The SATOR/ROTAS Square

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1872
A Sator Square on a brick wall in St. Peter ad Oratorium.

Thought to be a symbol of early Christianity, the SATOR/ROTAS Square appears all over the Roman Empire with no clear meaning.

The Rotas square, as it is also known, is identified with early Christian blessing or invocation. It is often referred to as a type of Christian magic, such as invocations are identified in other religions, but will be described as a prayer or blessing in this discussion. Magic is identified as an invocation, whether in writing or spoken, that is used to have control over future events. In this respect it cannot be such, as it would interfere with God’s Divine Plan and thus be blasphemous, as He is the only one with the power to control the future.

Ferguson’s Five Interpretations of the ROTAS Square

The power of the blessing is thought to be quite significant due to the mathematical repetition and placement of the sequence of words and letters in the form of the square.Ancient historian, J. Ferguson believes that the Rotas square involves five different purposes in the way it is written; a direct allusion to Ezekiel, a palindrome, a word-square, a form with four Ts (the cross) at key points flanked by A and O, and an anagram.

First Interpretation

As it stands the translation of the square is, ‘Arepo the sower guides the wheels carefully.” The passage in Ezekiel claims that the spirits of beings are in the wheels with four parts to their being. From Ferguson’s argument, Arepo, assuming that is meant to be a person, must be God, which is odd as He is never elsewhere referred to as a sower. Often Christ is described as a shepherd, but God is always Father. God has had several names; Allah, Elohim, Eloh, Yahweh, Abba, Pater, but they are all names meaning ‘God’ or ‘Father.’ This is where fault can be seen in the argument of allusion to Ezekiel, as the spirit-wheels can be like that described in the Rotas but ‘Arepo’ and ‘sower’ cannot be identified with the Chrisitan God.

Second Interpretation

Ferguson’s second point is that there is a palindrome, which is undoubtably true. ‘Rotas opera tenet arepo sator’ reversed is ‘rotas opera tenet arepo sator.’ However, whether or not they were meant to be read in a sentence is a different argument.

Third Interpretation

Just as there is no debate about the inscription is a palindrome, there is also no doubt that the inscription is indeed a word-square. The repetition of the word ‘rotasator’ around the square gives it a sense of containment and thus having everything inside the square belongs to it. The circle of ‘rotasator’ is also a palindrome. This linking of words and repetition create strength in the meaning and power of the prayer, or so it was thought, this is why the palindrome and word-square combination is so noted.

  • ROTAS
  • OPERA
  • TENET
  • AREPO
  • SATOR

Fourth Interpretation

Ferguson’s fourth observation is of the four crosses, flanked by the O and A. Standing for Alpha and Omega. This can be seen in the crossing of the words opera and arepo, ending in either an A or an O. The four crosses Ferguson refers to can be seen as the T representing a cross, as it was used, surrounded by the O and A. The four Ts would also be connected to form a Greek cross.

  • ROTAS ROTAS ROTAS
  • OPERA OPERA OPERA
  • TENET TENET TENET
  • AREPO AREPO AREPO
  • SATOR SATOR SATOR

Fifth Interpretation

The most debated and the interpretation of the word-square is that it is an anagram or cryptogram for the words Pater Noster. Collingwood and Richmond believe that the Christian significance of this Pater Noster cross needs no stress. They state that the existence of the A and O on each side of a cross formed out of the words Pater Noster is enough to determine that the inscription is evidence of Christianity. The Greek words Alpha and Omega are used in other mythology and writings in the Mediterranean during and before the time that the inscription is thought to have been made. It is debatable as to whether or not the A and O are meant for the Christian God. Coupled with the words ‘Pater Noster’ the A and the O appear to be used as supplements to the Lord’s Prayer. The repetition makes the prayer more powerful. The assumption that ‘pater noster’ refers to the Christian God is debatable, though not disproven and highly likely with the present evidence. There are other beings that are ‘the father.’ Zeus or Jupiter is the father of the gods, just as the Earth is the mother, just as Yehweh is the Jewish God and the Christian God. There are many different interpretations that the existence of the cross can be attributed to. It was largely ornamental and often drawn by those not of the Christian faith.

  • A
  • P
  • A
  • T
  • E
  • R
  • APATERNOSTERO
  • O
  • S
  • T
  • E
  • R
  • O

While the cross is commonly attributed to Christianity, it has been used for centuries, often associating with life. There for the beginning and the end and ‘our father’ makes a good argument to be placed in a cross. There is no doubt that the letters of the Rotas square were chosen intentionally. As a result, the Rotas square appears to be meant as an anagram or cryptogram, but for whose god is uncertain.

Sources:

  1. Ferguson, J. The Religions of the Roman Empire. (London, 1970)
  2. Ezekiel 1:15-21 (King James Version)
  3. Collingwood, R. G. and Richmond, I. The Archaeology of Roman Britain.
  4. Fishwick, D. “An Early Christian Cryptogram?” CCHA, Report 26. 1959, Toronto