David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas

 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

One common translation is “Arepo the sower holds the wheels at work,” but if there does exist one authoritative meaning, it’s been buried among many dubious others.

1. Webern

The square above is inscribed on Webern’s gravestone. Webern had some peculiar obsession with it, since by this dissertation, he dropped it in lectures, and the structure of his Concerto, op. 24 is apparently derived from it. The only definite characteristic I know of is the (multi-dimensional) symmetry, but this quote from a letter cryptically elaborates on what he was after:

You ask about the shape: at the center [of the song] are the the words “Because he fell silent on the cross, we must go after him, in all seriousness of bitterness, our breath follows him.” What went before is now repeated backwards. Repeated. All shapes are similar and none are the same; thus, the chorus points to the secret law, to a holy riddle…. But the fact that it was just these words that constitute the center of the musical shape came about of its own accord– indeed it could not have been otherwise.

The words to the song are Hildegard Jones’. The translation I have gives the lines as “Because it [the Word] fell silent on the Cross we must follow it,” and the subtext is the equation of God and Word. The Jewish Webern was probably less interested in the Biblical implications than in the notion of the center, and of having a piece lead in and out of a central, exalted point rather than having a differentiated start and end. I.e., from the center flows its surroundings, which do not form a circle, but a multiplicity of paths to the center.

2. Osman Lins

Osman Lins constructed the entirety of his book Avalovara around this square, with each letter representing a different concurrent plotline, environment, and/or lover. The book was then structured by superimposing a spiral on the square, which makes a full rotation fourteen times before converging on the middle ‘N’. The path from outside to center is equated with an explicitly Christian movement from perception to immanence, dialogue to unity, and impurity to purity. The book ends with a the narrator, who is possibly insane (it’s a rather abstruse book), being elevated to the Garden of Eden with his quasi-divine lover and turning his back on what is evidently Augustine’s City of Man.

Translator Gregory Rabassa provides a helpful essay on Avalovara. Lins is explicit about seeing the word square as a circular entity, abandoning the linear reading as far as I can tell. But it’s certainly a weighted circle, and the spiral causes its traversal along neither line, and nor any path given by the reflection of the letters per se. The geometry of the book does not work; not in two dimensions, anyway.

3. Rome
Andrew Hughey gives a history of the acrostic. Its main “hidden” feature is that it can be rearranged to form two “PATERNOSTER”‘s with an overlapped ‘N’, leaving out two ‘A”s and ‘O”s, which, in a fiddly and lexicographically weird stretch, could be read as alpha and omega. (This page gives a far more unbelievable anagram.) It was first discovered in the Pompeii ruins, but has since been found from Britain to Egypt, maybe further. The “secret Christian handshake” interpretation seems reasonable, but pagan and Roman interpretations exist, and it’s more than possible that the meaning has evolved over the millenium in which the square was used. This classics-list page gives the rough outlines of what’s known and what’s not.

What’s interesting, though, is that the alpha/omega Pater Noster interpretation undercuts the square’s own design, giving a differentiated beginning and end (without, but especially with, the ‘A”s and ‘O”s) and the center loses all meaning except as a stopover from beginning to end, which is all part of the undifferentiated “PATERNOSTER.” This a very convenient allegory for the evolution from gnosticism to orthodoxy and the ensuing death of esoteric gnostic traditions. It also leaves the symmetry and multiple paths open to non-Christian interpretation for those who don’t take the anagram approach. The word square is lost with the anagram, which removes the entire apparent rationale for the set of letters. Whichever way you go, relating the two versions is self-defeating.


The scholar Malcolm Stewart offers a more informed analysis of the origins and usage of the word square:

“… fiddly and lexicographically weird” – the Alpha/Omega interpretation? No. Latin had no equivalent for omega and “o” was often used. This came forward into medieval church latin from which we still have a carol with a verse:

“O and A and A and O
cum cantibus in choro
let the merry organ go
benedicamus Domino, benedicamus Domino.”

Pater Noster was not a phrase exclusive to Christian usage, it was a known term. Sometimes used of Jupiter, sometimes even of the Emperor. But it almost certainly is Christian taken together with the A and O. And almost certainly was an acrostic to reveal/hide christian affiliation. The fish sign took two people to make – you made a curved line casually on the ground with a toe, if the other person didn’t add the other curve you kept mum. This too I think was a recognition signal of the kind that could be displayed fairly securely.

One can contrive all sorts of other possibilities. For instance if you decode the square according to current numerology you find all vertica and horizontal lines add to 19 = 1 (by casting out the 9. 19 itself has a sacred numerical pedigree in the ancient world owing to the metonic cycle). However that can’t apply becuase Latin didn’t have some of the letters that lead to the numeration involved so the sums can’t be like that. Contrivances …

The Pater Noster AO solution is elegant, uses without any spare leftover parts, three Christian elements. The Phrase, the Cross and the AO. It’s conclusive … though we all like to think that something further may be hidden ….

An ad hominem indication of what the square encodes is simply to ask people who’ve come across it and solved it for themselves what the found in it. I’m one of the many who have done this (years before the existence of the omniscient www.) It’s always the Pater Noster reading.

I find his case compelling, but there is part of me that still holds out hope for a generative usage of the square in the style of Giordano Bruno. The acrostic explanation does not hold enough of the square’s symmetry to be fully attractive. Consequently, I’m more drawn to Lins and Webern’s symbolic usage of the square.


  1. Webern was most definitely NOT Jewish. In fact, many of his vocal works have Christian themes, and he was also very influenced by Swedenborg and other Christian mystics.

    Otherwise, interesting article!

  2. Greetings —

    I believe I have solved the Sator Rebus. Rotas is a first person singular verb rather than an accusative plural noun. At my website http://www.johntcullen.com/readingroom/ you’ll see the link to my paper, titled “God holds the plough, but you turn the furrows.”

    I think arepo is a form of word for ‘plow,’ based on a Proto-Indo-European word ‘arenko,’ plow, listed by Julius Pokorny.

    I think the rebus consists of two sentences that form an ironic aphorism that would have been commonly understood, probably in the late republic, although we have no incidences of the Sator Rebus prior to 69 C.E. at this time.

    I believe the rebus talks about two forms of fate—Sator fate (God holds the plow) over which we have no control, versus Rotas fate (my names for these things), which is under control of our free will. I don’t believe it is a Christian artifact, initially. Sator (sower, begetter, seed bearer) is often a referenc to Jupiter (‘Deus Pater’) in Roman authors.

    John T. Cullen

  3. – “Le carré magique Testament de Saint-Paul”
    Charles Cartigny 1984 Diffusion Picard for the latin explanations
    – “Le Monde de la Bible” n° 175 Janvier-Février 2007 for the hebrew complements

  4. Or the wonderful palindrome could mean: “it is the sower Arepo who keeps the wheels in motion”. Nothing magical about it. It could well be created by a jail bird who didn’t know what to do with his/her time behind bars and just made a statement.

  5. Yes. Your translation is correct.

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