Though the revelation of Saint John is certainly the most thoroughly studied and exhaustingly interpreted single work in the world’s literature, the detail of the colour of the mounts of the Four Horsemen has received scant attention, in spite of the fact that the Vision of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is one of the best-known elements of the Apocalypse.
The four colours were generally accepted as means of identifying the individual riders, equivalent to the iconographical colour scheme that serves for the three knightley saints, George, Theodore, and Demetrius: white horse for Saint George, black horse for Saint Theodore, and a red horse for Saint Demetrius. They also could indicate the characteristics of the apocalyptic horsemen. Thus, the crowned first horseman rides a white horse, a colour usually associated with a royal steed; the sword-wielding second horseman spurs a red horse, the colour of blood; the third horseman with the scales of famine’ sits on a gloomily black horse, and Death, the fourth horseman, comes astride a pale horse, the colour of decay. There is, however, reason to believe that the colours of the four horses were influenced by a cultural complex from beyond the confines of the Mediterranean world.
In chapter ninety-nine of the early Chinese chronicle Ts’ien Han Su, there is a report about the “Generals in Charge of the Enforcement of Imperial Power in the Five Directions of the World” who were sent out in the Christian year nine to collect from all officials the obsolete seals of the old Han dynasty, and to issue new seals in the name of the new Emperor, Wang Mang. The five generals were spectacularly outfitted for the occasion, with a military escort of five cohorts equipped thus: the vanguard was dressed in red and rode red horses, the rear guard was in black on black horses, the left wing was garbed in blue and mounted on grays, the right wing was in white on white horses, and the center column had yellow uniforms and rode yellow horses. These five colours correspond to the five cardinal directions of Chinese cosmology: red for the South, black for the North, blue for the East, white for the West, and yellow for the Center. Harmony with the universe was the underlying principle and paramount concern of Chinese civilization. Thus, the Emperor seated on his throne faced South, where the sun was brightest and highest in the heaven. Consequently, the South was considered to be the foremost of the cardinal directions, and therefore the vanguard of the “Generals in Charge of the Enforcement of Imperial Power” was clad in the red of the South direction and mounted on red sorrels. Following this pattern, North was the direction behind the throne, so the rear guard was dressed in black and had black horses. East, the direction where the sun rises, was at the throne’s left, therefore the left side was the side of honour in court ceremonial, and in military affairs the left wing took precedence. For this reason, the left flank guard of the five generals was garbed in the blue of the East and mounted on greys, the closest approximation to blue in the natural colour of horses. In the same way, the white uniforms and horses of the right flank guard corresponded to the colour of the West, and the yellow of the centre cohort was that of the world centre.
On an earlier occasion, this traditional colour scheme of Chinese cosmology had been adopted by one of the enemies of the Chinese empire, in order to secure military success by complying with the order of the universe. In 20I B.C. the Han Emperor, Kao, personally led a great campaign against the Hung Nô, steppe nomads who had become dangerous to the borderlands under their energetic chieftain, the Motun Tanhu. The wily nomad succeeded in trapping the Emperor with his entire army in their encampment at Pe’-teng. During the siege, which lasted for seven days, Motun Tanhu had his warriors distributed throughout the encircling ring according to the colours of their horses: those on white horses at the West section, those on grays in the East, those on blacks in the North, and those on red or brown horses in the South. The finishing touch in this cosmological colour scheme was that the centre was occupied by the hapless Chinese army with their Emperor, whose sacred colour was yellow.
Interestingly enough, eight decades later, when the Han Emperors began another, this time successful, campaign against the Hung Nô, the victorious Chinese commander, Ho’-K’i-ping, bore the title P’iao-k’i-General. P’iao-k’i is the term for a yellow saddle horse with a white mane.
It seems that the colours of the cardinal directions also played a role in the names of nomadic tribes and nations of Asia and Eastern Europe, such as the White and Black Kumans, the White Huns, the Karakalpaks (black), the Bjelo-Russians (white) — the root of the word rus is probably “red” — and the various Sarmato-Alanic tribes, the Aorsi (white) and the Roxolani (light), famed for their “hoar frost coloured” horses.
In the narrative scroll of the story of Lady Wen-chi, in the collections of the Museum’s Department of Far Eastern Art, the Hung Nô Prince, one of the main characters of the story, is consistently represented as accompanied by five banners in the colours of the cardinal directions: white, black, blue, red, and yellow. As the commander of the left (blue, or Eastern) wing of the Southern Hung Nô, he rides a dappled gray.
As might be expected, supernatural horses are subject to the same colour scheme. In a study of the horse cult of the Turkic nomads of the Sajan-Altai region, the Leningrad anthropologist Leonid Pavlovich Potapov points out on Siberian that the bura-ghost-horses-painted shamans’ drums and thought to carry the shamans on their spirit-travels through the heavens and the otherworld, are regularly of the colours of four of the cardinal directions: “roe-deer-coloured” (red), gray, white, and black. At the same time these bura of different colours are the distinctive amounts of individual tribal spirit-beings or demons, just like the distinctively coloured horses of Saints George, Theodore, and Demetrius, or the gray horse Sleipnir of the Norse God Odin. It is interesting that among the Siberian bura the fifth colour, yellow, is not to be found. In cases where a shaman’s drum shows a fifth bura, it may be a spotted horse.
Asiatic shamanism has as one of its essential features elaborate dream visions following a well-defined pattern of specific motifs, such as the swallowing of strange food (often of an intoxicating nature that may provoke the visions in the first place), views of the World Tree, and realistically experienced flight. The dreaming shaman would be aided in these events by helping spirits in the shape of fantastic animals, such as the eight-legged elk of the Tungus shamans or the spirit- horses in the four colours of the cardinal directions among the Turkic nomads of the Altai region. Similar helpers and elements appear in the visions of Saint John, for instance, in the eating of the book, the tree of life, the transport through the air by the angel, the Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, and the Four Horsemen on their white, red, black, and pale horses.
If the rules of Far Eastern cosmology were applied to the order of appearance of the four apocalyptic horsemen, it would be quite different from the marching order of the military escort of the “Generals of the Five Directions of the World.” The direction West would then come first, as symbolized by the white horse, then South (red horse), North (black horse) and East (pale horse). This order goes against the course of the sun and puts the rider Death in the position of the East, in striking contrast to the Western principle, “ex oriente lux.” However, this reversal of the natural order of things would be only too appropriate for the beginning of the end of the world.