The Apocalypse is first and foremost a revelation which bears upon mysterious realities; next it is prophetic, since these realities are in time to come; last of all it is a vision and the scenes and the numbers are so many symbols. The language of apocalyptic writing is richly symbolic and the importance of the visions which are described is never in their immediate literal meaning.
If one ignores the apocalyptic books themselves which comprise a very common class of literature in the early centuries of the Christian era, the word ‘apocalyptic’ has also become synonymous with the end of the world, marked by the most terrifying occurrences - gigantic tidal waves, the mountains brought low, the Earth gaping open and the Heavens taking fire in an indescribable fury of sound. Thus the Apocalypse became a symbol of the end of the world.
At the end of the account of the Battle of Moytura, the Celtic death-goddess, the Morrigan, prophesies the end of the world: the order of the seasons will be confounded, mankind will grow corrupt, society will collapse, evil and immorality will flourish. This scenario is taken up again and elaborated in considerable detail in a work known as The Colloquy of the Two Sages, written in the mannered and involuted style of the medieval Irish bards. This concept may be likened to the Christian Apocalypse and also to what Strabo records when he reports that the Druids foretold that one day fire and water would rule alone.
As an example of these apocalyptic visions and their interpretation, take the symbol of the Beast.
From the historical viewpoint, the wounded Beast suggests the tottering Roman Empire and perhaps Nero’s suicide. In more general terms, the Beast stands for the State as persecutor, ‘the prime opponent of Christ and his people’. The Beast revived is Anti-Christ of the time to come, the parody and caricature of Christ himself. The Beast’s ‘seven’ heads suggest the innumerable and freshly sprouting heads of the legendary Hydra. The horns symbolize the power of the Beast and the crowns his pseudo-royalty. The Beast which emerges from the abyss will wage war, kill and vanquish (11: 7) and will deceive the whole world (12: 9). The Beast is one of the central figures of Revelation. It stands for ‘the important principle of deception and blasphemy... the demoniac principle of collective delusion’, a concomitant of religion throughout human history. After its striking but shortlived victories in this world, the Beast is doomed to final defeat: it will be conquered by the lamb.