Reading the Symbols of the Apocalypse According to Isaac Newton

When writing the series Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education, I did not set out to demonise Rome as being a cult that grew exponentially. My conclusion developed organically. It was only when I finished putting down in writing the journey of my learnings, that I was able to reflect back and see that the original ideas of Christianity were noble and that the Holy Roman Catholic Church was not evil per se, rather, it was just a conduit for Roman culture. I questioned myself. Had I got it right? Was I the only one who could see the historical chain of negative influence in Roman rulership that extended back further to Greek influence, namely via the promotion of Aristotle? I knew my research was solid, so I stuck with what I knew to be true. After publishing the series I continued to investigate so as to find others who saw the same pattern. Isaac Newton was a key place to start; he left behind countless notebooks detailing his Biblical research.

Most people know Newton to be a renown scientist and mathematician who helped thrust the world out of superstitious thought into the realm of rationality. Namely, he did so through his work in optics, relativity, and calculus. Less known is the work Newton did on deciphering Old and New Testament prophecies. In his lifetime, he had to keep his findings low key because his views would have been considered heresy and, in turn, he would been expelled from his post at Cambridge University. For a thorough background on Newton’s religious standings, I recommend Rob Iliffe’s essay titled Church, Heresy, and Pure Religion.

Putting it briefly, Newton held strong Christian faith in the existence of God and a brotherhood of love based upon teachings of Jesus Christ, however, he was also convinced that Christianity had been corrupted. Mostly, he points to issues that arose in the fourth century when the Church became Romanised through a series of council meetings. Even more fascinating, he perceived Rome to be the great beast of the fourth seal whose name was Death and Hades, as described in the Book of Revelation. Further, Newton surmised the lesser beasts preceding Rome were Greece, Persia, and Babylon.

Newton’s interpretations were the result of copious amounts of time studying Jewish figurative speech. His faith did not completely align with orthodox Protestantism, but he did share some of their views, such as:

the signification of words in Scripture is to be esteemed and taken only according to the Scripture use, though other writers use them otherwise.

 Joseph Mede Apostasy of the Latter Times (1642), pg. 120
From Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 11 – A Return to Aristotle (Or Did We Ever Leave?):

Newton took a scientific approach to the Bible and analysed scripture to identify language patterns, allegory systems, and symbols that he believed were known and applied by all prophets:

“The Rule I have followed has been to compare the several mystical places of scripture where the same prophetic phrase or type is used, and to fix such a signification to that phrase as agrees best with all the places . . . and, when I had found the necessary significations, to reject all others as the offspring of luxuriant fancy, for no more significations are to be admitted for true ones than can be proved.”

Isaac Newton, Royal Society, 2015, p. 524

Examples of the codes Newton worked out were: Sun = King; Moon = groups of common people referred to as wife; Darkening of celestial bodies = doom for political groups; and Dens and rocks in mountains = temples. Where Biblical texts referred to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Newton claimed it meant Spirit, Water, and Blood.

Through this process of examining symbology, he identified that the prophecies in the Old Testament Book of Daniel were repeated in the New Testament Book of Revelation written by St John.

In Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St. John (1733), Newton made the following remarks:

Daniel‘s Prophecies […] represents a body of four great nations, which should reign over the earth successively, viz. the people of Babylonia, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans.

CHAP. III.
Of the vision of the Image composed of four Metals (1733)

The first Beast was like a lion, and had eagle’s wings, to denote the kingdoms of Babylonia and Media, which overthrew the Assyrian Empire, and divided it between them, and thereby became considerable, and grew into great Empires.

The second Beast was like a bear, and represents the Empire which reigned next after the Babylonians, that is, the Empire of the PersiansThy kingdom is divided, or broken, saith Daniel to the last King of Babylonand given to the Medes and Persians, Dan. v. 28. 

The third Beast was the kingdom which succeeded the Persian; and this was the empire of the GreeksDan. viii. 6, 7, 20, 21. It was like a Leopard, to signify its fierceness; and had four heads and four wings, to signify that it should become divided into four kingdoms, Dan. viii 22. 

The fourth Beast was the empire which succeeded that of the Greeks, and this was the Roman. This beast was exceeding dreadful and terrible, and had great iron teeth, and devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with its feet; and such was the Roman empire. It was larger, stronger, and more formidable and lasting than any of the former. […] And by […] conquests it became greater and more terrible than any of the three former Beasts. 

CHAP. IV.
Of the vision of the four Beasts (1733)

I have found it very reassuring that someone of such elevated standing as Newton saw the same pattern as I, albeit, he came to his conclusions via different means. My investigations of negative influences have predominately been through examining the history of patriarchy, a system that purports men are superior and governance of others should be passed down through male lineages. The crux of patriarchy, however, is not simply a matter of male supremacy, it is an ideology that proposes that some males are superior to other males, thus it encourages war between men, racism, and sexism. Patriarchy is based upon the fallible superstition that males are spiritually superior to females, slaves, children, and some other males. Everyone, except maybe those who hold the positions of power, are victims of patriarchy’s narcissistic traits and behaviours.

It is not uncommon for narcissists to believe they have a divine right to rule others due to a supposed special relationship with a Godhead. Narcissists also set standards for others that are unreasonably high that they do not met themselves, then they employ gaslighting techniques if their dominance is challenged. Patriarchy’s shared traits with narcissistic personality disorder continues with grandiose expectations of entitlement and attention, through to violent and aggressive behaviours. Patriarchy, as a pathological culture normalises abuse and, sometimes, even glamourises it as being divine. Many of these negative tendencies can be found in the people who held leadership positions in Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome.

Babylonian Empire (1895 – 539 BCE)

The Ancient Babylonian Empire was founded on the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which today is Iraq and parts of Turkey, Syria, and Iran. For about the past 4000 years, the lands of Mesopotamia have been the site of almost constant conflict, with few respites of peace. Unlike other areas of the Mediterranean, such as the Egyptian Old Kingdom, Etruscans, and Greeks of the Dark Ages, the Babylonian Empire emerged as a patriarchal society very early on. The culture before Babylonia, the Sumerians, had some egalitarian customs, however, by the time the Babylonians had their stronghold, the hierarchal governance gave more rights to men than women. It is in Babylonia that we see the first clear examples of females being treated like the are the property of males, with fathers being able to sell their daughters as slaves or prostitutes. Male dominance was maintained by preventing girls from having the same access to education as boys.

Babylon’s Empire formally began with King Hammurabi, who obtained increased power through a series of wars, notably defeating the King of Larsa, Rim-Sin. One of Hammurabi’s incentives was to access the fertile lands around Uruk for agricultural purposes.

Left: Map of the Babylonian Empire in the second century BCE. Source: Wikipedia Commons. Right: Map of the Mesopotamian region today. Source: Towards Data Science.

The main religious attitude of Babylonia was polytheistic, with many deities being worshipped. Hammurabi believed their creator Gods, Anu and Bel, had called him by name to righteously rule the land of Babylon. His declaration includes a desire “to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak […] and enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind.” However, Hammurabi extensive list of law codes also included:

  • If a “sister of a god” open a tavern, or enter a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death.
  • If a man take a woman to wife, but have no intercourse with her, this woman is no wife to him.
  • If a man marry a woman and she bear him no sons; if then this woman die, if the “purchase price” which he had paid into the house of his father-in-law is repaid to him, her husband shall have no claim upon the dowry of this woman; it belongs to her father’s house.
  • If a father devote a temple-maid or temple-virgin to God and give her no present: if then the father die, she shall receive the third of a child’s portion from the inheritance of her father’s house, and enjoy its usufruct so long as she lives. Her estate belongs to her brothers.

Kings and rulers that followed Hammurabi maintained these misogynistic values. Further, the Romans used the Babylonian concept of law codes to form their own rules and regulations.

At some point during the Babylonian Empire, the religion of Zoroastrianism began, however, it did not gain popularity until late in the era.

Babylonian architecture was mostly made out of mud-brick, hence, due to is structural weakness and near constant battles between city-states, much hasn’t survived. Their artworks depicted geometric patterns and reliefs on the sides of the buildings that featured animal like lions with wings.

Left: Babylon Door. Source: Wikipedia Commons , Centre and right: Babylonian reliefs housed at the Louve. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Persian Empire (559 BCE – 331 BCE)

The Persian Empire began in what is modern day Iran. Like many cultures, it began as a small cult that spread its culture far and wide in eastern and western directions. The era is generally noted as beginning with the ruler Cyrus the Great (c. 600 – 530 BCE). He was a Zoroastrian, the major religion of the Persians, however, there was much tolerance of other faiths.

Map of Persian Empire. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Zoroastrianism faith involves belief in dualistic forces of good and evil that are constantly striving to out do each other. It is here that we see the first clear presentation of the concepts of heaven and hell as being places people may go to in the afterlife. Zoroastrian cosmology references the stars of the Zodiac in what, on one hand can be traced back to Babylonian astrologers, and on the other hand, echos’ sentiments that can be found in the ancient Indian Vedas. The elements of earth, water, air, and fire, were used symbolically in rituals and theology. The importance Zoroastrians displayed towards fire spurred their neighbours (the Greeks) to accuse them of being fire worshippers. To the Zoroastrians, fire was a symbolic means to represent God’s light or wisdom.

Somewhat surprisingly, Persian women received more rights and respect than their counterparts in ancient Babylonia and other cultures (except Egypt). Royal women were involved in military operations, could sign documents, and hold court. Other women could run businesses, own property, receive equal pay, and choose who they married. That is not to say the Persians were, by todays standards, an egalitarian civilisation. Rather, the Persians had prejudices against “lower” classes and foreigners. The situation brings to light the idea that narcissistic traits are not bound by gender.

The great Persian army, dubbed the Immortals, was formed under the command of Pantea Artesbod, a woman. Further, there are several records of female warriors receiving glory and recognition for their skill and bravery in battle, for example, Artemisia of Caria. Artemisia, a name derived from the Greek goddess Artemis, ruled the throne of Caria for a period, however, this was only as a regent because her son was too young to rule; hence despite women demonstrating their capacities to be equal to men, a patriarchal framework endured within Persian culture.

Persian art continued the style of Babylonians, with emphasis on wings and sphinx-like characters. While women received acclaim in Ancient Persia, very few artefacts depicting them have survived.

Capital of a column from the audience hall of the palace of Darius I (c. 510 BCE). Source: BC Campus

Greek Empire / Hellenistic Period (323 BC – 31 BCE)

Ancient Greece has a rich history that has been well documented via their tradition of writing, poetry, dramas, and art. Traces of its unique character can be found in Minoan and Mycenaean artefacts that date to the Greek Dark Ages and earlier, moreover, such findings point towards a monarchical or egalitarian society.

The most well known religion of Ancient Greece is that of the Eleusinian Mysteries. It was an initiation based practice that was open to all citizens who could speak Greek, whether they be free, slave, male, female, or other. The cult centre at Eleusis began in c.1450 BCE with the creation of an underground chamber below a shrine. Annual festivals celebrated the Homeric story of Zeus, Demeter, Persephone, and Hades (who were personifications of the classical elements; see The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts). There is still a lot of mystery surrounding the practices and beliefs of the Eleusinian Mysteries because initiates were bound by privilege codes and subject to the death penalty if they revealed cult secrets to anyone who was not suitably initiated.

The most well known era, Greek Classical Period (480 – 323 BCE), is marked by the works of Plato and Aristotle (it is generally accepted that Plato was an initiate of the Eleusinian Mysteries but Aristotle was not). Leading up to this period, Greece had adopted patriarchal values. It is plausible to infer that this influence came from Babylonian and Persian sources, along with other cultural and religious trading, for example, Zoroastrian astrology. From 499 – 449 BCE, the Greeks were in battle with the Persians; for intermediate periods the Persians ruled parts of Greece, however, ultimately, the Greeks won the final battle.

The Greek era in which Newton refers to as being the third beast, is that of the Hellenistic Period (323 – 31 BCE). In a very short period of time, Alexander the Great (a student of Aristotle) led campaigns from west to east, conquering Persian territory plus more. Alexander did not rule the lands he had conquered for very long. As a result of disease or poisoning he died at the age of 32, which resulted in conquered lands being divided amongst four of his generals: Cassander (Macedon/Greece), Ptolemy (Egypt), Antigonus (Asia Minor/Syria), and Seleucus (Afghanistan/Iran/Iraq/Turkey/Syria/Lebanon/Armenia/Turkmenistan/Uzbekistan/Tajikistan). Thus, Greek thought, customs, beliefs, and writing became dominate across the Mediterranean and Middle East.

Empire of Alexander the Great. Source: Wikipedia Commons

It is through the Greek language and lens that most of western history has been passed down, hence, Alexander is called “Great”. To the Persians, however, he was only “great” at destruction; buildings, temples, monuments, particularly those of Zoroastrian significance, were reduced rubble. I once read on a social network comment that Alexander’s destruction was justified because he was purging the regions he conquered of erroneous paganism, moreover, the libraries he created were of great value. Personally, I tend to side more with the Persians on this issue and cannot see how brute force and the killing of innocent lives can be ever be justified. Further, the libraries that Alexander created, like the one in his namesake in Egypt, the Great Alexandrian Library, were biased towards the promotion of Aristotelian racism and sexism based upon a so-called divine order of a man’s spirit being superior to that of a woman’s animalistic soul (see Is Aristotle Overrated?: A look at one of the ways patriarchal systems have used Aristotle’s writings to justify male supremacy).

History is never straightforward. As already indicated, Greece, by the time of Alexander’s time had developed through the assimilation of Babylonian and Persian influences. In turn, Persian cultures developed under Greek influence.

Was Alexandria driven by innate personal narcissistic tendencies? Or was he driven by a cultural destain for Persia that he was taught to him by others, like Aristotle? It is hard to tell. There are records of Alexander grabbing a Delphi priestess by the hair and demanding a prophecy reading after being told to come back another day, thus indicating he had a grandiose sense of self. However, it is also reported that Alexander took up many Persian traits, such as dressing like one of them. When his best friend suggested he should dress more like a Greek, Alexander killed him, however, afterwards he felt remorse. Some speculate that Alexander may have also felt remorse for the damage he did to Persia, and had he lived longer, may have made some amends. Nonetheless, that is not what happened, rather the former Persian lands became Hellenised. (The Greek concept of female figures defining groups of people, e.g, Helen of Troy and Athena, has a correlation to the Jewish concept of women and daughters (see Theology of Early Christianity as described by Justin Martyr: Was he deliberately harmonising Jewish and Ancient Greek philosophy?) that appears to relate back to similar hidden theologies in which the realm of the “soul” is described as feminine.)

Hellenistic art was skilfully crafted using mathematical formulas of perspective and precision carving. It featured grand gods and goddesses that embodied the Greek ideals of beauty, Kállos, which inferred beauty, goodness and truth were combined. The standards set by Greek artisans were adopted by their predecessors, the Romans.

Winged Victory of Samothrace (Nike) (First century BCE). Source: Wikipedia Commons

Roman Empire 27BCE –

The Roman Empire emerged as an assimilation of Greek, Persian, and Babylonian influences, plus more, like the Etruscans, Phoenicians, and Egyptians. As described throughout Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education, Rome’s rise to being a great superpower took on many forms and is arguably still present today in the lingering authority of the Holy Roman Church and its legacy of defining Christianity.

Map of Roman Empire in 117CE. Source: Wikipedia Commons

The Roman Empire’s great take over was progressive, with the final seal of dominance culminating with Julius Caesar (c.100 – 44 BCE). Prior to this time, Rome operated under a patriarchal republic where by citizens (who were male and wealthy, and/or male and practiced a trade) could vote in who they wanted to be leaders. Caesar was not in the running to be leader, however, due to a series of political and tactical manoeuvres (like unauthorised attacks on the Gauls, the Celtic people who lived in modern day France and Germany) he became the temporary leader of Rome. However, once he had a firm grip on Roman power, he made it impossible for the senate to vote him out. Caesar viewed himself to be above the laws of other men and believed his family bloodline extended back to the deities Venus and Aeneas.

In some respects, Caesar made beneficial contributions, like reducing debt, instigating building projects, and revising the calendar (which may have been influenced by Cleopatra introducing him to Egyptian cosmology and mathematics), but his authority was not respected by fellow politicians. Caesar was killed by knife wounds that were administered by about 40 Roman senators on steps of a Republican meeting hall. The act of violence was spurred by not wanting Rome to ruled by a dictatorship, ironically, however, Caesar’s successors became Emperors, some of whom showed more compassion to the masses than others.

Statue of Julius Caesar (first century). Source: Wikipedia Commons

Newton’s Research

What I have written are broad strokes defining what I understand of the four beasts of the apocalypse if indeed, they are Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Newton conducted more refined research on each of these powers with precise records of Kings, specific battles, and other points of reference that can be found here. In summary, Newton describes the “horns” of Rome as changing over time; as one kingdom fell, another replaced it. He predicted that this would continue until “the son of man” came “in the clouds of Heaven”.

Often, the reporting of apocalyptic prophecies is presented hyperbolically, with the end of the world being stated as nigh. This is also true of when doomsday fanatics share Newton’s Biblical interpretations of 2060 being a time of great significance, however, this not true to to his conclusions. The dramatic events Newton predicted were not of Armageddon, rather, the date of 2060 refers to the final ending of the beasts’ reign.

To be clear, the beasts are not representative of all individuals of Babylonian, Persian, Greek, or Roman decent, rather, the beasts are cultures that exist all over the globe that enable and tolerate destructive patterns of behaviour. I state this attitude with sincerity, in the same way that I do not hold all Catholics as being responsible for atrocities committed by individuals within Holy Roman Church, as described in my concluding blog that explores occult symbolism through the history and herstory of education.

To conclude, my research on the history of patriarchal concurs with Newton’s interpretations that when the “beasts'” reigns come to an end, the prophecies are of good news because the “blood of Christ”, otherwise known as Love, will rule all humanity. Or, as Newton says:

a new kingdom should arise, after the four, and conquer all those nations, and grow very great, and last to the end of all ages.

CHAP. III.
Of the vision of the Image composed of four Metals (1733)

References

Australian Centre for Ancient Numismatic Studies – The Coins of Julius Caesar. (2014). Mq.edu.au. http://www.humanities.mq.edu.au/acans/caesar/Career_Venus.htm

Historical Persian Queens, Empresses, Warriors, Generals of Persia. (n.d.). http://Www.persepolis.nu. https://www.persepolis.nu/queens.htm

History on the Net. (2018, July 2). Mesopotamian Women and Their Social Roles – History. History. https://www.historyonthenet.com/mesopotamian-women-in-mesopotamian-society

Jones, J. (n.d.). In 1704, Isaac Newton Predicts the World Will End in 2060 | Open Culture. Open Culture. https://www.openculture.com/2015/10/in-1704-isaac-newton-predicts-the-world-will-end-in-2060.html

Joseph Mede, & University of Michigan. (1845). Mede’s Apostasy of the Latter Times. With an Introduction. In Internet Archive. W.H. Dalton. https://archive.org/details/medesapostasyla01medegoog/page/n133/mode/2up?view=theater

King, L. W. (2019). The Avalon Project : Code of Hammurabi. Yale.edu. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/ancient/hamframe.asp

Mark, J. J. (2014). Artemisia I of Caria. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/Artemisia_I_of_Caria/

Mark, J. J. (2019). Persian Immortals. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/Persian_Immortals/

Mark, J. J. (2020). Women in Ancient Persia. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1492/women-in-ancient-persia/

Prof Ali Ansari. (2012, July 14). Alexander the not so Great: History through Persian eyes. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-18803290

Renger, J. (2019). Hammurabi | King of Babylonia. In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Hammurabi

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (2019). The Seleucid Empire. Metmuseum.org. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/sleu/hd_sleu.htm

The Romans – Roman Government – History. (2019, January 28). History. https://www.historyonthenet.com/the-romans-roman-government

Toynbee, A. J. (2019). Julius Caesar | Biography, Conquests, & Facts. In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Julius-Caesar-Roman-ruler

Wasson, D. L. (2016). Alexander the Great as a God. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/article/925/alexander-the-great-as-a-god/

Welcome to the Newton Project. (n.d.). http://Www.newtonproject.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved December 14, 2021, from https://www.newtonproject.ox.ac.uk/

Interpreting The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse In A Historical Context

The Book of Revelations in the Christian Bible is a controversial and influential book. It’s basic storyline, that of an apocalyptic end of the world, has persuaded men, women, children, and others into fearing God and believing unprecedented doom will occur if Christian beliefs aren’t followed. Ever since the first century, there have been individuals who proclaim the apocalypse is just around the corner; see below for a brief list. In today’s environment of Covid-19, natural disasters, nuclear weapon technology, and financial hardships, there is no shortage of doomsday leaders who believe the real time of the tribulation is now. But what if they are all wrong? What if the symbology used by John the Elder (the credited author of Revelations) has been taken literally when it should be metaphorical? In this blog I explore a possible interpretation that takes into account how the symbolism can be read in a historical context.

List of dates predicted for apocalyptic events

Predicted YearPerson/sDetails of Apocalypse
66–70Simon bar Giora, Jewish EssenesThe Jewish Essene sect of ascetics saw the Jewish uprising against the Romans in 66–70 in Judea as the final end-time battle which would bring about the arrival of the Messiah.
365Hilary of PoitiersThis early French bishop announced the end of the world would happen during this year.
375–400Martin of ToursThis French bishop stated that the world would end before 400 AD, writing, “There is no doubt that the Antichrist has already been born. Firmly established already in his early years, he will, after reaching maturity, achieve supreme power.”
847ThiotaThis Christian declared in 847 that the world would end that year, though later confessed the prediction was fraudulent and was publicly flogged.
1033Various ChristiansFollowing the failure of the prediction for 1 January 1000, some theorists proposed that the end would occur 1000 years after Jesus’ death, instead of his birth.
1346–1351Various EuropeansThe Black Death spreading across Europe was interpreted by many as the sign of the end of times.
1524London astrologersA group of astrologers in London predicted the world would end by a flood starting in London, based on calculations made the previous June. Twenty thousand Londoners left their homes and headed for higher ground in anticipation.
For more predictions see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dates_predicted_for_apocalyptic_events

The standard interpretation of the Four Horsemen is: 

“The first horseman, a conqueror with a bow and crown, rides a white horse, which scholars sometimes interpret to symbolize Christ or the Antichrist; the second horseman is given a great sword and rides a red horse, symbolizing war and bloodshed; the third carries a balance scale, rides a black horse, and symbolizes famine; and the fourth horseman rides a pale horse and is identified as Death.”

Encyclopaedia Britannica

To me, this explanation is too simple; the descriptions of white, red, black, and pale horses beacons more investigation than the literal presentation of a Christ/Antichrist, war, famine, and death. In Did the White Horseman have a bow, bow, and bow? I demonstrate how interpretations of homophones can significantly alter the interpretation of Bible passages, further, I highlight that common, contemporary interpretations are not necessarily correct if translations issues, like punctuation, are not accounted for. As a continuation, a major flaw I perceive in many Bible interpretations is that the meaning of symbols are not viewed in relation to their historical significance and cultural context. But before delving into alternative ways of viewing the Four Horsemen, I’d like to do a little thought experiment.

Imagine: You are John the Elder, a citizen of Ephesus in approximately 96 CE. You have a spiritual experience in which prophetic visions are placed in your mind. Now imagine what language the Holy Spirit would use to communicate with you. Would you expect it to use a symbolic language that you understood? Or a symbolic language that you did not understand but people in the future might? To put it more crudely, if you spoke English, would you expect a spiritual being to communicate with you in English or a language you don’t know? Would you write down your vision using icons you did not understand? Or would you record the vision according to your own comprehension level?

Speaking in tongues aside, the chances are you’d receive a message from the Holy Spirit in a language you could comprehend, and you’d pass on your message in a manner that others could also comprehend. But also remember that you may be persecuted by Roman authorities for your beliefs, hence, you may want to disguise what you are saying so as it looks like it is not “Christian”. If only there were a symbolic code you could use …

Contrary to some theorists (like psychoanalysts) language and symbolic communication is not consistent over time or cultures. Pictures and symbols are a form of language, and just like any type of communication, these evolve over time. Human communication is in a constant flux that develops due to standard meanings being reused and blended with creative impulses that alter previous meanings. When changes to symbolic language is done deliberately, it can effectively make an “in” and an “out” group, that is those who understand the communication and those who do not … I can’t help but wonder if Early Christians who were afraid of persecution may have deliberately manipulated language and pre-existing symbols to avoid having their beliefs scrutinised?

When new words, phrases, or concepts get known and/or accepted by large groups of people they develop a cultural context. For example, if you were to tell someone in their eighties that you went to a party that was “totally sick”, they may give an empathetic response because they assumed that “totally sick” means the party was a disaster in which everyone became ill. In contrast, a younger person hearing about a “totally sick” party would understand that you had a great time (I touch upon the creativity of language more here.) Each generation alters or develops language usage in some way or another. Language has simple and complex interrelationships with the time, culture, and the audience in which it is spoken. 

Second thought experiment: If John the Elder had been given a literal vision of armageddon that was supposed to happen in our time then he would have had to describe cars, computers, electricity, and several other things that he would not have a point of reference to in his lifetime. Hence, it stands to reason that John’s recording of prophecies is embedded with symbolic communication appropriate to his language and his culture. Moreover, his vision is not literal, it is metaphorical; an allegory of concepts and feelings. I would even argue that it is not even about the end of the world, rather, it depicts a cosmic cycles; rebirths or some form of evolutionary stages. In comparison, consider real childbirth. If one were to metaphorically describe labour, especially a difficult labour, then it could be said to be a time of great pain and bloodshed in which the woman’s appetite is gone, her limbs and pelvis are torn in different directions, and there is a battle between internal forces and external forces. Birth is the death of life in the womb. So too the Book of Revelations may be describing great changes to humanity that are allegorical to war, famine, battle, and death. 

To decode the symbols of the Four Horseman further, we need to consider the Ephesus culture. Ephesus is located in modern day Turkey and it has a long history. In about the sixth century BCE it came under Greek influence and was a hub for cults that worshipped the Goddess Artemis. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great consolidated the Hellenisation of the region. By John the Elder’s time, Ephesus was a Roman province, however, Latin had not yet developed into a scholarly language, hence, Revelations was written in Greek (as was most of the New Testament). Pretty much all New Testament writers had an understanding of Greek and Jewish traditions, albeit, they may have favoured one over the other and their products were original to some degree. (See commentary on Justin Martyr.

Now to cut to the chase of the symbolism of the Four Horsemen; horses in Ancient times were a symbol of the intellect. To a contemporary mind this may not make sense; books, degrees, and computers may be considered better symbols of intelligence but in the eras we’re talking about, before the first century, books, formal qualifications, and computers weren’t invented yet. To a person of antiquity, horses were a valuable possession, they enabled travel and freedom, were needed on farms and to go into battle, they could be trained to do all sorts of tasks and tricks, and horses were loyal companions. Given all these considerations, it is understandable that horses became a symbol for intelligence. Homer’s depiction of the Trojan horse that enabled victory in the battle of Troy is a good example of how the concepts of intellect, strategy, resourcefulness, and success, were linked to horses in the pre-Christian era. 

Nowadays we think of the intellect in terms of cognitive brain functions that occur in the prefrontal cortex, in antiquity, the intellect was considered to be more of a spiritual principle. Spiritual forces were perceived to be everywhere and these could and would impact individuals. For instance, in Ancient Greece, it’s unlikely that a person would be described as a genius, rather, if a person displayed strong intellectual qualities then the external force of a “genii” may be given credit for working through them. A genii was like a guardian angel, higher self, or daimon that floated around trying to give people ideas; it was believed possible that if an idea from a genii was not accepted by one person, then the genii would move onto someone else. Basically, what we view as internalised higher order thinking, our Mediterranean ancestors perceived as external messages from spiritual realms.

Recognising the Four Horsemen as being aspects of an intelligent spiritual force is only the first step. The next is to understand that horses were also cosmological symbols. Hence, each horseman may be interpreted as representing a cosmic element. Helios riding his four-horsed chariot immediately comes to my mind.

Helios the Sun God riding is chariot with four horses. Image source: Theoi Project

In Ancient Greek theology, Helios’ four horses symbolise earth, water, air, and fire. Could it be that the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse are an appropriation or repurposing of the symbolism of Helios’ four horses? Maybe, however, the link may be broader. In Judaism Ezekiel’s chariot has four horses (Ezekiel 1:4-28), in the Greco-Roman era, Apollo had a four horse chariot, and some Early Christians depicted Saint Mark as the charioteer of four horses. The question, therefore, may be: Is there an ideological link between all these varied representations of horses with the classical elements?

The concepts of fire, air, water, and earth were definitely popular amongst philosophers, however, to say they all meant the same thing in every context is probably an overgeneralisation. Suffice to say, it is not farfetched to assume John the Elder knew this symbolic code; I’d be more surprised if he didn’t know about it. So how do the four elements link to the Four Horseman? Let’s first look at the colours. (Readers may want to review The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts to get some background information about the framework.)

In Empedocles era, there is evidence to suggest that he and others associated black, white, yellow and red to water, fire, earth, and air. Coincidentally, the four horsemen described in the Book of Revelations have the same colours, albeit, yellow may be referred to as pale or green, depending on which translation of the Bible you look at. (Side note: the colours associated with each element and the differing of terminology to describe the pale or yellow element is consistent with The surprising pattern behind color names around the world.)

If we go through the associated symbolism of each horseman one at a time we can see more clues:

I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.

Revelation 6:1-2 (NIV)

Key symbolic words that I can identify in these lines are thunder, white, and crown. These conjure inferences of concepts that relate to fire. The association of the White Horseman with the element of fire is strengthened in Revelation 19:11-16 when the rider is described as having eyes like a flame of fire. In Ancient Greek theology, fire is the highest on the hierarchy of elements. (The White Horseman’s “bow” is still open to interpretation.)

When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.

Revelation 6:3-4 (NIV)

If the sequence of the hierarchy is to be followed, then the red horse symbolises air. Air in classical philosophies is the emotional and passionate part of the soul. It is given reverence, however, it is also sometimes described as being an element that causes strife. Amongst air’s good points, is that it is a life-supporting element on earth; if one does not have air in their body they will be dead. Thus, there is some correlation between the traditional qualities of air and the Red Horseman’s characteristics of taking away peace and producing death.

When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “Two pounds a of wheat for day’s wages, and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”

Revelation 6:5-6 (NIV)

The black horse may be interpreted as water. While the literal symbols of scales, wheat, barley, and wages, appear to to be a reference to earthly concerns of money and finances, if they are viewed in the context of being said by a voice among the four living creatures, it can be inferred that the symbols of earthly existence (i.e., food and money) are supported or balanced (i.e., the scales) by the element of water. The final line is a warning that support of the physical elements must not damage the oil or the wine; wine is a symbol for spirit, aka fire, and oil is a symbol for soul, aka air. Hence, water is an intermediate or transitional element. 

When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.


Revelation 6:7-8 (NIV)

The most significant indication that the fourth horseman represents the element of earth is the term “Hades”. As explicitly told by Empedocles, Hades represents the earth in Ancient Greek theology. In Bible’s such as the King James Version, the pagan term of Hades is replaced by “Hell”, hence, some of the alignment between the theology of the elements and the horsemen is obscured. Just like the Homeric hymn to Demeter, Hades in Revelations is connected to death. The terms sword, famine, plague, and beasts, are not necessarily literal, but metaphorical of earthly experiences. The Early Christian concept of Hades is not identical to the Ancient Greek Hades, but it is a significant link that deserves acknowledgment.

The embedding of Ancient Greek theology into Christian doctrines has a long history. From Justin Martyr, to Augustine, and Aquinas, Christianity has always borrowed theology from other sources. In Is Aristotle Overrated? I hone in on the Greek influence, however, influence also came from Judaism, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and others.

Overall, there are many indicators that the Book of Revelations is a metaphorical story that appropriates or repurposes Ancient Greek theology. Read as an allegory, the Four Horsemen are not going to appear one after the other and signal the end of the world. According to my interpretation, John the Elder’s vision was as much a reflection on the development of human beings from a cosmological perspective as it is a prediction for the future.

Decoding the symbolism of the remaining three seals introduces some more complex theology that I’ll leave for another day. And to be honest, I have not perfected my interpretation of Revelations, but I hope that the insights I can provide promotes critical thinking that prevents people from falling for doomsday predictors who will one day join the Wikipedia list of false prophets.

Of all philosophies and theologies, I resonate with the concept of creativity being the most important. From imaginative applications of symbols and communication that involves creative language, to every moment of every day, human beings are creators, or as I’ve said before, creat[e]-ures made in the image of a Creative force that some call God. Ultimately, we all have the gift of Free Will to create a future of our choosing without fear that our destinies were pre-written in Ephesus, c.96CE.

References

Benson, J. L. (2000). Greek Color Theory and the Four Elements [full text, not including figures]. Scholarworks.umass.edu. https://scholarworks.umass.edu/art_jbgc/1

Biblical Ephesus. (2020). History of Ephesus – Biblical Ephesus. Biblical Ephesus. http://biblicalephesus.com/ephesus/history

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. (2019). Four horsemen of the Apocalypse | Christianity | Britannica. In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/four-horsemen-of-the-Apocalypse

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. (2012). Genius | Roman religion. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/genius-Roman-religion

History.com Editors. (2018, August 21). Ephesus. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-greece/ephesus

New World Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Book of Revelation – New World Encyclopedia. http://Www.newworldencyclopedia.org. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Book_of_Revelation

Revelation 6 KJV. (n.d.). Biblehub.com. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://biblehub.com/kjv/revelation/6.htm

Revelation 6 NIV. (n.d.). Biblehub.com. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://biblehub.com/niv/revelation/6.htm

Russell, J. R. (1997). The Four Elements and the Cross in Armenian Spirituality, with an Excursus on the Descent in Merkavah Mysticism. Jewish Studies Quarterly, 4(4), 357–379. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40753198

Theoi Project. (2017). Helius – Ancient Greek Vase Painting. http://Www.theoi.com. https://www.theoi.com/Gallery/T17.1.htmlUniversity of Michigan. (n.d.). Horse. Umich.edu. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from http://umich.edu/~umfandsf/symbolismproject/symbolism.html/H/horse.html