“Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred threescore and six.”
The Book of Revelation, chapter 13, verse 18.
Unfortunately for a small army of commentators who would love nothing more than to be able to definitively identify this monster as a living person, the key to the identity of the Beast 666 is nowhere near as straightforward as the above quotation implies. Fortunately for those of us who are fascinated by ancient mysteries, however, a serious investigation into the ‘Nature of the Beast’ is one of the most intricate, rewarding and colourful studies we could possibly wish for.
So, the concept of the Beast 666 has haunted our imaginations for nearly two thousand years, appearing in numerous films and heavy rock albums in modern times, but who or what was this dreadful creature? Has he already passed among us, leaving a swathe of destruction and lamentation behind him, or is his time yet to come? The Beast is described in detail in chapter 13 of the Book of Revelation, but this apparently simple statement immediately presents us with a bewildering range of possibilities, because we do not know who the author of this book was.
He described himself as John and stated that he was living on the Greek island of Patmos when he wrote Revelation, so some scholars have taken this at face value, whereas others believe that the author was John the Apostle. Still others believe that Revelation contains prophecies written by John the Baptist, so the blunt fact is that we do not know the identity of the man who informed us, in turn, of the identity of the Beast 666.
As for the Beast, his intricate story begins in chapter 12 of Revelation, where John describes “a great wonder in heaven”, which is a heavily pregnant woman clothed with the sun. A great red dragon with seven heads, ten horns and seven crowns appeared, who intended to eat the woman’s baby when it was born, and it transpired that this ‘red dragon’ was the old serpent, Satan, or the Devil Himself.
The woman’s baby escaped its grim fate, but in chapter 13, John writes of a seeing a beast emerge from the sea, who also had seven heads and ten horns, but this time there were ten crowns upon the horns (as opposed to the seven crowns on the red dragon’s head). Upon the heads of this beast from the sea were written names of blasphemy, while John adds that it was like a leopard, but with the feet of a bear and the mouth of a lion.
The Devil had bestowed upon this beast a frightening array of powers, such as the capacity to ‘continue for forty and two months’ and the ability to wage war on saints and defeat them, but one of the most interesting details is that one of the beast’s heads had received a deadly wound that had healed – “and all the world wondered after the beast”.
A second beast then appeared, that possessed all the powers of his precursor. He made everyone on Earth worship the first beast, which John describes once again as having a badly-wounded head that had nonetheless healed, while he tells us in verse 14 that this wound had been caused by a sword. This aspect would appear to rule out any living ruler from qualifying as the Beast 666, as I’m not aware of any ‘heads of state’ having survived a wound to the head made by a sword, but I shall return to this matter shortly.
Aside from our understandable fascination with the riddle of the identity of the Beast 666, this creature possessed other attributes that provide him with a dark allure. John wrote that the second beast had the power to perform miracles, such as causing men to make an image of the first beast, then providing that statue or image with the power of speech, adding that anyone who would not worship the image would be killed.
Perhaps just as famous as the verse providing the number of the beast are the two preceding verses, showing the immense influence wielded by this combination of Biblical monsters: “And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.”
This immediately puts us in mind of the occasion described in the Book of Matthew, when the Devil tried to tempt Jesus in the Wilderness: “Again, the Devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”
This event is clearly an echo of the authority exhibited by the two beasts and the Devil in Revelation, and it’s something that was seized upon by generations of satanists in the centuries to come, their reasoning being that if the Devil wielded real power in this world, then it was worth throwing their lot in with him and profiting from the association while it lasted. The mediaeval Cathars held an almost identical view, except that they shunned the evil entity they called Rex Mundi, or the ‘Lord of This World’.
In the Book of Matthew, it’s unmistakably clear that while the Devil might indeed be the Father of Lies, he was also telling the truth about his dominion over the whole world, while John says something identical in Revelation about the supreme power of the Beast 666. If these supernatural monsters did or perhaps do have the power to grant a man everything he could possibly wish for, then it’s hardly surprising that some people have chosen to take them up on this offer over the ages and have at the same time ignored the warning issued in the Book of Mark: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
At this point, it would be tempting to wander into the related territory of the Anti-Christ or Anti-Christs, as described in the Bible and in the writings of the seer and apocalyptic poet Nostradamus, because they too are men that were said to exercise very real power over Mankind. One of the differences between the Beast 666 and the Anti Christ, though, is that Anti Christs and False Messiahs were freely spoken of as figures who had yet to appear on Earth at the time they were written about, whereas the question of the Beast 666 is far less clear cut. Nonetheless, the apparent mystery of the identity of the Beast 666 has eclipsed all speculation about Anti Christs and False Messiahs, so now let us now turn to how other investigators have tried to ‘count the number of the beast’.
In ancient Greek, the language in which Revelations was written, there were no numerals , so letters doubled as numbers; the same principle applied to Hebrew, while the Romans also used some letters to denote numerals. In ancient Greek and Hebrew, a man’s name could be represented as a row of numbers, so this is what John of Patmos was referring to when he wrote “Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast”.
He added that this number was that of a man, so we shall have to decide whether John was referring to a man who had come and gone, one who was alive at the time he wrote Revelations, someone who has since come and gone, or someone yet to grace us with their terrible presence.
In recent times, the Carbon-12 atom has become a candidate for the Beast 666 on account of the fact that it possesses 6 neutrons, 6 protons and 6 electrons and it’s the basis of all life on Earth. The nineteenth century poet, historian and statesman Thomas Macaulay identified the House of Commons, part of the British parliament, as the Beast 666, because in his time, this institution possessed 658 members as well as three clerks, a sergeant, his deputy, a chaplain, a doorkeeper and a librarian, all of whom contributed to the grand total of 666 members. Neither Carbon-12 nor the Houses of Parliament seem to fit John’s description of the number of the beast being the number of a man, however.
The method that John was referring to when counting the number of the beast was an occult practise known as gematria, which entailed adding up the numbers in a name, then finding another name with the equivalent numbers, something that was supposed to reveal some great truth to the diligent enquirer. John provided the number 666, so the challenge for his readers was to find a name that also added up to 666 using the letters of an alphabet in use at the time.
However, all this study of names, letters and numbers is completely missing the point, because the 666 formula is patently a means of making certain that a given person is the Beast after they’ve made themselves known by causing images to be worshipped, marks to be placed on hands and foreheads, etc, which is not something that’s going to go unnoticed if the whole world is involved in these practises.
As far back as 180 AD, a church father named Irenaeus said very much the same thing in his book Against Heresies, when he wrote “It is therefore more certain, and less hazardous, to await the fulfillment of the prophecy, than to be making surmises, and casting about for any names that may present themselves….”
The English occultist Aleister Crowley used to sign himself as TO MEGA THERION, or The Great Beast, which adds up to 666 in Greek, but he failed to match any of the other Biblical descriptions. Since the time of John of Patmos, there have been a number of scourges in human form, any one of whom could be said to fit the apocalyptic description of the Beast, but a credible solution to the formula of 666 continues to elude us as far as these numerous individuals are concerned.
Attila the Hun emerged from the remote depths of Asia to wage a terrifying and protracted war on the West in the fifth century, but his name doesn’t add up to 666, nor do those of other notable conquerors and warlords such as Charlemagne, Tamburlain, Genghis Khan or Napoleon, to give just a few examples.
In our own times, we might think that Hitler, Stalin or Mao might individually classify as the Beast 666 on account of the sheer enormity, darkness and duration of their respective realms, but no one’s ever come up with a remotely convincing method of identifying any one of them with 666. All things are possible, but it seems highly unlikely that any world leader will emerge who will fulfill all the criteria associated with the Beast, so it makes sense to look back in time to see if this grim prophecy was ever convincingly played out around the time that John of Patmos experienced his apocalyptic visions, while it’s also perfectly possible that he was speaking of events that had already taken place.
On balance, John’s description of the Beast seems to refer to the Roman Empire of the time, while the seven heads probably refer to seven Roman emperors; when we start to explore this matter, some fascinating facts come to light that throw a great deal of light on ‘the nature of the beast’. To begin with, the wars and dark empires of the last century fit our vision of apocalyptic events extremely well, but the first century AD, when Christianity was becoming established, was liberally strewn with massacres, invasions and insurrections, all occurring when the Roman Empire encompassed what was then most of the known world.
The year 66 AD saw the start of what’s come to be known as the Great Jewish Revolt, an uprising that resulted in the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the subsequent destruction of the sacred Temple in the heart of the city, while the citadel of Masada fell to the Roman legions in 73 AD after the mass suicide of the defenders. The treasures from the temple in Jerusalem were taken away by the Romans, as famously depicted on the surviving Arch of Titus in Rome, while it’s likely than many hundreds of thousands of Jews were either killed, taken prisoner or forced into exile during this period. This grim, primaeval scenario is in perfect keeping with the tone of Revelation, and one of the notable Roman emperors of the time, a man who sent his legions to crush the Great Jewish Revolt, was Nero.
As someone who lit his garden at night by burning live Christians covered in pitch, Nero comes across as a ‘beast’ by any civilised form of reckoning, but many other followers of Christ also met terrible deaths on his orders. Such savagery on an industrial scale surely fits the description of the Beast 666, but if the analogy of the seven heads of the beast representing seven emperors is correct, then Nero also puts us in mind of the head that had received a mortal wound that had miraculously healed.
He killed himself in 68 AD, but there was a widespread belief at the time that Nero would rise from the grave, perhaps prompted by astrological details in his birth chart that predicted he would appear again somewhere in the East. At least three Pseudo-Neroes, or impostors claiming to be Nero, appeared in the twenty years after his death, while four centuries later, St Augustine recorded the persistent and popular belief that Nero would return. This seems a compelling description of a head that had received a mortal wound that had nonetheless recovered, but the author Robert Graves came up with an ingenious solution to the problem of how to identify Nero with the Beast 666.
Using another occult method called notarikon, he presented the Roman numerals for 666, which are DCLXVI. He then suggested that this stood for ‘Domitius Caesar Legatos Xti Violenter Interficit’, meaning ‘Domitius Caesar violently killed the envoys of Christ’. Given Nero’s record of persecuting Christians, this again fits the description of the Beast 666, while Nero’s original name was Domitius.
Another Roman emperor who qualifies as the Beast is Gaius Caesar, better known as Caligula, who commissioned a statue of himself that was intended to stand in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem, something that appalled and outraged the Jews of the time. Caligula was murdered in 41 AD before his provocative plan could become a physical reality, but this scheme is of course reminiscent of what John of Patmos wrote about the ‘names of blasphemy’ and of the second beast causing an image of the first beast to be made, that all men would have to worship under pain of death.
In our modern era, we’ve witnessed the horrors of twentieth and twenty-first century warfare, while television and the internet have allowed us to watch all manner of natural disasters as they unfold, but this should not blind us to the first century world as John of Patmos saw it. His era generated appalling savagery in what was effectively a war between civilisations, so it’s not hard to imagine that he saw the brutal and all-encroaching Roman Empire as the Beast, with different emperors as the different heads.
Nero alive was bad enough, with the atrocities he practised against the new cult of Christianity, but Nero Dead and Risen from the Grave must have been a truly nightmare prospect for someone like John; once again, it’s easy to envisage the head that had received a mortal wound as Nero, or else as one of the ‘Pseudo-Neroes’ that appeared in the decades after his death.
The Romans were generally tolerant of the religions of lands they had conquered, allowing the people to worship their own gods as long as taxes were paid to Rome, but Caligula’s plan to install an image of himself in the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem was an unspeakable blasphemy. It is little wonder, therefore, that this scheme found its way into John’s Revelation as one of the manifestations of the Beast, so I would say in conclusion that the balance of probability points towards Nero or Caligula as being the Beast 666, but there’s a curious finale to the tales of these two monsters.
In some manuscripts of Revelation, the number is given as 616. In his superb study of the occult, The Black Arts, Richard Cavendish writes that “this is probably the result of despairing efforts to make the passage fit either Nero or Caligula”. As he points out, the name Nero Caesar adds up to 616 using the Hebrew system, while the same applies to the name Gaius Caligula Caesar; furthermore, Gaios Kaisar adds up to 616 if Greek letters are used. With all this in mind, it could be that the real number of the beast is 616, as it seems to be beyond reasonable coincidence that two men of the time should fit the description of the Beast of Revelation so well and that their names should both also add up to 616.
Perhaps the strangest thing is that although the concept of the Beast 666 has captured our imaginations, with each person free to picture this creature in their mind’s eye, there still exist exquisitely wrought likenesses of Nero and Caligula, captured in metal and marble, with “a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun”, as Yeats described the beast in his poem The Second Coming.
In any event, both Nero and Caligula left their indelible ‘marks’ on history on account of the sheer depraved barbarity they practised towards their fellow man, while the silent, brooding images of these two ancient beasts, commissioned by the men of blood they represent, are with us still.
“If someone can prove me wrong and show me my mistake in any thought or action, I shall gladly change. I seek the truth, which never harmed anyone: the harm is to persist in one’s own self-deception and ignorance.”