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What do the four animals of the Apocalypse symbolize?

In the prophetic book of the Apocalypse (Revelation), we find a repeated mention of four mysterious animals. What is the symbolic role of these animals in this book of prophecies?  What is the role they play, ESPECIALLY in the context of the Apocalypse?

1. The description of the four animals

Innumerable attempts have been made to decrypt the symbolism of the four animals in the Apocalypse, ranging from extreme attempts, even to humorous ones; and from ordinary, straightforward explanations to spiritual ones. 

Naturally, the Holy Bible –and especially its prophetic books– can be read at multiple “levels” of understanding. And of course, an effortless, natural interpretation does not preclude a spiritual interpretation. However, many attempts have been made, which led to various improprieties. But, as difficult as it may seem for someone to effortlessly understand the true symbolism of these four animals, the more reassured he will feel when this symbolism has been clarified!

We shall now examine the passage of the Book of Revelations that describes the four animals:

John sees these four animals in a vision, in which he stands gazing upon the Throne of God and various other celestial presences. There, surrounding the Throne of God, he observes the four animals:

Revelation 4:6-10

“6 Before the throne there was a sea of glass, like crystal. And in the midst of the throne, and around the throne, were four living creatures full of eyes in front and in back. 7 The first living creature was like a lion, the second living creature like a calf, the third living creature had a face like a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle. 8 The four living creatures, each having six wings, were full of eyes around and within. And they do not rest day or night, saying: “ Holy, holy, holy,  the Lord God Almighty,  Who was and is and is to come!”  9 Whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying:....”

So, he sees one animal that resembles a calf, another that resembles a lion, another that resembles an eagle, and one that resembles a human being. Each one of these ‘animals’ has six wings and each is described as being “full of eyes”. And furthermore, it says that these animals do not rest from praising the Lord, night and day.

These animals are not merely encircling the Throne; they are mentioned as being “in the midst” of the throne. How can this be? Well, quite simply, it is because John is looking at the ‘scene’ face-on. In other words, the Throne is somehow suspended in mid-air before John’s eyes, thus, the one animal is “above” the Throne, the other animal is “below” the Throne, and the other two animals appear on the left and the right of the throne respectively.

The four animals have therefore formed a circle, which visually ‘intersects’ the Throne from its sides. 

John observes that these animals appear at intervals, throughout the Apocalyptic vision, praising and prostrating themselves in a ritualistic manner. Let’s examine some sample verses that evidence this  :

Revelation 5:8

“8 Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”

Revelation 5:14

 “14 Then the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the twenty-four elders fell down and worshiped Him who lives forever and ever.”

Revelation 15:7

“7 Then one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God who lives forever and ever.”

Revelation 19:4

4 And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who sat on the throne, saying, “Amen! Alleluia!”

So, what do these animals really symbolize?


2. The parallel vision of Ezekiel

We need to mention here, that these four symbolic animals did not first appear in the book of Revelations. God had ‘shown’ them to the prophet Ezekiel, in a far earlier vision, only with a slightly different form. Let’s examine the description in there:

Ezekiel 1:5-14

5 Also from within it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man.

6 Each one had four faces, and each one had four wings.

7 Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the soles of calves’ feet. They sparkled like the color of burnished bronze.

8 The hands of a man were under their wings on their four sides; and each of the four had faces and wings.

9 Their wings touched one another. The creatures did not turn when they went, but each one went straight forward.

10 As for the likeness of their faces, each had the face of a man; each of the four had the face of a lion on the right side, each of the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and each of the four had the face of an eagle.

11 And their faces and their wings were divided vertically; each of the two wings touched one another, and two covered their bodies.

12 And each one moved directly forward, before their face; wherever the spirit moved to, they would move there, and while they moved, they did not turn about.

13 As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like coals of fire that were burning, like the appearance of torches; each moved back and forth among the living creatures. The fire was bright, and lightning came out of the fire.

14 And the living creatures ran about back and forth, with an appearance like lightning.

In Ezekiel’s vision, we notice certain similarities but also certain differences, as compared to the description in Revelations, such as the following two, basic ones:

The ‘animals’ in this vision have four wings and not six. They also have 4 faces each, and their animal-featured faces are not separate, as described in the Apocalypse. These differences indicate that these animals are indeed not something real, but only symbolic images that can have variations in their details, from one vision to another, in order to convey a specific message each time.

We shall not preoccupy ourselves for the moment with the individual symbolisms of all these things (which are so many, that it would take up an entire book).  We shall not concern ourselves here with the similarities and the differences with Ezekiel. Nor shall we analyze here the symbolisms in Ezekiel. Perhaps in a separate study we may go into all those details.

In this study, we shall concern ourselves only with the general idea of the ‘animals’ that appear in the Book of Revelations, and what they symbolize. With this understanding, we shall be able to better perceive the role of the four ‘animals’, SPECIFICALLY in the visions of the Apocalypse.


3. The spiritual interpretation by the secret initiate, Dionysios

In the past, a spiritual interpretation of these ‘animals’ was given by a secret initiate called ‘Dionysios the Areopagite’, a Christian who authored his writings around 500 A.D., using as a pseudonym the name of Saint Dionysios the Areopagite.

In these spiritually invaluable writings of Dionysios, there is an essay regarding the celestial hierarchy, where he relates the characteristics of the four ‘animals’ with the characteristics of the various angelic hosts. In other words, he is providing a spiritual interpretation, and not a physical explanation of the prophecy. Let us take a look at this excerpt, as it is quite interesting. (The comments that appear in small print, are our own observations)

On the Celestial Hierarchy (chapter 13:20, 15:8)

"...as for the six-fold representation of their wings, this signifies the absolute and supreme uplifting towards God, for the lower, the middle and the ultimate perceptions…".

"We should therefore concede that the representation of the lion denotes the regal quality, the brave and untamable character, as well as the power to assimilate the inexpressible surreptitiousness of Thearchy, with the concealing of the traces of their intellect and their modest curtailing of it, in their upward course towards Thearchy (just as the lion doesn’t leave any tracks behind it, wherever it goes), which secures divine illumination.

“That the form of the ox denotes the power and the vigor that widens the noetic furrows in order to receive the inseminating showers from the heavens, while the horns denote the power of guarding and invincibility.

That the form of the eagle denotes the regal quality, the trend towards the heights and swift flight, as well as speediness and alertness, the willingness and the intelligence to discover suitable nourishment, the ability for an unhindered, and direct -without deviation- envisioning towards the bounteous and all-illuminating rays of Thearchy’s sun, with the robust uplifting of visual powers.”

The secret initiate Dionysios used all of the above elucidations, to compose the characteristics of the celestial angelic hosts, and he in fact did this, by not only analyzing the vision in Revelation, but also the parallel vision of Ezekiel. Beyond this spiritual interpretation relating to angels (which we inserted informatively), we shall concern ourselves more immediately with the symbolisms behind all these things, inasmuch as they refer to the vision in the Apocalypse specifically.


4. The role of the 4 animals in the Book of Revelation

Many attempts have been made by many people, especially within the plethora of the Protestant denominations, who, by not having the Orthodox prerequisites, have frequently provided amusing theories. For example, the four animals have been presented as supposedly symbolizing the ... four basic attributes of God. These attributes were duly warped to match the respective animals, thus giving a humorous result.

But now, let’s examine the significance of these four animals of the Apocalypse, with simple logic, and within the mentality of the Orthodox faith:

So, we have four animals: one like a lion, one like a calf, one like an eagle, and one like a human. The first thing we should ask ourselves is: WHAT DO THESE FOUR ANIMALS HAVE IN COMMON? Let’s try to find out.

What is the lion known to be?  Even a little child would reply that it is the “king of the beasts”!

What is the eagle known to be?   Again, a little child would say it is the “king of all the birds of flight”.

What is a calf (young bull)? A child would say that it is the “king of all domestic beasts”.

What is a human being?  A child knows that man is the “king of the entire material creation”.

You see, the Holy Bible isn’t always so difficult.  When there is a desire in Christ to comprehend it, everything eventually becomes clearer!  What, therefore, do we have here? Obviously, we have four representatives of creation. These four living creatures represent the whole of creation.

Of course we also have the 6 wings!  The six wings are reminiscent of the prophecy of Isaiah:

Isaiah 6:1,2

“1 ........I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, and the temple was filled with His glory. 2 And the Seraphim did stand around Him. Six wings did each one of them have; each one had six wings....”.

In other words, not even the 6 wings that John saw in his vision were original, nor were the animals surrounding the Throne; Isaiah had seen the same thing, only with certain small differences.

In Isaiah, we notice that the creatures with the 6 wings are “angels” – the Seraphim. This helps us to understand why the four animals in John’s vision had 6 wings: It is because those animals not only represented the material world, but also the spiritual world – the angelic world!

Clearly, therefore, and without the slightest doubt remaining, the four animals in the Book of Revelation symbolize the representatives of all creation – both material and spiritual.  This representation of creation that was observed “in the midst” of the Throne (according to the artistic expression in the Book of Revelation), encompasses God, Who, being omnipresent, has Creation “within Himself”. 

These animals incessantly glorify God, night and day.  This is so reminiscent of Psalm 19!

1 The heavens narrate the glory of God; And the firmament announces His handiwork. 2 Day unto day utters speech, And night unto night reveals knowledge.

All of nature – in both heaven and earth – witnesses and glorifies God.  Day and night, all of nature reveals and glorifies its Creator. And this takes place EVERYWHERE – at all four points of the horizon – which is testified by the four animals that encircle the Throne of God from every side.

In Revelation, apart from the incessant glorification of God by these representatives of Creation, we also notice, in the scant references that we have quoted above, that these four animals appear to be carrying about a certain book which they afterwards deliver; they are also described as regularly chanting “Amen”, glorifying God, and offering incense.... Now, we know that all of these activities are extremely foreign to Protestantism, and it is to be expected that Protestant interpreters cannot attribute any deeper symbolic meanings to them. The reason for this is, that the ‘activities’ described here are the ‘activities’ that reflect the ritual of a DIVINE LITURGY IN THE HEAVENS!  Because the Book of Revelation is not only a prophetic book; it is also a Liturgical Book.

Right from the very beginning, through to the very end, this Book is a Divine Liturgy in itself, which includes a summary of Creation and Salvation in full; it includes the ritual procession of books, incense-offering, elders, a throne, a sacrifice, psalms...

It is a perennial Divine Liturgy that incorporates the plan for the salvation and the incorruptibility of Creation.  And in this plan, we see that Creation does play a role; a role that is described in the Book of Revelation, and enacted by those four mysterious animals.

But all of these details are part of a huge topic, which we shall tackle in many future studies....


N. M.

Translation by A.N.

Greek text

Article published in English on: 28-8-2005.

Last update: 28-8-2005.