The Sator Square or Rotas Square is a word square containing a Latin palindrome featuring the words SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS written in a square so that they may be read top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top, left-to-right, and right-to-left.
The earliest datable square was found in the ruins of Pompeii which was buried in the ash of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. Examples may be carved on stone tablets, or engraved into clay before firing as pottery. The exact translation, and its meaning, have been the subject of speculation with no clear consensus for either.
- Sower, planter; founder, progenitor (usually divine); originator
- (arrepo) (I) creep/move stealthily towards, also trust, or likely an invented proper name; its similarity with arrepo, from ad repo, 'I creep towards', may be coincidental
- holds, keeps; comprehends; possesses; masters; preserves
- (a) work, care; aid, service, (an) effort/trouble
- (rota) wheel, rotate; (roto) (I) whirl around, revolve rotate; used in the Vulgate Psalms as a synonym for whirlwind and in Ezekiel as plain old wheels.
One likely translation is "The farmer Arepo has [as] works wheels [a plough]"; that is, the farmer uses his plough as his form of work. Although not a significant sentence, it is grammatical; it can be read up and down, backwards and forwards. C. W. Ceram also reads the square boustrophedon (in alternating directions). But since word order is very free in Latin, the translation is the same. If the Sator Square is read boustrophedon, with a reverse in direction, then the words become SATOR OPERA TENET, with the sequence reversed.
The word arepo is a hapax legomenon, appearing nowhere else in Latin literature. Most of those who have studied the Sator Square agree that it is a proper name, either an adaptation of a non-Latin word or most likely a name invented specifically for this sentence. Jerome Carcopino thought that it came from a Celtic, specifically Gaulish, word for plough. David Daube argued that it represented a Hebrew or Aramaic rendition of the Greek Αλφα ω, or "Alpha-Omega" (cf. Revelation 1:8) by early Christians. J. Gwyn Griffiths contended that it came, via Alexandria, from the attested Egyptian name Ḥr-Ḥp, which he took to mean "the face of Apis". (For more on these arguments see Griffiths, 1971 passim.) In Cappadocia, in the time of Constantine VII, Porphyrogenitus (913-959), the shepherds of the Nativity story are called SATOR, AREPON, and TENETON, while a Byzantine bible of an earlier period conjures out of the square the baptismal names of the three Magi, ATOR, SATOR, and PERATORAS.
If "arepo" is taken to be in the second declension, the "-o" ending could put the word in the ablative case, giving it a meaning of "by means of [arepus]." Thus, "The sower holds the works and wheels by means of water." Using this definition of "arepo" and the boustrophedon reading order produces the text "The sower works for mastery by turning the wheel."
The oldest datable representation of the Sator Square was found in the ruins of Pompeii. Others were found in excavations at Corinium (modern Cirencester in England) and Dura-Europos (in modern Syria). The Corinium example is actually a Rotas Square; its inscription reads ROTAS OPERA TENET AREPO SATOR.
An example of the Sator Square found in Manchester dating to the 2nd century is considered by some authorities to be one of the earliest pieces of evidence of Christianity in Britain. Like the Corinium square, the Manchester square reads ROTAS OPERA TENET AREPO SATOR. A further example is found in a group of stones located in the grounds of Rivington Church and reads SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS, the stone is one of a group thought to have come from a local private chapel in Anderton, Lancashire.
The Benedictine Abbey of St Peter ad Oratorium, near Capestrano, in Abruzzo, Italy, has a marble square inscription of the Sator Square. An example discovered at the Valvisciolo Abbey, also in central Italy, has the letters forming five concentric rings, each one divided into five sectors.
There is one known occurrence of the phrase on the rune stone Nä Fv1979;234 from Närke, Sweden, dated to the 14th century. It reads "sator arepo tenet" (untranscribed: "sator ¶ ar(æ)po ¶ tænæt). It also occurs in two inscriptions from Gotland (G 145 M and G 149 M), in both of which the whole palindrome is written.
Around the central Latin letter Ν (en,) a Greek cross can be made that reads both vertically and horizontally the first two words of the 'Pater Noster' (Pater Noster translates as "Our Father", the first words of the Lord's Prayer), each line is surrounded with A and O which represents the Alpha and Omega. The associations indicate the square may have been a safe, hidden way for early Christians to signal their presence to each other in a city without exposing themselves to persecution.
The 'Prayer of the Virgin in Bartos' claimed that Christ was crucified with five nails, which were named Sator, Arepo, Tenet, Opera and Rotas.
Other authorities believe the Sator Square was Mithraic or Jewish in origin because it is not likely that Pompeii had a large Christian population in 79 A.D and the symbolism inferred as Christian and the use of Latin in Christianity is not attested to until later.
The Sator Square is a four-times palindrome, and some people have attributed magical properties to it, considering it one of the broadest magical formulas in the Occident. An article on the square from The Saint Louis Medical and Surgical Journal vol. 76, reports that palindromes were viewed as being immune to tampering by the devil, who would become confused by the repetition of the letters, and hence their popularity in magical use.
The square has reportedly been used in folk magic for various purposes, including putting out fires (the spell is "TO EXTINGUISH FIRE WITHOUT WATER" in John George Hohman's Long Lost Friend), removing jinxes and fevers, to protect cattle from witchcraft, and against fatigue when traveling. It is sometimes claimed it must be written upon a certain material, or else with a certain type of ink to achieve its magical effect.
- Abracadabra, sometimes written in form of triangle
- Christian symbolism
- Mithraic Mysteries
- Cave canem, another Pompeian phrase
- Isopsephy, for further Pompeian graffiti
- Magic square
- Word square
- "'Arepo' in the Magic 'Sator' Square'": J. Gwyn Griffiths, The Classical Review, New Ser., Vol. 21, No. 1., March 1971, pp. 6–8.
- "A Specimen of Ancient Incidental Roman Epigraphy": Carlos Pérez-Rubin, Documenta & Instrumenta, No. 2 2004, published by the Faculty of Geography and History, Madrid University (Universitas Complutensis)
- Shotter, David ( 1993). Romans and Britons in North-West England. Lancaster: Centre for North-West Regional Studies. ISBN 1-86220-152-8.
- Ceram, C.W. (1958). The March of Archaeology. New York: Alfred A. Knopt. ISBN L.C.Catalog no. 58-10977 Check
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- Ceram (1958), p. 30.
- Shotter (2004), pp. 129–130.
- About Rivington, John Rawlinson, Nelson Brothers Limited, Chorley, 1969, p42
- Samnordisk runtextdatabas, Uppsala runforum
- Robert Milburn; Robert Leslie Pollington Milburn (1988). Early Christian art and architecture. University of California Press. pp. 1–. ISBN 978-0-520-06326-6. Retrieved 22 December 2011.
- James De Quincey Donehoo (1903). The Apocryphal and legendary life of Christ: being the whole body of the Apocryphal gospels and other extra canonical literature which pretends to tell of the life and words of Jesus Christ, including much matter which has not before appeared in English. In continuous narrative form, with notes, Scriptural references, prolegomena, and indices. The Macmillan company. pp. 350–. Retrieved 22 December 2011.
- Everett Ferguson (1 September 2003). Backgrounds of early Christianity. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 590–. ISBN 978-0-8028-2221-5. Retrieved 22 December 2011.
- The Gentleman's Magazine vol. 258, 1885
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