From mysterious rebus to medieval charm (Sator Square, Part 1 Addendum A)
While I initially thought it might’ve had to do with the film Tenet, some of the traffic to my Sator Square articles seems to have had to do with its use in magic, which I mentioned in passing in Part 1. I’m not uninterested in that, but that article and Part 2 focused on deciphering the original intent behind the creation of the square, concluding how it was used by members of the Jewish diaspora in the Roman world to recognize one another. In particular, I wanted to dispel the popular notion the rebus was of Christian origin.
To linger here for a moment,
the cross, while it seems an essential Christian symbol to us today, was not used as an esoteric sign of that religion before the second century. Thus, even apart from all the other anachronistic elements needed to interpret the Sator Square as containing the Lord’s Prayer, a cross layout is required, which would have carried no particular significance at the time of the rebus’ earliest appearance.
There were, however, signs used in similar ways by early Christians, most notably, the ἸΧΘΥΣ (ichthys) acrostic. This spells out the Greek word for “fish”:
- Ἰ: Ἰησοῦς (Iēsoûs), “Jesus”
- Χ: Χρῑστός (Khrīstós), “anointed”
- Θ: Θεοῦ (Theo), “of God”
- Y: Yἱός ((h)uiós), “son”
- Σ: Σωτήρ (sōtḗr), “savior”
All together forming the phrase:
Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior
The first appearances of the ichthys in Christian art and literature date to the second century CE, far later than the first known record of the Sator Square in the mid-first century. Indeed, the acrostic only became popular late in the second century, and its use exploded in the two centuries after that.
Use of the ichthys acrostic as a secret symbol and shibboleth obviously dates to the early Christian period (ca. 313–324) when the religion was outlawed, and signs of faith needed to be kept on the DL. There were two forms used to obfuscate the acrostic. The first resembled a wheel with eight spokes, formed of the superimposed letters. A similarly divided round loaf of bread, termed panis quadratus in Latin, has also been suggested for the image, which certainly has more resonances in Christian tradition. The one better known refers indirectly to the acrostic with a simple fish image drawn with a pair of arcs meeting at the left side and crossing at the right to form a tail. Fish figure prominently in the Bible, and particularly the Gospels. And of course it remains with us today, most commonly as a car adornment.
As for the Sator Square, we know it came into use in a Christian context from the early medieval period, as we see it in European churches from that time. The earliest such can be seen on a marble block in the facade of the Abbey of St. Peter ad Oratorium near Capestrano, Italy, built ca. 752. Rather than being a graffito like the inscriptions found at Pompeii or on the wall in the Roman villa making up the undercroft of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, the one on the abbey seems much more elaborately carved, somewhat in keeping with the other inscriptions appearing nearby around its entrance.
However, the fact the rebus appears upside down inclines me to believe that this block was from an earlier structure and reused in the church facade, as was often done. It brings to mind the massive gorgon heads in the cistern beneath Istanbul; one on its side and one inverted, so placed to remove their pagan power. Indeed, it may be that the original, rotas-first form of the square is the pre-Christian version of the square and the later, sator-first form, was suggested by this one’s upside-down placement in a Christian church. If so, it might be best to refer to the Rotas Square as a rebus, and the Sator Square, as we shall see, as a charm.
The first reference to the Sator rebus in a clearly Christian setting comes from a marginal note in an Old English version of Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People from the 11th century. The benediction presented there invokes the Holy Trinity, but its central feature is the Sator rebus:¹
Creator et s[an]ct[i]ficator pater et filius et sp[iri]t[u]s s[an]ct[u]s q[u]i es uera trinitas et unitas precam[u]r te d[o]mine clemat[i]ssime pat[er] ut elemosina ista fiat misericor[-]dia tua ut accepta sit tibi p[ro] anima famuli tui ut sit benedictio tua sup[er] omnia dona ista p[er] + Sator. arepo. tenet. opera. Rotas. D[eu]s qui ab initio fecisti hominem et dedisti ei in adiutu[-]rium similem sibi ut cresceretur et mutiplicaretur. da sup[er] terram huic famulam tuam .N. ut p[ro]spere et sine dolore parturit.
Creator and Sanctifier, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, who art true trinity and unity. We pray to thee, Lord most merciful Father, that this gift become your mercy, that it may be acceptable to thee for the soul of your servant, that your blessing be upon all these gifts through + Sator. arepo. tenet. opera. Rotas. Lord, who from the beginning created man, and gave him for assistance one like himself so that he should increase and multiply, grant to this your servant, N on earth let her give birth successfully and without pain.
Where the ⟨+⟩ appears in the text, as it does immediately prior to the words of the Sator Square, it generally indicates the sign of the cross is to be made as the words are spoken. The phrase “increase and multiply”, commanded of Noah after the flood;² often appears in charms promoting conception. In contexts such as this, the actual meaning of the original Sator Square is of no importance; we can see in one example below, it even ceases being a palindrome. Instead, it has become a charm. This charm is sometimes spoken aloud, sometimes written and used as an amulet, and sometimes, it seems, both.
As an amulet, we increasingly see the square either presented as a magical figure, especially as a pentacle—with one unique case, showing it as five concentric circles, divided by five radiating lines—or the words that make up the rebus as normal text.
Use of the rebus is more fully formed in a set of three late 12th century treatises: Conditions of Women, Treatments for Women, and Women’s Cosmetics. Best known as the Trotula, it’s one of the most important gynecological texts in medieval Europe, which compiled, among other things, remedies for difficult birth. Medicine and magic combine in the tome, as the character of writings of the former type are “scientific” in the sense they are records of patients who seem to have been helped by the methods described. Other remedies, such as girding the patient with a sloughed snakeskin—a well-known symbol of death and rebirth—are suggested, but crucially to this discussion:³
[…] scribantur hec nomina in caseo uel butyro: + sa. e. op. ab. z. po. c. zy. e. pe. pa. pu. c. ac. sator arepo tenet os pera rotas
[L]et these names be written on cheese and butter: + sa. e. op. ab. z. po. c. zy. e pe. pa. pu c. ac. sator arepo tenet os pera rotas and let them be given to eat.
The curious string of syllables or abbreviations, sa. e. op. ab. z. po. c. zy. e pe. pa. pu c. ac. is unknown and nowhere else attested. The element of inscribing the charm on food and consuming it is interesting, but far from unique. On the other hand, we see a tradition forming wherein the charm is associated with childbirth.
There is one case where the Sator Charm appears in a mid-12th century manuscript alongside another charm, known as the Crux Christi, to find a thief. The Sator Square is drawn, with these lines arranged around its edges:⁴
Veniat illi laq[ueu]s.
que ignorat et
captio q[uia] abscond[it]
et laqueu[m] cadat ipsu[m]
Let there come to him a snare of which he is ignorant, and a trap that is hidden catch him, and let him fall into a snare.
And then beside it,
Crux χρ[ιστ]ι ab oriente reducat te .N.
Crux [χριστι] a[b] meridiano reducat te .N.
Crux χ[ριστι] ab aq[ui]lone reducat te .N.
Crux χ[ριστι] ab occidente reducat te. N.
Crux χ[ριστι] abscondita fuit Helena
inventa e[st]. sic inveniat[ur] fugitiuus
iste p[er] uirtute[m] s[an]cte crucis.
Adiuro t[er]ra p[er] patre[m] et filiu[m] et sp[iritu]m s[an]c[tu]m et per sepulchru[m] d[omi]ni ut eu[m] n[on] retineas .N. s[ed] citissime redire facias ad me.
Cross of Christ, bring you back N. from the east.
Cross of Christ, bring you back N. from the south.
Cross of Christ, bring you back N. from the north.
Cross of Christ, bring you back N. from the west.
Cross of Christ, hidden Helen was found. So let this fugitive be found by the virtue of the Holy Cross. I charge by the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost and by the sepulcher of the Lord, that the earth not shelter N. but return him to me as quickly as possible.
The Crux Christi would continue to be used for magic of this sort. The Sator Charm, on the other hand, was alloyed with others relating to childbirth, as it is here:⁵
Ut partus facilitetur scribe istud & liga super ventrem illius. Maria peperit christum + anna mariam + elizabeth. Johannem + selina.remigium + sator + arepo + tenet + opera + rotas et bibat folium diptanni
To facilitate delivery, write this and tie it on her belly: Mary begot Christ + Anne begot Mary + Elizabeth begot John (the Baptist) + Cecilia begot Remigius (probably Saint Remigius of Reims) + sator + arepo + tenet + opera + rotas and drink (a decoction of) dittany leaf.
This example combines the Sator Charm with another widespread charm, known in the Anglo-Saxon tradition as the Peperit Charm. It presents the sequence of holy mothers. Some 66 versions of it have been found from all across Europe and in a variety of languages, though, as with most writings of the time, mostly in Latin. The documents it appears in are of various characters, including all the types compiled in the Trotula: magical, devotional, and medical.
A much more elaborate formula appears in a late 15th-century quarto manuscript from a private collection with the vernacular introduction written in Middle English:⁶
For Woman that travelyth of Chylde, bynd thys Wryt to her Thye: In nomine Patris + et Filii + et Spiritus Sancti + Amen + Per Virtutem Domini sint Medicina mei pia Crux et Passio Christi + Vulnera quinque Domini sint Medicina mei + Sancta Maria peperit Christum + Sancta Anna pep.[erit] Mariam + Sancta Elizabet peperit Johannem + Sancta Cecilia peperit Remigium + Arepo tenet opera rotas + Christus vincit + Christus regnat + Christus dixit Lazare veni foras. + Christus imperat. + Chr.[istus] te vocat. + Mundus te gaudet. + Lux te desiderat. + Deus ultionum Dominus. + Deus preliorum Dominus libera famulam tuam N. + Dextra Domini fecit virtutem + a. g. l. a. + Alpha + et Ω + Anna pep.[erit] Mariam, + Elizabet precursorem, + Maria Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum, sine dolore et tristitia O infans sive vivus sive mortuus exi foras + Christus te vocat ad lucem. + Agyos + Agyos + Christus vincit. Christus imperat. + Christus regnat + Sanctus + Sanctus + Sanctus + Dominus Deus. + Christus qui es, qui eras + et qui venturus es + Amen, bhurnon + blictaono + Christus Nazarenus + Rex Judeorum fili Dei + miserere mei + Amen.
For woman that labors with child, bind this writing to her thigh: In the name of the Father + and the Son + and the Holy Spirit + Amen + By the power of the Lord let the cross and the passion of Christ be my medicine + Let the five wounds of the Lord be my pious medicines + Mary begot Christ + Anne begot Mary + Elizabeth begot John + Cecilia begot Remigius + Arepo tenet opera rotas + Christ conquers + Christ rules + Christ said “Lazarus, come forth!” + Christ commands + Christ calls you + the world rejoices in you + the light desires you + God of vengeance + God, Lord of hosts, deliver your servant N. + The right hand of the Lord has been made strong + a. g. l. a. + Alpha + and Omega + Anna begot Mary + Elizabeth’s precursor + Maria (begot) our Lord Jesus Christ, without pain and sorrow. O infant, whether alive or dead, come forth! + Christ calls you to the light + holy + holy + Christ conquers Christ commands + Christ rules + holy + holy + holy + Lord God + Christ who art, who was + and who is to come + Amen, bhurnon + blictaono + Christ of Nazareth + King of the Jews, son of God + have mercy on me + Amen.
In what can only be called a shotgun approach, we see not only the Holy Trinity invocation, the Sator Charm, the Peperit Charm, not once, but twice, as well as a variety of other charms and prayers, including the Laudes Regiae—again twice, and the magic words bhurnon and blictaono, I can find nowhere else. The tale of Christ’s resurrection of Lazarus was popularly used by medieval magicians to summon forth anything from the body, as it is here for a baby, but also to remove pustules, bones being choked on, etc. AGLA is a magic word appearing in charms (including centrally in the image I’ve included above), commonly supposed to be a notarikon (νοταρικόν/ נוטריקון—a kabbalistic acronym) for “Thou, O Lord, art mighty forever” (אַתָּה גִּבּוֹר לְעוֹלָם אֲדֹנָי ʾAtā gībōr ləʿōlām ʾĂḏōnāy) This interpretation of the word may also have been applied after the fact, which may be a tale for another day.
It seems, ultimately, there may have only been a small window of time, if any, wherein the Sator rebus was accepted as Christian. Rather, if the Judaic hypothesis I presented previously is true, its use in that sphere, while not understood by outsiders, contained an intriguing and mystical-feeling palindromic symmetry, which prompted its adoption into magic as both amulet and incantation. One can see in the character of medieval magic a deep sense of eclecticism and exoticism: charms are collected jackdawlike, mixed with mumbo jumbo, and assembled in a hodgepodge. Overall, I find it a bit messy compared to Graeco-Roman magic.
Read Subsequent Articles From This Series
Part 1 Addendum B: Acrostic as Microcosm
Part 2: And the Rotas Go ’Round
Part 2, Addendum: Loosening “Tenet”’s Hold
Read Previous Articles From This Series
Part 1: Sator Square Non-Starters
- Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 41, 329. Bedae Historia Saxonice (Old English Bede), ca. 1000–1099. My transcription and emphasis, translation from Lea Olsan, “The Marginality of Charms in Medieval England”, The Power of Words: Studies on Charms and Charming in Europe, James Kapaló, Éva Pócs and William Ryan, eds. 2013.
- St. Jerome, Biblia Sacra Vulgata (VULGATE), Genesis 9:1, 405.
- Transcription and translation from Monica H. Green, “The Development of the Trotula,” Revue d’Histoire des Textes, 1996.
- Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS Clm 536, Honorii Augustodunensis liber de imagine mundi (Honorius of Augustodunum’s Book of the Image of the World), 1143–1147, my transcription and translation.
- Cambridge, King’s College, MS 16, fol. 93v, ca. 1300, my transcription and translation.
- I pieced together the transcription and translation from William D. Paden and Frances Freeman Paden, “Swollen Woman, Shifting Canon: A Midwife’s Charm and the Birth of Secular Romance Lyric”, PMLA, March 2010 and K. Helm: “Mittelalterliche Geburtsbenediktionen” (“Middle-Ages Birth Benedictions”), Hessische Blätter für Volkskunde (Hessian Pamphlets for Folklore), 1910.