Puzzles & Quizzes

The Sator Square is the World's Earliest Known Double-Palindrome

Centuries before the crosswords, word searches, or even moveable type, people of the Renaissance Age enjoyed stretching their brains over a type of word puzzle, the palindrome. Recently, a double-palindrome known as the Sator Square (or Sator Rotas) was discovered etched on the wall of the church of St Barnabas, Alphamstone in Essex, England — and now scholars want to know, who wrote it?

The Sator Square.

Forward, Backward, Up and Down

A palindrome is any sequence of letters, numbers, or characters that reads the same from different directions, for example, the name of the 70s Swedish pop group, ABBA, or the word "racecar." The Sator Square, consists of five words that read as a single Latin sentence, "Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas." It's the world's earliest known double-palindrome, which means it can be read top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top, left-to-right, and right-to-left. It dates all the way back to Ancient Rome, having been found among the ruins of the city of Pompeii, which was decimated and buried in volcanic ash in 79 A.D. during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

The translation of the Sator Square has been the subject of controversy over the centuries. Much of the conversation has been surrounding the word "Arepo," which has no direct Latin translation. Many believe it is a proper name, so the square would translate to, "the sower Arepo holds the wheels with effort." Another theory was that it was simply made up for the occasion (if that's the case, the original authors are probably laughing at us as we try to crack the code).

Anagram formed by the letters of the sator square.

Magic, Sacred, or Secret Code?

Another area of speculation surrounding the Sator Square is its meaning. There are indications that it has Jewish or Mithraic origins, since it has been found at the Dura-Europos in eastern Syria. But by the time the square was etched into the wall at St. Barnabas centuries later, the square had long ties with many Christians.

When letters are repositioned around the 'N' in the center of the square, it reads "Pater Noster," which is Latin for "Our Father," and the beginning of the Lord's Prayer in two directions, with the two remaining letters, an A and an O possibly representing Alpha and Omega, a Christian concept about the God's omnipotent presence. Since there wasn't a large presence of Christians in Ancient Rome, some have questioned if the Sator Square was possibly used as a covert symbol for local Christians to express their faith to each other without fear of persecution. Christians, however, are not the only ones for whom the Sator Square holds interest.

Throughout the ages, palindromes were thought to be safeguarded from the devil, as people believed he would be confused by the repetition of the characters. Therefore, the Sator Square became associated with magical properties in different eras and regions, and used in folk magic to protect crops and livestock, remove jinxes, and more.

While the jury is still out on who drew the Sator Square at St. Barnabas, some researchers believe it was Nycholas le Gryce, who was the rector of the church from 1576 to 1593, and has been credited with several other inscriptions in the church. Whether it was le Gryce or someone else, they didn't seem to leave any indication of what the Sator Square meant to them. And so, the recent discovery is just one more piece of a great mystery.

The SATOR ROTAS Magic Square

Written by Jamie Ludwig July 15, 2017

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