The Women of the Revelation

Zachary F. Lansdowne

Originally printed in the NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2006 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Lansdowne, Zachary F. "The Women of the Revelation." Quest  94.5 (NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2006):217-219, 224.

Theosophical Society - Zachary Lansdowne, Ph.D., has been a member of the Theosophical Society in American for the past fifteen years and has served as the President of the Theosophical Society in Boston. He has earned advanced degrees in engineering, psychology, philosophy, and religion. He has published many journal articles and five books. His latest book is The Revelation of Saint John(Red Wheel/Weiser, 2006), which provides a psychological analysis of every verse in the Revelation

The Revelation of Saint John, the last book of the Bible, has been a mystery ever since it first appeared about two thousand years ago, because it is written entirely in symbols. This enigmatic work includes two vivid feminine symbols: the celestial woman of chapter twelve and the seductive prostitute of chapter seventeen. What do these symbols mean?

Revelation 12:1 describes the celestial woman as "a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars." Many perse interpretations have been proposed for this woman: the constellation Virgo in which the moon is at the feet of Virgo, Mary the mother of Jesus, the people of Israel, and the heavenly church. Revelation 17:1 describes the seductive prostitute as "the great whore that sitteth upon many waters." Most commentators interpret this symbol as representing the ancient city of Rome. (In this article, all Biblical quotations come from the Authorized (King James) Version, unless stated otherwise.)

Psychological Approach of Interpretation

Helena P. Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society, provides the following key to interpreting the Revelation. She writes "The fact is . . . the whole Revelation, is simply an allegorical narrative of the Mysteries and initiation therein of a candidate, who is John himself." (Isis Unveiled, vol. II, 351) This quotation suggests the use of a psychological approach that takes every symbol as representing some aspect of an aspirant who is on the spiritual journey. Edgar Cayce, the well-known medium, makes a similar point:

Why, then, ye ask now, was this written (this vision) in such a manner that is hard to be interpreted, save in the experience of every soul who seeks to know, to walk in, a closer communion with Him? For the visions, the experiences, the names, the churches, the places, the dragons, the cities, all are but emblems of those forces that may war within the inpidual in its journey through the material, or from the entering into the material manifestation to the entering into the glory, or the awakening in the spirit. (Van Auken 158-159)

If we do use a psychological approach of interpretation, then what do the celestial woman and the seductive prostitute represent? Let us consider the meaning of these symbols by analyzing the first five verses of chapters twelve and seventeen.

The Celestial Woman

The first five verses of chapter twelve in the Revelation read:

1. And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. 2. And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. 3. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. 4. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. 5. And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.

With the psychological approach, the woman depicted in the first verse can represent some aspect of an aspirant who is on the spiritual journey. One clue is that the woman is in "heaven." Arthur E. Powell, in his book The Causal Body and the Ego, uses the word "heaven" as a synonym for the mental plane and we all know the feminine form is a symbol of receptivity. For example, Isaiah 54:5 states, "For thy Maker is thine husband," indicating that a human being ought to have a feminine, or receptive, relationship to the pine. Accordingly, the woman is interpreted as the aspirant's mental body, or mind, when it has this receptivity.

The meaning of sun and moon is similar to that in Joel 2:31: "The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the LORD come." According to Acts 2:20, the apostle Peter quoted this passage from Joel on the day of Pentecost, believing that the events of that day fulfilled Joel's prophecy. On the day of Pentecost, the apostles heard and followed the inner voice, referred to as the Holy Ghost or Spirit, instead of relying on external teachers and teachings. The sun being an external source of light, can represent an external teacher or authority figure, while the moon, also an external source but of reflected light, therefore represents an external teaching found in books.

Clothing often symbolizes the nature of the wearer, as shown in Zechariah 3:4: "Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment." Thus, "clothed by the sun" may indicate a nature influenced by external teachers. Placing something under one's feet can signify dominance, and so "moon under her feet" would indicate an understanding of external teachings.

The number twelve is known to represent the pine pattern or organization. For example, the year was pided into twelve months (I Kings 4:7), the people of Israel into twelve tribes (Genesis 49:28), and twelve apostles were chosen by Jesus (Matthew 10:1). Blavatsky uses a star as a metaphor for an "ideal" (Collected Writings, vol. 11, 262). Accordingly, "a crown of twelve stars" symbolizes mental ideals of spiritual development.

Mabel Collins writes in Light on the Path: "When you have found the beginning of the way, the star of your soul will show its light; and by that light you will perceive how great is the darkness in which it burns" (21). Here, "soul" is a synonym for the Divine Principle in a human being. In the second verse, "child" is taken as the soul, "cried" as a call for the soul's guidance, and "pain" as the distress from seeing what is revealed.

In Revelation 12:3 the dragon is equated with both "Satan" and the "Devil." The original Hebrew word for Satan means adversary, which is the translation used in Numbers 22:22. Thus, the great dragon symbolizes the great adversary that an aspirant must eventually face and overcome on the spiritual journey. Blavatsky refers to illusion as this adversary: "Only when the true discerning or discriminating power is set free is illusion overcome, and the setting free of that power is . . . the attainment of Adeptship" (Collected Writings, vol. 12, 691). Accordingly, the great dragon is taken as illusion.

The color red can indicate conflict, as in Nahum 2:3: "The shield of his mighty men is made red." Thus, the dragon's red color indicates that illusion engenders conflict. Indeed, A Course in Miracles says, "Without illusions conflict is impossible" (vol. II, 130). John 8:44 makes a similar point: "the devil . . . was a murderer from the beginning."

The vital body is an energetic counterpart of the physical body and has been given many other names such as biofield in alternative medicine, pranamaya kosha in the Hindu Upanishads, and the etheric body in Theosophy. In yoga philosophy, a chakra is an energy center in the vital body. Motoyama said that "there are seven chakras" (24). The seven heads in Revelation 12:3 can be taken as the seven chakras, as the numbers match and because a head has the shape of a chakra and is a center of authority.

It is often said that the seven chakras can determine the profile of the physical body, or outer form. Perhaps the crowns on these chakras are taken to mean that illusion gives paramount importance to the outer form. Paul, in Romans 8:7 (Revised Standard Version), expresses a similar idea: "For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, indeed it cannot."

The ten horns of the dragon are symbols of power and dominion, since they are the chief means of attack and defense for animals endowed with them (Deuteronomy 33:17). The horns are taken as desires, which are the emotional forces that empower our personality. The number ten signifies completeness. For example, ten patriarchs are mentioned before the Flood (Genesis 5), the Egyptians were visited with ten plagues (Exodus 7-12), and there are Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28). Thus, the ten horns on the dragon could indicate that illusion controls the full range of desires.

The third verse also mentions twenty-four features of the dragon: seven heads, ten horns, and seven crowns which add up to twenty-four and could symbolize the passage of time, because there are twenty-four hours in a day (John 11:9, Acts 23:23). Thus, the twenty-four features are interpreted to mean that illusion is closely related to time. Krishnamurti makes a similar point in his Notebook and his other writings: "Time is illusion" (153).

In Revelation 12:4, the "tail" can represent the spinal column, as the latter has the shape of a tail. According to yoga philosophy, the five lowest chakras are arranged along the spinal column. Wrong perception, interpretation, or appropriation of an ideal creates a false belief on the mental level. Combining a false belief with desire produces a reaction on the emotional level, such as pride or anger. Combining an emotional reaction with vital energy produces a compulsion on the physical level. If the "earth" refers to the personality, then casting the stars to the earth could mean transforming the mental ideals into false beliefs, emotional reactions, and ultimately, compulsions.

In verse five, the "man child" can be looked at as the soul, because the soul has wisdom, which is associated "with the ancient" (Job 12:12), but speaks with "a still small voice" (I Kings 19:12). The Bible sometimes associates rods with serpents, such as in Exodus 7:10: "Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh, and before his servants, and it became a serpent." The Sanskrit word kundalini means "coiling up like a serpent." According to yogic philosophy, the kundalini is normally dormant, but when it is awakened, it rises up the spinal column, like a snake rising from its coiled position, and stimulates the seven chakras. The phrase "rod of iron" can be interpreted as the spinal column after the kundalini has been raised.

With reference to the last line of Revelation 12:5, A Course in Miracles states: "In your heart the Heart of God is laid" (vol. II, 378). A throne is often interpreted as a point of contact with a king. The throne of God is taken as the heart of God, because we have our contact with God through the pine heart.

To summarize, the first five verses of chapter twelve could be looked at as having the following psychological meaning:

The aspirant's mind is receptive to the pine, because it is influenced by external teachers, understands external teachings, and aspires towards mental ideals of spiritual development.

The aspirant's mind, receptive to the soul, calls for its guidance and is distressed by seeing what is revealed.

The fact of illusion is revealed. Illusion appears as a great adversary responsible for all conflicts. Controlling the seven chakras and all desires, illusion gives paramount importance to the outer form, and deludes through the passage of time.

The chakras in the spinal column, which are controlled by illusion, have corrupted some of the mental ideals, turning them into false beliefs, emotional reactions, and compulsions. Illusion, operating on the mental level, is ready to fight against any guidance from the soul as soon as the mind has received it.

Eventually, the mind brings forth the guidance of the soul, which combines the wisdom of maturity with a still small voice. The soul will rule all aspects of the personality by way of awakened kundalini in the spinal column. It acts as the intermediary for God and is aligned with the heart of God.

The Seductive Prostitute

The first five verses of chapter seventeen read:

1. And there came one of the seven angels which had the seven vials, and talked with me, saying unto me, Come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters: 2. With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication. 3. So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. 4. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: 5. And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.

In verse one, the word "angel" is a translation of the Greek word that simply means messenger. A vial of oil was used in anointing Saul (I Samuel 10:1), and can be a symbol of initiation. Thus, this visitor is interpreted as a messenger from the spiritual realm who has the power to initiate human beings into that realm.

The "great whore that sitteth upon many waters," the word whore could symbolize the ego, because a whore is corrupt and deluded by lusts. The word "great" is a translation of the Greek word that is sometimes used to denote people holding positions of authority (Mark 10:42). The "waters" symbolize emotional reactions, as in Psalms 69:2: "I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me." Thus, the ego is a controlling sense of identity that is supported by many emotional reactions.

The Old Testament sometimes uses a reference to fornication as a metaphor for idolatry. For example, Jeremiah 3:9 (International Children's Bible) states: "She was guilty of adultery. This was because she worshiped idols made of stone and wood." This commentary interprets idolatry in a broad sense to mean giving power to external circumstances, including any kind of physical possession. According to the symbols in 17:2, the ego corrupts the personality with idolatry. In fact, A Course in Miracles says, "The ego is idolatry" (vol. II, 467). In Revelation 12:4, as well as Revelation 17:2, the earth is the personality. The kings of the earth are interpreted as thoughts, because thoughts rule the rest of the personality.

The Bible often considers the wilderness to be a place of refuge and communion with God, as in Hosea 2:14: "I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak comfortably unto her." The wilderness in verse three is taken as a detached state of mind that is receptive to intuitive instruction.

The beast might represent the emotion, of guilt, because its scarlet color can be a symbol of iniquity, as shown in Isaiah 1:18: "though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow." Robert Perry says, "Guilt maintains the ego's existence" (A Course Glossary, 31). This quotation is consistent with identifying the scarlet beast as guilt and its rider as the ego; the ego offers a feeling of superiority to compensate for the feeling of inferiority that guilt imposes.

Blasphemy is often translated as slander, verbal abuse, or evil speaking. Although the English word means "contempt for God," the original Greek word is not necessarily concerned with God. In the Bible, a personal name often indicates the bearer's nature, rather than being just an artificial tag that distinguishes one person from another. For example, I Samuel 25:25 states: "for as his name is, so is he." Thus, the name of blasphemy refers to its nature, which is judgment and rage.

In the fourth verse, scarlet is used as a symbol of prosperity, as in II Samuel 1:24: "Ye daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you in scarlet, with other delights, who put on ornaments of gold upon your apparel." Purple is a symbol of royalty or prominence. The Bible often uses the word "abomination" to denote practices that are derived from idolatry (II Kings 23:13).

In verse five, "forehead" is symbolical of mind or consciousness, as in Jeremiah 3:3: "thou hadst a whore's forehead, thou refusedst to be ashamed." Babylon is the Greek form of the Hebrew word Babel, which in turn means confusion (Genesis 11:9).

"Mystery" is a translation of the Greek word that sometimes means hidden purpose or will (II Thessalonians 2:7). Paramahansa Yogananda says, "Though the ego in most barbaric ways conspires to enslave him, man is not a body confined to a point in space but is essentially the omnipresent soul" (Autobiography of a Yogi, 160). A Course in Miracles states: "The ego wishes no one well. Yet its survival depends on your belief that you are exempt from its evil intentions" (vol. I, 317). Both quotations speak of the ego as though it has its own consciousness with a hidden evil purpose.

In summary, the first five verses of chapter seventeen have the following psychological meaning:

A messenger from the spiritual realm, who has the power to initiate human beings into that realm, comes to the aspirant and says, "Raise your consciousness and I will show you the truth about your ego, which is a controlling, corrupt, and deluded sense of identity supported by your many emotional reactions. Your thoughts have become idolatrous through your ego. Your feelings and motives have been deluded by the idolatrous beliefs of your ego."

The messenger helps the aspirant to achieve a detached state of mind that is receptive to intuitive instruction. Then the aspirant sees that his ego is maintained by his guilt, which is full of judgments and rage, and which controls his seven chakras and all of his desires.

The ego appears very attractive, because it offers self-glorification through prominence, prosperity, and valuable things. Its offering, however, is actually idolatrous and therefore corrupting. The ego's consciousness has a hidden purpose of enslaving the personality through great confusion, many kinds of temptation, and idolatrous experiences.

According to the preceding analysis, the celestial woman represents the mind when it is receptive to pine guidance, and the seductive prostitute represents the ego, or false personal sense of identity. During each day of our lives—indeed, in every moment—we choose one of these symbolic women to be our inner companion. Which one do we generally choose?


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Collins, M. Light on the Path. 1888. Reprint. Pasadena, CA: Theosophical University Press, 1976. 

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Krishnamurti, Jiddu. Krishnamurti's Notebook. New York: Harper and Row, 1976. 

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Perry, R. A Course Glossary. West Sedona, AZ: The Circle of Atonement, 1996. 

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Yogananda, P. Autobiography of a Yogi. 1946. Reprint. Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1969. 


Zachary Lansdowne, Ph.D., has been a member of the Theosophical Society in American for the past fifteen years and has served as the President of the Theosophical Society in Boston. He has earned advanced degrees in engineering, psychology, philosophy, and religion. He has published many journal articles and five books. His latest book is The Revelation of Saint John(Red Wheel/Weiser, 2006), which provides a psychological analysis of every verse in the Revelation