Throughout the history of civilization, the concept of the apocalypse has been ever present, in one way or another. The envisioned revelation, the feared end of the world that will herald an age of purification through horrific and chaotic means, has been a part of every major religion and belief throughout the centuries. But one of the most interesting prophecies relates to the famous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which are described in the Bible’s Book of Revelation.
“…and behold, a black horse…”
Today we’re bringing you this concept in detail. Together we will envision this end of the world, this crumbling of civilizations at the hands of War, Famine, Pestilence, and Disease, and dissect this prophecy and its various interpretations throughout history.
Could there be a speck of truth in this vision? Did the Four Horsemen already thunder across the fields of the earth? Let’s find out.
When Seven Trumpets Shall Sound! The Origins of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
In the New Testament – the second part of the Bible – and in its last book, which is called the Book of Revelation, written by John the Theologian of Patmos, there is a chapter which relates to us the story of a doomsday revelation, of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse which descend on the earth to decimate the population.
Each of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse represent different aspects of the cleansing of the earth, by Russian painter Viktor Vasnetsov. (Rillke / Public Domain )
The most straightforward and widely agreed interpretation of this chapter is the description of a period in history when a large part of earth’s population would perish through a combination of wars, diseases, and hunger. In the Bible, these hardships are described as horsemen, riding in succession at the behest of Jesus, in the form of the Lamb of God. This title comes from the Bible, John 1:29, when John the Baptist exclaims: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
Each one of these seven seals represent a different aspect of the apocalypse: the first four relate to the horsemen, the fifth releases the martyr’s cries for the God’s wrath , the sixth ushers a series of cataclysmic natural disasters, while the seventh calls forth the seven angelic trumpeters, who carry seven vials of plagues and divine wrath, which they pour out on the sinful and the wicked. The Lamb of God, being worthy to open the first four seals, does so, and summons forth, one after another, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, setting in motion the ferocious cleansing of the earth.
The Lamb opening the book/scroll with seven seals. The first four seals summons the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. (Batchheizer / Public Domain )
The White Horseman of the Apocalypse
“And I saw and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.” – Revelation, 6:2
Throughout history, various sources often explained the first rider in various different ways, since his role is the only one not explicitly stated. While most interpreters agreed that the white rider symbolizes disease and pestilence, it wasn’t always the usual claim. There is a widely attested description that places this white horseman as a metaphor for righteousness.
In a world where sin is rampant, a righteous harbinger of justice and righteousness would seem a fitting purifier in an apocalypse. The crown that was “given unto him” could signify the rule of justice above all, or symbolize a truly just leader, if such a one can exist.
But the symbolism of disease and pestilence could still be the most plausible description. The aspect of a conqueror is cognate with the sweeping of a major plague (the Great Plague is a good example) and the crown would symbolize the ultimate rule of death above all else.
The first horseman, the White Rider, of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. (Batchheizer / Public Domain )
But as the time progressed, and by the time of the beginning of the 16th century, many have come to interpret the white rider as the personification of the Second Coming of Christ, or even Christ himself. At the time of the major crisis and the break of Western Christianity with the reforms of Martin Luther, this came as a most logical and accepted explanation.
The white color of the horse and the rider was quickly connected with divine purity and absence of sin, and the bow he carried as the tool of divine punishment. Likewise, the white rider was interpreted as the Holy Spirit – pure and just.
Another popular view is much simpler – the white horseman could just be the personification of mass conquest. The passage, relating to the rider that “went forth conquering, and to conquer” could simply be that – a descent of a prophesied conqueror that will enslave the populace of the earth.
The Red Horseman of the Apocalypse
“And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.” – Revelation 6:4
The Red Horseman is widely connected with war. The translations often correlate in the descriptions: the horse is “fiery” red, and the rider bears an upright sword in preparation for battle. The red color is thought to symbolize the fire and blood of warfare, and the rider’s ability to make men kill one another clearly symbolizes constant and global warfare .
The second horseman, the Red Rider, of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. (Batchheizer / Public Domain )
War as an apocalyptic aspect was always present throughout time and is the most straightforward herald of death.
In Matthew, 24:6-7, Christ states: “And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars; For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…” This quote clearly relates to the ever-present aspect of warfare as a symbol of the final revelation.
Another interesting quote could also be adapted to the Red Horseman and warfare as the aspect of evil and the Antichrist:
“From the eternal sea he rises,
creating armies on either shore,
turning man against his brother,
until man exists no more.”
The red horseman could also signify the sin of hatred and aggression as a contributing factor to the prophesized end of the world. And in a paradoxical turn of events, the Lamb of God releases that same aggression to smite the wicked with fire and sword. The prophecy of constant warfare that is supposed to descend on earth is clearly described with the red rider having divine authority to take peace from the earth .
The Black Horseman of the Apocalypse
“And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.” – Revelation 6:5-6
Another easily interpreted figure, the black horseman was almost always universally described as a personification of Famine. The horse’s black color was widely attributed to negative aspects – mourning, carrion ravens, night, desolation, and bleakness – all of which are aspects of famine as well. The rider is said to carry in his hands a pair of balances.
This is the chosen translation of the original word – the Greek zugón – which generally means a “yoke”, as in a burden and a yoke for oxen. Both description carry negative connotations. The yoke is synonymous with servitude and slavery, and the pair of scales signifies the rationing and measuring of food. This was the common ancient practice of ascribing value to things.
The third horseman, the Black Rider, of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. (Batchheizer / Public Domain )
The passage states that a single penny (orig. denarius) would be sufficient to acquire only a meager ration of wheat, and even less of barley. This is clearly an ancient view of what a famine would look like, since wheat was a staple of the diet and without it bread was lost.
The final part of the passage states that while the prices of wheat and barley are affected, the ones of oil and wine are not to be changed. This was interpreted in several different ways, and could signify a paradoxical aspect, in which the staple foods are gone, while wine remains – furthering the famine while leaving the luxuries which cannot feed a man.
One popular interpretation states that the black horseman signifies the Imperial, ruling oppression of the lower class. The rich rulers hold the scales and dispense what meager rations they deem sufficient, while the luxuries remain abundant and out of reach for the poor. A growing divide between classes and fellow men could be a perfect aspect of an end time revelation.
The Pale Horseman of the Apocalypse
“And I looked and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.” – Revelation 6:8
The final, fourth horseman serves as a sort of epilogue, a dramatic crescendo that culminates with the most powerful and feared rider – Death itself. In the entire chapter, he is the only rider who was named, and the only one without a weapon – for he himself is a weapon. The rider and the horse are depicted as pallid, bearing the sickly and lifeless color of a corpse, and the ability to extinguish all manner of earthly life through various natural means.
The pale rider contains elements of all preceding ones and could be termed the most significant of the four. In his wake follows hell, the final culmination of all things horrific, seemingly ready to swallow all the wicked that will perish in the apocalypse.
The fourth horseman, Death, of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. (Batchheizer / Public Domain )
The part that states that power was given unto them over the fourth of the earth could be interpreted in various ways. While it could be that all four riders would wreak havoc over a quarter of the planet, it could also signify that each of the four would have a single quarter of the earth.
The passage states that the rider would kill with the beasts of the earth . This could be a hint to the animals and the nature that promptly retake the regions which are depopulated, signifying the ultimate reign of wild nature over the man.
Death Rides a Pale Horse – Apocalypse in Art
The prophecy of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse has long been the subject of inspiration for many artists, who chose that influential and critical subject as the source for monumental artworks. Throughout time, many artists portrayed the horsemen in the way they interpreted them, which also provides good insight into the prophecy.
One of the more popular depictions was made in 1887, by the renowned Russian painter Viktor Vasnetsov. His large painting, “Воины Апокалипсиса” , is a colorful and detailed, contemporary depiction of Death, War, Conquest, and Famine. They are given modern attributes and were intended to reflect on the populace of the time.
Some of the earlier, medieval depictions are much more dramatic and almost unsettling, certainly aimed at putting fear into the more doubtful believers. One such depiction was made between 1496 and 1498, by Albrecht Dürer, the renowned artist of the German Renaissance. His dramatic woodcut represents the four horsemen as elderly, ghastly, and emaciated men, whose equally unsettling stallions are trampling the sinful and gluttonous people below.
Woodcut by Albrecht Dürer of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. (Heavy Horse / Public Domain )
A similar woodcut was made between 1851 and 1860, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, a German painter, who portrayed a savage and merciless massacre of sinners by the four riders, all under the watchful eyes of the Lamb of God.
Until Man Exists No More
To date, the story of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse remains as a stark vision of the paradoxical, inherent nature of man. From its earliest forms it served as a warning for the wicked to change their ways, a plea for temperance and peace, for moderation and humility.
Yet we see that in the 21st century, much that was described in the Book of Revelation has come to pass. From countless famines, to plagues and pestilences, to endless wars and decadence – the apocalypse seems to have occurred several times over. Or is it yet to come?
Top image: 1796 painting “Death on a Pale Horse” artist depiction of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Source: VortBot / Public Domain .