SATOR AREPO: Unresolved riddles within a complicated existence
Much remains a mystery and I have now reached an age which makes me realize that there are several things I will never learn to understand ̶ mathematics, chemistry, nuclear physics, quantum mechanics. I acknowledge the fascination and power inherit in such wisdom, though like a dog living in the midst of the human world, having learned to understand some hominid behaviour, even being on friendly terms with some species of homo sapiens, I will never be able to embrace several aspects of human life.
One of the many endeavours that evades me is the creation of the ancient magic spell Sator Arepo, also called the Sator Square, or even Satan´s Square. A cryptogram consisting of five Latin words, each with five letters, which have been arranged within the shape of a perfect square. The words form a palindrome, meaning that they can be read from top to bottom, from bottom to top, from the front to the back and vice versa, always remaining exactly the same. They may also be rotated 180 degrees without losing their meaning.
The words are:
Sator (from serere = to sow) “sower", "author", "founder", or "creator". Obviously a denomination of God or Jesus.
Arepo, of the five words constituting the square this is the one hardest to define. It is usually overlooked by stating that it is just a "name". However, even names mean something.
In any case, Arepo is not a Latin name. It has been speculated whether it may be related to the word abrepo, "disappear", and could then be linked to something sacred – “secluded” or “unknown”. Another theory relates it to the arepos, which apparently was some kind of Gallic vehicle, or possibly a plough equipped with wheels, in which case the name could be associated with words like “driver”, or possibly “plowman”.
The word tenet does not create any major difficulties. It derives from Latin tenere, "to hold" and has meanings like "holding", "acting", "understanding", "owning", "controlling", or "maintaining". Opera is also pure Latin, a noun meaning ”work”, ”creation”, or ”care”. Rotas is also a noun ̶ plural of ”wheel”.
A tentative, verbatim (assuming that Arepo is the name of an individual or deity) translation of the phrase sator Arepo tenet opera rotas, would thus be “the sower Arepo carefully keeps the wheels moving”, possibly with a religious significance like “the Maker diligently cares for the performance of his creation.” The phrase has the same meaning if you reverse the word order rotas opera tenet Arepo sator ̶ the wheels are carefully kept moving by the sower Arepo.
The peculiarity of the sator palindrome is not only that it can be read from all directions, the two tenetwords, meaning “to hold, maintain”, form a cross at the centre of the square, thus symbolizing the security and comfort Christianity provides to its believers. On both sides of the crossbeams are the letters a and o, symbolising God's almighty power.
The palindrome's allusion to wheels may possibly be linked to the complicated wheel symbolism in Ezekiel 1: 15-21, which apparently has some kind of connection with the structure of the Universe and the power of God.
If all letters in the sator square are rearranged with the letter "n" at their centre, a Greek cross is created with the letters a and o flanking the cross beams. Peculiarly, the letters constituting the cross form the words Pater Noster, Our Father, the first words of the Lord's Prayer.
There appears to be no doubt that the sator square has a Christian origin and moreover is quite old, like Christ´s monogram - IHS, the fish, the dove and the Good Shepherd, which still can be seen in all Roman catacombs.
However, the sator square is quite uncommon in the catacombs, it is considerably more abundant above ground. The words and letters of the square have been used in efforts to date its creation. An important clue may be the the letters a and o, in Greek Λ and Ω, flanking the tenet- and Pater Nostercrosses. The first evidence of the use of the first and last letters of the Ionian alphabet used as symbols for God's all-encompassing power over time and space is found in The Book of Revelation 1:8 where God calls himself Alpha and Omega, i.e. the beginning and end of everything. St. John´s Revelation was apparently written around 90 AD and it is first during the latter part of second century AD that alpha and omega begin to appear in Christian iconography.
It is possible that the word Arepo may be related to Λ and Ω and it may then be related of the Hebrew/Aramaic pronunciation of the Greek term Αλφα ω, alpha-omega, indicating totality, i.e. ̶ the Cosmos. Λ and Ω as signs of God's sovereignty became quite common in Roman catacombs during the second half of the 4th century AD, possibly as an indication of Christianity's victory and omnipotence.
In spite of being in the middle of Rome there are no buildings in front of our terrace, only a kilometre-wide park. This is due to the fact that the ground below this park area consists of a soft, volcanic rock called tuff, easily excavated, but still relatively firm and stable, ideal for creating the vast system of catacombs that extends beyond Rome's walls. Fear of plagues and unhealthy filth caused a Roman ban on burying people within the city walls. These circumstance have meant that in the midst of an ever expanding Rome partly forested parks may be found, in particular in front of our living quarter. It is not allowed, or maybe even impossible, to construct large building complexes on a land that by underground catacombs has become hollowed out like a Swiss cheese.
The Roman catacombs are owned by the Vatican, perhaps mainly due to legends that pointed them out as hideouts for persecuted Christians, though also because the majority of those buried there were Christians, but there are also several Jewish catacombs and quite a few containing Roman pagans, as well as members of the various cults that thrived in Rome. However, most Romans preferred to burn their dead and the earth cover around ancient Rome was considered to be too thin for earth burials, which probably was one important reason for Jews and Christians to have the catacombs dug, since they preferred to keep their corpses intact.
During the 2nd and 3rd ´centuries the Christian Church had spread rapidly throughout the Roman Empire, despite the fact that it had occasionally been subjected to persecutions these had not at all decimated the believers. By the end of 3rd century AD, about ten percent of the Empire´s population was Christian, which was a significant proportion. The Church had by then consolidated itself through a new holy scripture (The New Testament), a system of dioceses, a fixed system of worship, and congregations that could vary in their rules and composition but nevertheless were structured in a similar manner.
The Roman congregation soon had become the largest and most dominant, but also the most diverse. Rome attracted people from all parts of the Empire, while several had been forced to end up there as slaves. It was the immigrants who made their mark on the Christian Church. The language of the Holy Mass was for several hundred years Greek and the Roman bishops had initially mostly Greek names.
Christianity's rapid expansion was the main cause for the catacombs' growth. It is only by the early 3rd century AD that they began to be excavated in earnest and this was not at all a result of any persecutions, but due to the increasing popularity of Christianity. After a couple of hundred years, the practice of burying Roman Christians in catacombs had disappeared and by the 7th century AD the catacombs were mainly used to worship martyrs and saints, but by then they covered extensive underground areas, in some places the tunnels lay in three layers on top of and below each other. I have heard it being stated, but so far not managed to check the figure, that only a mere tenth of the catacombs have been opened to the public and emptied of their human remains, the rest is still sealed or unexplored and may contain more than one and a half million corpses.
Several catacombs contain underground chapels adorned with frescoes and sculptures. This was because Christians, and even other believers, sometimes gathered within the tomb chambers, not because they were persecuted by Roman authorities, but because both Christians and Roman pagans during specific celebrations used to eat and drink in the presence of their deceased, something that still occur in, for example, Mexico.
I remember how by the end of the seventies I went to Teachers´ Seminary in Sweden where I was instructed to try to make my education efforts as vibrant and engaging as possible. One of my classmates, who for sure was a skilled pedagogue, was chosen to demonstrate how an inspiring lesson could be carried out. The seminarists were placed at the back of the classroom. The light was extinguished and by the teacher´s desk in front of the class, our fellow student lit an oil lamp she had bought in Rome and for a breathless listening class she evoked a feeling of mystery:
̶ So, ... now I have your attention and hope you are in the right mood to follow me through the darkness. Imagine that you are deep down in Rome's damp catacombs. You are the first Christians and above earth, your fellow believers are torn apart by wild animals in Rome's arenas, or tied to poles, being tarred and burned alive to lighten up the bloody spectacles.
With the burning oil lamp raised above her head she began to walk between the rows of benches, speaking in a low and emotionally charged voice:
̶ We are in the depths of the catacombs, surrounded by niches with corpses, the compact darkness is dispersed by oil lamps´ flickering flames. Down here, the Christians are gathering, hiding from Roman legionaries, praying to God, beseeching Him to save them from martyrdom and finally let their faith prevail. They shared the communion and read from the Bible: "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those who are living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”
My friend was praised for her efforts, though during the subsequent joint assessment I could not keep my big mouth shot. Remembering what Senior Assistant Master Bengt Hemberg, who, despite belonging to the Bible-faithful Friends, a small sect in my hometown, had pointed out during his Latin lessons, namely that the Christians had not at all used the catacombs as any hiding places:
̶ They had done better to meet in the depth of woods, or in private houses, where they could have been far more secure while carrying out their rituals, than in the catacombs. There was nothing preventing the Roman authorities from keeping the catacombs under surveillance, something they also did. And where could the Christians go if becoming trapped down there?
I reminded my classmates about this, asking if it was correct for us teachers to keep the myth alive about the catacombs as a place of refuge. Our professor became quite irritated and corrected me quite harshly by pointing out that our classmate had performed her task in an exemplary manner. The task had been to engage the students and make them interested in Christianity's message of hope and change.
̶ Theoretical sophistry is not always a preferable educational method. Most important is to reach and engage the students.
I felt like an old, cranky pundit whose only hope for being able to reach any student was to apply stick, abuse and detainment.
The belief in a Christian origin of the sator square was questioned when, in 1925, the excavation of a private house in Pompeii revealed an engraving of the sator palindrome on a wall. The find was not noticed outside archaeological circles. However, in 1936, during excavations of the largest gymnastics facility in Pompeii, another sator palindrome was found inscribed on a pillar, and soon afterwards a similar rough inscription was found in Herculaneum, several experts began to assume that the sator square was not Christian at all.
Pompeii was destroyed in 79 AD and this was assumed to have been too early for any conspicuous a Christian presence. If the sator inscriptions in Pompeii and Herculaneum really had a Christian origin this would mean that they constituted the earliest evidence of the spread of Christianity within the Roman Empire. So far the Annales of Tacitus, written in 116 AD, had been considered to be the earliest mentioning of Christians, if you do not consider a short paragraph in Josephus's Antiquities of the Jews, written around 93–94 AD, as an indication of a Christian cult:
[The High Priest] assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought them the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others. And when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.
In the forty-fourth chapter of the fifty-fifth book of his Annales, Tacitus wrote that Nero to avoid being accused for causing Rome's catastrophic fire in 64 AD, accused the Christians for setting off the disaster:
To suppress this rumour, Nero fabricated scapegoats – and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called).Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius´reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilatus. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judaea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital.
The first tangible evidence of Christianity is a papyrus fragment with the text of the Gospel of John, discovered in the Egyptian Fayoum. It is difficult to date, but is generally considered to have been written down sometime between 100 and 125 AD, i.e. roughly by the same time as Tacitus mentioned the Christians. Otherwise, St. Paul's epistles are considered to be the earliest testimonies of Jesus´s existence. The oldest of those epistles may have been written already in the fourth decade AD, but papyrus fragments of the epistles that so far have been found are date to the beginning of the 3rd century AD.
If the sator inscriptions found in Pompeii are indeed Christian, they remain the oldest proof of the existence and spread of Christianity within the Roman Empire. In spite of various expert opinions, I assume it is highly likely that Christians were present in Pompeii and Herculaneum already before the 70's AD and the palindromes suggest that the Christian faith probably arrived from Alexandria in Egypt.
Perhaps the palindrome word Arepo may be one key to the riddle's solution. Several researchers have suggested that Arepo was an Egyptian name. Popular presentations of ancient Greek and Roman culture have had a tendency to consider them in splendid isolation, among other influences often overlooking Egypt´s importance for ancient philosophy and religion.
Ancient Greek and Roman elites were well aware of Egypt's already millenarian culture and had great respect for it, although most intellectuals had difficulties in understanding and accepting several aspects of the Egyptian worldview. Egyptians were well-known to the various peoples along the Mediterranean coasts. They were seafarers and merchants, and they brought with them not only commodities, but also religion and philosophy.
After Alexander the Great in 332 BC had conquered Egypt the influence of its old culture was reinforced all over the Mediterranean world and became an important part of the cultural blend that has become known as Hellinism.
After Alexander's death, his short-lived empire was divided between four of his satraps, a Persian term for governor, or as the term meant "protector of the country". Egypt was conceded to the Macedonian general Ptolemy, who called Egypt his "spear-won land". The name Ptolemaios means "Warrior," and when he had himself crowned as Ptolemy the First the macedonian added Soter to his tiles, from the Greek's word σωτήρ, meaning "rescuer", or "liberator". Undoubtedly, the word sotor reminds of sator, the first word of the famous palindrome, though this is probably a mere coincidence. Ptolemy's descendants ruled Egypt until the country was conquered by the Romans in 30 BC.
The Ptolemaians were Greek speakers, though all of them actively promoted Egyptian culture and religion, probably due to the great influence of the Egyptian clergy and their determined refusal to submit to any Greek cultural imperialism. Ptolemy´s acceptance of Egyptian traditions gave rise to a very specific mix of cultures, with the harbour metropolis of Alexandria at its absolute centre. This cosmopolitan melting pot, manifested by the city's famous library, mixed influences from the Egyptian/Hellenistic culture with Semitic/Syrian elements. The city of Alexandria, which by the turn of the millennium counted with approximately 300,000 inhabitants, did during the first century AD host several Jewish synagogues and emerging Christian congregations.
According to several researchers, the name Arepos may be associated with the words Ḥr-Ḥp, which means "Api's face." Apis was a black (the colour of the underworld) bull (a manifestation of fertility), which was sacrificed during elaborate ceremonies and then mummified. Apis was thus a symbol of death and rebirth, and later identified with Osiris, the foremost deity of rebirth and fertility.
During Ptolemy´s reign, the cult of Osiris-Apis, Osor-Hapi, was transformed into the cult of Serapis, a deity represented in the likeness of the Greek Hades, ruler of the Underworld, with a plant decorated urn atop of his head. An image that does not seem to have much in common with Osiris, though the Greeks obviously had difficulties in worshiping a bull in its original shape, or for that matter a god who looked like a green corpse. However, several of them obviously were fascinated by and accepted the complicated concepts symbolized by the different animal forms of several Egyptian deities. This was probably the reason to why Egyptian deities eventually were transformed in such a manner that they resembled Greek gods and goddesses, who generally were depicted in their human form. Although he resembled a genuine Greek god, Serapis was basically identical with Osiris, but without the shroud, the green face and the crown of the Pharaohs.
Another theory, which also links the sator square to Egypt, is that the name Arepos may be a Latinized form of the Greek/Egyptian god Harpocrates. Even he was a Hellenised variant of an Egyptian divinity, namely Horus in the form of a child. Horus was the son of Isis and Osiris, and as a child he is seated in the lap of his mother Isis, often sucking at her breasts, similar to Christian depictions Jesus as a child.
Horus was a personification of the sunrise and the new-born freshness of vegetation, considered to be a hope for a new era of happiness and prosperity. In religious thinking, children often symbolize hope and growth, like the only children worshipped as fertility symbols by Christians, namely Jesus and St. John the Baptist as children, who furthermore were connected with water. In Christian mythology, John the Baptist is linked to the summer solstice (Midsummer) and Jesus to the midwinter solstice (Christmas).
Harpocrates was also considered to be a god of silence and confidentiality. Antique Egyptian imagery often depicted the Horus child with a finger by, or in, his mouth. It is possible that the Greeks interpreted a child's sucking on his finger as the sign of silence, thus Harpokrates was turned into the god of secrets and discretion, a protector of mysterious knowledge, magic and initiation rituals.
There is a large amount of amulets dedicated to Harpokrates and most of them are inscribed with number- and letter combinations. Like many other people, Egyptians considered letters and numbers as attempts to interpret and control the world order. It is common that Harpokrates amulets are engraved with the Greek words εννέα χιλιάδες εννιακόσια ενενήντα εννέα, meaning 9999. Each letter in the ancient Greek alphabet was also a number, and if combined, the sum could never exceed 999, adding a nine to this number turned it into 9999, denoting eternity/infinity.
The intellectual circles that during the first century AD were present in Alexandria constitute a likely source of mathematical expertise associated with magical rituals, for example those connected the so called magic squares, which Chinese, Indian, Persian and perhaps even Greek and Egyptian mathematicians had been constructing for hundreds of years.
Mathematics was believed to imitate the divine world order and it was thus common to use letter and number combinations to "capture" divine power. An amulet could accordingly be considered as a kind of storage vessel for magic energy. It had been "energised" through magic spells and pictures, which also were thought to enclose the magic strength within an amulet. A strength and power which could be released while uttering the magic words inscribed on the amulet.
The sator square was probably considered to be a protective amulet and was worn by soldiers and sailors. It is possible that especially the latter had realized that it could have a connection with Serapis and Harpocrates and thus also related to Isis. She was their wife and mother and for many seafarers Isis was The Great Mother, who provided life giving force to the entire Creation, nurturing and protecting it.
It was Isis who unified the quartered body of Serapis (Osiris) and gave it its life back. She gave birth to Harpocrates (Horus) and nurtured him with her milk. If Serapis was considered to be the creator and sustainer of fertility and, like Osiris, was connected with the Nile's annual, life-giving floods, Isis was the one who initiated the entire process. She was identified with Sothis, Sirius, after the Sun heaven´s brightest shining star. Sothi's heliactic rise, i.e. the first date of the year when the Sirius emerged above the horizon, considered to be a sign to the Nile to swell.
Isis was Pharia, "The Guiding Light," protectoress of Alexandria's great lighthouse and she watched over the Egyptian ships as they travelled across the unreliable Mediterranean Sea. Observing Sirius's position has by all seafarers been regarded as the best means of navigation, not least by the intrepid Polynesian sailors. Isis Pharia guided the big merchant ships that brought Egyptian wheat, produced by her husband Serapis, to the ports of Spain, Italy, Greece and Asia Minor. As she watched over her son, Harpokrates, Isis was also the Great Mother, Pelagia (from the Greek word pelagikos, “the sea”) for seafarers. Our Lady of the Waves, who filled the sails with wind and silenced the storms. The Star of the Sea, Stella Maris, a dunction and title that was later taken over by Virgin Mary and immortalized in one of the most famous Latin hymns, Ave Stella Maris, from the 9th century AD:
Ave, maris stella,
Dei mater alma,
atque semper virgo,
felix cœli porta.
Hail to You, Star of the Sea
God's caring mother,
And also our eternal virgin,
Heaven's blessed gate.
Below is a Harpokrates amulet that probably had been worn by a Cypriot sailor. It is tentatively dated to the 6th century AD. At the top we see Harpocrates with the finger in his mouth sitting on something that may be the Winter Triangle, the star constellation that Sirius is a part of. In one hand, Harpocrates holds a sistrum, an instrument sanctified to Isis. Under the sistrum there is Isis´s Sirius star. To the left is a bird, which can be either the Fenix reborn from its ashes, a symbol of the resurrection, or a rooster proclaiming the dawn. The snake to the right may then be Apep, a symbol of the darkness and chaos threatening the sun god Ra as he raises above or descends behind the horizon. Apep emerges from a mummy, symbol of both death and rebirth. Another mummy is resting in Osiris´s ship, heading for eternal life, as the crocodile god Sobek protects the vessel from the dangers that may befall it.
On the back of the amulet there is a palindrome, which like the sator square, can be read both from the rear and from the front: ΙΑΕW ΒΑΦΡΕΝΕΜ ΟΥΝΟΘΙΛΑΡΙ ΚΝΙΦΙΑΕΥΕ ΑΙΦΙΝΚΙΡΑΛ ΙΘΟΝΥΟΜΕ ΝΕΡΦΑΒW ΕΑΙ. It has been interpreted as "Jahveh, who carries the secret name, Ra´s lion, safe in his sanctuary."
The amulet originates from a time when Christianity in the Roman Empire had been proclaimed as State religion, though the talisman nevertheless presents an imagery in complete conformity within ancient Egyptian religion, while the backside has an inscription in Greek that blends Egyptian and Semitic beliefs. Yahweh is the secret name of the God of the Jews. Thus, the amulet is a testimony of the global syncretism and ancient superstitions that often characterize seafarers' imaginary world. Exposed as they are to the deadly whims of elements, they often seek security in magic and spells.
When the Egyptian crops gave enough surplus to fill the holds of Egyptian wheat ships, they set sail and moved north in big flotillas, this was a safety measure since Mediterranean seafarers were constantly threatened by pirates. The first destination of most Egyptian wheat vessels was the small island of Delos inside the Aegean archipelago. Delos was a free port, protected by the Roman Navy. On the island were buyers and trading houses and it was the biggest slave market in the ancient world. A cosmopolitan environment, which main temples were dedicated to Isis and Serapis. From Delos, the Egyptian wheat ships sailed north to the mainland of Greece and Asia Minor, or even further through the Bosphorus up to the cities around the Black Sea. Other wheat flotillas sailed westward.
By the middle of the second century AD the author Lucian described an Egyptian wheat ship moored at Piraeus quayside:
What a tremendous vessel it was! 180 feet in length, the ship´s carpenter told me, the beam more than a quarter of that, and 44 feet from the deck to the lowest point in the hold. And the height of the mast, and what yard it carried and what a forestay they had to use to hold it up! And the way the stern rose up in a gradual curve ending in a gilded goose-head, matched at the other end by the forward, more flattened, sweep of the prow with its figures of Isis, the goddess the ship was named after, on each side! […] The crew was like an army. They told me she carried enough grain to feed every mouth in Athens for a year. And it all depended for its safety on one little old man who turns those great steering oars with a tiller that´s no more than a stick! They pointed him out to me; woolly-haired little fellow, half bald. Heron was his name, I think.
The ship reconstruction below presents a significantly smaller wheat ship, though its appearance largely corresponds to Lucian´s description. Goose heads were a common embellishment of Roman and Egyptian ships, probably because Isis was often called The Egg of the Goose. Geese were dedicated to Geb, the Earth, the father of Isis.
At least once a year, an Egyptian wheat fleet moored in Puteoli, today's Puzzuoli just west of Naples, in ancient times it was Italy's most important trading port, protected by the Roman Empire´s Navy consigned to the nearby Misenum.
The philosopher and dramatist Seneca, who sometime in the 60's AD rested by the Campanian coast, plagued by sickness and the suffocating, dangerous life at Nero's court, has described an Egyptian what fleet's arrival at Puteoli:
Today we saw some boats from Alexandria – the ones they call ´the mail packets´- come into view all ai a sudden. They were the ones which are normally sent ahead to announce the coming of the fleet that will arrive behind them. The sight of them is always a welcome one to the Campanians. The whole of Puteoli crowded into the wharves, all picking out the Alexandrian vessels from an immense crowd of other shipping by the look of their sails.
Seneca had been carried down to Puteoli in his palanquin, though he refrained from participating in the commotion caused by the flotilla´s arrival, viewing it all from a distance. Seneca considered himself a stoic, celebrating restraint and equilibrium. Nevertheless, he was an extremely wealthy man and when he in his letter feigned disinterest, it was because he could afford it. Like many other wealthy Romans, Seneca earned money from his trade relations with Egypt and counted upon several representatives and employees in Alexandria:
While everyone around me was hurrying thus from all directions to the waterfront, I found a great pleasure in refusing to bestir myself. Although there would be letters for me from my people over there I was in no hurry to know what reports they might be carrying or what might be the state of my financial interests there. For a long time now I have not been concerned about any profit or loss.
There were plenty of Egyptian immigrants in Campania; merchants, former soldiers and sailors, and not the least a large number of slaves brought there from Delos. They had taken with them their religious beliefs. Isis, Serapis and Harpokrates were present in Campania's cities and villages. An Isis temple, still largely preserved, was built in Pompeii by the end of the 200's BC and in 109 BC a large Isis temple was inaugurated just by Puteoli´s shoreline.
Egyptian cults were most common among the lower classes; soldiers, sailors, craftsmen and slaves, an environments where Christianity also was gaining a foothold, beginning to be divulged on the Italian peninsula around fifty years after the turn of the millennium. Christianity, like the cult of Isis, was not localized, it emphasized cooperation between its faithful and both beliefs promised salvation after death.
Eventually, wealthy Roman citizens also became attracted by Egyptian beliefs. By the time of the sator inscriptions in Pompeii we find Isis altars in several of the city's private villas. Emperor Nero's wife Poppaea Sabina was born in Pompeii, where her wealthy cousin Poppaeus Habitus owned several extensive properties and in his villa he kept a stately altar dedicated to Isis. Nero´s mentor, the stoic Chaeremon, was familiar with Egyptian religion and the emperor´s astrologer Balbillus was a firm devotee of Isis. Several of Nero's successors on the imperial throne became followers of Egyptian cults.
In short, in its Greek form, Egyptian religion became common in all of the Roman Empire, where it was spread mainly by sailors, merchants, soldiers and slaves. In the Roman capital, the Isis cult was firmly established first after Delos in the year 88 AD had been plundered by Archelaus, one of the Parthian Mithridates´s generals. 200, 000 islanders were massacred, though a large number of Greeks, Romans and their numerous slaves had in time been rescued by the Roman general Sulla and safely transferred to Rome.
I suppose it was within this globalized environment, among sailors and slaves, that the sator square was shared, primarily as a powerful, magical spell, but perhaps also as an accompaniment to a budding Christianity. I assume it was created by some Christian mathematician with geometric and theological insights. The fascination with the apparent perfection of the palindrome convinced some early Christian believers that something so perfect could not have been created by a human being ̶ it must have a divine origin.
In several Italian villages and towns the words SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS have been found painted on walls, engraved on bones and pottery sherds, carved in stone, or on cliffs, immured in church walls, but they also occur in Ethiopia (where sator, arepo, tenet, opera and rotas have become the name of the five nails that pierced Jesus on the cross), in Syria, England, Egypt, Sweden and many other places. During ancient times, the words were often written in a different order than during the Middle Ages and onwards ̶ ROTAS OPERA TENET AREPO SATOR.
Below is an example of a painted sator palindrome from the Syrian city of Dura Europos, which often exchanged rulers due to its importance as cosmopolitan trading town in the proximity of the constantly changing border between the Roman Empire and the Parthian Empire. In Dura Europos there were synagogues, Christian churches, Mithras sanctuaries, Zoroastrian fire temples and a wealth of other shrines belonging to different religions.
About 210 AD Dura Europos was occupied by a large Roman army and the temple dedicated to the goddess Azzanathkona was seized as a bivouac for Palmyra´s Twentieth, a company of mounted archers being part of the Roman forces. Recently, the temple ruins have been excavated and several papyrus fragments were found indicating that the temple served as headquarters for a Roman army leader. The walls were covered with graffiti and among them the sator square.
Among pottery shards in the remains of a Roman military camp from the 3rd century in Manchester, a fragment was found on which someone had inscribed words from the sator square.
On one of the walls of the Benedectine Abbey of St. Peter ad Oratorium in the town of Capestrano in the Italian province of Abruzzi there is a sator square immured, probably dating from the time of the Longobards. The church in with the sator stone was inaugurated 752 AD.
By the same time, in the small village of Duna on the Swedish island of Gotland someone buried a silver treasure, among the valuables was a Byzantine silver cup (an almost identical cup from the same time has been found in the Bulgarian town of Preslav). On the bottom of the cup the sator square had been inscribed with letters from the runic alphabet. Runic sator inscriptions have also been found on rune stones erected in Sweden, among them a very late one from the 14th century (runes were the alphabet of the Vikings and was mostly abandoned, though not for magic use, with the arrival of Christianity.
These are just a few examples of sator inscriptions that have been found throughout Europe and the use of writing down and carving the sator squares did not come to an end with the Middle Ages. In the following centuries it was used as a magic instrument to protect against fire, rabies, sickness among cattle, to cure “travel tiredness”, or as a protection against various forms of “demonic mischief”, like burglary and highway robbery. Sator sguares in huts and castles, they were inscribed on ceilings and walls, laid in beds and placed in stables. Astrologers, alchemists and magicians used them in their rituals, evidence of this is quite numerous, among them a German human skull from the eighteenth century, with a professionally achieved incision.
And the sator square something that may easily be confirmed by a search on the net, where there is a plethora of New Age charlatans praising its magic powers and offering it for sale in great variety of shapes and products.
The sator square is probably a quite insignificant phenomenon and maybe not worthy of all the effort that has been vested to track its origins. Certainly, it still raises admiration, yes, maybe even beliefs in its magical powers. Many have worshipped it through the ages, believing in a magic they assumed to be preserved within it´s amazing perfection. For others, the square has been completely uninteresting.
In connection with the intellectual effort that someone once had devoted to creating the sator square, I came to think of how we all have become used to everyday phenomena, forgetting that many of them really are quite amazing, testifying about hard work and ingeniousness.
Visiting an exhibition, I lingered a while in front of a painting by the hyperrealist Robert Cunningham, Miller High Life from 1977. It depicts something as simple as a neon light advertisement for a special brand of beer. Nevertheless, I came to think of all the work that was behind such a meaningless piece of work, which only purpose had been to make people inclined to buy a certain brew of beer.
The advertisement certainly adorned the entrance to an unremarkable bar somewhere in the United States. The place maybe does not exist anymore, probably the neon sign broke down several years ago and now lies forgotten on a dump somewhere. Nevertheless, Cunningham's painting still bears witness about the complicated scientific efforts that led up to the invention of the neon tube. How designers employed by The Miller Company planned and came up a design indicating how neon tubes could be manufactured, bent, joined together and combined to create an advertising sign. How engineers and workers created that sign. How it was marketed and distributed, was acquired by the bar owner and then mounted above his/her modest establishment.
Few have devoted much attention to that neon sign until Robert Cunningham one day saw it, took a photo and during long hours in his studio reproduced every detail of its design and looks. Its external aspects; shades, colours, reflections, tubes, pipes and chains, the wooden plate it was mounted onto and the light that fell over it a certain of time of the day, of the year. The artwork was then exhibited in an art gallery and bought by a wealthy client. Now it hangs on the wall in her/his home. And the meaning of it all? I do not know, but all the work behind that work of art fascinates me.
In the same way, I am intrigued by how artists are hired to present various products in an aesthetically pleasing manner and when it comes to technical innovations there is often expected to be instructive as well. Often their work is anonymous. Today, for example, I saw an advertisement from 1918 for the Italian company Pirelli's electric cables and was impressed by the aesthetic refinement with which the artist had been able to depict a cable's anatomy.
Everyday, I come across an amazing knowledge, without even noticing it. I just went into a hardware store to buy turpentine. While I was waiting for my turn, I experienced how one customer after the other asked a lot about for me completely unknown gadgets and how the salesclerk found exactly the right item and could furthermore, in an easy and accurate manner explain how those gadgets could be installed and used. Such knowledge requires years of experience, while the salesman is force to constantly update his knowledge.
Likewise, a year ago, I became fascinated by how the Mexican artist Damián Ortega had picked apart Volkswagen Beetle, the VW Type 1, and by exhibited his endeavour in an art gallery, thus succeeding in demonstrating how functional and beautiful every detail was.
Another piece of art, far more famous and infinitely more intriguing, is Albrecht Dürer's etching Melencolia 1 from 1514. It depicts how a gloomy, winged female figure is sitting with her head leaning in one hand, in what has been called "the melancholy gesture" and which has since become a routine while portraying profound artists and writers. The lady has a dark gaze, a closed book on her lap, a divider in her second hand. She seems to be confined within herself and ignores her surroundings.
A ladder is leaning against the building behind her, but we cannot see its beginning or end. By her side sits a putti or cupid on top of a millstone and scribbles in a book, the only activity in the image. By the foot of the millstone, an undernourished dog is sleeping. Unused things are scattered on the ground; a hammer, a saw, a ruler, pliers, a syringe, nails and an ink horn. In front of the dog there is a perfect globe, while the right hand side of background is dominated by a geometric structure, a truncated rhomboid polyhedron. On the house walls behind the female figure hangs a scale, a bell and an hourglass.
Over the landscape in the background is a rainbow and a radiant celestial body ̶ the sun, a planet? A bat is flying across the sky, in the paws it carries a banner with the word Melencolia 1. Is it the title of the engraving, or only something the bat has brought with it?
Undoubtedly a suggestive piece of art, permeated by a gloomy, lugubrious mood. Perhaps it does not require any interpretation, but since Giorgio Vasari sometime the sixteenth century wrote that the artwork: "have put the whole world in awe" many have tried to interpret it.
Of course, most interpretations have moved around melancholy, the darkest of the four temperaments (sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic), which was believed to have been caused by an excess of black bile. According to the humoral pathologists, people suffering from melancholy were “awkward, miserly, spiteful, greedy, malicious, cowardly, faithless, irreverent and drowsy.” Melancholy makes day into night. In Dürer's etching it is impossible to see what time of day or night it is.
Renaissance philosophers, like the influential Marsilio Ficino, often considered melancholy as a sign of genius. A melancholic spent his/her time in Jupiter's shadow, the planet that inspired questioning and thus also creation. It is during the night's dark, sleepless hours that ideas take shape, becoming transformed into creativity. Melancholics tend to be confined by their own mind and thus view the world with eyes different from those of other human beings. They find means to measure and weigh the world/existence and transform it. This is the reason to why measuring instruments lay scattered and unused around the gloomy woman in Dürer´s etching. Tools she according to her insights could be using to transform and improve the world. We see geometric shapes that may be her creations ̶ a perfect sphere, but also the failed rhomboid polyhedron which hovers in the background. For the melancholic, the difference between activity and idleness is a hair´s breadth.
Has the winged woman given up? She does not use her wings, ignores her tools and lets time go by. The bell behind her does not chime, the scales are unused, the sand flows through the hourglass. Perhaps the image is a self-portrait? Had Dürer when he made the etching lost his self-confidence? Was he doubted his creative powers? Shortly before he began to work on Melencolia 1, he had written in his diary: "What is beautiful, I do not know".
Like so many others, I am intrigued by Melencolia 1. While looking at the etching, I come to remember another masterpiece, which my good friend Salvatore Iniziano once showed me ̶ St.Jerome in his Study by Antonello da Messina.
̶ Do you not recognize yourself?
̶ What do you mean?
̶ Are not you like Hieronymus where he sits writing and reading in his cubicle inside a vast hall? Is -it not as though he is if you were sitting there alone, writing in the midst of the world. Nevertheless,, you are not enclosed, the cubicle is wide open to the world. Surely Hieronymus seems to be content. And so are you at a moment like that.
Salvatore was right though it may happen the outside world brutally breaks into that cubicle, which is actually is not a room at all. Jerome's workplace has no walls, it is unprotected. The self-absorbed writer is not safe. Dangers lure in the depths of the shadows of the big hall surrounding him and soon the night will be there.
In Dürer's picture the magic square on the wall behind the melancholic lady may contain some hints about the deeper meanings of his masterwork. It is not a sator square, but a so called magic square. Dürer´s inclusion of ot in his Melencolia 1 is obviously the first time such a square was depicted in European art. Dürer's square follows the same principle as the sator square. It can be read from different directions ̶ from left to right, from right to left, bottom up, upside down, even diagonally; the sum of the numbers will always be the same ̶ 34.
Magic squares have a long history, the first so far has been found are in a Chinese tomb and is dated to 190 BC. They then appear in India 587 AD and in Baghdad 983 AD. Gradually they become increasingly sophisticated and eventually reached Europe, perhaps with the great mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci.
But why did Dürer include a magic square in his Melencolia 1? And why is the sum of its different numbers 34? I have not yet seen any proper answer to the last riddle, other than it is the number of Saturn, the planet ruling over melancholy. However, that does not tell me much. Perhaps the number has something to do with the medieval conviction that God's creation was perfect, though in some manner has been perverted by the sins of men. Especially through the first sin of them all, when Adam and Eve refused to obey God and instead relied on their own judgment, succumbing to their selfishness, eating from the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.
During the Middle Ages, scientists and artists tried to pinpoint the original harmony of God´s Creation, using mathematics, architecture (i.e. the complex structures of the cathedrals) and geometry. Already Pythagoras had assumed that mathematics contain deeper truths than those that may be discovered by studying nature alone, since mathematics make it possible to explain and calculate the structure behind everything, namely relations, weight and dimensions. Thus, a correct combination of numbers and measurements may enable us to recognize the principle behind everything, the perfect realm of the almighty God, absolute order ̶ the Cosmos.
While compiling his Divine Comedy, Dante obviously applied several mathematical rules and theories. A German philologist, Wilhelm Pötters, has investigated the relationship between verses, expressions and number sequences, applying complicated calculations to Dante´s ouevre.
Like many before him, Pötters found two key numbers ̶ 3 and 9, generally symbolizing perfection and totality. Pötters excels by presenting a host of complicated calculations and thus loses a bewildered reader and mathematical idiot like me. For example, he mentioned that there are 14, 233 lines in the Divine Comedy and that this number was by some Middle Age sages considered to be the exact diameter of the Universe. He develops this statement further through a number of complicated calculations, including the number of celestial messengers and virgins, naturally I was at a complete loss.
Like Virgil, Dante's guide to the Inferno and Purgatorio, Dante appeared to have considered number 3 as the most sacred of all numbers. Through its indivisibility this number represented perfection: The Holy Trinity, which includes everything - the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
What I understood from Pötters´s calculations was that the Divina Commedia has three sections, containing 34, 33 and 33 songs respectively. It is the Inferno that with its 34 songs breaks the symmetry. If the number 3 stands for perfection, what does number 4 mean? I do not know, but Vergil, who like most of his contemporaries, was fascinated by numerical magic, certainly knew that every god had his number and that Hermes/Mercury´s number was four.
Who was Hermes? Like the Egyptian Thoth, he was also the god of scripture and mathematics, who knew all the secrets of the Universe, though he kept this knowledge to himself ̶ hermetically sealed. Since if a person could lay his/her hands on the secret knowledge about the structure of the Universe, there was a risk that, for his/her own gain, s/he could be able to mess everything up.
Thoth and Hermes were cross-border deities, aided by their unlimited knowledge they were able to move freely through the Universe and through life and death. This made Hermes into a Psychopomp, a companion of the deceased. Just like Virgil when he guided Dante through Inferno and Purgatorio. The number four, combined with the number three, includes both order and disorder and thus become a symbol of perfection, 3 and 4 ̶ 34.
Perhaps the total sum of 34 on Dürer's magic square is an indication not only of infernal disharmony, but it may also be a sign of hope, indicating a path out of melancholy. The night is the mother of dawn. Chaos is neighbour to God.
Ancient and medieval mathematicians were characterized by their geometric thinking. If number 3 can be presented by a geometric shape it would be the triangle, this while Hermes´s number 4 could be represented by a square. If a square is combined with a circle, i.e. the symbol of perfection, inclusiveness, totality, but also emptiness, these two shapes can nevertheless be contained within a triangle. God's power prevails over all. Even though we may imagine that chaos is a permanent state, it is not omnipotent.
When sadness and hopelessness affect us, our pursuit of harmony, perfection and joy may evaporate. We end up in boundless despair. At the bottom of Dürer's magic square we find the numbers 1514, that was the year when his beloved mother died. Was he plagued by the void she left behind? Is it this sorrow that Melencolia 1 deals with? Life as an impossible project.
Two months before she died, Dürer made a drawing of his mother. As he writes on the top corner she was sixty-three years old and noticeably affected by her suffering. In his diary, Dürer wrote that his mother had a "hard death" and "I felt so grieved for her that I cannot express it."
It's now a little more than a year since my mother died. The void she left behind is constantly present. I feel far more insecure and vulnerable now than before. Could Dürer in the year of 1415 have experienced something similar, how vain all striving appears to be when Death breaks into our lives and changes everything.
Our vitality, all our hopes are crushed, our talents are unemployed, like the tools littering the ground in Melencolia 1. We stare into emptiness, while anxiety gnaws on our soul. However, from the chaos of hopelessness, new creative powers may be born. In 1514, Dürer's mother died and he was thrown into a pit of despair. Nevertheless, in the same year he was able to create a masterpiece like Melencolia 1 and since then on his vitality and creativity remained unbroken.
One again I scrutinize Dürer's picture, wondering about the words of the banner that the bat is carrying in his paws. Melencolia, it's actually misspelled! Even during Dürer's time, melancholy was written with an "a" in the middle. It is impossible that such an extremely conscientious craftsman as Dürer could misspell an important word. It must mean something.
The solution may be found among medications prescribed as aremedy for melancholy. The opposite of bitterness is sweetness and honey was often used to counteract melancholy. In Italian, the word for honey is miele derived from the Latin mel, which in turn came from the Greek mele, méli in modern Greek. Did Dürer know this? Why not?
Melancholy is a Greek word constituted by melas "dark", "black" and kholé “bile”. If we replace melas with mele, we get melencholy, or melencolia as it is spelled out on the bat's banner ̶ honey bile. During Antiquity there was no sugar, food and drinks were sweetened with honey. Cane sugar was until the 18th century a luxury in Europe. Did Dürer after all consider his melancholy to be something positive? It is maybe a heartening message that Dürer's bat brings with him into his gloomy image: “With a spoon full of sugar the medicine goes down.”
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