The SATOR Square in Northern Europe

The SATOR Square in Northern Europe

I enjoy studying apotropaic magic – especially when that magic involves the use of shoes. I like trying to uncover the history and rationale behind it, and I especially like to ‘repurpose’ the old charms.

Recently, I’ve been looking at the use of the SATOR square in the Viking Age. For those of you that haven’t already come across this lovely piece of apotropaic (possibly) magic, the SATOR square is pre-Christian in origin, and is a 5×5 square made up of the word and anagram ‘SATOR’. Kinda like this:

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

As you can see, the square renders the words readable both left to right, horizontally and vertically, and in reverse. The words SATOR, AREPO, TENET, OPERA, ROTAS are Latin, and are most easily translated as meaning ‘The sower Arepo holds the wheels at work”. Now that’s interesting in of itself, but it’s the charm’s popularity in Northern Europe that *really* interests me. Heck, there are even examples of it being rendered in runes (albeit with misspellings that potentially suggest errors from oral transmission). But misspellings not withstanding, I think there’s a good argument to be made that the operation of the SATOR square was considered to have had enough similarities with how Germanic magical traditions were considered to have worked for it to have been adopted as widely as it was. Now I’m not claiming that everyone was cracking out the odd SATOR square as the fancy came upon them, or that it was *common* by any stretch of the imagination. After all, the vast majority of archaeological finds are non-magical in nature, and we are talking about a subset of a subset here. But it’s also a subset of a subset that was found in Sweden, Norway, and Iceland, and which continued to be used in Norwegian and Danish black magic as late as the 19th century.

SATOR - runic
Example of runic SATOR from Gotland with spelling mistake. Instead of ‘Tenet’, here is written ‘Teneth’.

Typically, the SATOR square was used in blessings, for both general protection and more specific protective uses (e.g. protection against lightning, fire, sickness etc). Often, the SATOR charm was an addition to formula or other charm, but even when it was the only charm to be found, I believe it was likely used in conjunction with a spoken/sung/chanted formula or galdor expressing a clearer intent.

When we look at magic from the various Germanic cultures, there are threads of commonality that can be perceived. I believe that one of those threads is that there were temporary forms of magic and long-lasting forms of magic. Magic that would eventually permanently alter what a person had to work with in the future by laying down repeated layers over a period of time. I believe evidence of these long-lasting, more permanent forms of magic can be found in artifacts such as the antler tablet weaving tablet from Lund that wished the weaver’s weeping to ‘Sigvor’s Ingimar’, or the failed love charm of Egil’s saga that only succeeded in making the target sick until it was destroyed. These were magics that involved repeated action, or some form of charm that worked continuously in the background until destroyed.

This is where I think the SATOR square comes in.

sator - antler tablet
Tablet-weaving tablet in antler with curse inscription: “Sigvor’s Ingvar may have my bad luck” – From Viking Answer Lady

Maybe ‘the sower Arepo’ not only ‘holds the wheels at work’, but also keeps the effects of a charm or formula going as well, thus enabling or ensuring that the charm would be continuous and therefore create long-lasting effects?

Furthermore, it’s hard to ignore the symbolism and cultural resonance the imagery of wheels would have had in cultures in which ‘happening’ and ‘being’ were strongly connected with this idea of ‘turning’. If ‘what is now’ is something that is being turned, and you require your intent to be continuously ‘turned’ in order to affect what a person has to work with in the future, then a charm that talks of a sower (one who sows seeds, which may here be viewed as ‘layers’) keeping ‘the wheels at work’ makes a lot of sense.

In terms of modern usage, I haven’t had cause yet to experiment with the SATOR square – I don’t do a whole lot of magic that’s intended to have long lasting consequences, I tend to lean more on the ‘temporary effects’ end of the spectrum. However, if I were to use it, I would use it in addition to another charm or working, as a way of ‘fixing’ the charm to ensure it remains working in perpetuity. Obviously lacking in practical experience here, I’m curious to read about the experiences of others who have used the SATOR square.

If anyone is interested in reading more about the SATOR square, and especially about its use in Northern Europe, I’d recommend checking out Runic Amulets and Magic Objects by Mindy MacLeod and Bernard Mees

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