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Sudoku of the Saints and Sages

In a feeble attempt to justify her addiction, my beautiful wife informed me today that sudoku puzzles are a remote descendant of the ancient “magical squares,” which may be Christian (or maybe not).

Magical squares are ancient puzzles that have been found in inscriptions from late antiquity. They feature rows of letters whose sequence yields a meaning — or several meanings — once you’ve figured it all out. The oldest known examples were discovered in the ruins of Pompeii. In that city, sealed by a vocanic eruption in 79 A.D., were two identical instances of a square made up of the Latin words: Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas. If this puzzle indeed yields a Christian interpretation, as many scholars believe it does, then that would mean Christianity had spread to Pompeii at a very early date. It’s certainly plausible, as “Sator Arepo” squares have turned up near the sites of other ancient Christian congregations. In Dura Europos, in Syria, archeologists found four of them, all identical to one another and identical to the squares in Pompeii.

Here’s the square.


It presents palindromes in every direction. And if it is a sentence, a rough translation might be: “The sower in his field controls the workings of his tools.” If we read it as a Christian allegory, the sower would represent God, and His “field” the earth. His tools are His faithful people, who do His will.

An alternative translation might be: “The sower [named] Arepo holds the wheels with care.” If the sower is God, then the wheels could represent the great cosmic vision of the Prophet Ezekiel. The bottom line is the same: God’s in charge here.

Read as anagrams, the lines can yield a horizontal and a vertical “Pater Noster” (Latin for “Our Father”). The two intersecting Pater Nosters, then, would form a Greek cross, with each beam capped by an A and an O, Alpha and Omega.

Wikipedia spells out these details fairly well — alongside a highly improbable satanic interpretation of the square, and a Petrine possibility, and still another Christian reading:

There are also several other possible combinations of the letters in a square form. One of them is as follows. If we take the letter o as the basis and then move on the grid as one would move the knight in a game of chess, we get twice the Latin words “Oro Te, Pater” (“I beg You, Father”). The unused letters are s, a, n, a, s, which form the word “sanas” (“You heal”).

The problem, of course, is that the puzzlers of antiquity were not wusses. So they didn’t post the answers whenever they posted a puzzle. Thus, they’ve left us with the enigma of this particular puzzle’s meaning.

As for me (and my house): I’ll lean, with the best and brightest, on “Our Father.”

2 thoughts on “Sudoku of the Saints and Sages

  1. 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 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

  2. You are, besides being my favorite “living” author and teacher, so very funny. Your last lines are always my favorites. (Sometimes I read ahead!)

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