Skip to main content
Ages 13+
Under 13
Latin words carved in stone

The Sator Square; Or a Charm of Words


An ancient magical square, a palindrome of five words, has survived the passage of time as a riddle of mystery and magic.

An old word game, the Sator Square, is perhaps one of the most famous and mysterious magical puzzles of all time. It consists of arrangements of letters that, like a two-dimensional palindrome, can be read in the same way from right to left and back. The five words, of five letters each, have been found in ruins all over Europe and, like a riddle from the past, still impress and perplex people today.

SATOR, AREPO, TENET, OPERA, and ROTAS are the five Latin voices whose arrangement, it’s believed, give the square its magical powers. It’s used, even today, as an amulet and talisman of protection. Interpretations of the square and all its variations, contradictions and controversies derive from the mystery of the word AREPO, the only one of the five words which is not Latin. Some scholars have classified it as a proper name. The most common reading of the Sator Square holds that: “The farmer/gardener (SATOR), AREPO has (TENET) and works (OPERA) the wheel or plow (ROTAS).” It’s a simple narrative that seems to hide a secret. And it does.

The magic square was originally thought to have been of Christian origin, created sometime between the third and fifth centuries. Reproductions have been found in Roman ruins in England, and in Italy and Spain. It was also believed to contain mystical symbols hidden among the letters, as it was frequently used by the early practitioners of Christianity. But the finding of a Sator Square in the ruins of Pompeii, in southern Italy, showed that the talisman was even older than had been previously thought, dating from 79 CE at least.

The letters contained in the square also contain an anagram. The phrase PATER NOSTER (“Our Father” in Latin) is repeated twice, overlapping at the letter N and forming a cross. The chances of this having been coincidence are minimal. As the phrase “Our Father” was commonly used in the Judaism of the time, some scholars believe that the Pompeii Sator Square was made by Jewish inhabitants of the ancient Italian city, and is probably related to a passage from the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel.

The most literal translation of the Sator Square might remind one of Japanese haiku in its pristine simplicity. Seen more closely, it’s as an enigma that’s survived the inclemency of time and comes to us today as a conjuring of riddles, whose 25 words have bewitched men for centuries (as did the magical expression “abracadabra”). It’s also a beautiful reminder of the profound power of words, creator of worlds and guardian of ancient secrets.


*Image: wikimedia commons

Related Articles