; murdered his father and married his mother)
  7. Judas Iscariot (The Bible; betrayed Jesus)
  8. Atreus (Thyestes by Lucius Annaeus Seneca; killed his brother's children, cooked them, and fed them to his brother)
  9. Clytaemestra (Agamemnon by Aeschylus; murdered her husband)
  10. Medea (Medea by Euripides; murdered Glauce, Jason's second wife, and her own children)

This list was requested by misterweasel. A few annotations are in order here, I think:

  • Since "major" is a relative term, I chose to follow Dante's example. His version of Hell is composed of nine circles in descending order of severity. That is, the worse the sin, the lower the circle. With the possible exception of May from "The Merchant's Tale," everyone in this list likely would have ended up in one of the three lowest circles. I think Dante would have consigned May to the Second Circle, which is reserved for the lustful. On the other hand, she did deceive January into thinking he hadn't actually seen her having sex with Damian, so it's possible Dante may have consigned her to a lower circle.
  • Vanni Fucci, like many of the characters in Inferno, was an actual historical figure. Dante claims to have known him; it's probably safe to assume that they weren't the best of friends.
  • One might claim that Grendel is not a sinner per se, but is merely acting according to his nature. On the other hand, Grendel's mother didn't attack anyone until Beowulf killed Grendel and she felt the need to avenge her son's death, which suggests that there was an element of free will involved in his repeated attacks on Hrothgar's castle.
  • Regarding Goronwy, I'm not sure how Dante would treat someone who tried but failed to murder someone. He might subscribe to Sideshow Bob school of thought: "Hah! Attempted murder? Now honestly, what is that? Do they give a Nobel prize for attempted chemistry?"
Current Mood: literary
Current Music: The Seldom Scene - "Hit Parade Of Love"
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John Heaton: booksjheaton on September 13th, 2004 04:55 pm (UTC)
But if she had free will, it stands to reason that her son did as well. Had their positions been reversed, that is, if Grendel had sought revenge for his mother's death, you could make the argument that the son was more evolved that the mother.
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John Heaton: religionjheaton on September 13th, 2004 05:13 pm (UTC)
Because among humans, both parents and children, generally speaking, have free will, and since the Grendel family is said to be descended from Cain, they probably retain certain human characteristics, so it stands to reason that if Grendel's mother had free will, Grendel also would. As to whether free will is a product of evolution, it might be. Depends on what side you come down on in the creation vs. evolution debate, I suppose, and whether you view free will as a mental function or a function of the soul.

And no, I have not.
(Deleted comment)
John Heaton: spike rocks!jheaton on September 13th, 2004 06:05 pm (UTC)
Well, you might look at it as if Grendel was a Buffyverse vampire. Even without human souls, vampires retain an element of free will. We've seen several instances of vampires without souls choosing not to kill. Similarly, one might assume that given the right set of circumstances -- say, if Beowulf was a girl and Grendel had really nice cheekbones (hee) -- Grendel might have choosen to stop attack Hrothgar's warriors.

I will look into obtaining a copy of Grendel from my local library. Thanks for the recommendation.
(Deleted comment)
John Heaton: booksjheaton on September 13th, 2004 06:52 pm (UTC)
I haven't read the Heaney, though I've meant to. I read the Penguin Classics edition.

So, what's the word you don't like?
Pidge: Mischiefpidgehuss on September 13th, 2004 04:47 pm (UTC)
Actually, my question about Grendel is can his actions be considered a sin, because his animalistic nature calls into question the presence of a soul at all. Is there sin without a soul? Do animals have a soul? Is Grendel an animal?
John Heaton: booksjheaton on September 13th, 2004 05:02 pm (UTC)
If I remember correctly, he's described as a "monster," but he was also said to be a descendant of Cain. That suggests to me that he's at least partly human, and that therefore he has a soul or something like it. But I don't recall that the author(s) of Beowulf delved into the metaphysical attributes of any of the characters, so ultimately it's a judgment call, and I'm not uncomfortable describing Grendel as a sinner.
Dorian A. W.: doctor--aloofpomobarney on September 13th, 2004 08:36 pm (UTC)
My recollection is that Grendel is not only a descendant of Cain, but his actual father was Satan...I don't know if that clarifies or just further confuses the issue of whether or not he has free will.

My reading of Beowulf has always been that Grendel is more animal than human, and that his initial attacks were in response to harrasment from the interlopers on what was, after all, his and his mother's home.
Ad Astra: Wish on a morning star (Rusty)astrablue on September 13th, 2004 05:25 pm (UTC)
My question is about Oedipus: the killing of the father is on board (although I seem to remember that Oedipus was defending himself...?) but I disagree about his mother. He didn't know it was his mother when he married her. Now, yes, he was still having relations with his mom (ew!) but as soon as he knew about it, he stopped (and promptly poked his eyes out--talk about your atonement). I'm thinking that since he was in ignorance as to the existence of the sin, and since he later atoned for his sins (the eyes and the hermit lifestyle), does it really count?

About #8... tasty?
John Heaton: booksjheaton on September 13th, 2004 05:51 pm (UTC)
Good question. Dante is of no help here; he doesn't report having seen Oedipus, and besides, even virtuous pre-Christians ended up in Dante's Hell. But I guess I see a sinner as the moral equivalent (hee) of a convicted felon. You remain a convicted felon even after you've served your time; the only way to have your record cleared is to have your conviction overturned. With sin, you can atone, but you remain a sinner until you are absolved.

Frankly, there are a lot of gray areas in those Greek dramas. What to do with Orestes, for example? Yes, he killed his mother, but when he was tried for doing so, he was found not guilty of the crime. And it was an act of vengeance, and Clytaemestra is fairly unambiguously wicked. An exceptionally tricky people, those Greeks.
Vocabulary Lass: Granger Power -- HPCOIadjrun on September 16th, 2004 06:24 pm (UTC)
Clytemnestra is NOT unambiguously wicked!

She kills her husband, yes, but only after her husband has sacrificed her daughter to the gods (the dodge that Iphegenia isn't, according to some mythologies, dead, was never something that Clytemnestra got filled in on). Her act was also an act of vengeance, and one can argue that the murder of a husband is a lesser sin than the murder of a child or parent. Especially when the bastard's been diddling around fighting a war for ten years.

... heh. I'm an unrepentant Clytemnestra defender. ;)
John Heaton: historyjheaton on September 16th, 2004 08:19 pm (UTC)
I think it's difficult to classify Clytemnestra's murder of Agamemnon as an act of vengeance, because Iphigeneia's death (if she, in fact, died) was a propitiatory sacrifice and thus righteous according to the moral standards of the day. And speaking of diddling around for ten years, let's not forget her affair with Aegisthus. Oh, and her murder of Cassandra.