References To The Four Horsemen Are Proliferating

Gerald Owen
National Post

Saturday, February 22, 2003

Will duct tape or plastic sheeting keep out the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Probably not. What about potassium iodide, chemically known as KI? Maybe; it can avert thyroid damage if you are exposed to a dirty bomb or a North Korean missile.

References to the Four Horsemen are proliferating. A British digital illustrators' Web site identifies them as G8, McDonald's, Exxon and Nestlé (with George W. Bush in their midst). A San Francisco-based online magazine, AlterNet, has called Bush, Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft the Four Horsemen of Autocracy. A North Carolinian is quoted on identifying the apocalyptic four as "Cheney, the Jackal, war-wolf [Paul] Wolfowitz, Rambo Rumsfeld and [Richard] Perle, the prince of darkness." In Britain, a Daily Mirror cartoonist has presented a more balanced foursome: Bush, Tony Blair, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

Deploying more or less the customary list, a Californian peace activist says, "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse -- war, famine, disease and death -- will be strewn across Iraq by the world's most powerful nation." In Chicago, a Methodist minister addressing a crowd of 300 Catholics used the same trope.

Moving to time-honoured ground, we can get some guidance on how to recognize the Horsemen and how to tell them apart, from the original source, the Apocalypse of John, also known as the Book of Revelation.

The colours of the horses are clear enough: white, red, black and a sickly pale yellow-green. Popular culture knows them as War, Famine, Plague and Death. This is tidy but inaccurate. They are Conquest, War, Famine and Death.

Plague is not explicitly named, though probably implied; it is a death that travels quickly and far, as if on a swift horse.

The white rider is the most puzzling. The other three are clearly evil, but many have thought the white one is Christ. Later in Revelation, Christ does lead an army riding white horses; but here, in Chapter 6 -- where the Lamb, who is certainly Christ, is opening a series of seven seals on a book -- the context suggests that conquest opens the way to unambiguous evils, shining and splendid though it is.

Red war is straightforward enough, though the rider with bow and arrows is not so obvious. In John's day, the Parthian empire had mounted archers; the Parthians were an Iranian people, more Central Asian than their Persian cousins, and bowmen-cavalry have a long history in the steppes. But the arrows could portend modern missiles, too.

Black famine carries weighing scales, a symbol of scarcity. Price levels figure; one might anachronistically think of the scales as a pair of supply and demand curves. If a denarius was a day's wages, a quart of wheat sounds not so bad -- for one person, though not for a breadwinner who has to support a whole family. Barley, an inferior good, is much cheaper. The supply of comparative luxuries such as olive oil and wine is intact; good for the rich!

Death seems to be the summation of the other riders, encompassing war, famine and plague. As for his horse's paleness, the Greek word often translated as "pale" is chloros, from which we get "chlorine" -- an odour of which, in the current panicky climate, caused a Toronto subway line to be shut down in Tuesday morning's rush hour.

Horses of more or less the same colours appear in the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Zechariah. They are patrolling the Earth, correspond to the four directions and seem benign; Zechariah is speaking in about 520 BC, during the hopeful lead-up to the building of the Second Temple.

But John seems to have recorded his vision after the Roman destruction of that temple in AD 70, in expectation of Roman persecution of Christians -- a crisis leading on to disaster for Rome and, sooner or later, to the End of Days.

The timing is unclear; some people think that much of what the book predicts has by now already happened.

Scholars distinguish between prophetic and apocalyptic writings. Prophets convey warnings, promises and commands from God; they can use imagery, but the reporting of visions is not their core business. The Apocalypse of John draws upon the Prophets, but particularly on the Book of the Prophet Daniel, which has been put into the apocalyptic slot. "Apocalypse" and "revelation" (based on Greek and Latin words, respectively) mean "unveiling." In their way, apocalyptic writings are quite explicit, giving a great deal of specific symbolic detail in their accounts of the future -- which is not to say that we can visualize, let alone interpret, all the scenes.

In contemporary categories, these books seem surrealistic -- there are creatures with too many eyes, for example. The keys to the codes in apocalyptic and surrealism are both unavailable; in apocalyptic, it lies in alleged future history; in surrealism, it is buried in the unconscious.

Interpretation of the Apocalypse is not always a wholesome pursuit. Let us leave aside the many theories of the four riders that lay claim to truth. Instead, here is a breathless tour of some of their appearances in works of the human imagination.

Albrecht Dürer's well-known woodcut of the Four Horsemen is intense and expressionistic, rather than surrealistic. Famine looks well-fed and stolid; Conquest and War look Central Asian, perhaps Turkish, coming from a time when the Ottoman empire was well on the way to conquering most of Europe. The woodcut is one of the illustrations of Dürer's edition of the Apocalypse, published in 1498.

The riders' profile rose with the First World War. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is an anti-war novel by a Spanish writer, Vicente Blasco Ibanez, in which members of one family are on opposing sides of the conflict. It was made into a silent movie in 1921, in which Rudolph Valentino had his first major role, playing Julio, a young Argentinian who is fighting for France, his father's native land. Valentino's dancing of the tango in this role is famous; I have heard it called "radiant."

Vincente Minelli directed a 1961 remake, set in occupied France in the Second World War; its reputation is low.

One of the four horsemen is the eponym of Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a novella that made Katherine Anne Porter famous in 1939; the story is set in the great influenza epidemic at the end of the First World War.

There is a sighting of the four riders in Ingmar Bergman's 1957 film The Seventh Seal -- the title is a reference to the same chapter of Revelation. Plague is loose, and the film is built around a game of chess between Death and a weary Scandinavian knight (Max von Sydow) coming home from the Crusades.

In 1980, William S. Burroughs, the author of Naked Lunch, gave a speech to the Planet Earth Society called The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, in which he shrewdly observed how war, famine and plague are converging, how they are all becoming artifacts, weapons of war, controlled by human beings -- but, as he says, we human beings are out of control ourselves.

His main point was that we are an unsatisfactory, underdeveloped species; his topic shifts from the horsemen to evolutionary adaptation to space travel -- which maybe is a rival to John's Apocalypse: a new heaven and a new earth in a radically revised sense?

One admirer has identified Burroughs himself as one of the Four, along with three other Beat generation writers, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso.

Closer to home, on May 23, 1970, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse -- bpNichol, Steve McCaffery, Paul Dutton and Rafael Barreto-Rivera -- gave their debut performance on Yonge Street in Toronto. They were a sound-poetry group with roots in improvisation, and they lasted until bpNichol died in 1988 -- under a shorter name. "That was the only time we used that name," says Dutton, "trimming it down the next time we went public to the less cumbersome, and vaguely less frightening, The Four Horsemen." At least one observer remembers their intent as consciously apocalyptic: a revolution in ways of signification.

In the 1990s, a hard rock band appeared on the West Coast of the United States called the Four Horsemen; a skull with wings is on their first album cover. They won praise, but two miserable deaths brought about the group's end (one musician died of a drug overdose and another never came out of a coma after being struck by a drunk driver).

Looking ahead, in fall or winter of 2003, a video game called Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will come out, from 3DO, a company previously known for stolid, respectable games; this one amounts to a repositioning. The player is to take the role of Abaddon, a fallen angel (a.k.a. Apollyon) who appears in Revelation. In the amended story, Abaddon will be a good guy; to fight Pestilence, War, Famine and Death. His task is to find three Chosen to join him: a serial killer on death row, a corrupt U.S. senator and a lightly clothed prostitute. Gruesome effects are promised.

The rehabilitation of Abaddon is reminiscent of Blake's and Shelley's pro-Luciferian interpretation of Milton's Paradise Lost.

For good or ill, video games may well prove compatible with apocalyptic writings. Both genres were born in prosperous and worried ages.


And I saw that the lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four animals saying as in a voice of thunder, "Go." And I looked, and see! A white horse, and the man sitting on it had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he went out, conquering and in order to conquer.

And when the lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second animal saying, "Go." And another horse went out, which was fiery red, and it was given to the man who sat on it to take peace out of the Earth, and a great sword was given to him.

And when the lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third animal saying, "Go." And I looked, and see! A black horse, and the man who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four animals saying, "A quart of wheat for a denarius and three quarts of barley for a denarius, but do not harm olive oil and wine."

And when the lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth animal saying, "Go." And I looked, and see! A yellowish-green horse, and the name of the one who sat upon it is Death, and Hades followed with him, and permission was given them to kill, on a quarter of the Earth, by sword, hunger, death and the beasts of the Earth.

Translation by G.O., National Post

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