Myths and Folklore Wiki

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are four entities who are described as part of a prophecy by John of Patmos in the last book of the New Testament of the Bible, the Book of Revelation 6:1–8.

The Christian apocalyptic vision is that the Four Horsemen are to set a divine apocalypse upon the world as harbingers of the Last Judgment.[1][2]

Myths & Legends

The chapter tells of a book or scroll in God's right hand that is sealed with seven seals. The Lamb of God opens the first four of the seven seals, which summons four beings that ride out on white, red, black, and pale horses.

The prophecy describes a period of time when a quarter of the population of the earth would be killed by a combination of wars, famine and disease. The prophecy describes the causes as:

  1. a conquering people whose weapon was the bow "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",
  2. as people engaged in constant war "Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword",
  3. high food prices leading to famine "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, "A quart of wheat for a day's wages, and three quarts of barley for a day's wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!" and 
  4. disease "I looked and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him." These four are then summed up as follows "They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by the sword (war), famine, and plague and by the wild beasts of the earth".
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Though theologians and popular culture differ on the name of the first Horseman, but the four riders are often seen as symbolizing:

  • Conquest or Pestilence (on a White Horse)
  • War (on a Red Horse)
  • Famine (on a Black Horse)
  • Death (on a Pale Horse)

Conquest/Pestilence on a White Horse

"Then I saw when the Lamb broke one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, "Come." I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer."

— Revelation 6:1-2 New American Standard Bible (NASB)


Based on the above passage, a common translation into English, the rider of the White Horse (sometimes referred to as the White Rider) He carries a bow, and wears a victor's crown. In Revelation 6, the rider has just one crown given, not taken, indicating a third person giving authority to the rider to accomplish his work.

As an Infectious Disease (Pestilence or Plague)

Under another interpretation, the first Horseman is called Pestilence, and is associated with infectious disease and plague. It appears at least as early as 1906, when it is mentioned in the Jewish Encyclopedia.[3] The interpretation is common in popular culture references to the Four Horsemen.[4]

The origin of this interpretation is unclear. Some translations of the Bible mention "plague" (e.g. the NIV) or "pestilence" (e.g. the RSV) in connection with the riders in the passage following the introduction of the fourth rider; "They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine, plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth." (Revelation 6:7-8 NASB). However, it is a matter of debate as to whether this passage refers to the first rider, or to the four riders as a whole.

Symbollic of the Lamb

Irenaeus, an influential Christian theologian of the 2nd century, was among the first to interpret this Horseman as Christ himself, his white horse representing the successful spread of the gospel. Various scholars have since supported this notion,[5] citing the later appearance, in Revelation 19, of Christ mounted on a white horse, appearing as The Word of God. Furthermore, earlier in the New Testament, the Book of Mark indicates that the advance of the gospel may indeed precede and foretell the apocalypse. The color white also tends to represent righteousness in the Bible, and Christ is in other instances portrayed as a conqueror.[6][7]

Four horsemen by godcharon d2rcdz9-fullview.jpg

However, opposing interpretations argue that the first of the Four Horsemen is probably not the horseman of Revelation 19. They are described in significantly different ways, and Christ's role as the Lamb who opens the seven seals makes it unlikely that he would also be one of the forces released by the seals. It must also be noted that while the rider of the white horse wields a bow and wears a single crown, Christ rides forth with a sword, wearing many diadems.

War on a Red Horse

"The second Horseman, War on the Red Horse as depicted in a thirteenth-century Apocalypse manuscript. When He broke the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, "Come." And another, a red horse, went out; and to him who sat on it, it was granted to take peace from the earth, and that men would slay one another; and a great sword was given to him."

— Revelation 6:3-4 NASB

The rider of the second horse is often taken to represent War The second Horseman may represent civil war as opposed to the war of conquest that the first Horseman is sometimes said to bring. Other commentators have suggested that it might also represent the persecution of Christians.[8]


He is often pictured holding a sword upwards as though ready for battle or mass slaughter.[9] His horse's color is red and in some translations, the color is specifically a "fiery" red πυρρός, from πῦρ, fire). The color red, as well as the rider's possession of a great sword, suggests blood that is to be spilled. The sword held upward by the second Horseman may represent war or a declaration of war, as seen in heraldry. In military symbolism, swords held upward, especially crossed swords held upward, signify war and entering into battle.[10]

Famine on a Black Horse

"When He broke the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, "Come." I looked, and behold, a black horse; and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard something like a voice in the center of the four living creatures saying, "A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; but do not damage the oil and the wine."

— Revelation 6:5-6 NASB


The third Horseman rides a black horse and is popularly understood to be Famine as the Horseman carries a pair of balances or weighing scales, indicating the way that bread would have been weighed during a famine. Other authors interpret the third Horseman as the "Lord as a Law-Giver" holding Scales of Justice.[11] In the passage, it is read that the indicated price of grain is about ten times normal (thus the famine interpretation popularity), with an entire day's wages (a denarius) buying enough wheat for only one person, or enough of the less nutritious barley for three, so that workers would struggle to feed their families.

Sparing the Oil and Wine

Of the Four Horsemen, the black horse and its rider are the only ones whose appearance is accompanied by a vocal pronunciation. John hears a voice, unidentified but coming from among the four living creatures, that speaks of the prices of wheat and barley, also saying "and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine". The black horse rider is instructed not to harm the oil and the wine which signifies that this scarcity should not fall upon the superfluities, such as oil and wine, which men can live without, but upon the necessities of life—bread.[12] This suggests that the black horse's famine is to drive up the price of grain but leave oil and wine supplies unaffected (though out of reach of the ordinary worker). One explanation for this is that grain crops would have been more naturally susceptible to famine years or locust plagues than olive trees and grapevines, which root more deeply. The statement might also suggest a continuing abundance of luxuries for the wealthy while staples, such as bread, are scarce, though not totally depleted.[13]

Such selective scarcity may result from injustice and the deliberate production of luxury crops for the wealthy over grain, as would have happened during the time Revelation was written. Alternatively, the preservation of oil and wine could symbolize the preservation of the Christian faithful, who used oil and wine in their sacraments.[14]

Death on a Pale Horse

"When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, "Come." I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth."

— Revelation 6:7-8 NASB

The fourth and final Horseman is named Death. Known as "Θάνατος/Thanatos", of all the riders, he is the only one to whom the text itself explicitly gives a name. The Greek word for plague is θανάτῳ, which is a variation of Θάνατος, indicating a connection between the Fourth Horseman and plague.[15]

This fourth, pale horse, was the personification of Death with Hades following him jaws open receiving the victims slain by Death. The verse beginning "they were given power over a fourth of the earth" is generally taken as referring to Death and Hades,[16] although some commentators see it as applying to all four horsemen. Its commission was to kill all upon the earth as one of the four judgements of God—with sword, famine, pestilence and wild beasts. As for the wild beasts of the earth, according to Edward Bishop Elliott, it is a well-known law of nature that they quickly occupy the scenes of waste and depopulation—where the reign of man fails and the reign of beasts begins.[17]


Unlike the other three, he is not described carrying a weapon or other object, instead he is followed by Hades (the resting place of the dead). However, illustrations commonly depict him carrying a scythe (like the Death), sword,[18] or other implement.

The color of Death's horse is written as khlōros (χλωρός) in the original Koine Greek, which can mean either green/greenish-yellow or pale/pallid.[19] The color is often translated as "pale", though "ashen", "pale green", and "yellowish green" are other possible interpretations (the Greek word is the root of "chlorophyll" and "chlorine"). Based on uses of the word in ancient Greek medical literature, several scholars suggest that the color reflects the sickly pallor of a corpse.[20] In some modern artistic depictions, the horse is distinctly green.

Modern Depictions


  • Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, in his 1916 novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (filmed in 1921 and in 1962), provides an early example of this interpretation, writing "The horseman on the white horse was clad in a showy and barbarous attire. ... While his horse continued galloping, he was bending his bow in order to spread pestilence abroad. At his back swung the brass quiver filled with poisoned arrows, containing the germs of all diseases."


  1. Flegg, Columba Graham (1999). An Introduction to Reading the Apocalypse. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. p. 90. ISBN 9780881411317. Retrieved 2015-04-10.
  2. "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Apocalypse". 1907-03-01. Retrieved 2014-04-03.
  3. Singer, Isidore; Adler, Cyrus (1916). The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, Volume 10. Funk and Wagnalls. p. 392. ...and sees a white horse appear, with a rider holding a bow (representing, probably, Pestilence).
  4. Stableford, Brian (2009). The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press. p. 18. ISBN 0810868296. Retrieved 18 December 2015.
  5. Hendriksen, W. (1939). More More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation (Commemorative ed.). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker's Book House. p. 105. ISBN 0-8010-4026-4.
  6. Mounce, Robert H. (2006). The Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids, Mich. [u.a.]: Eerdmans. p. 140. ISBN 9780802825377. Retrieved 2015-04-10.
  7. Beale, G.K. (1999). The Book of Revelation (3rd ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans. pp. 375–379. ISBN 0-8028-2174-X. Retrieved 2009-08-14.
  8. Bible Prophecies fulfilled by 2012- Ch 2- by Alan R Peters
  9. Jeffrey, David Lyle (1992). 0802836348 (22nd ed.). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans. p. 363. ISBN 0802836348. Retrieved 18 December 2015.
  10. "Crossed Swords". Retrieved 2015-12-19.
  11. Hutchinson, Jane Campbell (2013). Albrecht Durer: A Guide to Research. Routledge. p. 58. ISBN 113558172X. Retrieved 2015-04-10.
  12. Gill, John (1776). An Exposition of the Revelation of S. John the Divine, both doctrinal and practical. London: George Keith. p. 71.
  13. Morris, Leon (1988). The Book of Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary (2nd ed.). Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press. pp. 100–105. ISBN 0-8028-0273-7.
  14. Hoeck, Andres; Manhardt, Laurie Watson (2010). Ezekiel, Hebrews, Revelation. Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Road Pub. p. 139. ISBN 1-931018-65-0. Retrieved 18 December 2015.
  16. Friedrich, Gerhard; Bromiley, Geoffrey W. (1968). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Reprinted. ed.). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans. p. 996. ISBN 9780802822482. Retrieved 2015-04-10.
  17. Elliott, Edward Bishop (1862), Horae Apocalypticae, Vol. I (5th ed.), London: Seely, Jackson and Halliday
  18. Alexander of Bremen. "Expositio in Apocalypsim". Cambridge Digital Library. Retrieved 27 February 2014.
  19. "Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, χλωρός". Retrieved 2014-04-03.
  20. Case, Shirley Jackson (2007). The Revelation of John: A Historical Interpretation (2nd ed.). University of Chicago Press. Retrieved 2015-04-10.