The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Created | Updated Mar 29, 2008
The Book of Revelation is the last book of the Bible, and describes what happens when Jesus Christ opens the seven seals on a scroll given to him by God. The horsemen appear when the first four seals are broken; the Bible predicts that their coming will herald the Apocalypse. Although traditionally called War, Famine, Pestilence and Death, the only one the Bible names is Death. The other names have been derived from the Bible's descriptions. The incident described in Revelation has therefore been subject to much analysis.
One of the most famous images of the horsemen is Albrecht Dürer's woodcut.
The White Horse
And I1 saw when the Lamb2 opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.
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 6:1, 2, King James Version
The white colour represents false peace, while the rider, carrying a bow and wearing a crown, represents false religion. Some interpreters have gone further and claimed the White Horseman is the Antichrist. In verse two of the quote, the Horseman is said to conquer all before him.
Despite having a bow, the White Horseman has no arrows, which is taken to mean he will conquer without force. This has led some Biblical scholars to claim he represents Christ himself, not the Antichrist; but this is very much a minority view. At a similar time to Biblical events (and the writing of the Bible), a Roman army was destroyed by the Parthians near the River Tigris. The Parthians were renowned horse archers, and preferred to ride white horses.
The Red Horse
And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see.
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 6:3, 4, King James Version
Popularly called War and coloured red like blood on a battlefield, this horse represents war and destruction, and it is only appropriate that the Red Horseman carries a sword. He is said to bring war wherever he goes.
The Black Horse
And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. 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, King James Version
Popularly called Famine, the black colour of the horse represents barren fields, with the rider championing famine and unfair trade. He carries a set of scales.
The Pale Horse
And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.
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 6:7, 8, King James Version
Named in the Bible as Death. Although known as 'pale', the Greek word used in the Bible is chloros, or 'green', which in Greek has connotations of the sickly green pallor of a person suffering from an illness, or having recently died. The English word 'green' does not have the same meaning so it was changed to 'pale'. It may have been this similarity of names that gave rise to Pestilence3. The rider carries a scythe and spreads disease.
As with much of the rest of the Bible, the passage in Revelation is open to a lot of interpretations and differing views as to what each horseman represents. In one of these, the white horse is War and the red Pestilence (or Plague), with the third and fourth retaining their titles of Famine and Death. This is probably the interpretation which gave rise to the four 'standard' names. It has also been suggested that, rather than being a prophecy, the horsemen symbolise the power of God over the Roman occupiers of the Holy Land. The white rider, with its resemblance to the feared Parthian horse archer, wears the crown of a conqueror, and represents a conquering force from outside the Roman Empire. The red rider becomes representative of civil war which ended the Pax Romana in 180BC. The black rider follows, as famine does after war; and inevitably, the qualities of each of the three previous horsemen lead to the final one, death.
- '[The sky] was sullen, streaked and livid, and [Arthur Dent4] reflected that it was the sort of sky that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse wouldn't feel like a bunch of complete idiots riding out of' - from Douglas Adams' novel, Mostly Harmless.
- In the X-Men comics, arch-villain Apocalypse uses four other characters to protect his pyramids, which would kill all non-mutant humans. The storyline also featured later in the X-Men: Evolution TV series.
- In the book Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, the Four Horsemen (updated to riding motorcycles) are featured as: War, Famine, Pollution (Pestilence having retired in 1936 due to the invention of penicillin), and Death.
- They also appear in Pratchett's Discworld series as 'Four Horsemen of the Apocralypse', including a fifth horseman, Kaos (or Chaos), who left the group just before the others became famous. The Discworld horsemen have lives outside their apocalyptic work: for example, War is married with three kids: Panic, Terror and Clancy.
- There is a 1921 film called The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
- Online quizzes have been created ('Take this quiz, answer as best you can, and you will see which of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse you are...').
- Vicente Blasco Ibañez wrote the 1918 book The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
- A computer game was made, but later cancelled.
- Rock band Muse's album Black Holes and Revelations has cover artwork depicting four men sitting at a table with three horses on it in a Martian landscape. Despite the absence of a fourth horse, it is thought to represent the Four Horsemen. The album's last track, 'Knights of Cydonia' takes its title from Cydonia, a region of Mars. The term 'knights' may again be a reference to the Four Horsemen.
- Vertigo comics published a mini-series called Four Horsemen. It was a black comedy that took place on 31 December, 1999, in which the Horsemen return. The modern world is so changed that they do not recognise it, and they each meet an individual who changes their views. At the end each takes on a new, more contemporary name. Famine becomes Fecundity, representing the fear of becoming overweight; War becomes Incorporation, because all wars are now fought in the boardroom; Pestilence becomes Information, because information is the new plague on the world; and Death becomes Incomprehensibility, representing the fact that many people can't comprehend that their actions will have consequences. In the end, the Horsemen climb into their limos, each deciding to take their own path to the world's destruction. They plan to return in a century, as they think that is all it will take to usher in the Tribulation.