I came across a curious thing, the Sator Square (or Rotas Square) recently. It is a word square that contains a five-word Latin palindrome (words that read the same forward and backward).
The earliest form has ROTAS as the top line, but later versions had SATOR on the top line and that became the most common representation. This 5×5 square has 5 words and 25 letters but it only uses 8 Latin letters (the consonants S, T, R, P, N and three vowels A, E, O).
R O T A S
O P E R A
T E N E T
A R E P O
S A T O R
S A T O R
A R E P O
T E N E T
O P E R A
R O T A S
I learned of this odd little puzzle from a puzzling film. The words (though not the square itself) show up in Tenet, the 2020 action-thriller-spy-fi movie written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Nolan is known for puzzling us and leaving audiences with clues and things not fully explained.
The Sator Square gives the film its title. The location of the opening sequence is at the Kiev Opera. Characters and companies in the film use the other words: A. Sator is a villain, Arepo the Goya forger and Rotas Security. What does it all mean? Nolan succeeded in getting me (and I’m sure others) to did into the Sator Square.
Let’s start with those Latin words. SATOR comes from serere meaning “to sow” and can be a sower, planter, founder, progenitor – a “seeder.”
AREPO seems to be more mysterious in origin. Possibly a proper name.
TENET is a verb (tenere) meaning to hold, comprehend, possess, master.
OPERA is not the singing we think of but a noun meaning work, care, aid, labor, service, especially the kind that comes with effort – see opus.
ROTAS is a plural noun meaning wheels and as a verb it means to turn or cause to rotate.
That’s the etymologies, but what is the meaning?
The Sator Square has in the past been said to have magical properties. Palindromes were viewed as being confusing and therefore more immune to tampering by the devil.
The square shows up in folk magic for an odd variety of purposes including putting out fires, removing jinxes, fevers and fatigue, and protection from witchcraft. Sometimes the words need to be written on a special material or written in special ink. The Sator Square appears in Pennsylvania Dutch and Russian Orthodox Old Believer communities.
One interesting use of it comes from repositioning the letters around the central letter Ν (en) so that it makes a Greek cross which reads vertically and horizontally as “Pater Noster” which is Latin for “Our Father” – the first two words of the Christian “Lord’s Prayer.”
The remaining letters – two each of A and O – are said to represent the concept of Alpha and Omega, which can be a reference in Christianity to the omnipresence of God.
I read that the square might have been used by early Christians who needed to hide their beliefs as a secret symbol to other Christians. A Sator Square found in Manchester, England dating to the 2nd century AD has been seen as one of the earliest pieces of evidence of Christianity in Britain.
The Coptic Christain Prayer of the Virgin in Bartos says that Christ was crucified with five nails, which were named Sator, Arepo, Tenet, Opera and Rotas, and so the words entered the Ethiopic tradition as the names of the wounds of Christ. (In that Ethiopian tradition the words are altered to SADOR, ALADOR, DANAT, ADERA, and RODAS and they are prayed on the knots of the prayer rope.)
To further complicate the story, or to show how the Sator Square spread, in the time of Constantine VII (913–959), the shepherds of the Nativity story are called SATOR, AREPON, and TENETON. An even earlier Byzantine bible says that the baptismal names of the three Magiin the Nativity story are ATOR, SATOR, and PERATORAS. Still, another version has it that the Sator Square was Mithraic or Jewish in origin.
What is Nolan up to in the film by using these references to the Sator Square? The most obvious connection seems to be that these words that can be read backwards and forwards have to do with his ideas of time and inversion, as things happen backwards and forwards in the film. After all, this is the director who first came to our attention with his film Memento. That film has scenes in black-and-white shown chronologically, and a series of color sequences shown in reverse order. The reverse order simulates for viewers the mental state of the protagonist who has short-term memory loss that resets approximately every fifteen minutes. The two sequences meet at the end of the film to make a kind of cohesive narrative.
Nolan loves these games. His films Inception and Interstellar are equally complex and confusing. There is already a book to help explain the puzzles of the new film: The Secrets of Tenet: Inside Christopher Nolan’s Quantum Cold War. (I do like that the book has a Foreword and a Backword.) Should we need a book to explain a film? No, but in Nolan’s film worlds there is plenty to explore after and beyond the film.