The "SATOR-AREPO" Word Square Examined by (Lightweight) Cryptoanalytic Methodology, with Early Christian Historical Overview and New Approach.

(Back to HOME.)

Ritorna al SATOR scritto in italiano."

S A T O R
A R E P O
T E N E T
O P E R A
R O T A S

(The sower, Arepo, holds the wheels to [their] works.)

(alpha)
P
A
T
E
R
(alpha) P A T E R N O S T E R (omega)
O
S
T
E
R
(omega)

Illus. 1 a,b

Historical overview: the conventionmal academic view, until the word square was discovered among the ruins of Pompeii, as a graffito, was that it had been a secret sign of recognition among the members of the Early Christian community.

This is not going to be easy. But I get ahead of myself. I will recount my summary of the current state of academic knowledge of the Sator-Arepo word square in brief, taking the substance of this historical part of my presentation from an article by Donald Atkinson that appeared in 1951. (The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, "The Origin and Date of the Sator Word Square," Vol II, No 2, July-October 1951). I was kindly directed to this reference upon enquiry to Martin Gardner, former puzzle editor of the Scientific American magazine.

Before I get into the subject, I should menton that the first time I tried to open this document using the "Internet Explorer" browser, it garbled my tables. If this happens I could suggest copying it into a word-processing document and deleting the garbled parts. If you then printed out the document with blank spaces where the tables were, these could then be entered with a pen or pencil from the words that make up the square, which I have been careful to include in the nearby text. Guess what? The next time I opened the document using "Internet Explorer" it worked perfectly. "Mozilla Firefox" also works 100% perfectly, 90% of the time!

The magic square palindrome SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS is the crowning achievement of the genre. It reads the same from the upper left hand corner, top down and left to right; and from the lower right corner, bottom to top and right to left. Four ways, in other words. Based on long historical association (in the form of its inscription on amulets together with the phrase [alpha] PATER NOSTER [omega]), it was long associated with the earliest days of the Christian church. In this context, the latter phrase was presented in a cruciform array, the phrases intersecting at the letter "N." (See illus. 1-a,b.) It has been attractive to regard the inscription of the square, in the form of graffiti on Roman walls, as a secret sign of recognition exchanged between Christians during the period of persecution by the Roman state.

Together with this, during the crazes for occultism that have swept Europe from time to time, the square became the subject of wild speculations sporadically, as to what message, besides that of the (alpha) PATER NOSTER (omega) cruciform array, could have been encoded by the maker of this square within its constituent letters, for the array does, indeed, contain all of the letters to be found in the square palindrome, exactly the same number of times, taking the alphas and omegas as the equivalent to the letters "A" and "O." Several such authors claimed to have discovered the secret of the universe and of the philosopher's stone within this square, while others found prayers to Satan for his powers therein.

Oops! The magic square was discovered in the ruins of Pompeii, buried in 79 a.D.

These speculations were cut short when the palindrome (without the cruciform array in conjunction) was discovered among the graffiti of Pompeii; in two places, as a matter of fact, during the period of intensive excavation and scrutiny that went on just prior to WW II. Since the city was buried in 79 a.D., it was deemed unlikely, if not impossible, that any Christian community could have such a developed organisation and liturgy as the association with the cruciform array implied: the use of the cross as a symbol, the translation of the Lord's prayer into Latin, and the like.

Prior to 1937, when this discovery was announced to the word, the oldest known record of this text was an inscription on a Roman wall at Cirencester, in the British Isles, dating from the fourth century, a.D. Other records are to be found from later times and one such, I am informed, exists in the form of an inscription on the corner of one of the old churches in Sienna. A huge popular literature on the square exists in print and on the internet.

Arguments raged in the scholarly journals, chiefly among scholars operating in countries that were predominantly Catholic in their religious culture, and ingenious theories were advanced to explain the presence of this palindrome on the walls of this site. None of the arguments was particularly convincing, and even Dr. Atkinson, who presents them all, was left to make a hedged conclusion that a Christian origin was the only explanation, regardless of the difficulties, since the alternatives were too far fetched.. These alternatives included the theory that gangs of slaves had put the two known graffiti where they were found. The Romans are known to have enlisted slaves to retrieve works of art, while there were yet people still living who could remember where these had been located, before the catastrophe buried the city. The trouble with this theory was that one graffito was in a place where there was nothing to dig up, outside the town theatre. The other site could have been exposed above the cinders, where subsequent generations of tourists could have inscribed it at any later date in antiquity, where it was found during the 1930s excavations. Such graffiti are known, e.g. "SODOMA GOMORA."

The matter lay in abeyance until after the hostilities of WW II ceased. After a couple of post-war treatises on the subject appeared (besides Dr. Atkinson's) the matter lapsed without resolution, so far as I have been able to discover. One of these authors, J. Carcopino (196?), includes many details which my presentation has here ignored as tangential to the subject we are examining. However, for completeness, I should add that the form the palindrome took in antiquity was reversed: "ROTAS OPERA TENET AREPO SATOR." (Cf. Carcopino, Jérôme Études d'Histoire Chrétienne /le Christianisme Secret du "Carre Magique," Éditions Albin Michel, Paris 196?).

These academic arguments for a Christian origin of the square were based on a false assumption, as I will now show.

Every one of the historians who looked at this took for granted that the statistical improbability of these same letters occurring by chance in the two places, the array and the palindrome, argued for the necessity that they had a common author. Further, the presence of "rotas" (Ezekial 1:16 inter alia), "Tau" crosses in "tenet," the "sower" (sator: "the sower soweth the word," Mark 4:14) were all alleged to cinch the certainty of a Christian origin on the basis of the improbability of these indications occurring by chance, on top of the letters being the same, regardless of Pompeii and 79 a.D.

These advocates took the example of the unlikelihood of two identical bridge hands being dealt in succession as the paradigm.

Acting on the suggestion of Dr. N. Herbert of Boulder Creek, California, I took a look at this as a problem of cryptoanalysis. Stated simply, merely because the cruciform array contains the same number of letters the same number of times, this does not argue that the array was necessarily meant to be encoded in the palindrome. Was there an encoded message at all, and, if so, is this one necessarily it?

From this point of view, simply because the parents of Ronald Wilson Reagan gave him that name, and because the phrase "Insane anglo warlord" has the same letters the same number of times, (I thank the internet for that one!), one cannot reason from these two facts that his parents encoded the latter phrase intentionally, when they chose the name to begin with.

Thus, from this point of view, the palindrome would have been a Latin word game. There were many palindromes generated in the classical world of the simple-sentence type, but no other square ones have come to light, so far as I have been able to discover, nor are these findings that I will soon present to be found elsewhere than here. Right now, my favorite "linear" palindromes in the English language are, "Go hang a salami; I'm a lasagna hog" and "Stop, murder us not, tonsured rum-pots." How can you beat these?

I elaborate the argument with a few Latin palindromic word-squares of my own. It is not that difficult; why are there none from antiquity besides SATOR-AREPO?

Carrying this a step farther, I set out to compose a few such square palindromes myself. From a very meagre foundation in Latin, and with a few hours' work in the Oxford Latin-English Dictionary, ed. Lewis and Short, Oxford Univ. Press, I was able to cook up four of them, which I here present. This is not Cicero or Virgil, I admit. Neither is SATOR-AREPO. If there is a gross blunder in one or more of these, the presence intact (after hypothetical scholarly challenge) of only one of these is just that many more than twenty centuries have produced after the first manifestation of SATOR-AREPO. (See illus. 2a-2d.)

Illus. 2-a, b, c, d

SITAS  SATUM  SERET  METAR
IREPA  AREBU  EDONE  EAERA
TENET  TENET  ROTOR  TERET
APERI  UBERA  ENODE  AREAE
SATIS  MUTAS  TERES  RATEM

SITAS, IREPA, TENET, APERI, SATIS. ("Irepa holds the situated ladies to be sufficiently tied up." With "areri" and "irera," "...sufficiently dried up.") (Illus. 2-a.)

SATUM, AREBU, TENET, UBERA, MUTAS. ("Arebu has a begotten race, the mute ladies and [their] 'abundant fruits' [breasts]") (Illus. 2-b.)

SERET, EDONE, ROTOR, ENODE, TERES. ("She plaits, you grind; I am turned about, Oh man of Thrace, by thy knotless agrument.") (Illus. 2-c.)

METAR, EA ERA, TERET, AREAE, RATEM. ("I will measure off the raft; she, mistress of the area, shall grind.")
(Illus. 2-d.)

On the grounds that the author of SATOR-AREPO allowed him or herself one coined proper name that is no more than a word spelled backwards (i.e. "Arepo;" no one has satisfactorily traced this name to anyone mentioned in the literary remains of the time of Pompeii), I have allowed myself one such coinage to make a tough job easier.

I managed to get a couple of cruciform arrays out of this.

Illus. 3-a, b

D
O
N
O
R
E
D O N O R E T R E T E E S
R
E
T
E
E
S

Comes out of SERET-EDONE &c.

M
E
R
E
A
T
M E R E A T R E T E A R A
E
T
E
A
R
A

Comes out of METAR EA ERA &c.


DONOR ET RETE ES ("I am given; you are the net.") This cruciform array crosses at the "T," in case your web view confuses this matter. (Illus. 3-a.)

MEREAT RETE ARA ("May the altar be rewarded by means of the net.") Ditto this one; it crosses at the "R" in "RETE." (Illus. 3-b.)

Having practiced the art to this extent, I can assure my reader that starting with the phrase, (alpha) Pater Noster (omega), and succeeding in cooking up a square palindrome out of it, would have taken enough divine intervention by itself, without taxing the Creator to throw in some Tau crosses and "rotas"-es on the side. The proponents of a Christian origin want us to believe that some worker, with no (known) example before him, was able to cull out of a newly written translation into Latin of the gospels and Lord's Prayer a thirteen-letter phrase that turned out to be workable into the SATOR square. The linear palindrome was common, but no square ones other than the SATOR one can be found in the detritus of the era, so it is doubtful that such ever existed, as I have said earlier

Further, why are there no examples of this among the graffiti to be seen in the Catacombs? Along with "ichthus," if the square were truly a secret Christian sign of recognition?

The fact, which I already have brought out, that the order of the words in SATOR-AREPO became changed, so that the "sator" now comes first, in contrast to the way it appeared in the graffiti at Pompeii, is suggestive that Christian propagandists changed the order after the cruciform array was discovered to be implicit within the square. This makes a single author for the two less likely, also, in addition to the factors already discussed.

If we propose a process of making an anagram from a text, the presence of the same letters the same number of times in both SATOR-AREPO and the cruciform array of (alpha) Pater Noster (omega) becomes a much more credible scenario, since this could have taken place at any time after the disaster at Pompeii and the first appearance of the two arrays in the artifacts, some hundreds of years later. The presence of these identical letters now is no longer a matter of chance occurrence. As the example of Ronald Wilson Reagan's anagram mentioned earlier shows, it is much easier to think these anagrams up afterwards, than it is to recognise a potential magic square out of a given text.

However, in the end, the Christian origin argument cannot be totally excluded, even if it seems quite unlikely.

The matter is not a certainty. Why? Because the question arises, if the anagram maker took a (non-Christian) square Latin word game for his or her point of origin, why are there no other such word games in existence? As I hope to have demonstrated by my examples 2-a through d, and 3-a and b, it doesn't seem to be that hard to think them up. Here is an argument for the Christian origin of the square and array, after all. My conclusion is that there is not enough evidence to settle on a Christian or pagan origin for this square, either way.

Contact W. Bentley, P.O. Box 575, Occidental CA 95465, USA; or at wilderbentley@yahoo.com[.]

Move on to the next treatise that shows how to build a Magic Word Square.

Back to the TOP of SATOR-AREPO.

Back to the HOMEPAGE.