The Enigma of the Sator Square

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The Sator Square: SATOR, AREPO, TENET, OPERA, ROTAS

The Sator Square has been the subject of frequent archaeological discoveries, both in stone epigraphs and in graffiti, but the sense and the symbolic meaning still remain obscure, despite the numerous hypotheses formulated.

The square of the Sator is a recurrent Latin inscription, in the form of a magic square, composed of the following five words: SATOR, AREPO, TENET, OPERA, ROTAS. Their juxtaposition, in the order indicated, gives rise to a palindrome, that is, a sentence that remains identical when read from left to right and vice versa. The same palindrome sentence is obtained by reading the words of the square from bottom to top as long as each line is read from right to left.

By arranging the words on a square matrix, we obtain a structure that resembles that of magic number squares. The five words are repeated if they are read from left to right and from top to bottom or from right to left and from bottom to top. In the center of the square, the word TENET forms a palindromic cross.

The Enigma of the Sator Square
image source: wikipedia

Historical appearances

The curious magic square is visible on a surprisingly large number of archaeological finds, scattered a bit ‘everywhere in Europe. The oldest and most famous examples are the incomplete one found in 1925 during the excavations of Pompeii, engraved on a column of the house of Paquio Proculo, and the one found in November 1936 on a column of the Palestra Grande, also in Pompeii. The latter has had great importance in historical studies related to the palindrome phrase because it is complete and enriched by other interesting signs that have not been found elsewhere and was certainly engraved before the eruption of 79 AD. From these findings, the square of the Sator is also called “Pompeian laterculum or latercolo” (latercolum is a small clay brick used in Roman constructions of the Archaic period. Latercolo is also an enigmatic game consisting in finding words that, arranged in a pattern, can be read both vertically and horizontally).

Related articles: Images of Pompeii

Examples have been found in Rome, in the basement of the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, in the Roman ruins of Cirencester (the ancient Corinium) in England, in the castle of Rochemaure (Rhône-Alpes), in Oppède in Vaucluse, in Le Puy-en-Velay, in the court of the Chapel of Saint-Claire, on the wall of the city’s cathedral in front of the Archbishop’s Palace in Siena, on the facade of the Church of Santa Lucia in Magliano de’ Marsi, in the Certosa di Trisulti in Collepardo, in Santiago de Compostela in Spain, in the ruins of the Roman fortress of Aquincum in Hungary, in Riva San Vitale in Switzerland, just to name a few.

Layout

Sometimes the five words are arranged in a radial form, as in the Abbey of Valvisciolo in Sermoneta, or in a circular form as in the Collegiate Church of Sant’Orso in Aosta. In the center of the latter mosaic, Samson killing the lion is depicted, an allusion to the existence of hidden meaning in the phrase “Sator” that encircles the central tondo. In fact, according to the Bible, Samson, after killing the beast, during a feast posed to the Philistines a riddle: “Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet.”. The riddle was impossible to discern with deduction alone since it was based on a private experience of Samson’s, who killed a young lion and found bees and honey in its corpse. 

Other Sator squares are present in many other Italian churches and abbeys such as Pieve di San Giovanni in Campiglia Marittima, the Co-cathedral of Ascoli Satriano, the abbey of San Pietro ad Oratorium in Capestrano, the churches of Santa Maria Maddalena in Campo Marzo in Verona and San Michele in Pescantina, the church of Santa Maria Ester in Acquaviva Collecroce, the church of San Lorenzo a Paggese in Acquasanta Terme, the abbeys of Casamari in Veroli and Montecassino in Cassino, etc.

The square is widespread in many other French churches such as the church of Maignelay-Montigny and the cathedral of Dijon.

It should be noted that many examples have been found in Christian religious buildings and that there are no known examples dating back to before the Christian era (the spread of Christianity in Pompeii before the eruption would seem to be documented archaeologically).

The Enigma of the Sator Square
Molise, (13th century)

Translation

Sator

The word sator means sower, planter, and figuratively father, creator, founder. In Christian contexts, it alludes to some of the Gospel parables, in which it represents God the Father. The metaphor was deepened by the fathers of the church and in particular, by Irenaeus of Lyon (130-202), for whom the Word had sown humanity with Adam, had weeded it with the plow made by the cross of Christ and would intervene to reap with the sickle at the end of time. The metaphor, however, of a heavenly cultivator to represent the creator and preserve divinity of the world is also present in the works of some Latin writers from the beginning of the Augustan period onwards. A pagan origin of the Sator, just before Christianity, would explain in a more likely way the presence of three squares of the Sator in Pompeii a few decades after the death of Jesus.

Around 44-45 BC Marcus Tullius Cicero, freely translating a passage from The Trachinia of Sophocles, reports that Hercules invokes Zeus with the epithet caelestum sator (father of the gods). Shortly after, in the De natura deorum, is called sator the natural world, which makes fertile, generates, educates, and feeds the living, in which, in accordance with Stoic thought, operates an immanent and providential divinity (in Greek: prònoia): the Logos spermatikòs (seminal Logos), also called “pneuma” (soul of the world) and assimilated to fire, one of the 4 constituent elements of the universe. The Stoic Logos was identified with the biblical “Word of God” by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, laying a further premise for the identification of the Sator with the god of Christians in the following centuries.

In the Roman culture of Cicero’s time, however, this hidden deity could have been symbolically represented with Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture, whose very name is linked to sowing and harvesting (in Latin: sata). Despite some spelling errors just the name of Saturn is written in Pompeii under the oldest known square of the sator.

The Enigma of the Sator Square
Saturn with the head covered by a winter cloak while holding the billhook. Painting from the Roman period (1st century AD), National Archaeological Museum of Naples

In the next century, the epithet sator is used in literary works celebrating the Roman Empire to indicate as “father of gods and men” Jupiter, father of Venus and therefore grandfather of Aeneas, from whom according to Virgil’s Aeneid descended the Roman people. Jupiter “sator” reappears about a century later at the time of the Flavian emperors in another celebratory writing of the origins of imperial Rome: The Argonautics of Valerius Flaccus. In conclusion, in Augustan and first century AD Latin literature, the sator was the supreme deity, to be understood as Saturn or Jupiter.

Arepo

The next word arepo is the most mysterious, partly because it does not appear in any other text of the classical Latin language. Many experts, therefore, considered it only a proper name, although the name does not appear in any other text as a name of person, deity, or place. Other scholars sought arguments for interpreting it as a “cart” or “plow,” a word from the agricultural world such as sator, and a wooden object that in Christian contexts might allude to the cross. In his “Natural History” Pliny the Elder mentions the use of a plow with wheels even then. Other scholars have linked arepo with words that indicated a small plot of land (aripennis) or as an abbreviation of “areopagus“, the seat of the college of supreme magistrates of the city of Athens since the monarchic period. All interpretations are difficult to support and therefore subject to debate.

In the glossary of medieval Latin of Du Cange there is the word “aripus“, interpreted by him as gladius falcatus, that is the weapon/tool called harpe (from ancient Greek ἅρπη). In agriculture, the same word also indicates the tool that today is called “billhook”, similar to the modern sickle, but much more robust and crude. The sickle/billhook is an iconographic attribute of Saturn, protector of agriculture. The god, then, was identified with the Greek titan Cronus, who according to the Theogony of Hesiod would have used the tool to emasculate his father Uranus. According to Silvana Zanella, the mysterious arepo would be just this tool. Sator arepo, the sower with the billhook, could therefore be Saturn, whose kingdom according to Virgil was about to return to Earth, as a new golden age. Saturn, in fact, would have reigned over Latium and his seat would have been precisely on the hill of the Capitol. In that remote and happy era, the name “Saturnia” would have indicated both Rome and the whole of Italy. In his eclogue IV Virgil writes: Iam redeunt saturnia regna and associates it with the imminent birth of a child. Christians interpreted these verses as a prophecy of the birth of Christ and attributed to Virgil a propaedeutic role to their faith, as evidenced also simply by his role in the Divine Comedy.

Tenet, opera, rotas

The interpretation of the last three words presents minor difficulties; tenet means “holds,” “guides.” Opera could mean “with care”, as an ablative of the word opera, or “the works”, as a plural of the word opus. Finally, rotas is translated as “wheels”: they could be those of a cart or metaphorically the celestial wheels of destiny (like the trajectories traversed by the stars at night) to indicate generically the fate of history.

The Enigma of the Sator Square
Satyr (painting) by Balbi Filippo (19th century)

Interpretations

Linear reading

It is difficult to establish the literal meaning of the phrase composed of the five words, since the term AREPO is a hapax legomenon (an expression that occurs only once within the written record of an entire language) in Latin literature, and therefore its meaning cannot be established by comparison. Some conjectures about this word (in Gaul and around Lyon there was a type of Celtic wagon that was called arepos: it is assumed then that the word has been Latinized into arepus and that in the square it would have the function of an instrumental ablative, i.e. a middle complement) lead to a translation, of obscure meaning, such as “The sower, with the wagon, carefully holds the wheels”, of which we try to clarify the meaning by understanding the reference to the sower as a reference to the Gospel text.

The term arepo can also be understood as “small patch of ground,” referring to a passage from Columella where arepenne is given as a synonym of Gallic origin for semiiugero, with equal root of arpentum. In addition, the term rotas can mean “the convent”. The meaning would therefore have been: “The Sower of an arepenne maintains the convent with his work”. If, on the other hand, rotas referred to the celestial wheels, it could be read as “The Creator of the lands keeps (governs) the celestial wheels.” The concept of the oneness of the immanent world with the transcendent one is also identified by the cross shape of the tenet, a shape that symbolically expresses the union of heaven and earth. From the combinations of the two meanings can also be obtained “The sower in the field governs the celestial wheels”, vision attributable to radical atheism typical of the atomism of Lucretius.

Bustrophedic reading

If one were to read the palindrome by changing direction at the end of each line or each column (bustrofedic writing), one would obtain the phrase “sator opera tenet arepo rotas”, in which the term Sator would indicate the sower, arepo would represent a contraction of areopagus (meaning supreme court), and the palindrome could be translated as: “The sower decides his daily tasks, but the supreme court decides his fate”; this interpretation would therefore attribute a moral meaning to the magic square according to which: “Man decides his daily actions, but only God decides his fate.”

Using both the linear and the bustrophic reading, arepo also corresponds to the constellation of the Big Dipper, the sickle of the gods (harpé), a symbol of their universal power and therefore a metaphor for God.

Amphibological reading

Given the multiplicity of possible meanings, the square of Sator could be understood as an amphibological anagram, deliberately containing several keys to reading that revealed themselves differently depending on the level of knowledge and depth of the reader.

The less educated reader would have stopped at the literal reading and perhaps grasped the symbolic meanings common enough in the ancient world, such as the four Pythagorean elements, drawing the reading, line by line: “The sower, holds, the sickle, agricultural works, wheels.” A more acute person would have understood the amphibology and would have transferred them from the terrestrial sphere to the celestial one, grasping the link between the agricultural sower and the celestial sower, drawing the reading, line by line: “The Creator, holds, the Big Dipper, the constellations, the stars”. Whoever was endowed with literary and philosophical culture, would have guessed the key of bustrophic interpretation rich in metaphors, reading, line by line: “God, takes care of Creation, as a man takes care of his fields”, as well as further numerological, cabalistic, philosophical and theological meanings.

Acrostics and acronyms

The term Arepo could stand for Aeternus Rex Excelsus Pater Omnipotens (Eternal King Exalted, Father Omnipotent), so the interpretation would be that of a Christian symbol.

Some of the acrostics that can be derived from the term TENET alone are Tota Essentia Numero Est Tracta (“The whole essence is obtained by number”), Tecta Erat Nocte Exordio Terra (“In the beginning, the Earth was covered by darkness”), Tellurem Effecit Numen Elementorum Temperatione (“The Divine Will created the Earth with a balanced combination of the elements”), Terra Effigiem Naturae Essentialis Tenet (“The Earth preserves the image of Essential Nature”).

Among the many examples of possible anagrams, always in the religious field, we can draw: O PATER, ORES PRO AETATE NOSTRA (“O Father, pray for our age”); ORA, OPERARE, OSTENTA TE, PASTOR (“Pray, work and show yourself, O Pastor”); RETRO SATANA, TOTO OPERE ASPER (“Go back, Satan, cruel in all your works”). There is no lack of diabolical invocations either: SATAN, TER ORO TE, REPARATO OPES! (“Satan, I beseech thee three times, restore my fortunes”).

Christian Symbology

The reading within the palindrome of the word “PATERNOSTER” as a disguised crux occurs by anagram.

The Enigma of the Sator Square
SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS anagram

The presence of the palindrome in many medieval churches induces us to consider it – although it may have had a more ancient origin – a symbol that is part of the Christian culture of that period. Starting from the identification of the Sator, the sower, with the Creator (see the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Mustard Seed), some scholars have proposed the following interpretation: “The Creator, the author of all things, carefully maintains his own works”. Another argues that, consistent with widespread habits in the Middle Ages, the use of the square of the Sator in a Christian environment had to correspond to apotropaic purposes, as happened for many other suggestive inscriptions, such as “Abracadabra” or “Abraxas”.

If the large number of presences and findings in medieval places of worship shows that the palindrome had a religious meaning in medieval times, more controversial is the context of its use in earlier times. The discovery of the “latercolo pompeiano”, dating back to a date before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79, has raised numerous controversies about the Christian origin of the square because, although the presence of Christian communities in Pompeii and Herculaneum and in Campania is a documented fact, the A and O placed at the sides of the cross are a reference to the symbolism of Alpha and Omega whose first appearance in the Christian context is attested in the Apocalypse of John, written at a later date (although in the Jewish context such symbolism is also present in the Old Testament).

The first to hypothesize the thesis of the Apocalypse was Grosser, who, observing with a puzzling spirit the set of letters that compose it, pointed out how they can be used to compose a cross, in which the word paternoster crosses the letter N: two A and two O advance, which can be placed at the four ends of the cross, as if they were the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, within four quadrants divided by the horizontal and vertical axes forming the cross. The square would therefore be a crux dissimulated, a hidden seal in use among early Christians at the time of persecution. This interpretation is reinforced by the fact that the magic square itself contains within it a dissimulated Greek cross, formed by the intersection, at the center of the square, of the two occurrences of tenet, the only word in the structure that is palindromic of itself. This interpretation, however plausible, is not accepted by all scholars, especially by those who reject the Christian origin of the palindrome.

The movie Tenet, directed by Christopher Nolan, makes numerous references to the square. Tenet is the title of the film as well as the secret organisation that works to save the world. The opening scene is set at an opera house, and the main antagonist, the Russian billionaire Sator, owns the construction company ‘Rotas’. Numerous scenes in the film are shot in a palindrome way from a temporal point of view: first from the past towards the future according to the perspective of one character, then from the future towards the past according to that of another character.

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