Wordplay in the Quest for the Divine (Sator Square, Part 1 Addendum B)
The simple symmetry of letters laid out in a square is without doubt one cause for the fascination with the so-called Sator Square. This appeal means it’s also found its way into many corporate logos. Generally, the results are poor, as in that of Supercell—or as I shall always refer to them, Sup Erc Ell. When I worked at Sega, they had a still worse layout for their tagline:
This was dire indeed: it didn’t work out to an even 5×5, so they squeezed an extra letter into the final line hoping no one would notice, and, as literally none of the words landed evenly at the end of a row, they color-coded them as a nod to readability.
I even saw one new to me the other day but was too slow to get a pic, reading:
Of course, none of these can be sensibly read in any direction but one. The Uniqlo logo does have a bit of ambiguity.
This simple set of four katakana characters fails in romaji, where it becomes a 2×3. The design references hanko (判子), the signature seals commonly used in Japan and typically laid out in this same type of 2×2 pattern and which use red ink. Although Japanese has four valid reading directions, there are only two that work here; the one above and, as is typical of hanko, two columns from right to left:
And in fact, even though it’s meaningless, niroyuku has become a funny way to refer to the company. My own logo for this site is similar to Uniqlo’s in terms of layout, and so has the same potential for ambiguity. Thus far, I’ve neglected to ask any of my Japanese friends if there’s a tendency for it to be read as rugideku, or something else.
There’s an intermediate step between this and the Sator Square level; one where the square can be read in two directions. Left to right and top to bottom. Known simply as a word square, this is actually a special type of acrostic. There are examples in English up to the ninth order (i.e., a 9×9 square) such as:
Of course, the result is nonsensical (and not in a good way); apart from “existence” the words run from rare to just this side of nonexistent. Rather than delivering meaning, the word square has become a problem for mathematicians and computers to solve—exactly as they’re attempting to do for the 10×10 square whose solution has remained elusive since 1897.
Just as with the Sator Square, ancient ones are known, like this one found twice in Smyrna from the second century CE:
apple delight word name saying
Similar to the English word square above, this has no meaning, simply representing a set of words that work together to create this form. As noted by its discoverers in 2016:¹
The more ambitious Christian interpretations of the [Sator] square […] gain no traction from this Greek square, which uses only nine letters of the Greek alphabet and will not allow the formation of any of the basic Christian vocabulary that comes to mind. Nor do the words have any isopsephistic [i.e., numerological] value.
Some still point to the central word being λόγος as a reference to the word of God, but there’s essentially an inverse relationship between the size of the square and its ability to convey meaning. There is a pair of 4×4s in Greek that don’t appear until the medieval period (specifically, sixth–seventh centuries); one is seemingly meaningless, and the other is:²
alpha lion voice man
A bit of a charitable reading—taking alpha as referring to the Hebrew letter א and so referring to the Western Semitic word for ox, and then voice as referring specifically to the cry of an eagle—gets you to the four living creatures that draw the chariot of God, the Christian Gospel writers, and the Tetramorph. Whether or not it was actually Christian in origin, it appears on a papyrus alongside the Sator Square, and seems to have likewise been used as a charm—possibly against snakebite—in Coptic magic.
The instinct to incorporate magic squares into medieval charms relates strongly to the very reasons they were created in ancient times. Because of the proscription of idolatry in Judaism, the divine had to be expressed in a different way. The complex and intertwining geometric patterns Islamic Art is famous for are motivated by the same Abrahamic tenet. In Judaism, this resulted in the exploration of magic squares, among many others, and so they have a long history:³
Magic squares have been recovered from [pre-Romance language] history that are edged with palindromes and from which the Hebrew name Elōhim [אֱלֹהִים] can be obtained, beginning with a central aleph.
Although iconoclasm was less of a factor in medieval European art, there was also some continuity of these traditions that continued to motivate the creation of,⁴
[…] abstract structures such as geometrical forms, symmetrical schemata, palindromes and monograms.
In general, there was a search for the microcosm, where something small could act as a structural analogy for the entirety of the universe. This also led to the exploration of the perfect, “Adamic” language based on the Bible passage:⁵
And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
This was seen as meaning there was one “correct” word for everything, lost to us because of the confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel. Among many others, Dante Alighieri was moved to study Hebrew, which, if not itself the Adamic language, was thought closest to it. Failing to find this perfect language, Prophetic Kabbalist Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia (אברהם בן שמואל אבולעפיה) tried to create his own, while Dante turned instead to the Florentine Italian of the common people. In any case, language, and particularly ways of interpreting it, such as the gematria, were at the forefront of the minds of the medieval intelligentsia.
Palindromes, as noted, were a part of these explorations. Although the term is of Greek origin (παλίνδρομος; “running back again”), it’s actually a relatively modern coinage; in Ancient Greece, they were called καρκινικοί (karkinikoi), referring to the side-to-side movement of a crab (καρκίνος). One of the earliest attested comes from a school worksheet from Tebtunis, Egypt, in the first century BCE:⁶
ὦρτ ἐπἱ σῡν ἵvά κάπρον [ἀ]νόρπaκά νιν ὑσἱ πέτρον
From the place where (this stone once) attacked a (wild) swine, I carried it off to be a landmark for swine
Though this has thus far not been found to have been repeated, another, from the fourth century CE, known as the Nipson palindrome, became quite widespread. The phrase is attributed to Saint Gregory of Nazianzus and runs:
ΝΊΨΟΝ ἈΝΟΜΉΜΑΤΑ, ΜῊ ΜΌΝΑΝ ὌΨΙΝ
Wash [my] sins, not only [my] face.
Note in addition to being a palindrome, when written in majuscules, as above, all its letters are vertically symmetrical apart from the ⟨N⟩. Therefore, the phrase often appears with those letters reversed on the right side, so also becoming a mirror ambigram. Given its content, it came to be used frequently on holy water fonts, beginning, it seems, with one outside the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.
Another from late antiquity, but from a mixed Judaic-pagan context appears on an amulet bearing on the other side the image of a mummy on a boat, likely representing Osiris, together with the god of luck, Harpocrates (as I’ve previously noted, also thought by some to be referenced by the word arepos in the Sator Square). This palindrome is found on amulets and magical papyri for a variety of magical purposes, and so seems to be formulaic:
Similar to some of the modern word squares I began with, the breakup of words here is somewhat random, reflecting the oval shape of the amulet, but the first word is clearly a Greek form of the tetragrammaton, YHWH (יהוה). The following words, βαφρενεμουν οθιλαρι κριφι, apparently translate an identifiable Egyptian phrase, and so the whole becomes:⁷
Iahweh is the bearer of the secret name, the lion of Re [lies] secure in his shrine
A palindrome with which Dante was familiar, even referring to it in his Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia), appears on the floor of the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence, reading:
EN GIRO TORTE SOL CICLOS ET ROTOR IGNE
[I], the sun, with fire, make the circles turn and I turn as well
The phrase is inscribed in a circle surrounding an image of the sun, the whole acting as a gnomon for an oculus in the building’s roof. This also makes the terms sol and ciclos self-referential. Additionally, the inclusion of rotor, itself a palindrome, strongly recalls the rotas of the Sator Square.
Just as quotes are sometimes difficult to properly attribute, so with these phrases, especially with the dates, which are often pushed back as with this one, spuriously linked to Virgil:
IN GIRUM IMUS NOCTE, ECCE ET CONSUMIMUR IGNI
We go around at night, and behold! we are consumed by fire
It’s much more likely this palindrome was created no earlier than the sixth century, and certainly we can see its strong resemblance to the previous one, which, depending on the direction of influence, would place it more into the medieval setting more expected for such works. Umberto Eco, an expert in the medieval, places it in that context in The Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa). The phrase itself is thought to refer to moths, and so, allegorically to people, often drawn to powerful things that can end in their destruction, as Icarus to the sun.
Returning to the Sator Square, what gives it such majesty is it combines the elements of a palindrome and a magic square, and so is still more of an expression of divine perfection than either by itself. However, there is another also found in Pompeii:
Rome once Milo love
This phrase lacks a verb, making it hard to parse, but like some word squares, it sacrifices meaning for form. The fact the word for “love” and the name of the great city of Rome are mirror images is easily noticed, and this square simply expands that with another pair of mirrored words. Although it also appeared in Rome’s port town, Ostia, it was perhaps too simple and obvious to proliferate as its more famous cousin did.
Read Subsequent Articles From This Series
Read Previous Articles From This Series
- Roger S. Bagnall, Roberta Casagrande-Kim, Akin Ersoy, and Cumhur Tanriver, Graffiti from the Basilica in the Agora of Smyrna, 2016.
- P.CtYBR inv. 1792 qua.
- Dmitri A. Borgmann, “Palindromes: The Ascending Tradition”, Word Ways, May 1980.
- Madeline H. Caviness, “Images of Divine Order and the Third Mode of Seeing”, Gesta, 1983.
- KJB, Genesis 2:19, 1769.
- Jerzy Danielewicz, “A Palindrome, an Acrostich (sic) and a Riddle: Three Solutions”, The Muse at Play: Riddles and Wordplay In Greek and Latin Poetry, 2013.
- Joachim Śliwa, “From the World of Gnostic Spells: The ιαεω‑ Palindrome”, Within the Circle of Ancient Ideas and Virtues, 2014.