I have come across, at various times and places, references to four creatures/Kerubs/Sphinxes. They appear in ancient middle-eastern mythology, Bible visions, Arthurian legend, Tarot, and have in recent times been linked to the zodiac, end-time prophecies and UFOs.
On investigating the meanings and origins of this group of four beasts, I have found few "concrete" sources. (Okay, I admit I haven't investigated enough, but I don't have access to a lot of material, and would welcome comments!) There are many thought-provoking speculations on the web, and I will continue to add links to the bottom of this page.
To begin with, the book of Genesis specifically mentions the creation of fowl and whales (Leviathan, sea monsters, whatever) -- water and air creatures came first. Then cattle, and creeping thing and beast of the earth.
Then, in Genesis 1:26, "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth."
So, where's the fish? The four creatures are covered here ('creeping things' and beasts being any animals without cloven hooves?), but why do we not have five creatures? When I try to picture a fish creature, I think of things like Dagon. Maybe the fish represents a darker Abysmal element. Or maybe the fish is implied/combined in the man. This would agree with the myths of the man/god/Atlantean/flood survivor who came from the waters to recivilize and re-plenish the earth. Or another theory, which says man evolved from the sea. (Or, more precisely, the chemical reactions of the sea combined with the conductivity of the clay on the shore and the electrical charge of the lightning.)
Ezekiel described the four creatures in his vision, which is commonly referred to as the "Wheel of Ezekiel," because the four supported a wheel in the sky.
As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle. -- Ezekiel 1:10
John also had a vision, or "Revelation," which included the four creatures:
And before the throne there is, as it were, a glassy sea like crystal. And in the midst of the throne and around the throne four living creatures that are full of eyes in front and behind.
And the first living creature is like a lion, and the second living creature is like a young bull, and the third living creature has a face like a man's and the fourth living creature is like a flying eagle. And as for the four living creatures, each one of them respectively has six wings; round about and underneath they are full of eyes. And they have no rest day and night as they say: "Holy, holy, holy is Jehovah God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is coming.-- Revelation 4:6-8 (NIT)
I personally don't find these accounts to be very enlightening.
Next, the four creatures were linked to the four evangelists, as shown by many European church sculptures and objects. This interpretation is used to explain a vision in the latter, "Christianized" (Grail quest) part of Le Morte d'Arthur.
And at the secrets of the mass they three saw the [white] hart become a man, the which marvelled them, and set him upon the altar in a rich siege; and saw the four lions were changed, the one to the form of a man, the other to the form of a lion, and the third to an eagle, and the fourth was changed unto an ox. Then took they their siege where the hart sat, and went out through a glass window, and there was nothing perished nor broken; and they heard a voice say, "In such a manner entered the Son of God in the womb of a maid Mary, whose virginity ne was perished ne hurt.'
'And well ought Our Lord be signified to an hart, for the hart when he is old he waxeth young again in his white skin. Right so cometh again Our Lord from death to life, for He lost earthly flesh that was the deadly flesh, which He had taken in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and for that cause appeared Our Lord as a white hart without spot. And the four that were with Him is to understand the four evangelists which set in writing a part of Jesu Christ's deeds that He did sometime when He was among you an earthly man ...'
Book XVII, Chapter 9
To the best of my knowledge, the correspondences are: Matthew - man, Mark - lion, Luke - bull, John - eagle.
The Tarot incorporates the four creatures rather extensively. Many decks associate these creatures with the four suits, especially in the court cards. Wands have felines (and "creeping things"), pentacles have cloven-footed, horned creatures, swords have birds and cups have fish and sea creatures. The Golden Dawn deck has man with the swords and birds and sea creatures (other than fish) together for cups. This grouping of fish and fowl not only corresponds better to the biblical creation narrative, it also fits the positioning of the creatures around certain trump cards to my own personal Wheel.
Although the four creatures are pictured many times in Tarot, in the major as well as minor arcana, explanations are scarce. A.E. Waite connects the Wheel trump card with that of Ezekiel's vision:
[T]he four Living Creatures of Ezekiel occupy the angles of the card, and the wheel itself follows other indications of Levi in respect of Ezekiel's vision . . . But this is the Divine intention within, and the similar intention without is exemplified by the four Living Creatures.
In his description of the Hierophant trump card (from which the sidebar images were taken) Aleister Crowley states:
Around him are the four beasts or Kerubs, one in each corner of the card; for these are the guardians of every shrine.
And writing about the Wheel, he says:
In the corners of the card are the four Kerubim showing the established Universe...
As usual, Crowley leaves me with my "Why?"
The British Musuem calls these the Four Sons of Horus. The relevant Egyptian, Babylonian and Sumerian mythologies will be included after further research.
Secrets of the Sphinx features a page, Four Cherubs in Zodiac (Taurus, Leo, Aquarius, and Scorpio) but I most enjoyed this page.