Acrostic as Microcosm

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.

ユニクロ yunikuro

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:

ニロユク niroyuku

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:


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:


[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:


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

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

Part 1 Addendum A: Blessings Through Sator


  1. Roger S. Bagnall, Roberta Casagrande-Kim, Akin Ersoy, and Cumhur Tanriver, Graffiti from the Basilica in the Agora of Smyrna, 2016.
  2. P.CtYBR inv. 1792 qua.
  3. Dmitri A. Borgmann, “Palindromes: The Ascending Tradition”, Word Ways, May 1980.
  4. Madeline H. Caviness, “Images of Divine Order and the Third Mode of Seeing”, Gesta, 1983.
  5. KJB, Genesis 2:19, 1769.
  6. 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.
  7. Joachim Śliwa, “From the World of Gnostic Spells: The ιαεω‑ Palindrome”, Within the Circle of Ancient Ideas and Virtues, 2014.

Myth and Magic in the Cultural Koiné

A swirling miasma of ancient wisdom traditions (The continuity of magic from East to West, Part 5)

On a recent trip, I found philosopher and thaumaturge Pythagoras’ (Πυθαγόρας) home island of Samos (Σάμος) is easily visible from the Turkish mainland near Kuşadası (known to the Greeks as Ἔφεσος Νεόπολις). Separating them is the Mycale Strait (Greek: Στενό της Μυκάλης, Turkish: Dilek Geçidi)—actually the narrowest such body between any Aegean island and Turkey at just under a mile (1.6 km). So the idea he somehow represented a purely Western wisdom is pretty unlikely.

To be fair, the west coast of Asia Minor was inhabited by Greek-speaking peoples from the Bronze Age down to modern times, but, on the other hand, it’s a quick trip to more exotic locales. Moreover, it was the custom of such folks to visit “the East” to learn their trade, according to Carolina López-Ruiz:¹

[…] Pythagoras […] was later remembered as having sought out eastern wisdom in his travels. His learning in the Levant was later connected with Thales of Miletos, who, according to Herodotos, was himself of Phoenician stock:

“Surely aided by Thales…, he (Pythagoras) sailed to Sidon, having learned that it was his fatherland by nature and thinking well that from that place the trip to Egypt would be easier for him. There he joined the heirs of Mochos the physiologist-prophet and the other Phoenician hierophants, and was initiated in all the mysteries of Byblos and Tyre, and in select sacred rites performed throughout the greater part of Syria.”

Thales (Θαλῆς) is at the same time a mysterious and celebrated figure. His works are largely lost to us, but various more well-known people, such as Aristotle (Ἀριστοτέλης) tell us he’s an important mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher: one of the Seven Sages of Greece and the Father of Science. His hometown, Miletus (Μῑ́λητος, now known in Turkish as Milet) was an ancient Greek city on the western coast of Anatolia, in the Greek settlement called Ionia (Ἰωνία).

Crete, too, though not strictly speaking “eastern”, was another source of mystical wisdom for similar figures. Epimenedes (Ἐπιμενίδης), reputed author of the Oracles (Χρησμοί) and who was summoned to Athens to purify the Kylonian Pollution (Κυλώνειον ἄγος), was said to have been initiated for 57 years in a Cretan cave. Thaletas (Θαλήτας) was called from Gortyn (Γόρτυν) in Crete to rid Sparta of a plague in 675 BCE—and did so by singing the Cretan paean

When it comes to the gods, there are some commonalities that are down to the Proto-Indo-Europeans (PIE). We think of the Near East as dominated by Semitic languages today—and it is, mainly by Modern Hebrew and various forms of Arabic—but we see outliers in Persian and Kurdish. In ancient times, many IE languages existed there, including the Anatolian languages: Hittite, Palaic, Luwian, Lycian, Lydian, and possibly Carian, Pisidian, and Sidetic, and the Indo-Iranian ones, including the ancestors of the modern languages of the region and Avestan. And just as the language family spread, so too can commonalities be seen across pantheons of the gods that also seem related to these common PIE origins: the head god is the sky father; his consort, the earth mother; his daughter, goddess of the dawn, etc.

Still, Zeus (Ζευς), who might at first seem a clear exemplar of the sky father, shares specific details with the Canaanite Baʿal (𐤁𐤏𐤋). This latter god has direct continuity from the Sumerian Ish’k’ur (𒀭𒅎). The morphing of the PIE sky father, usually associated with the brightness of the sun and nurturing rains, into a warlike storm god is generally agreed to be due to the influence of the ancient Near East (ANE), and specifically the Phoenicians. Similar to the Greek cosmogony, there is a battle of succession, where Baʿal—like Zeus—is the last to gain power. Thereupon, he builds a palace on a mountaintop to the north, in the center of the universe—Tsaphon (𐤑𐤐𐤍, located on the Turkish-Syrian border and known biblically as Zaphon/ Tsāfōn, צפון, and in modernity as Cebel-i Akra/ Jebel al-ʾAqraʿ, جبل الأقرع) being the corollary of Olympos (Ὄλυμπος) in the ancient Greek sphere—whence he sends his messages and thunderbolts. Indeed, Zeus is even associated with the same Levantine mountain under yet another name as Zeus Kasios (Ζευς Κασιος).

The storm god, variously named, was widespread throughout the ANE, even finding worshippers in Egypt, as stelai discovered there attest. The Akkadians even used the Sumerogram 𒀭𒅎 for their version of the god, Adad, and as to his messages:³

Adad was also associated with divination and justice […] he is addressed as ‘lord of prayers and divination’ [be-el ik-ri-bi ù bi-ri], and invoked to preside over haruspicies [link to hark] […].

This is, of course, another point of continuity with the Graeco-Roman world, specifically, the Etruscans, who continued to practice the divinatory arts even after their culture had been otherwise wiped out on the Italic Peninsula, and who dedicated their offerings to their own sky god, Tinia, again, also a god of justice, who the Romans syncretized with Iuppiter.

The battle of succession, and the eventual victory of order over chaos is a theme we see repeated throughout the complex, but with various changes seeming to reflect specific threads of tradition, such as the castration of Ouranos (Οὐρανός), and his overthrower, Kronos’ (Κρόνος) swallowing of a stone, which are agreed to have been drawn from the Hurro-Hittite Kumarbi Cycle.

There are some points of difference as well, however, that do relate to the PIE version of the sky god. Zeus’ animal is generally the eagle, while the Ish’k’ur lineage is associated instead with the bull. But in the episode of the kidnapping of Europa (Εὐρώπη), notably a Phoenician princess, Zeus takes the form of a bull.

López-Ruiz references Walter Burkert’s The Orientalizing Revolution just as I did previously,⁴ but urges some caution. She points out the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East were in such close contact for such a long time, there is clearly opportunity for extensive mutual influences to have occurred, rather than there being an exclusively east-west one. She says, instead, there came to be a “cultural koiné”, drawing a parallel to the way in which the many dialects of the Greek language eventually fused into a common language.⁵ And of course, this is correct; I’ve already pointed out the interconnectedness of the cultures of the Late Bronze Age.

As to the succession myths, for example, López-Ruiz concludes:⁶

[T]his kind of narrative traveled easily across neighboring ethnic and linguistic frontiers and was adapted and transformed to fit prevailing trends and interpretations of coexisting myths, whether they were “old” or “new,” Greek or “foreign.” The narrative schema of a succession of gods provided a “grid” into which foreign and local elements could be easily adapted to specific theological and literary ends. Cosmogonies and theogonies, in turn, became popular partly because they systematized religious knowledge across a field of diverse local traditions, especially in Greece of this period when communities were expanding and coming increasingly into contact with each other. […] Possibly they also served to diffuse theological tensions by setting divine instability into an intelligible narrative framework. Hesiod’s [Ἡσίοδος] Theogony [Θεογονία] reflects a well-established divine order in which previous generations of gods are relatively marginal […] and […] a status quo had been achieved only through violence and unnatural processes […]. These more disturbing stories were partly neutralized by being set in the divine past.

Finally, regarding Pythagoras and his ilk, López-Ruiz notes the Greeks were a bit exoticist, as they saw foreigners, particularly from the east, and even more particularly from Egypt, as inherently mystical. Therefore, they tend to attribute foreignness to people in order to legitimize them as mystics, so we should take some of these tales cum grano salis.⁷

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Griffin and the Phoenix

Part 2A: Hark, a Haruspex!

Part 2B: Go West, Young Mantis

Part 3A: Coda Etrusca

Part 3B: Devoted More Than All Others

Part 4A: Romancing the Hellenes

Part 4B: The Chthonian Connection


  1. Carolina López-Ruiz, When the Gods Were Born: Greek Cosmogonies and the Near East, 2010.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Kathryn Stevens, “Iškur/Adad (god)”, Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses, 2016.
  4. Walter Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age, 1992.
  5. López-Ruiz, 2010.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.

Blessings Through Sator

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”:

  • : 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]
app[re]hendat eu[m]
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


  1. 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.
  2. St. Jerome, Biblia Sacra Vulgata (VULGATE), Genesis 9:1, 405.
  3. Transcription and translation from Monica H. Green, “The Development of the Trotula,” Revue d’Histoire des Textes, 1996.
  4. 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.
  5. Cambridge, King’s College, MS 16, fol. 93v, ca. 1300, my transcription and translation.
  6. 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.

How “Alice” Grew Big in Japan

Lewis Carroll’s works as Taishō nansensu and beyond (DeDisnification, Part 7A Addendum C/ Taishō, Part 5)

Lewis Carroll’s Alice books hold a unique place in Japanese culture. The appearance of these works coincided with a key moment in the modernity of the island nation. They went on to become central, not only to the canon of children’s literature, but literature writ large, as well as other cultural forms such as film, comics, animation, electronic games, and fashion. Many of Japan’s cultural elite have produced translations and adaptations of Alice, including renowned authors such as Mishima Yukio (三島 由紀夫), and Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (芥川 龍之介) and Kikuchi Kan (菊池 寛), and award-winning artists like Yayoi Kusama (草間 彌生).

Translations into various languages appeared thick and fast following Lewis Carrol’s books’ English publication; today they include 175 languages. But there are far more in Japanese than any other. Including both Alice in Wonderland (AiW) and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (TLG), there have been a whopping 425 translations. Furthermore, Japanese editions of these books are far more numerous than those in any other language, running to 1,271 of AiW alone.¹

Sadly, the Victoria & Albert’s (V&A), “Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser”, virtually ignored the important place Carroll’s works have reached within Japanese culture. The show featured only marginal mention of the impact of Lewis Carroll’s books in Japan. The show literally included a loli (ロリ, short for ロリータ, rorīta, the kanaization of Lolita) dress, a manga (漫画), and a poster for the Japanese release of the 1931 US film.

The two Alice books have had a strong presence in Japan since the turn of the last century, oddly beginning with Hasegawa Tenkei’s (長谷川 天渓) translation of TLG as Kagami Sekai (「鏡世界」, “Mirror World”), published in serial form throughout 1899. AiW was first translated nine years later, in 1908, by Shizu Nagayo (永代 静雄) as Arisu no Monogatari (『アリスの物語』, Alice’s Tale). There were also translations in 1910, -11, and -12, and apart from a wartime gap, when the government had a tight rein on printing in general, they have continued regularly until today.

The reasons the Alice books resonated with the Japanese beginning at the turn of the last century—and beyond, as we shall see—are many and varied. And, for the most part, quite different from those that made the works popular in their native tongue and in other places around the world.

One element comes from how these works were translated. As one might imagine, translating Carroll’s works with all their historical and contemporary Victorian cultural references, puns, parodies, and nonsense into any language presents a high degree of difficulty. Even in relatively closely related languages and cultures such as those of Europe, the first translations—into French and German—didn’t appear for four years. 

Difficulties were compounded in Japan, lacking such cultural and linguistic relatedness. Particularly given that the books were—at least ostensibly—intended for children, accessibility had to be a concern. Indeed, the very notion of children’s literature was new to Japan in the Meiji era (明治時代, 1868–1912), so these works were necessarily pioneers in this new genre. These issues together meant that the early translations were really‌ adaptations, with material either omitted or significantly altered. The level of challenge in translating Carroll’s works can be seen in the fact that in more recent years it was taken on by Naoki Yanase (柳瀬 尚紀) who has also done so for works by James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges.

A variety of strategies were used to make the Alices more acceptable to a Japanese audience, including altering the main character’s name. Hasegawa changed it completely, to Mii-chan (みいちゃん, where -chan is a title affix for children), as did Maruyama Hakuya (丸山 薄夜), to Ai-chan (愛 being a standard Japanese name meaning “love”) in 1910’s Ai-chan no yumemonogatari, (『愛ちゃんの夢物語』, Ai-chan’s Dream Story). There were still others, including Ayako-san (綾子さん) in a translation by Niwa Goro (丹羽 五郎), Kodomo no yume (『子供の夢』, Children’s Dreams), in 1884, and Aya-chan (あやちゃん) in Saijo Yaso’s (西條 八十) 1921 “Kagamikuni Meguri” (「鏡國めぐり」, “Mirror Country Tour”), and in the same year, Sukko-chan (すゞ子ちゃん) was used by Suzuki Miekichi (鈴木 三重吉) in his “Chichū no sekai” (「地中の世界」, “Underground World”). Despite all this, eventually, Arisu (アリス) won out as the protagonist’s name, even becoming a commonly used Japanese girl’s name from 1920 on.

Illustrations of the Carroll books show the common pattern where foreign forms were borrowed during the Meiji era, but discarded in the Taishō era (大正時代, 1912–1926) in favor of Japanese ones, whether newly created or traditional. For example, in Ai-chan no yumemonogatari, an Art Nouveau style reminiscent of Alfons Mucha is apparent, though Ai-chan has dark eyes and hair. A later one appearing in a 1911 collection called Kodomo no yume: Chōhen otogibanashi falls back on more traditional imagery; even though Alice wears a bob, she’s dressed in a kimono, and amenbo (飴棒, water striders) populate the pool of tears.²

This type of strategy continued to be employed. For example, a 1952 Disney picture book presenting an episode from AiW made even more connections to Japanese culture. These included the Kojiki (古事記, “Records of Ancient Matters”, ca. 711) a collection of myths, legends, and semi-historical accounts, and specifically the Hare of Inaba (因幡の白兎 Inaba no Shirousagi), giving him a river to cross to match the folktale, where none exists in AiW. Also, describing one of her size-changing episodes, it includes the passage:³

Suddenly, her height, she thought, grew tall like an obake [お化け] […].

Obake, meaning roughly “shapeshifter”, is a type of yōkai (妖怪), a class of spirits and monsters in Japanese folklore. Although these creatures were written about since antiquity, from the Edo era (江戸時代, 1603–1868) on, they became increasingly popular. Including this type of material made the work much more acceptable to a Japanese audience.

The first true translation wasn’t published until Kusuyama Masao’s Fushigi no kuni of 1920, which included both of the Alice books. By this point, Japanese audiences were much more familiar with Western culture, using katakana to render terms such as “Anglo-Saxon” and “ham sandwich” (アングロ・サクソン, Anguro Sakuson and ハム・サンドウィッチ, hamu sandōitchi), and even provided footnotes regarding words Carroll had invented.⁴ Yet even this work:⁵

[E]mphasizes a hybridized Arisu, a figure who retains Western properties augmented with elements that suggest Japaneseness.

The Meiji era, in which Carroll’s works were first introduced to Japan, was not only an opening in physical terms—where people and goods moved freely between the formerly isolated country and other nations—but also in terms of education, where new ideas and ways of learning were also coming in from the West. Nor was this a passive exchange: Japan’s pursuit of Western knowledge and culture was nearly a mania.

With respect to education, the dominant paradigm in Japan prior to the Meiji era was Confucianism, and more particularly, Edo era Neo-Confucianism (known as 朱子學, shushigaku). Whereas this philosophy saw humor as useless folly, early contact with Western learning challenged that view. One textbook nearly any Japanese university student of English in the Meiji era would have used stated:⁶

[The] degradation of any dignified object, whether animate or inanimate, which has hitherto inspired us with feelings of admiration and awe, tends to awaken the ludicrous emotion […].

Therefore, they would have been presented with this legitimization of humor as a literary strategy, as historian Junji Yoshida notes, thus:⁷

Meiji learners of English rhetoric were […] impelled to reflect on, if not to renounce, their former denigration of laughter as mere frivolity.

Once the Confucian stigma had been so removed, intellectuals were free to explore humor in all its forms.

But even in the midst of the freewheeling Meiji era, there was a growing backlash to the expanding freedoms of the individual. One of the forms this appeared in was a crackdown on political speech thought dangerous to the ruling class. Already in 1869, there was a Publication Ordinance (出版条例, Shuppan Jōrei) providing for review and censorship ahead of publication. This was still not enough to satisfy conservative elements of the government, so the Libel Law (讒謗律, Zanbōritsu) and the Press Ordinance (新聞紙条例, Shimbunshi Jōrei) were implemented in 1875. The latter was so severe, it forced the shutdown of radical presses such as the Hyoron Shinbun (評論新聞, literally, “Critical Newspaper”, but styled The Review in English). Restrictions in the subsequent Taishō were still more strict:⁸

The draconian Public Security Preservation Law of 1925 (治安維持法), put in place only two months after universal manhood suffrage, marked the biggest reversal of the Taishō Democracy. It was intended to suppress political dissent, specifically targeting socialism and communism. Under the law, an Orwellian thought police was formed, the Tokubetsu Kōtō Keisatsu (特別高等警察: “Special Higher Police”, often shortened to Tokkō), whose mandate was the criminal investigation of political groups and ideologies representing a threat to public order. They arrested over 70,000 people during the time the law was on the books, from 1925 to 1945.

One such venue was satirical magazines in the mode of Punch, which made their way to Japan. This was literally the case for the Japan Punch (ジャパン・パンチ) which was founded in 1862 by Charles Wirgman after working for the original British publication and immigrating to Japan. Kitazawa Rakuten (北澤 楽天) also founded Tokyo Puck (東京パック) in 1905. And just as Punch originated the modern sense of the term “cartoon”, Rakuten was also the first to use “manga” with its current meaning. Yet another word, ponchi-e (ポンチ絵), was derived from the magazine’s name to describe a subgenre of ukiyo-e (浮世絵) featuring humorous or satirical themes.

Nonetheless, there was also a veritable explosion of publishing in Japan of the time for sensors to deal with. From 1923 to 36, there was nearly a tripling in the number of books published. The government necessarily had to focus on large-circulation items, such as newspapers, while smaller ones could often escape censorship.

Many political radicals also became kōdanshi (講談師 “storytellers”), who were far less easily regulated. Through this medium, they could use humor to communicate subversive political ideas, in talks termed jiyū kōdan, (自由講談, “freedom lectures”). Other media too proved less prone to governmental interference, and so the use of humor-masked radicalism spread to these, which included folk- and pop songs, the latter of which became a national craze, Asakusa Opera, as well as such unlikely means as folk dance.

To summarize the effect of Japan’s modernity on its relationship with the works of Carroll: The country was actively seeking engagement with the cultural products of the West, and Great Britain in particular. The Alice books could only be thought of as legitimate literature as they were often cited in the British papers, as Dodgson’s nephew noted:⁹

With the exception of Shakespeare’s plays, very few, if any, books are so frequently quoted in the daily Press as the two “Alices.”

So, the books could not be dismissed as frivolous topsy-turvy, but instead their rhetorical use of humor had to be considered. In particular, the use of satire as a covert and subversive medium for political commentary was increasingly explored. Carroll’s books, with their connections to Punch via John Tenniel, as well as the use of satire and absurdity in the text, became notable for this rhetorical mode, especially as exemplars of how seemingly harmless children’s books could be so thoroughly subversive.

Another important avenue of the impact of Carroll’s works in Japan was through women and girls. From the earliest translations, Alice was directed toward girls. Arisu no Monogatari, which I mentioned earlier as the first translation of AiW, was published in newly created girl’s magazine Shōjo no Tomo (『少女の友』, Girls’ Friend), and even the translator’s pseudonym, Sumako (須磨子), is a woman’s name. Six years later, in 1918–19, the first actual female translator, Kako Yuko, produced a version of Carroll’s work which ran in a magazine aimed at adult women.¹⁰ Translations by women became a trend, with at least six in the first decade of the postwar period and eight in the decade after that. In the decade spanning 2004 to 2013, there were 30 translations by women.¹¹

In addition to appearing at a pivotal point in the modernity of the Japanese cultural milieu, Alice also coincided with the creation of a media image of idealized girlhood, termed shōjo (少女), in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the many reforms of the Meiji era was the Girls’ High School Order (高等女学校令, Kōtōjogakkōrei) of 1899. The improvements thus provided in education for women worked together with the other key elements of the time—Westernization, modernization, and industrialization—to create the concept of the shōjo. In earlier times, women were children, then brides. But now there came to be an intermediate period when girls from the middle- and upper classes were at school instead.

To serve this new readership, several magazines sprang up featuring the term shōjo in their titles, including Shōjo-kai (『少女界』, Girls’ World) in 1903, and in 1906, Shōjo Sekai (『少女世界』, also Girls’ World), and Shōjo no Tomo, which I’ve already mentioned as—uncoincidentally—where the earliest AiW translation was published. As many magazines of the time did, these presented serialized novels, but featuring female protagonists. Single-page manga began to appear within these magazines, eventually increasing in length and sophistication until they simply became shōjo manga. As a side note, this is the same audience, Kobayashi Ichizo (小林 一三) was aiming for with his Takarazuka Revue (宝塚歌劇団, Takarazuka Kagekidan).

The images and manga in shōjo magazines were foundational to the kawaii aesthetic (可愛い, “cute”) which has not only become a well-known aspect of Japanese culture, but a worldwide phenomenon. While it may seem innocent, there’s a strong current of revolt in kawaii as Sharon Kinsella, a lecturer in Japanese visual culture, notes:¹²

[Y]oung women […] desire to remain free, unmarried and young. Whilst a woman was still a shōjo outside the labour market, outside of the family she could enjoy the vacuous freedom of an outsider in society with no distinct obligations or role to play […]. [A]s young women get older and particularly in the period immediately prior to marriage, their fascination with and immersion in cute culture becomes still more acute.

And further:¹³

Women [criticized] as infantile and irresponsible began to fetishize and flaunt their shōjo personality still more, almost as a means of taunting and ridiculing male condemnation and making clear their stubborn refusal to stop playing, go home, and accept less from life.

Fashion, as one of the more important purveyors of the cute aesthetic, also shows the impact of Alice. Women’s views of sexuality, their own bodies, and their culture—including acceptance or rejection of it—all intersect in this field. As Japanese cultural studies scholar Masafumi Monden notes.¹⁴

Arguably, in Japan, Alice has been more influential because of her fashions, which reflect her age and spirited personality, than because of her literary adventures […].

There are a variety of images of Alice that can be seen as influencing fashion. This can easily be seen in loli attire, which refers to Carroll’s works both directly, through the use of calf-length dresses and pinafores, as well as through a general aesthetic of Victorian frills and lace together with accessories like gloves and parasols. A few recent examples of this influence are Emily Temple Cute, a Japanese fashion brand, whose 2009–10 winter collection, was called “Wonderland” and SO-EN (装苑), one of the oldest fashion magazines in Japan, which ran a 22-page Alice-themed fashion spread in 2007.¹⁵

And just as Alice, a cute, female protagonist on the brink of womanhood and rebelling against the arbitrary structures of the society she is meant to fit herself into, was appealing and relatable when she was first introduced to this audience, continues to be. Indeed, she has become more important to the culture—an icon thereof.

And this is the broad and deep context behind the items from Japan in the exhibit the V&A provided none of. There’s not AN Alice manga, rather there’s a spectrum of them. There’s not AN Alice loli dress, rather Alice is a touchstone of the Japanese fashion industry. As I’ve already described, there is a plethora of books and manga that are translations or adaptations of Alice, and as we’ve also seen, the image pervades fashion in Japan.

But it’s still more far-reaching. Alice appears in television, such as 2020’s Squid Game (《오징어 게임》, Ojing-eo Geim) -esque Imawa no Kuni no Arisu (『今際の国のアリス』, Alice in Borderland). In pop music, the works remain a repeated point of reference, as in Iwasaki Yoshimi’s (岩崎 良美), “Watashi no na wa Arisu”, (「私の名はアリス」, “My name is Alice”) of 1980, Matsuda Seiko’s (松田 聖子), “Jikan no Kuni no Arisu” (「時間の国のアリス」, “Alice in Time-Land”) and Kobayashi Asami’s (小林 麻美), 「Lolita Go Home」, both in 1984, and Nakagawa Shoko’s (中川 翔子), 「Through the Looking Glass」, in 2009.¹⁶ Games have appeared regularly as well, spanning diverse genres, including, 1991’s『Alice』, 2005’s, 『Are you Alice?』, based on a manga of the same name, 2007’s Haato no Kuni no Arisu〜Wonderful Wonder World〜 (『ハートの国のアリス』, Alice in the Country of Hearts). And above and beyond the possibilities offered at Tokyo Disneyland, there are dozens of Alice-themed shops, particularly bars, restaurants, and cafes scattered throughout Japan, often including Carroll-inspired menus and costumed servers.

Finally, Miyazaki Hayao’s (宮崎 駿) 2001 film, Spirited Away (『千と千尋の神隠し』, Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi) contains so many similarities to the Carroll books that many point to it as an adaptation thereof. Beyond the obvious, the movie strongly incorporates a number of tropes we’ve seen here: food that causes metamorphoses, a world parallel to reality with obtuse logic, references to the Meiji period—specifically in the architecture—figures from Japanese myth and folklore, and social commentary. Not only was it a massive success in Japan, the film was well received internationally, even collecting the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2003.

It should be clear from all this that an exhibition only covering Alice in Japan could easily be assembled. While this was not the specific remit of the V&A show, it was intended to speak to the influence of Carroll’s works, so it seems like a pretty significant miss. And I definitely begrudge them the space taken up by their VR experience, which my correspondents assure me was just as terrible as I imagined.

Read Subsequent Articles in the DeDisnification Series

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9A Addendum: The Woods “Over the Wall”

Part 9B: The Sum of its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than

Read Previous Articles in the DeDisnification Series

Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”

Part 2: Making over “Mulan”

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest

Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle

Part 6: Trouble with “Tarzan”

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole

Part 7A Addendum A: Curious Curation

Part 7A Addendum B: “Alice” in Revolt

Read Previous Articles in the Taishō Series

Part 1: Japan’s Turbulent Taishō

Part 2A: Epochal Architecture

Part 2B: When Tokyo Moved West

Part 3A: Asakusa Movies

Part 3B: Asakusa Opera

Part 4: The Mysteries of Zūja-Go


  1. Jon Lindseth and Alan Tannenbaum, Alice in a World of Wonderlands, 2015.
  2. 『子供の夢長編おとぎ話』( Children’s Dreams: Feature-Length Fairy Tales), 1911. My information on this work comes from Samantha Johnson, “Chasing the White Rabbit in Tokyo: 100 Years of Alice in Japan”, 2017.
  3. 『ふしぎの国のアリス』(Fushigi no kuni no Arisu , Alice in Wonderland), 1952. Though it uses the by then standard name for Carroll’s book, it actually presents a translation of a book called Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland Meets the White Rabbit (A Little Golden Book), retold by Jane Werner, adapted by Al Dempster, original story by Lewis Carroll, 1951. Quoted in ibid.
  4. Kusuyama Masao (楠山 正雄), 『不思議の国』 (Fushigi no kuni, Wonderland), 1920, details from Amanda Kennell, “Alice In Evasion: Adapting Lewis Carroll In Japan”, 2017.
  5. Sean Somers, “Arisu in Harajuku: Yagawa Sumiko’s Wonderland as Translation, Theory, and Performance”, Alice Beyond Wonderland: Essays for the Twenty-first Century, 2009.
  6. W. D. Cox, The Principle of Rhetoric and English Composition for Japanese Students, 1882, quoted in Junji Yoshida, “Shifting Meanings of Humor at the Dawn of Literary Modernism in Meiji Japan”.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Hedlund, “Japan’s Turbulent Taishō”, Deru Kugi, June 2017.
  9. Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (Rev. C. L. Dodgson), 1898.
  10. Kennell, 2017. The translator’s name is not given in kanji, nor is the name of the work or the publication in which it appeared cited, and I was unable to locate these details. In fact, the translator’s identity is the subject of some debate, as is their gender.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Sharon Kinsella, Cuties in Japan, Women, Media and Consumption in Japan, 1995.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Masafumi Monden, “Being Alice in Japan: performing a cute, ‘girlish’ revolt”, Japan Forum, 2014.
  15. Details from Ibid.
  16. Ibid.

“Alice” in Revolt

Lewis Carroll’s Victorian grotesquery (DeDisnification, Part 7A Addendum B)

There is a rumor Queen Victoria had loved Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (AiW) so much she asked the author to dedicate his next work to her. That author was Lewis Carroll, which was actually the nom de plume of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, an Oxford lecturer on mathematics. His next book was 1867’s An Elementary Treatise on Determinants: with their application to simultaneous linear equations and algebraical geometry. This dainty dish was therefore set before the queen, who, one imagines, was unamused. While this tale is entertaining, it’s also easily debunked, as one biographer wrote:¹

He always refused to admit to any but especially privileged persons that he was Lewis Carroll. […] It would have been clean contrary to all his practice to identify himself as author of Alice with the author of his mathematical works.

One of the biggest failings of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) show, “Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser”, was in conflating Carroll with his alter ego, Dodgson. They effectively drew a straight line from the staid Victorian Oxford don to the production of the Alice books. While this may seem a slight oversight, it actually erases some crucial information about both the author and his work.

First, Dodgson was very much a man of his times. Besides being a mathematics lecturer, he was also an ordained deacon in the Church of England, and was conservative personally and politically as well. As the quote above notes, he maintained a clear separation between his normal life and his fanciful writings about the world of Alice. Another of the many who have written about Carroll describes him in his day job as:²

An inveterate publisher of trifles [who] was forever putting out pamphlets, papers, broadsheets, and books on mathematical topics [that] earned him no reputation beyond that of a crotchety, if sometimes amusing, controversialist, a compiler of puzzles and curiosities, and a busy yet ineffective reformer on elementary points of computation and instructional method. In the higher reaches of the subject, he made no mark at all, and has left none since.

And indeed, where Carroll is almost entirely known for his two Alice books, Dodgson published no fewer than 15 works on mathematics, logic, and other serious subjects. None of these received any accolades to speak of, let alone becoming the kind of massive international cultural phenomenon the Carroll books did.

There’s another myth Carrol himself created and which the V&A show happily perpetuates, that the first Alice book is largely the same as the tale he told Alice Liddell, whose name the protagonist took, and her sisters while they boated and picnicked along the River Isis in Oxfordshire. In fact, the book’s publication and this incident were separated by over three years and with multiple successive versions and expansions. Apart from some of the basic themes, it’s difficult to believe a work of such depth and complexity, running to 27,500 words, was anything like an extemporaneous tale of an afternoon, even if Carroll had been some kind of savant.

And despite scientific and technological advancements, the general character of the Victorian era (1837–1901)—and even more so the mid-Victorian heyday of 1851–79—was just as drab as Dodgson outside the Alice books. Culturally, it was a repressive and moralizing time. These societal values came about as industrialization drove the rise of the middle class. As one literary critic noted of the status of art in Victorian England:³

[B]ourgeois capitalism restructures social and political life in such a manner that art and society appear related and yet somehow unrelated. 

A different pair of literary critics put a still finer point on it:⁴

When the bourgeois consolidated itself as a respectable and conventional body by withdrawing itself from the popular, it constructed the popular as grotesque otherness. But by this act of withdrawal and consolidation it produced another grotesque, an identity-in-difference which was nothing other than its fantasy relation, its negative symbiosis, with that which it had rejected in its social practice. 

It should already be becoming clear on which side of the equation of acceptable literature versus grotesque the Alice books fall on, but for comparison, we can look at some of the other children’s literature of the age. Moralism, above all else, was the matter of such works. The fairy tale, which had been introduced into literature in the 18th century, was pressed into new service by the Victorians. The model provided by Hans Christian Andersen earlier in the century, using the form to present protagonists showing virtue and determination in the face of troubles, was an especially favored one. Even this was criticized by some as being too focused on amusement rather than education. Stories for Victorian children focused still more on teaching boys how to become diligent and loyal workers and girls, wise and dutiful wives and mothers.

When urged by his publisher to make some pretense toward moralizing in his first book’s title, Carroll ultimately refused, writing:⁵

Of all these I at present prefer “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. In spite of all your “morality”, I want something sensational.

This book, first published in 1865, would come to be more commonly known simply as Alice in Wonderland. It’s also worth noting while newspaper critics of the time did review Carroll’s later works—and none measured up to AiW in their eyes—that original work was all but unheralded; a simple announcement of its publication was all that appeared. Regardless of title, however, there could be no disguising the book’s content, as James Adams, a scholar of Victorian literature, noted of it:⁶

Alice in Wonderland engages in a […] thoroughgoing frustration of moralism; few works have ever been more subversive of the pieties of childhood.

With this information, we’re able to place the Alices solidly in the realm of the grotesque. And, as they mock the Victorian-bourgeois status quo, they are all the more marginal to that milieu. None of Carroll’s classical, historical, and mathematical references, his puns and witticisms directed at the highly educated, can save them from this categorization. Two elements in particular cement the works as grotesque: nonsense and satire.

Nonsense literature was clearly an offshoot of literary otherness. However, it’s not without precedents, even from ancient times. Horace, for example, in the first century BCE recommends it thus:⁷

Misce stultitiam consiliis brevem:
Dulce est desipere in loco.

Mingle a little foolishness with your prudence;
It’s pleasant sometimes to be unwise.

But the form truly blossomed in Victorian England with the nonsense poetry of Edward Lear, and then later, the works of Carroll. This, again, can only be seen as a reaction to the repressive culture of the times:⁸

Nonsense literature charts the fear of meaninglessness which bubbles below the surface of Victorian culture, with its terror of godlessness and anarchy, and it does so by distorting and exaggerating precisely those new ideas and images which most shocked and disturbed the contemporary world view.

In part, the nonsense in Carroll’s work is a spillover from Dodgson’s professional realm:⁹

This is the […] insight of a logician who appreciates the limits of his own speciality. When the characters at the mad tea party demand that Alice speak in logically rigorous language, they absurdly fail to appreciate that the conventions governing everyday social life are fundamentally arbitrary. When logic is applied outside its proper sphere, it can seem mere bullying—which is what Alice encounters in most of her attempts at conversation.

This misapplication of logic joins puns, parodies, strange anthropomorphic creatures, and usually inanimate objects imbued with life, so that:¹⁰

The effect is “nonsense” not as sheer gibberish, but as a concerted comic disruption of ordinary sense. In Wonderland, Alice experiences the power of rules in everyday life—the rules of language, social conduct, legal institutions—precisely through their subversion, which makes her experience akin to playing a game whose rules have been withheld, or are constantly changing in unpredictable ways.

Some of this, of course, plays into the satirical element of Carroll’s works. A parody can simply use the form of another work, but more typically, it’s meant as a commentary on that work. Especially in AiW, other contemporary literature for children, particularly of a moralizing kind, is targeted. For example, Carroll turns Isaac Watts’ tedious and preachy “Against Idleness and Mischief”, now remembered via AiW if at all—essentially a verse praising the industry of bees and informing us idle hands are the very workshop of the devil, and apparently required knowledge for British children of the time—into this sublime piece of topsy-turvy:¹¹

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!

Nor does Carroll shy away from lampooning the most sacred Victorian institutions, including politics, the legal system, and the monarchy, among others. Indeed, Alice’s many size changes are a metaphor for one of AiW’s central concerns: how a girl can fit into this society whose rules are both strict and arbitrary.

Just as with nonsense literature, satire reached new levels in the Victorian era, driven in part by the growth of education and the middle class, which led to an explosion of literacy—90% for both men and women by 1870—and with it, engagement with politics. This was embodied in particular by Punch magazine, launched in 1841. And the fact that Carroll chose John Tenniel, the satirical magazine’s chief cartoonist, to illustrate AiW is by no means coincidental.

Carroll even somehow manages to satirize satire itself, as Adams points out thus:¹²

Of course the very phrase “make fun of” reminds us that aggression is an integral part of humor. It was Carroll’s genius to discover this impulse in the heart of Victorian domesticity.

One can see why Dodgson let only a few close personal friends and relations know he was behind the Alice books, and would even deny it if asked directly. The works were an act of rebellion in an age of conformity, which reflected rather poorly on a serious and respectable member of the Victorian bourgeoisie, an educator and ecclesiastic.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 7A Addendum C: How “Alice” Grew Big in Japan

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9A Addendum: The Woods “Over the Wall”

Part 9B: The Sum of its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”

Part 2: Making over “Mulan”

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest

Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle

Part 6: Trouble with “Tarzan”

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole

Part 7A Addendum A: Curious Curation


  1. T. B. Strong, “Mr. Dodgson: Lewis Carroll at Oxford”, The Times, January 1932.
  2. Peter Heath, The Philosopher’s Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass, 1974.
  3. Kathy Alexis Psomiades, “‘The Lady of Shalott’ and the Critical Fortunes of Victorian Poetry”, The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry, 2000.
  4. Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, 1986.
  5. Lewis Carroll to Tom Taylor, 10 June 1864, quoted in Annemarie Bilclough, “Creating Alice”, Alice, Curiouser and Curiouser, 2020.
  6. James Adams. “Literature for Children”, A History of Victorian Literature, 2009.
  7. Quintus Horatius Flaccus, Carmina (Odes), VI.12, 13 BCE; my translation.
  8. Jackie Wullschläger, “Victorian Images of Childhood”, Inventing Wonderland: The Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J. M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame, and A. A. Milne, 1995.
  9. Adams, 2009.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, 1865.
  12. Adams, 2009.

“Curiouser” Curation

V&A’s Wonderland not so wonderful (DeDisnification, Part 7A Addendum A)

Back in October, my family and I were finally able to go to an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) celebrating the “origins, adaptations and reinventions over 157 years” of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. This show, titled “Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser”, had been set to open in spring of 2020, but as that was to become peak plague season, it was understandably delayed. So I’d been looking forward to it for some time when we actually saw it last month. Perhaps because of this anticipation, and likely also because of how well I know the subject, it was something of a disappointment.

The top-line papers presented unmixed reviews of the show, singing its praises. The reasons for this are multifarious, but I’ll sum up some I think are at work.

First, I think they’re reviewing Carrol and his Alice books rather than the show. This is akin to Rami Malek’s Oscar win—his performance in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) was fine, but it was really an award for Freddie Mercury, whom he was portraying. Similarly, there have been award nods or wins for actors pretty clearly riding the coattails of their biopics’ subjects: Abraham Lincoln, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash.

Second, there’s a definite undercurrent of jingoistic fervor, not to say imperialist nostalgia. The Victorian era (1837–1901) was the halcyon of the Empire, as well as the time in which Carroll lived and worked. This is coupled with a longing for the great British polymaths and influential writers, who also represent a bygone age.

Finally, there’s the supposed stoicism of the British, often expressed in terms of the well-known wartime propaganda quip, “keep calm and carry on”. This remains a notable myth valorizing dealing with adversity by pretending everything is fine. This is despite the fact the slogan is actually:¹

[…] the forgotten remnant of a rather spectacular failure, a failure of planning, of understanding, but mainly just a failure caused by events.

I went to art school where we would ruthlessly critique one another’s works daily. The object of this wasn’t to knock someone down or tell them they sucked, but to help them improve their craft. Certainly, Whiplash (2014) presents one extreme of this spectrum. Sycophancy has the opposite effect: faults receive positive reinforcement, and so are likely to be repeated. One of the things that confirmed to my family North Carolina was a cultural wasteland from which we needed to flee was when we attended a performance of Turandot. This serious opera quickly turned into a comedy of errors—the set broke and the last part of one act had to be performed in front of the curtain, midperformance Norton Antivirus started its check on the PC running the supertitles, which also featured a terrible translation, among many other things. The newspaper of record ignored all of this, mindlessly raving, “‘Turandot’ a Triumph”.²

In any case, after a thorough search of the V&A show’s reviews, I could only locate one that presented any critical balance whatsoever:³

It’s just a shame these exhibits are not better presented. The links between Carroll’s work and the phenomena it inspired are barely explained: we learn that surrealists like Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning “adored” his books, but little about how they affected them. Later, we are told that CERN has named an experiment after Alice; it’s a fascinating detail, but “no attempt is made to elaborate” on it.

Despite all the four- and five-star reviews the show garnered, I’d give it three at best. 

The biggest issue, which isn’t the fault of the exhibit itself, was the people; I’d give them one star. As I’ve mentioned before, museumgoers often have zero clue about etiquette here, and often are more interested in gramming their awesome trip to the exhibition than the experience itself. We encountered people carrying on lengthy conversations having nothing to do with the artifacts they were blocking the view of, and which they weren’t even bothering pretending to look at, people texting with their backs to the items we were trying to see, and many other obnoxious activities.

People impeding one another’s ability to view objects was also built into the design of the space. This is a complaint I often have about exhibitions and sometimes museums generally: if you hang two things in proximity on the inside corner of a wall, you’re creating this situation. This seems so obvious there should be a rule about it.

The Getty—which certainly presents one of the best museum experiences I can think of—at least expresses proper concern and the mindfulness required, though without specifics on how to address it:⁴

To display more art within a finite amount of gallery space is a quintessential museum struggle, so during design development we had ongoing discussions about density to ensure optimal environments for delivering an ideal visitor experience. Museum staff prepared the maximum number of objects and cases for deployment. Then, during gallery installation, there were further adjustments to improve sightlines and address overcrowding.

I found another article which, while it was more focused on proper lighting, summed up some shortcomings of exhibitions I’ve been to recently, also characterizing it as a modern and self-perpetuating problem. But even this author mainly discussed proper lighting rather than offering any specifics on the spacing of objects for optimal viewing.⁵

Modern museum design tends to emphasise visual impact and “interpretation”, sometimes augmented by interactive displays and dramatic lighting and sound, where often it seems that the objects of interest are subordinate to the general “environment” and “experience”. The opportunity to educate as well as to entertain should not be lost in modern exhibits. Some very simple, basic principles should be adhered to when developing […] displays.

A friend of mine who works at museums describes what goes on behind the scenes as:

[…] a struggle / collaboration between academic curators with highly detailed subject knowledge whose instinct is to cram in as many objects and screeds of text as possible and interpretation / design people who will have design qualifications and an instinct to clarify and simplify the visitor experience.

The subject of our discussion then was “Troy: myth and reality” at the British Museum, which I have to say was one of the worst exhibitions I’ve ever attended. Likely because he’s on the design side, my friend suggested the fault in that show may have been in curation, but I think it was actually both, which was what made it such a terrible experience. The crowning folly was definitely brought to us by designers: they built a Trojan horse on the floor, creating a narrow space within which many artifacts were displayed, with a chokepoint at either end. Even though there were timed entries, as most of these shows have, it was such a swarm of humanity we gave up seeing any of the horse’s contents. This dubious feature was such a clusterfuck more than 20 people would have made it unmanageable, let alone the hundreds in attendance. If the designers’ intent was to create an immersive experience of being shoved into a small, dark space with an uncomfortable mass of humanity, then job well done.

On the curation side, not only were there far too many objects, I recognized many of them as belonging to the British’s permanent collection, and so could be seen at one’s leisure at any other time without all this tsuris. Indeed, the net effect on me of the show—which again garnered fours and fives in the press—was to secure my fervent vow to limit my visits to anything but the exhibitions in the future.

The “Alice” show too suffered from over-clever design, much of it intended to reflect the topsy-turvy atmosphere of Wonderland. Its first room, however, containing materials about the context and creation of the Alice stories and books, was clearly intended to emulate the museums of the Victorian era, with vitrines, dark walls, and dim lighting. While this was effective in creating that atmosphere, with small objects—including Sir John Tenniel’s drawings, which were at 1:1 scale to the tiny woodblock prints made from them—tightly packed together and a general lack of flow, it was hardly conducive to viewing anything.

My final criticism of the show is along the lines of what I found in the press: lack of depth. Yes, I realize that, as my museum-worker friend suggests, this is at odds with the issues I’ve outlined above. Again, I’ll quote the article on modern museum design:⁶

[Recognize] that there are varying levels of interest and hence information required, by the visiting public, and therefore that a “layered” approach has much to commend it. i.e. do not “dumb everything down” to the lowest common denominator.

As I may also have made clear in other posts, I’ve been to a few museum exhibitions, and I know it can be done. Thus far among UK museums, the Ashmolean has by far the best show game. While I did offer a critique of it, their “Last Supper in Pompeii”, the exhibition was excellent overall and I only nitpicked a translation. The show was well curated and well designed, offering excellent breadth and depth on the subject of food in ancient Rome, and specifically in Pompeii. And I at no point had the urge to strangle anyone. Yes, the Ashmolean benefits from being in Oxford, and so less crowded, and the people I’ve encountered there are generally much better behaved, but even without those advantages I feel their show was laid out well enough to cope with any issues.

Anyway, remember, I gave “Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser” three stars; by no means a brutal pan. Apart from the design, there were a few things content-wise I’d have liked to have seen covered in a bit more depth. I’ll try to provide this myself in future posts, so I’d say the show was inspirational.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 7A Addendum B: “Alice” in Revolt

Part 7A Addendum C: How “Alice” Grew Big in Japan

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9A Addendum: The Woods “Over the Wall”

Part 9B: The Sum of its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”

Part 2: Making over “Mulan”

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest

Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle

Part 6: Trouble with “Tarzan”

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole


  1. “What a Carry On”, Quad Royal, July 2011.
  2. I can’t find the exact issue to cite it, but I remember the headline being in the Raleigh News & Observer in May 2004.
  3.  The Week Staff, “What the critics are saying about Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser at the V&A”, The Week, August 2021.
  4. Amanda Ramirez, “Redesigning the Getty Villa Galleries”, The Iris, June 2018. Also, for reference, Museo Nacional del Prado is one of the worst museumgoing experiences I’ve had.
  5. Roy Starkey, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Museum Displays—why do we keep making the same mistakes?”, 2021.
  6. Ibid.

The Row over “Hollywood” Continues

I throw in with neither Team Tarantino nor Team Lee (Mythmaking in the martial arts, Part 5 Addendum B)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (OUaTiH) has been back in the news lately because of various high-profile comments about Bruce Lee’s portrayal therein. The first came from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose arguments I’d sum up like this:¹

  • Lee taught him martial arts, discipline, and spiritualism, which allowed him to have a long NBA career with few injuries.
  • Lee fought against the racist stereotypes in Hollywood, through his acting, writing, and creation of Jeet Kune Do.
  • Tarantino is punching down in his film just as Hollywood did in the ’70’s.
  • Lee would never accept challenges to fight, though there were many.

I’m pretty far down the list of people who are going to say Hollywood’s not racist; indeed, I know the opposite is true. And I agree Tarantino is using the platform of a big-budget Hollywood film to tarnish the image of Lee. I hope I have established in this series such is not my intent.

As to Lee’s teachings allowing Abdul-Jabbar to stay injury free, perhaps, though Lee did manage to badly injure his own back by failing to warm up properly before a workout in 1970. This rookie mistake saw him laid up for months, and some even link it to his untimely demise because of drugs he took to manage the pain, so not a great advertisement for training with Bruce.

On the part about Lee never taking challenges, there are other sources among the caretakers of his legacy who say he did, and always won. I’m much more inclined to believe Abdul-Jabbar on this one as having firsthand knowledge and no vested interest in perpetuating the myth of Lee the unbeatable martial artist, in addition to jibing with my research for this series.

More recently, Tarantino fired back at criticisms like Abdul-Jabbar’s in an interview. I’d summarize his points thus:²

  • His source indicates Lee had contempt for stuntmen in the Green Hornet era,
  • And would deliberately make contact instead of pulling blows in fight scenes with them,
  • So Gene LeBell was brought in to keep him in line.

Matthew Polly, whose book Bruce Lee, a Life, Tarantino cites as his source, differs with this characterization:³

What I said in my book is that Bruce wanted to change American fight choreography so that the blows would miss by millimeters rather than by feet (aka the John Wayne punch) in order to better sell the technique. But in the process, Bruce did bang up some of the stuntmen on The Green Hornet, which pissed them off. So they asked Gene LeBell to settle Bruce down.

Now I’m not going to run out and buy Polly’s book to track down what he says there, but his description of the LeBell incident is paraphrased in an article, “Q&A: Bruce Lee & ESPN”, thus:⁴

[…] Lee had, apparently, been rough with the stunt actors while shooting The Green Hornet, and the stunt coordinator told Labell [sic] (who was already a heavyweight Judo champion) to restrain him. Labell picked up Lee in a fireman’s carry and started running around the set with him.

So it seems despite my initial sense of convergence, Tarantino came at his portrayal of Lee from a very different place than my series: he’s both factually incorrect as well as buying into the Lee myth to the extent he uses it to index Cliff’s martial prowess.

Shannon Lee again responded to Tarantino, with her main arguments being:⁵

  • Tarantino repeatedly rips off Bruce Lee without giving him credit, e.g. in Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003), but now in OUaTiH when he finally does name him, it’s only to denigrate him.
  • She’s tired of being white/ mansplained to about who her father was.
  • Bruce Lee was a true martial artist, taught it, wrote about it, created his own, and innovated in training, but didn’t fight in tournaments because he thought “combat should be ‘real’”.
  • He also had a huge impact on action films and fight choreography, inspired interest in the martial arts, and continues to inspire people as a source of pride for Asian Americans and people of color.
  • Tarantino uses him to establish Cliff’s badassery, and tears him down as “a mediocre, arrogant martial artist”.
  • Going after Bruce Lee again when there is increasing violence against Asian Americans is pretty tone deaf

These are some pretty good points, and I agree with most of them—especially that Tarantino essentially fails with his portrayal of Lee: Cliff beating up Bruce Lee the martial arts icon shows us how tough the character is, but Lee’s really just a blowhard without a lot of skill—and you can’t really have it both ways.

The part of Shannon Lee’s article I disagree with, obviously, is about Bruce, the martial artist. He did teach martial arts, but with a maximum of two years of experience when he started. He did create and write about his own, which was largely transparently plagiarized from other sources and has never produced a champion. And finally—and Shannon Lee slips up a bit here—if he avoided tournaments because he wanted combat to be real, why did he engage so enthusiastically in the inherent fakery of martial arts films?

As for the current climate of violence against Asian Americans, It’s disgusting, especially since those perpetrating it seem to target older people, and so couple cowardice with their virulent racism. Full disclosure: yes, I am white, but these articles were written in defense of Wong Jia Man (黃澤民), a Chinese-born American whose name the Lee mythmaking machine has used a ton of money and power to defame for decades. If anything, I could be accused of being offended on behalf of someone who’s not, since, as I’ve mentioned, Wong would joke about the lies told about him. And I am sad to report, since I began this series, this true master of Hsing-I-Bagua (形意-八卦), T’ai Chi Ch’üan (太極拳), and Northern Sil Lum (北少林, Běishàolín) passed away in December 2018.

Returning to the feud between Tarantino and Shannon Lee, again, it helps them both: on Tarantino’s side, there’s a saying a work can succeed either by being good or being controversial—for instance, getting something like The Satanic Verses banned only sold more books—and mouthing off in very public fora and in highly inflammatory ways about Martial Arts Jesus is sure to reach a large audience. On the Lee, Inc. side, as I said in the previous Addendum, this controversy only serves to renew interest in Bruce, so Shannon Lee is just a pot to the kettle she accuses Tarantino of being.

Present also is the kind of divisiveness and polarization much of our discourse these days tends toward. You have to decide if you’re going to be on Team Lee or Team Tarantino, because the kind of nuanced, fact-based view I’ve presented is either TL;DR, or puts me in Quentin’s camp, where I really don’t want to be.

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Bruce Lie

Part 2: Enter the Tycoon

Part 3: Fists of Flim-Flam

Part 4: Urban Lee

Part 5: The Littlest Dragon

Part 5 Addendum: Kato’s Comeuppance


  1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “Bruce Lee Was My Friend, and Tarantino’s Movie Disrespects Him”, The Hollywood Reporter, August, 2019.
  2. “Quentin Tarantino”, The Joe Rogan Experience, June, 2021.
  3. Matthew Polly (@MatthewEPolly), July 1, 2021, Twitter.
  4. Starke, “Q&A: Bruce Lee & ESPN”, How to Fight Write, 2020. Polly liked a Tweet of this blogpost, so I assume it’s accurate.
  5. Shannon Lee, “Does Quentin Tarantino Hate Bruce Lee? Or Does It Just Help Sell Books?”, The Hollywood Reporter, July, 2021.

Public Sausages, Private Votives

Roman lucanicae and lararia (Pompeii and Pigs, Addendum)

I’ve always loved museums. Growing up in Chicago, I’d clamor to go to them. And we had some good ones, mainly owing to the World’s Fair of 1893 and some robber-baron noblesse oblige in the 1930s. When I was very young, the Museum of Science and Industry was my favorite, despite a recurring nightmare I was locked in at night with its chattering animatronic fiends. For its time, the museum was quite interactive, with buttons to push, wheels to spin, and even games to play.

After my parents split up, when I was a preteen living in Skokie, my brother and I would have Jewish holidays off, our mom had to work, and if left at home with no TV, we’d have wrecked the place. Instead, we had memberships to the Field Museum of Natural History, and after taking the El downtown and explaining what Rosh Hashanah or what have you was to Chicago cops looking to bust us as truants, we’d make our way to the lakefront museum campus to wander the lesser known halls of the cavernous institution for the day. 

A great side benefit of this latchkey-kid babysitting service was their members’ nights. There was some awkwardness meeting acquaintances from school, we’d certainly never see on those holidays, and their families. But all the mysterious doors were opened, and you could see all the cool stuff that was normally hidden from view, relating to the daily work of conservation, education, and research.

I visit museums of all descriptions wherever I go. Depending on the topic, I often know more than the typically far-too-brief interpretive plaques can tell. I get audio guides, I take docent tours. I crave greater access but seldom get it, having no credentials as an academician or researcher of any sort. So when I saw there was to be an online lecture, Last Supper in Pompeii, Revisited, delivered by Dr. Paul Roberts, the exhibition’s curator, I jumped at the chance.

One really clever thing about this talk was how it used Zoom’s features: typing into the chat sent a private message to the person who was organizing the call rather than interrupting anyone, and at the end, she read the questions to the speaker. This meant two things for me: first, I could write my questions down as soon as they came into my mind rather than trying to remember them until the end, and second, I could ask whatever questions I had without feeling self-conscious.

And so I did. Roberts was discussing how the city had passed through the hands of various peoples, including Oscans, Greeks, Etruscans, Samnites, and Romans, and mentioned the Lucanians in that context. I had recently seen λουκάνικο (loukániko) on the menu of a Greek restaurant and thought, wow; they mean lucanica — Lucanian sausage — and since the talk was about food, I asked if they really were related.

It turns out the sausages were not just favored by the Romans, they were shipped all across the ancient Mediterranean world. Indeed, just as bible came to mean book because of the strength of exports of papyrus from the Phoenician city of 𐤂𐤁𐤋‎ (Gebal) which the Greeks called Βύβλος (Búblos) or parchment to refer to the cheaper animal-skin substitute for papyrus from the Hellenistic city of Πέργαμον (Pergamon) in Asia Minor.

You can see the name of the sausage travel and morph—certainly across the Mediterranean, where it’s fun to watch the scripts change—but also, via Portuguese and Spanish, to the New World, and via the latter, as far as the Philippines. Here are some of the modern versions of the name:

  • لَقَانِق‎ (laqāniq), Arabic
  • lekëngë, Albanian
  • likëngë, Albanian
  • linguiça, Brazilian/ Portuguese
  • llonganissa, Catalan
  • llukanik, Albanian
  • longaínza, Galician
  • longaniza, Latin American/ Philippine/ Spanish
  • longganisa, Cebuano/ Tagalog
  • лоуканка (loukanka), Bulgarian
  • lucánic, Aromanian
  • lucanica, Italian
  • lucanică, Romanian
  • luganega, Italian/ Venetian
  • lukainka, Basque
  • луканци (lukanci), Macedonian
  • луканец (lukanec), Macedonian
  • луканка (lukanka), Bulgarian
  • לוקניק‎ (lūqānīq), Aramaic
  • مَقَانِق‎ (maqāniq), Arabic
  • نکانک‎ (nakânak), Persian
  • نَقَانِق‎ (naqāniq), Arabic
  • נַקְנִיק‎ (naqnīq), Hebrew

In the US, I’ve definitely tucked into the odd linguiça or longaniza, entirely unaware of its Lucanian descent.

Sausage is a fairly ancient concept, stemming from the need to store meat without it rotting. The name itself comes from the Latin salsīcius meaning “seasoned with salt”, an important preservative. The first written evidence of sausage comes from a tablet written in Akkadian cuneiform around 1500 BCE.¹ So it’s old news by the time of the first attestation of the lucanica, coming from Varro in the first century BCE, which is straightforward enough:²

Quod fartum intestinum crassum, Lucanicam dicunt, quod milites a Lucanis didicerunt […].

A sausage made with the large intestine of pork is called Lucanica because the soldiers learned how to make it from the Lucanians […].

In the following century, Martial gives us an idea of how this popular sausage was to be served in one of his Epigrams; a little poem written to accompany a gift of this food to a friend:³

Filia Picenae venio Lucanica porcae:
Pultibus hinc niveis grata corona datur.

I come, a Lucanian sausage, daughter of a Picene sow;
hence is given a welcome garnish to white porridge.

You can see there’s an inflected form of puls, translated as “porridge here, but which a Latin dictionary describes as:

[A] thick pap or pottage made of meal, pulse, etc.

Sausage and beans or sausage and polenta—which in Latin originally referred to barley rather than New World corn—remain popular ways of serving the product, with a thousand permutations. It’s also worth noting Picene pork is being used, coming from a northeastern part of the peninsula rather than the southern former home of the Lucanians. 

Apicius, also writing in the same time period as Martial, gives us a fairly complete recipe:⁵

Lucanicas similiter ut supra scriptum est: Lucanicarum confectio teritur piper, cuminum, satureia, ruta, petroselinum, condimentum, bacae lauri, liquamen, et admiscetur pulpa bene tunsa ita ut denuo bene cum ipso subtrito fricetur. Cum liquamine admixto, pipere integro et abundanti pinguedine et nucleis inicies in intestinum perquam tenuatim perductum, et sic ad fumum suspenditur.

Lucanian sausage is prepared as written above. Pound pepper, cumin, savoury, rue, parsley, spice of bay berry [sic]. Also add liquamen and meat that has been pounded well, in such a way that it blends well with the pounded (spices). Add liquamen with whole pepper corns [sic], plenty of fat and pine nuts. Put it in skins, draw them quite thinly, and hang them in the smoke.

Liquamen here refers to the ubiquitous Roman umamiful fermented fish sauce condiment, also known as garum. What we learn from these accounts is at least by Apicius’ time, the lucanica was a heavily spiced, cured, dried, smoked pork sausage. This certainly could describe many such today, and some combination of its flavor and the preservation methods used in its production seem to have been what spread its fame across the ancient world.

In Italy today, there are sausages that still bear some form of this name, including various luganeghe from Lombardy, Trentino, and Veneto, but the most authentic is apparently lucanica di Picerno, from an area called Basilicata, part of the original territory of the Lucanians.

The modern version contains chilies which obviously came to Europe via the Columbian Exchange and would not have been available to the original makers, who, if Apicius is to be believed, used both powdered and whole Piper nigrum—black pepper—instead.

My second question related to the votive pig my original article discussed at length, asking if it was really from a lararium rather than a temple. Interestingly, Roberts confirmed not only that it was from a lararium but also that such finds are common. I suppose it makes sense votives in temples and shrines would be more plentiful as well as better known and researched, which would be why I would know of them rather than ones from lararia.

Additionally, Roberts disagreed with the translation of the pig’s inscription given in his own exhibition, which just shows you have to trust but verify. Nor does he agree with my version. He said it was simply:

To Hercules, a votive
Herculi VO(E)tivus (M L)

Obviously he’s oversimplifying, since he’s left out the M L, but this implies he agrees with the EDCS’ interpretation, that it is:⁶

HERculi VOt(E)um [solvit] Merito Libens
To Hercules, (he) fulfills? (his vow) willingly and deservedly

To be clear, the inscription VOE is a hapax legomenon; this is literally the only instance of its use, so we’re all of us guessing. But given the item is from a lararium, I’m more inclined to accept this interpretation. In a public temple or shrine, there’s a bunch of votives from various people, and it’s important not only for the god to know who’s made good on their oath, but also for other people, who will see Quintus Domitius Tutus is a man of his word, and reveres the gods. In a lararium, within the atrium of a family’s home, the gods should already know to whom the votive pertains, and people who visit similarly know this family has dutifully given a votive to the gods, so inscribing a name is less important.

In any case, this kind of program from museums is great, and it was awesome to get my quite specific questions answered directly rather than fishing around on the internet as I usually do. I’ll be looking for more in the future.

Read the Previous Article in This Series

Pompeii and Pigs


  1. Many sources say such a tablet exists, though I couldn’t find it.
  2. Marcus Terentius Varro, De lingua latina libri XXV (On the Latin Language in 25 Books) 5.111, ca. 47–44 century BCE, my translation.
  3. Marcus Valerius Martialis, 13.35, “Lucanicae”, Epigrammata, 86–103 CE. translation from D. R. Shackleton Bailey, ed., Epigrams, 1993. Pultibus is the dative plural form of puls.
  4. Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, Latin Dictionary, 1879.
  5. Caelius Apicius, IV, “Lucanicae”, Book II, “Sarcoptes” (“The Meat Mincer”), De re coquinaria, ca. 1st century CE, translation from Christianne Muusers, “Lucanian Sausages, a Roman Recipe”, Coquinaria, 2012.
  6. Epigraphik-Datenbank Clauss/ Slaby (EDCS).

Loosening “Tenet”’s Hold

Palindrome and film (The Mysterious Square, Addendum)

Something strange happened recently: views on my site spiked. Although spread across Medium and my own site, some of my more popular posts have a lot of views. The one on Icelandic magical staves, for example, has some 7,600. I’m also aware views do not equate to reads, which are likely less than half that, especially given my penchant for exploring arcane subject matter with some degree of abstruseness.

These views accrue quite slowly in general: Medium doesn’t promote content that isn’t monetized and I can’t be bothered fiddling with Google AdWords or any of that sort of nonsense. For example, the article I mentioned earlier was published in 2016, so those views are spread fairly evenly across more than four years. A few of my posts did get a lot of attention when they came out, such as those in my series on the mythmaking around Bruce Lee, because they were controversial.

So it was odd to see traffic to my site balloon to over 30 times its usual rate over the course of a few days. I wasn’t sure exactly how to feel about this. As I’ve said, there’s no money in it for me and I’m not trying to develop any kind of following, but it’s still cool to see people interested in what I have to say.

I remember Art Spiegelman saying in a lecture I attended when he boiled down comics as a medium; it was images arranged in sequence to form a narrative printed on paper for mass distribution, and he could have simply drawn his deconstructive work in Raw on a piece of paper and showed it to the five people who would get it. While I have to admire the will to power that brought us Maus—likely the greatest anthropomorphized narrative of the Shoah—I have no such qualms. Publishing on the internet is cheap and easy. I don’t have to worry about wasting ink and paper or fighting for shelf space in a physical store. I simply write these missives and dispatch them into the intervoid, hoping they’ll be read and enjoyed by at least a few people who get them.

Looking into the explosion of views on my site, I could see they centered around the pair of articles I had done back in 2017 about the so-called Sator Square. There was no rise in likes, follows, comments, or even many views of other articles, so it was hard to tell how my writing was being received. Again, I’ve given up on the idea of any sort of community or interaction around these articles, instead spending time in some highly specific subreddits like /r/Etymology and /r/Cuneiform. Ultimately, these articles scratch an intellectual and creative itch. Indeed, it’s similar to my day job though exploring different realms; I’d also do that for free if not for the bills I have to pay.

Committing to (usually) monthly deliveries of complete articles ensures my exploration of the ideas they contain doesn’t simply remain as indefinitely open browser tabs. Instead, I carefully research, synthesize ideas, and try to write them all down in a coherent and hopefully compelling way. And so the work continues.

As this surge in views is centered on the Sator Square, I assume it has to do with the movie Tenet, which will have stoked interest in this rebus. I had already been intending to do a follow up to these articles, but I felt I should prioritize it, so with no further ado:

In 2020, during the early days of the plague, I remember seeing posters for a movie that featured the leading man, John David Washington, cutting a rather dashing figure in a suit and wielding a handgun. I was reminded of a recent groundswell of support for the idea of casting Idris Elba as the next James Bond—perhaps that was too radical a move for Hollywood, and they were serving up something merely Bondesque instead? Apart from this, there was nothing very remarkable about the poster except the film’s name, Tenet.

Of course this word is familiar to me in English as meaning “a belief”. And also the Latin word whence it comes, the third-person singular active indicative inflection of teneō, “to hold”, so he/she/it holds. But it seemed clear neither of these could be the intended sense. Was it the name (or code name) of the character on the posters? The spy or military group to which he belonged? There was one other possibility I thought was remote: was it a reference to one of the Sator Square’s lines?

I later learned Tenet was a Christopher Nolan film. His films are positively cerebral compared to the usual Hollywood fare; even his take on Batman had some pretty clever elements. The slim chance of the film’s name being related to the last of the above points grew, and I was still more intrigued to see whether Nolan was among the cognoscenti and, if so, to what degree. So in this frame of mind, I watched the movie.

One of the central tropes of Tenet is playing with the chronology of the narrative. The tradition of non-linear storytelling has been around at least since the Iliad began in medias res. Still, there was a time and place when it violated norms, as painter El Greco was to find out after painting The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice in 1582:¹

[I]n between the main figures—the main Christian Roman generals—are contemporary generals. What El Greco is doing here is making a very clever, concise, contemporary point about the fight against heresy, and linking the 16thcentury struggle with the struggle of the early Christian martyrs. But in a way, he was being too clever, because in Counter-Reformation Spain, anything that transcended Christian orthodoxy was viewed with suspicion. And Philip II had real problems with this picture because time was conflated […].

Nonetheless, analepsis was a widely used trope appearing in the Mahābhārata as well as Arabian Nights tales such as “Sinbad the Sailor”. In Film, Citizen Kane in 1941 has the protagonist die in the film’s opening, with the remainder consisting of a series of flashbacks framed as interviews of those who knew Kane. And 1950’s Rashōmon (『羅生門』) shows us flashbacks of conflicting testimonies at a trial. Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film, Pulp Fiction, is generally acknowledged as having ushered in the current trend for slice-and-dice narrative structures. 

Nolan certainly has explored the trope extensively; notably with the fractured narrative of Memento, the film that put him on the map, so to speak, in 2000. Indeed, I’d say he’s guilty of using it when it’s not needed, as in 2017’s Dunkirk. I definitely understand the instinct to try to spice up a distinctly British piece of jingoism about how a terrible military defeat could have been worse. Sure, it’s a very familiar tale with a plodding gait, but chopping up the timeline doesn’t fix it. Nolan’s penchant for inventive storytelling lets him down here: present is the disorientation caused by such chronological gimmickry, but there’s no clever reveal, no reconfiguration of narrative expectations—in short, no payoff. Still, I see that as a rare lapse among his films.

And so we move to Tenet. This film employs a different narrative strategy: the chronology, apart from a few occasional flashbacks, is straight; time itself is what’s distorted. Certainly there are many time-travel films—it’s nearly its own subgenre—but this is a bit different. Instead of time travel as such, people, things, and the events related to them are happening via time moving in two opposing directions. Furthermore, rather than avoiding the tropes that have arisen among these films, such as timeline damage or splitting and various other temporal anomalies, Tenet leans into them. In particular, the classic grandfather paradox is everywhere: characters meeting themselves going the other way in time impel their own actions.

This means free will is an illusion as everything has already happened in one time direction or the other, so in a sense, there’s no tension, despite the many action scenes and explosions. This isn’t to say it’s not an interesting watch. I have long believed that so-called spoilers should be no obstacle to the enjoyment of a story, as the storytelling itself should be what provides that. So with Tenet, seeing how we get to the various encounters with inverted people and things we’ve already seen from the other direction is an absorbing experience. The mental contortions needed to choreograph car chases and hand-to-hand fights that make any kind of sense in both directions are equally impressive.

Crete - law of Gortyn - boustrophedon.JPG

And here we come to the connection between the film and the ancient rebus. The Sator Square seems to have been the inspiration for the film’s palindromic structure. In particular, the idea of the square being read in boustrophedon seems to be operative in Tenet, as the various characters change directions in time multiple times on screen—and many more off screen. Of course the Sator Square has more directions it can be read in, which are omitted by the film, as are the deeper resonances I’ve pointed out previously, but given the limitations of a medium that’s inherently linear, it’s a pretty good realization of a very tricky structure.

In case there’s any doubt about the film’s inspiration, it is literally spelled out:

  • Rotas is the name of the security company that guards the free port, in which art, some of it forged, is also held, but also the location of a turnstile that reverses entropy, which in form and function is also a wheel.
  • Opera is where the opening scene takes place in Ukraine, but also part of the name of the anti-terrorist squad, КОРД, (KORD), Rapid Operational Response Unit (Корпус Оперативно-Раптової Дії—it also works in Cyrillic) that the Protagonist (that’s really the main character’s name) acts alongside.
  • Tenet obviously the name of the film, as well as a codeword the Protagonist is given early in the story.
  • Arepo is the name of an art forger working with Kat Barton (Elizabeth Debicki), estranged wife of:
  • Sator, first name, Andrei (Kenneth Branagh); the villain of the piece.

Tenet was clearly chosen as the film’s title because as the central line of the rebus it is also a palindrome itself. Just as with the correspondences above, there are many ways each word is realized, so there is a literal tenet offered in the film as well, by Neil (Robert Pattinson):

What’s happened, happened. It’s an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world; it’s not an excuse for doing nothing.

This is essentially a recapitulation of paradoxical Calvinistic beliefs about predestination, which state briefly, while the ultimate fate of an individual is foreordained, they still retain moral agency and responsibility. Only more so in this case—these people already know exactly what will occur but must perform it nonetheless.

Regarding tenets, the beliefs the Protagonist and others who become embroiled in this story have about the nature of the world they live in at its beginning are slowly broken down over its course. What Tenet ends up reminding me of is Jorge Luis Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”.² For a brief description of this short story, here’s psychology professor David Pizarro:³

It turns out that the minute that people become aware of the radical idealism of the fictional world, Tlön, that was supposedly the product of a real-world Uqbar, which was, in fact, itself a fictional world created by neoplatonic secret societies, […] the hardcore idealism of this […] metathis third worldmakes its way into our existence and starts changing reality because people believe it […] and therefore destroys [reality].

Note the sense of the term idealism here is not that of striving toward perfection, but the metaphysical concept there is no reality other than what one perceives.

Is it far-fetched to impute a Borgesian reference to Nolan? I think not. First, the director said in an interview:⁴

[…] I started thinking about the narrative freedoms that authors had enjoyed for centuries and it seemed to me that filmmakers should enjoy those freedoms as well.

When you think “narrative freedoms”, you have to think of the avant-garde, where Borges’ influence is widespread. But if that isn’t compelling enough, consider Memoriam is an inversion of “Funes the Memorious”. And just as the Protagonist and other characters do in Tenet, Borges meets an older version of himself in a spatial-temporal anomaly in “The Other” in a way that nullifies time itself.⁵

More directly, in “Tlön”, there is a discussion of the various metaphysical doctrines on the fictitious planet of the same name:⁶

One of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present memory. Another school declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is only the crepuscular and no doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process.

Not only do these statements turn our perceptions of time on their heads, but the last sentence connects directly to the password given in the opening minutes of Tenet: “We live in a twilight world.” Twilight, of course, having a dual meaning as the beginning of the day and the end of it. But also this metaphysical concept from Tlön, which Nolan nearly plagiarizes, is we are actually permanently frozen in the temporal condition of twilight.

Borges was arguably one of the first postmodern writers, reacting, particularly in “Tlön”, to the horrors—including WWII, which had already begun at his time of writing—created by the rejection of history that was modernism. As he says near the story’s close:⁷

[A]ny symmetry, any system with an appearance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—could spellbind and hypnotize mankind.

Our post-ironic times, too, are plagued with new forms of dangerous irrationality where conspiracy theories are embraced and facts denied. For this reason, Nolan chooses climate disaster, which we are rushing headlong toward, as the impetus for people from the future to infiltrate the past to attempt to rectify, though they must ultimately fail. Perhaps this film is in fact an expression of Nolan’s feelings of helplessness to stop what seems to be inevitable.

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Sator Square Non-Starters

Part 1 Addendum A: Blessings Through Sator

Part 1 Addendum B: Acrostic as Microcosm

Part 2: And the Rotas Go ’Round


  1. “El Greco”, Great Artists with Tim Marlow, 2001.
  2. Jorge Luis Borges, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, 1940, translated by Andrew Hurley in Collected Fictions, 1998.
  3. “Episode 154: Metaphysical Vertigo”, Very Bad Wizards Podcast, 2018.
  4. Geoff Andrew, “The Guardian Interviews at the BFI: Christopher Nolan”, The Guardian, 2002.
  5. Borges, “Funes el memorioso”, 1942 and “El otro”, 1972, both also translated in Hurley, 1998.
  6. Borges, 1940.
  7. Ibid.

The Celtic Undercurrents of Bath

Native religion in rebellion (Defixiones, Part 9)

I’ve detailed in this series how magic spread from the Ancient Near East (ANE) right across Europe and eventually to Britain, at the farthest northeast edge of the Roman Empire. How this occurred in these islands—likely similar to other regions—is related by Cameron Moffett, curator of collections at English Heritage:¹

The Romans brought with them both literacy and this extensive material culture, which was more substantial than what had existed in Britain before. And it’s usually in all this new stuff, which was spread across most of mainland Britain by the mechanism of a newly introduced market economy, that we see the evidence of magic.

But some of the specific elements of native beliefs, also in evidence generally in the Celtic world and specifically at Aquae Sulis (modern Bath) are worth examining further.

In fact, there were certain similarities in Celtic and Roman practices that likely made the adoption of some systems of the latter so quick to catch on over and above the elements Moffett mentions. This also muddies the situation and makes it difficult to untangle which is which. For example, like the Romans, the Celts had a reverence for springs and other watery spots.

The Gauls, one of the main groups of Continental Celts, established a shrine at the source of the Seine near modern Dijon in the second or first century BCE, prior to Roman conquest, and another at the spring of Chamalières, the source of the Rhône, near modern Clermont-Ferrand. The former seems to have been consecrated to the goddess Sequana, the patron goddess of the Seine, and indeed the river’s name derives from hers. She is known for her mischievous duck familiars. The latter was to Maponos, meaning “great son”, a god of youth—and likely a trickster himself—who was syncretized with Apollo after the arrival of the Romans.

In both locations, there is evidence of pre-Roman construction as well as the deposition of wooden objects, which are apparently votives. Similar to Aquae Sulis, the Romans, as well as the Romano-Gauls worshiped syncretized versions of the native gods with the deposition of a large array of items, including defixiones (lead curse tablets).

Indeed, disentangling the Roman votives from those that predate their influence becomes quite difficult because of the cross-pollination of some of these traditions. While I think I’ve been able to argue for the ANE as a clear source of cursing traditions, votives, particularly their deposition in bodies of water, is a clearly attested Celtic tradition. So while curse tablets don’t appear before the Roman period, and so we can assume the knowledge of them came with the Romans, we can also see them as a continuation of an ancient Celtic practice of deposition at watery sites.

One noteworthy example of Celtic water deposition is the Battersea Shield. This gorgeous La Tène-style bronze repoussé shield dates from the second–first century BCE and was found during excavation for a previous incarnation of London’s Battersea Bridge in the mid-19th century. The shield is believed to have been deliberately put in the Thames as a votive. This mighty British river was a site where many items of arms and armor were offered in sacrifice in the Bronze and Iron Ages, including other notable finds such as the Wandsworth Shield and the Waterloo Helmet.

The Thames also figures as a locus for divination during Boudica’s doomed uprising against the Romans (ca. 60 CE) when the waters themselves were used as a kind of scrying object. Although Tacitus only mentions it in passing, a vision in the river is given as one of the omens seen by the Britons as fortuitous for the rebellion:²

[…] visamque speciem in aestuario Tamesae subversae coloniae […].

[…] and in the estuary of the Thames had been seen the appearance of an overthrown [Roman] town […].

Other sites were still more important; excavations at Fiskerton, on the Witham, have yielded a rich selection of Iron Age artifacts, including several swords, spearheads, an axe, and a dagger, many of them ritually damaged or destroyed before their deposition in the river. There are several similar sites throughout the British Isles and mainland Europe, such as Llyn Cerrig Bach in Wales, the Lisnacrogher Bog in Ireland, Orton Meadows (on the former course of the Nene) in East Anglia, and the eponymous La Tène on Lake Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

Circling back to Bath, the archaeology is tricky, as the Roman construction overlays and supplants the earlier Celtic structures. But it is generally agreed there was a temple to Sulis sited at modern Bath. Some estimate this could have occurred as much as 10,000 years ago, placing it in the Early Neolithic period, which, to be honest, seems exaggerated, as the Windmill Hill culture only dates to around 3000 BCE. In any case, it seems clear there was a Celtic Iron Age temple to their local deity, Sulis, when the Romans arrived.

Even with all the Roman-period construction, eighteen Late Iron Age coins were found in modernity, hidden in the anaerobic mud of the spring’s reservoir. Given their condition, and barring some unlikely event such as a hoard being dug up and then redeposited, it seems clear they must have been there prior to Roman influence.³

This would seem to invalidate the hypothesis I had previously accepted from Marina Piranomonte that the use of coins as votives was because of the decline in literacy and the ability to inscribe defixiones, but so it goes in science. And perhaps both can be true; at Aquae Sulis the deposition of coins may have returned because of the decline of public epigraphy and in the case of the Fons Annae Perrenae (Piranomonte’s subject) the cross-pollination of an originally Celtic practice might be what’s at work.

Furthermore, the lead pig I mentioned in Part 1 may also have been a votive. One of the original archaeologists surveying the site, Barry Cunliffe, noted it as such.⁴ Its presence is certainly strange, appearing in the temple itself, rather than at some outbuilding where pipes might have been manufactured. Indeed, it is the only such object found on the site, and bears marks appearing to have been made by an axe to ritually damage it prior to deposition.

Another important Celtic tradition is what is known as the cult of the head. Summed up, this cult venerates the head as the source of an individual’s soul, personality, and spiritual potency, and a symbol of the regeneration of life. This is true to such an extent that the physical body is a sometimes disposable element of the complex symbolic structure. Indeed, the cult of the head was a core part of Celtic religious ideology, from the culture’s origins through to its demise, evidenced in its folklore, myth, and art.

While heads on stakes is a well known medieval trope, the message in that context being a warning transgressors will be punished, the same sort of display had an entirely different meaning to the ancient Celts. Classical sources clearly relate—and local vernacular traditions verify—the importance of heads as war trophies, which decorated the exteriors of both dwellings and temples in their villages. Certainly martial prowess is thus shown, but these heads also acted as amulets as well.

One source on the topic is Strabo, who tells us:⁵

[…] βάρβαρον και το ἔκφυλον, ὃ τοῖς προσβόρροις ἔθνεσι παρακολουθεῖ πλεῖστον, το ἀπο τῆς μάχης ἀπιόντας τας κεφαλας τῶν πολεμίων ἐξάπτειν ἐκ τῶν αὐχένων τῶν ἵππων, κομίσαντας δε προσπατταλεύειν τοῖς προπυλαίοις. […] τας δε τῶν ἐνδόξων κεφαλας κεδροῦντες ἐπεδείκνυον τοῖς ξένοις, και οὐδε προς ἰσοστάσιον χρυσον ἀπολυτροῦν ἠξίουν

[T]hey have a barbarous and absurd custom […] of suspending the heads of their enemies from their horses’ necks on their return from battle, and when they have arrived nailing them as a spectacle to their gates. […] The heads of any illustrious persons they embalm with cedar, exhibit them to strangers, and would not sell them for their weight in gold.

Archaeological evidence also appears to back this up, with skulls found in settlements mainly near fortification walls, gates, doorways, etc., just as classical and vernacular traditions suggest. The Celtic homeland areas of central Europe, and in particular the unique temple sanctuaries of southern Provence, such as that at Roquepertuse, have direct and datable archaeological evidence for a head cult making use of votive human skulls. In the case of Roquepertuse, whose temple’s portico featured pillars with cavities for the deposition of skulls, that date is at least third century BCE but possibly even from as early as the sixth century, with the temple’s destruction by the Romans in 124 BCE giving us a clear terminus ante quem.

In Britain, too, finds giving evidence of the head cult are relatively common from the late Iron Age and early Roman period. These include skulls kept as trophies, skulls buried by themselves, and—importantly for our purposes here—skulls found in springs and wells:⁶

[H]uman skulls were frequently offered in ritual contexts at watery places during the Roman period, apparently as a direct continuation of a deeply-rooted native British tradition. One skull found on the site of the Bank of London was found as part of a deliberate filling of an early Roman well, dating from the first to the third century AD, which suggested it was part of a complex foundation ritual. […] The existence of a long-standing tradition of offering skulls to watery places may explain a number of isolated finds in the archaeological record, such as the skull of a young woman […] which was found buried in the lining of a well at a first century settlement in Odell, Bedfordshire. In Brigantia, a well at a Romano-British settlement site at Rothwell near Leeds dating from the fourth or fifth centuries AD yielded a single human skull. […] [?] Merrifield has noted a number of similar instances from Roman London, and another skull from the third century well of a Roman villa at Northwood, Hertfordshire […]. Describing these puzzling finds, he says heads are unlikely to be dropped into wells by accident or as discarded rubbish, and sees significance in the fact that heads are often found as “closing” deposits into wells which previously supplied water for domestic or industrial purposes.

In addition to actual heads, watery contexts for votives symbolic of heads are common. For example, in both the Fontes Sequanae and Chamalières some of the votives I previously mentioned were human heads carved from wood. These seem to date from the pre-Roman period because they show no signs of Mediterranean influence in their style, bearing instead the oval eyes characteristic of Celtic art. The carved jack-o’-lantern of modern Halloween clearly relates to this tradition via the co-opted insular festival of Samhain, even down to the locations in which they are displayed.

We see such symbolism repeatedly in stone heads, including tricephalous and janiform heads, face pots, wooden carvings, masks, and antefixes. One such head is discussed by Professor Anne Ross, thus:⁷

[In the territory of the Belgic Remi tribe] the deity is symbolised by an enormous bearded tricephalos, having a leaf-crown, and usually equated with the classical Mercury. These particular representations would seem to testify to the concept of some autochthonous deity as a head alone, the head sufficing for the total being, the vital part, embued with the power of the whole.

Although Strabo wrote with contempt of the Celtic fascination with severed heads, there is one that appears regularly in the Graeco-Roman tradition as well, even including the apotropaic function: that of Medusa. Also known as a Gorgoneion, the image of this grotesque severed head is a well-known device on armor and shields as well as coins, temple pediments, antefixes, garments, dishes, and weapons. Thus it shared similar ubiquity and longevity to the Celtic head cult, even exceeding it, as it survived well into Christian times and was revived in Renaissance and neoclassical contexts, right down to the present where it appears in the logo of the Versace fashion brand.

The prevalence of the image of the Gorgon’s disembodied head, while of course referring to the Perseus myth, also closely matches the spirit of the Celtic head cult:⁸

It is […] apparent that in her essence, Medusa is a head and nothing more; her potency […] resides in the head […].

If one superimposes the Gorgoneion and the image of the enormous, bearded, disembodied head Ross has given us (minus the triple aspect), it’s hard not to think of one of the more famous images from Aquae Sulis, which she also discusses:⁹

The Gorgon’s head on the shield of Sulis-Minerva in the pediment of the temple is the finest example of the blending of native and classical imagery. The head is male, bearded and moustached, and its ancestry can be traced directly to the human heads which are so prolific on La Tène metalwork. The furrowed brow and two-dimensional features are typical of many examples of Romano-British heads in stone, as is the expression of the face. The convention of the writhing serpents which here spring from the hair and are entwined in the beard and moustache is classical, but the connection of serpents with human heads is found deeply rooted in the native tradition.

Another head emblematic of the site at Bath is that of Sulis-Minerva. This beautiful gilt bronze head evinces Graeco-Roman influence and is believed to have once worn a Corinthian helmet as well. This is generally interpreted as a fragment of a full-body cultic statue, but given the significance of the head in Celtic religious practice I’ve just discussed, I’m not so sure. Obviously there are many factors, but much older finds such as the shields I’ve mentioned are in excellent condition, so the idea that the rest of the statue dissolved in its entirety seems odd. The head isn’t perfect to be sure. There is some pitting on the lower right of the face. But it also shows six layers of gilding, which would have provided additional protection against corrosion and there’s no reason to believe the rest of the statue would not have been similarly gilt. Why then would it not make sense this too was either a disembodied head representing cultic beliefs or even a votive head deposited in the spring?

Certainly Roman religion had some traits in common with that of the Celts, and the interpretatio romana combines the names of their deities, but the Britons didn’t necessarily think of their own gods in this way. Besides Graeco-Roman gods and syncretized ones, the names of distinctly Celtic ones appear in inscriptions from Bath: Nemetona, the Suleviae, Sulis, “the mother goddess”. And even syncretization can be a form of rebellion, as African slaves could secretly worship a native deity such as Ogun, who they recognized in the image of the Christian Saint Peter.

While Romanization was quite thorough in some parts of the Empire, it was less so in Britain. Resistance to the invasion was quite stubborn and prolonged, even though native military tactics were not up to the task. The adoption of Roman customs, too, seems to have been met with little enthusiasm in many parts of the Isles. Rather than building temples in the classical style, Romano-Celtic ones were the norm, and indeed there are many natural sites votive finds attest were sacred, such as groves and springs. These, it is clear, predated Roman influence, and some of them, like that of Sulis at Bath, had structures added to them under Roman rule.

And indeed, there seems to have been a revival of Celtic practices as Roman power waned. For example, already by the late Roman period decapitated burials reemerge, clearly relating to the cult of the head. Many such beliefs continued past the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain, even down to its Christianization.

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Curses of Aquae Sulis

Part 2: Malefic Traditional

Part 3: Sympathy for Sauron

Part 4: Bargaining with the Gods

Part 5: Secundina’s Beef

Part 6: More Than Money Can Buy

Part 7: The Punic Curse Trail

Part 8: Hellenism Schmellenism


  1. Episode 93, “Superstition, magic and the Evil Eye in the Roman world”, The English Heritage Podcast, 2020.
  2. Cornelius Tacitus, Annales, 14.32, c. 115–c. 120. I’ve used the Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb translation, 1888.
  3. Barry Cunliffe and Peter Davenport, “The Temple at Bath (Aquae Sulis) in the context of classical temples in the west European provinces”, The Temple Of Sulis Minerva At Bath Vol. I: The Site, 1985.
  4. Barry Cunliffe, Excavations in Bath 1950–1975, 1979.
  5. Strabo (Στράβων), Γεωγραφικά (Geographica), 4.4.5, c. 15 BCE. I’ve used the William Falconer translation, 1903–06.
  6. David Clarke, “The Head Cult: tradition and folklore surrounding the symbol of the severed human head in the British Isles”, 1998.
  7. Anne Ross, “The Human Head In Insular Pagan Celtic Religion”, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1958.
  8. Jane Ellen Harrison, “The Ker as Gorgon”, Prolegomena to the study of Greek religion, 1903.
  9. Ross, 1958.