St Hildegard’s vision of the last days is a description of five symbolic beasts that represent five unique historical periods that immediately precede the time of the Antichrist. The book, The Five Beasts of St. Hildegard: Prophetic Symbols of Modern Society, argues that four of the five periods have already occurred in our recent history. If the book’s theories are convincing, then we can look for references to that same future period of time in the prophetic literature of the Bible and compare.
One such reference is the well-known apocalyptic passage in the Book of Revelation which includes a description of the infamous “Whore of Babylon”. Unfortunately, the book of Revelation is very difficult to interpret, and Revelation 17:1-14, which references the Whore of Babylon and the beast with seven heads, is especially difficult to understand. But it can be interpreted, and often is among Catholic theologians, as referencing the time leading up to the Antichrist. To do so requires the premise that the book of Revelation relates to the future and has specific information about the end times.
A common method of interpreting Revelation among Catholic theologians is typological. Biblical typology is the study of words, events, symbols, etc. that have a broader meaning then their immediate biblical context. Numbers connected to events are the most common “types” found in the Bible; there were forty days of rain, forty years in the Sinai wilderness, forty days fasting in the desert etc. It tells us that these events are connected or somehow foreshadow each other. When a passage in Revelation can be connected to an event or series of events which happened in the first century, they’re also intended to be viewed as foreshadowing events into the future. Catholic biblical scholar Peter Williamson, STD., in his popular commentary on Revelation prefers the typological approach to interpreting the book’s message:
“…[U]nderstanding the book’s first-century historical context is essential for interpreting it correctly. However, it is also clear that Revelation claims to depict the Church’s trials leading up to the return of Christ. …In John’s view, the spiritual dynamics of the final trial are already present in the temptations and persecutions that confront the Church in his day. From our vantage point centuries later, we can see that the prophet John saw the end of history through the lens of the trial facing the first-century churches of Asia in the Roman Empire. Like other eschatological [end-time] biblical prophecies, those in Revelation seem not to distinguish the author’s day from that of history’s end.”
Utilizing this approach in interpreting Revelation 17, we have a clear biblical reference to the time leading up to the Antichrist that parallels Hildegard’s vision:
Then one of the seven angels who were holding the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come here. I will show you the judgment on the great harlot who lives near the many waters. The kings of the earth have had intercourse with her, and the inhabitants of the earth became drunk on the wine of her harlotry.” Then he carried me away in spirit to a deserted place where I saw a woman seated on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names, with seven heads and ten horns. The woman was wearing purple and scarlet and adorned with gold, precious stones, and pearls. She held in her hand a gold cup that was filled with the abominable and sordid deeds of her harlotry. On her forehead was written a name, which is a mystery, “Babylon the great, the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth I saw that the woman was drunk on the blood of the holy ones and on the blood of the witnesses to Jesus.
When I saw her I was greatly amazed. The angel said to me, “Why are you amazed? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, the beast with the seven heads and the ten horns. The beast that you saw existed once but now exists no longer. It will come up from the abyss and is headed for destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world shall be amazed when they see the beast, because it existed once but exists no longer, and yet it will come again. Here is a clue for one who has wisdom. The seven heads represent seven hills upon which the woman sits. They also represent seven kings: five have already fallen, one still lives, and the last has not yet come, and when he comes he must remain only a short while. The beast that existed once but exists no longer is an eighth king, but really belongs to the seven and is headed for destruction. The ten horns that you saw represent ten kings who have not yet been crowned; they will receive royal authority along with the beast for one hour. They are of one mind and will give their power and authority to the beast. They will fight with the Lamb, but the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and king of kings, and those with him are called, chosen, and faithful.”
In the first passage the angel introduces John to specific apocalyptic images and characters. In the second, the angel explains who and what they represent. The explanation, however is complex and contains what seem like riddles. While there is no clear consensus among Catholic interpreters of these passages, it seems evident that the beast with the seven heads refers to the Antichrist, or at least the “eighth king” does. He is referred to “The beast that existed once but exists no longer is an eighth king, but really belongs to the seven and is headed for destruction“. This is the same beast that was introduced in Rev. 13:1-18 and will be destroyed by Christ (“the Lamb“).
The reference to the seven kings representing the “seven hills” would clearly have been understood by St. John as Rome, since it was commonly known as the city on seven hills, the angel explained that each hill represents a king, connecting it to the seven-headed beast. A coin minted by Emperor Vespasian depicts the goddess Roma resting on seven hills just as the image of the harlot did. So we have the rise of the Antichrist, who will deceive the nations in the last days and be destroyed by Christ, being presented in connection with the Roman Empire during St. John’s day. From a biblical typological viewpoint, the angel is describing the last days using the analogous history of early imperial Rome.
THE SEVEN KINGS
The seven kings represent the first seven Roman Emperors, beginning with Augustus (27 BC-14 AD) (Julius Caesar was not considered emperor). Five of which, the angel tells John, have “fallen”. Following Augustus, they would have included Emperors Tiberius (14-37), Gaius (“Caligula”) (37-41), Claudius (31-54), and Nero (54-68). The next one, the “one who still is”, would have been Emperor Vespasian (69-79), who seized the throne during “the year of four emperors”. The seventh, Titus (79-81), whose reign lasted only two years, is the one who, “when he comes he must remain only a short while“.
The angel further helps John understand the beast’s connection to the Roman empire by referring repeatedly to an eighth king but who is really one of the seven who apparently dies and then comes back to life: “it existed once but exists no longer, and yet it will come again“. John would have understood this to be a reference to a much-believed popular myth in the first century that the much-hated Emperor Nero, after being declared and enemy of the people by the senate and committing suicide by stabbing himself, nevertheless survived and went into hiding in Parthia with the intention of returning and re-establishing himself on the throne. Historians of this period are familiar with this and refer to it as the “Nero Redivivus” legend.
“Count the numerical values of the letters in Nero’s name, and in ‘murdered his own mother’: you will find their sum is the same.”
This is a typical piece of Roman graffiti during Nero’s reign as reported by Roman historian Suetonius in his book, The Twelve Caesars. It refers to Greek numerology. In Hebrew numerology (gematria), however, his name adds up to a different number — 666. He did indeed murder his mother, as well as kick his pregnant wife to death when she complained about him coming home late.`He also may have invented homosexual marriage, as on two occasions he publicly married his male lover (Nero dressed as the bride). What would be most significant is that he was the first Roman emperor to systematically persecute Christians, including the murder of John’s brother disciples, Saints Peter and Paul. This makes Nero a “type” of the Antichrist.
In The Annals of Imperial Rome, the Roman historian Tacitus reports that Nero, who was widely suspected of instigating the burning of Rome and performing songs on his private stage while fire engulfed the city, looked around for scapegoats; this is when the persecutions began. The emperor chose to blame the “notoriously depraved Christians” (Tacitus notes that this is what Christians were popularly referred to as). Tacitus did not like Christians, who he said were followers of a “deadly superstition”, and who engaged in “degraded and shameful practices”, claiming also that “…the human race detested them.” His personal lack of sympathy is striking:
“Their deaths were made farcical. Dressed in wild animals’ skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight. …Despite their guilt as Christians, and the ruthless punishment it deserved, the victims were pitied. For it was felt that they were being sacrificed to one man’s brutality rather than to the national interest.”
The persecutions ended after Nero’s death but resumed in the latter part of the reign of Domitian.
EMPEROR DOMITIAN, THE EIGHTH KING
After the brief reign of Titus, identified by the angel as the seventh king, his brother, Domitian took his place. Most of the information about his persecution of Christians comes from early Christian sources. Note the reference to Nero in this quote from Eusebius of Cesarea’s History of the Church:
“Many were the victims of Domitian’s appalling cruelty. At Rome great numbers of men distinguished by birth and attainments were for no reason at all banished from the country and their prosperity confiscated. Finally, he showed himself the successor of Nero in enmity and hostility to God. He was, in fact, the second to organize persecution against us.” (Book 3; Sec.17)
Suetonius explains that in the later part of Domitian’s reign his treasury had run short of money. This was when the extreme persecution began; he even passed a death sentence on anybody descended from the Davidic line. Tertullian, in his most famous work, Apolologeticus, also compares Domitian to Nero:
“Nero was the first emperor who wreaked his fury on the blood of Christians, when our religion was just springing up in Rome. But we even glory in being first dedicated to destruction by such a monster. …Domitian too had tried the same experiment as Nero, with a large share of Nero’s cruelty.” (Chap. 5)
Identifying Domitian with Nero was not uncommon at the time, but it does not exactly fit with the words of the angel who identified the eighth king as the same person as one of the seven (Nero). But this is typical of the biblical typologies in Revelation. Professor Williamson, who we quoted earlier, stated that apocalyptic literature in the bible is “…the future addressed through parallels with the present”. But notes that those parallels will not and can not be perfect. We know that the Antichrist will try and mock the death and resurrection of Christ through a deception, after which, the Church will endure its final persecution. This is reflected in the Nero-like, but more expanded, persecutions of Domitian, the last and most brutal of the kings represented by the seven headed beast. Yet it is reported by Eusebius that he relented and stopped the persecutions; again, he was a “type”, a foreshadowing of the Antichrist.
THE FIVE BEASTS OF ST. HILDEGARD
It was revealed to St. John that the last days would resemble the first days of the Roman Empire, its first eight emperors, all of whom are part of the same apocalyptic beast that represents the person of the Antichrist. St. Hildegard’s vision of five beasts appears to correspond to the first five heads of the seven-headed beast, the …”five who have fallen”, in three ways:
- They both represent five successive and unique (as well as brief) historical periods that precede the Antichrist and in some way prepare his way. Chroniclers of Rome report how the five emperors ruled in distinct ways.
- Both periods of rule (the five beasts and the seven kings) were heavily influenced by evil and under the influence of the spirit of the Antichrist.
- In the fifth period of each series (the reign of Nero and the era of the Grey Wolf) a period of physical persecution of Christians occurs that would end, but then later resume in a more determined way.
There is dissimilarity, and it is in the numbers: In Revelation there’s one beast with seven heads, one of which is the person of the Antichrist, versus Hildegard’s five separate beasts that precede the person of the Antichrist. However, because biblical typology is not always meant as an exact blueprint, but to only foreshadow future events, the difference may not be relevant. Just as past history can be organized and divided in different ways by different historians, those with the prophetic gift might report the same series of events in the future in different ways as well. Also, and this is an important distinction, Hildegard’s visions are not typological. She does not see historical events that foreshadow future events, but, using symbolic imagery which she carefully explains the meaning of, she sees aspects the future exactly as they will happen.
In addition, in later chapters of Scivias, (book 3, vision 11), Hildegard provides quite a lot of detail about the rise to power of the Antichrist, how he works his deceptions on “…those whose names were not written from the foundation of the world in the book of life” (Rev. 13:8), and apparently convinces the ten kings of the world to cede him their authority. It is evident that this will take an unspecified amount of time and will occur after the end of the era of the Grey Wolf. It is worth noting here that as Roman Emperor, Vespasian formally changed the laws regarding succession, thus allowing his son Domitian to become emperor. The Antichrist will likely have those that also pave the way for him to rise to power. There will undoubtedly be a period of time that elapses between the Grey Wolf and the rise of the Antichrist.
This represents the results of a typological interpretation of the passage in Revelation 17; yet there are other possible interpretations. I would highly recommend Peter Williamson’s Commentary, Revelation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015) in which he discusses them. While there is not a perfect correspondence between the period leading up to the Antichrist in both Revelation and St. Hildegard, there are no material inconsistencies. The first of the two periods of persecutions revealed by St. John as envisioned by St. Hildegard begin sometime during the era of the Grey Wolf. In my analysis of her vision, this era is not very far off. Nero’s finally coming back.