The most recognized word square, known as the Sator Square, contains a mysterious collection of letters. The five, five letter words, positioned inside a 5×5 grid, form a most impressive palindrome of SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS. A palindrome is a word/sentence which can be read both forward or backward. Found within a square, this phrase is then able to be read from left or right, upward or downward, by following either rows or columns. This powerful arrangement is believed to hold magical qualities and is seen used on amulets, talismans, or charms to ward away evil.
Different translations have been suggested for the twenty-five letters. Most of the variations, problems, or contradictions with translation seem to arise from the only word of the five which is not a known Latin word; AREPO. Assuming AREPO to be a possible proper name, though, the most common reading of the square is ‘the farmer (SATOR) AREPO holds (TENET) and works (OPERA) wheels (ROTAS).
Many scholars continue to question the origin and meaning of this squared, circular phrase. The Sator square was first thought to be of Christian origin because initial examples of the grid dated to around the 3rd to 5th centuries AD. The square also held what were believed to have been hidden Christian symbols.
However, the discovery of what is now the earliest known inscription of the Sator square, on walls in the ruins of Pompeii, dates it to as far back as 79AD. Finding the square in this place and time raises serious doubts on whether Christians first created the square. Although Christians all across Europe are known to have later used the square, the possibility Pompeii held a strong Christian group, who would have created or etched the square there, is not likely, according to some scholars (sourced below).
The letters contained within the square hid an anagram of two PATER NOSTER’s in the form of a cross (sharing the N), and with two A’s and two O’s leftover. The odds for the Sator square to consist of this, unintentionally, are considered highly improbable, and therefore, believed to be meaningful.
The A’s and O’s (Greek Alpha and Omega/first and last), were thought to be inspired symbols from a passage in the Book of Revelation to represent Jesus. Both the cross and Alpha/Omega were used by Christians and so with the later date of the square seemed appropriate.
But commonly known Christian references to the cross and usages of the Alpha and Omega are not found until after 79 AD. This earlier dating of the Sator square caused scholars to look for other origins and writers for the grid. Knowing the name Pater Noster/“Our Father” was also used and known to Jews, it would seem likely the square was inscribed by the Jews who lived in Pompeii at the time.
Believing this was the case, the initially thought meanings, which were Jesus based, were wrong, and different reasons for the forming of the cross and A/O had to be found. Some archaeological discoveries of the square revealed ROTAS began the sequence instead of SATOR. This provided a possible connection to follow. It is realized the outside squares of the grid, going either way, include ROTASATOROTASATO. With ROTAS referring to ‘wheel’, some feel the square holds allusions to passages in Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 1:16-17, a vision of his includes the following description; “…Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel. As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the creatures faced…”. ROTAS, wheel, is seen in the square going in four directions.
Additional support for a link between the Sator square and Ezekiel is found later with verse 9:4; “…go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” This Mark is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet and is similar to the X/cross. Those with the Mark would be recognized by God and would not be killed.
Not only does the above offer an explanation for the PATER NOSTER cross, but it gives reason for the A’s and O’s to stand apart from the anagram PATER NOSTER. Within the Sator square, the positions of the four A’s and O’s(the first and last letters of AREPO/OPERA) form a cross when connected. The separation of the A’s and O’s could signify the separation of the righteous from the unrepentant, mentioned in Ezekiel’s verse. PATER NOSTER/‘OUR FATHER’, in form of the cross, symbolizes his mark, and he could clearly see the marked ones set aside.
Having the mark kept harm from coming to those who displayed it. The Sator square was often placed above doorways and inscribed on various objects for protection from evil happenings. The possible secret and hidden understanding, along with the magical positioning of letters in the grid, made the Sator square a powerful talisman.
Pickover, Clifford, The Zen of Magic Squares, Princeton University Press, 2002
Fishwick, Duncan, An Early Christian Cryptogram, reviewed January 2012