Possess the Origin of all Poems
Inscription on door located at 20 rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Grenoble, France. Photograph via Wikimedia Commons (cc)
by Ed Simon
—Anonymous (c. 79)
Underneath the volcanic ash and debris of Herculaneum, the elegant smaller sister of Pompeii, there is the earliest example of a chiseled wall writing that has come to be called the Sator Square. Nine years after the Romans flattened most of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem, and the Lord apparently decided to return the favor in those twin cities on the Bay of Naples, for the Sator Square can be dated no later than 79 C.E. after Vesuvius blanketed Herculaneum with her asphyxiant gases, victims trapped in lava and preserved after what was physical of them had decomposed away. These bubbles, since filled with plaster, preserving an absence that used to be a dog, a lacuna that used to be a man. Near those non-existent bodily remains, and those stony alleyways with their eerily preserved villas punctuated by singed erotic tiles, some anonymous mason carved onto the western wall of a wrestling academy a five-word Latin sentence organized into the perfect square of a lattice-work grid.
The sentence organized into this perfect 5 x 5 grid reads “Sator Arepo tenet opera rotas,” with each five-numbered word constituting one line of the grid, each word situated one on top of the other. The result is that the lattice, in imitation of the math puzzles that are commonly known as “magic squares,” organizes a short sentence that is a palindrome; which by the grammatical word-order of Latin is possible to read the same way left to right and right to left, as well as top to bottom and bottom to top, and even in the archaic meandering of boustrophedon which alternates directions between lines, and draws its name from the Greek term for how an ox ploughs a plot of field from one direction in a row and then back towards its origin as it starts in on the next row, and so on. Maybe the boustrophedon provides a clue to what this odd little imagist poem means, for though classicists debate the exact translation, as context is lacking on deciding the particular meaning of words that have a multiplicity of potential definitions, a consensus has emerged that the nearest English for the Sator Square is “The farmer Arepo works a plough.”
Cryptic in its simplicity; all the more mysterious for how prosaic it is. The word “Arepo” provides part of the difficulty in proper translation; it’s an example of what linguists call a hapax legomenon, that is that it’s the only example of that word’s use in the entire corpus of Latin literature. From the sentence itself, it appears to be a proper noun, though the name isn’t Italian, and some have argued that it sounds Coptic, though others have claimed Aramaic or even Celtic origins. “The farmer Arepo works a plough,” often parsed for a solution to the puzzle of the square is, I would argue, a beautiful poetic evocation in its own right. A variety of Latin Zen classicism, a Roman imagist poem which reminds me of William Carlos Williams. In everything it doesn’t say – who is Arepo? – there is something arresting about the visual itself, the farmer forever simply doing what it is that farmers must do. For how enigmatic the Sator Square is, the example at Herculaneum is only the oldest, for the five-word sentence in its characteristic grid appears throughout Europe. From perhaps the same period an example is found in nearby Pompeii, hammered onto the wall of a man named Pulius Paquius Proculus, though the Sator Square can also be found in the mosaics of the Duomo in Sienna, in the Benedictine Abbey of St. Peter ad Oratorium in Abruzzo, and the Cistercian Valviscolo Abbey near the Italian town of Sermoneta. Incidences of the Sator Square are not limited to Italy, nor to the classical era, for Arepo is ploughing his field in carving, engraving, and mosaic from Portugal to France, and as far as chilly Sweden and England, with examples in Lancashire and Manchester from the era of Roman Britain through the middle ages.
Why the popularity for a palindrome that if clever, is also obscure? In the Roman world obscurity was no vice, this stew of heterodox mysticisms and religious visions, when pilgrims of Mithras worshiped the bull from Smyrna to Londinium and Gnostics made supplication to archons with names like Yaldabaoth and Sabaoth. A Latin sentence organized into a palindromic 5 x 5 grid is never just a Latin sentence organized into a palindromic 5 x 5 grid. Something about Arepo ever driving his plough around the five rows of the palindrome, possibly a biblical reference as in Matthew 13:3-9 where Christ tells the parable about “A farmer who went out to sow his seed,” with his apparently bad scattering arm and all those rocks, thorns and finally good soil. Something about Euripides in the Sator Square as well, with Dionysius’ injunction to Pentheus in The Bacchae that it is “hard for thee to kick against the pricks,” a reference to a plough that won’t scow, and which was quoted by the well-read Lord to Saul on his road to Damascus.
The puzzler of the Sator Square left something encoded into its letters that indicates possible meaning more than the vague allusions that ploughing implies: namely that in addition to being read as a palindrome, the 25 letters of the grid also contain an anagram whereby they can be rearranged around the center axis Mundi of the letter “n” into the shape of a cross that spells out both vertically and horizontally the words “Pater Noster,” Latin for the Lord’s prayer. Two “A’s” and two “O’s” are left over, possibly to punctuate each of the quadrants of the cross with Christ’s declaration in Revelation 1:8 that “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the ending.” If the Sator Square is a bit of Christian esoterica, not dissimilar to the aquatic ichthys painted on catacomb walls, then its presence near Pompei marks it as a shockingly early example, less than a generation after the crucifixion, and older than most of the New Testament’s composition. Something seems Christian about the Sator Square, but whatever it was had been subsumed into the more superstitious realms of practical magic by the middle ages, when repetition of the sentence or the writing of the grid itself was used in everything from a cunning woman’s care for a pregnancy to the warding off of fires, though some amount of that original meaning seems to have survived in Ethiopia, where a group of the Orthodox told the German Jesuit Athanasius Kirchner that each one of the nails which affixed Christ to the cross had names which were clearly derived from every word in that sentence carved upon the wall of a gymnasium at Herculaneum.
Whatever the Sator Square was a spell for, however we interpret the incantationary magic of the thing, what’s undeniably true is that to have whatever efficacy it’s supposed to have not a single letter can be off. Every single “A,” “R,” “E,” “P,” and “O” must be in its right place for the palindromic mechanism to work. The Sator Square is thus just like every other scrap of poetic language, because the positioning of letters can’t be incidental to the nature of the text. So much depends on a letter; so much depends on a comma, and nobody understood better than the Christians of the era when the Sator Square was painted on church doors and inlaid in monastery floors that the deletion of a single iota between the Greek terms homoousios and homoiousios which the difference as to whether the Son is equal to the Father or not. With the most exacting of standards that even a New Critical extremist might be humbled by, all of proper Christology must hinge on either the inclusion or exclusion of a letter that is but a short vertical line with a happy little dot on top. For that matter, consult the 1631 “Wicked Bible” where a typographical error deleted a single word – “not” – and consider the particular difference implied by that mistake.
Theology, that system of effective verbal idolatry that gestures to things beyond the field of vision, is if nothing not an incantatory genre. Don’t think of this as separate from any rational basis, because logic is another incantatory genre. Everything written is incantatory; it’s that reality that Walt Whitman sings of when he writes in Leaves of Grass that he shall help us “possess the origin of all poems.” A model of poetics which doesn’t acknowledge that poems must not just be understood as incantations, but written and experienced as such, is a model of poetics which is operating blind and deaf. For that matter, so is any general theory of language which doesn’t acknowledge the fusion of transcendence and immanence which defines the incantatory. When it comes to that occluded, slightly musty form of the “incantation,” most of us probably limit it to what the Sri Lankan anthropologist Stanley Tambiah has enumerated as the “verbal forms which we loosely refer to as prayers, songs, spells, addresses, [and] blessings.” Of course, that is the connotation we commonly have of incantation, a system whereby words are used to effect reality, and it’s not an inappropriate connotation. But incantation covers much more than the stereotypical wizard mumbling breathlessly a few nonsense words. From my perspective, two of my favorite compendiums of incantations are The Oxford Book of American Poetry and The Oxford Book of English Verse, but I fully recognize how eccentric my classification may sound. So, it is helpful to first parse that more conventional understanding of incantation, and to meditate on how it relates more generally to language. If what I’m saying is true that incantatory poetics is that which defines all of the words whispered, spoken, sung, chanted, and shouted by woman and man.
Incantation seems like simple “Abracadabra,” that bastardized nonsense word which everyone knows and that comes from the unlikely source of the Gnostic Basilides’ Archon Abraxas and which was first written in the second century by a Roman physician with the delicious name of Serenus Sammonicus. It conjures “hocus pocus” and magical words, amulets shored against reality meant to alter circumstance. For those who bracket magic away from profane reality, incantation is not Homer, but rather the blackened Greek Magical Papyri and nonsense injunctions such as “ασκι κατασκι αασιαν ενδασιαν” found on a 4th Century BCE lead tablet in Crete, and whose semantic meaning remains obscure. Though both travel through a dark “wood of Woden,” the 6th century Germanic epic Nibelungenlied is considered poetry, while the compilation of spells known as the Merseburg Charms, with their practical considerations of “bone-sprain, so blood-sprain/so joint-sprain:/Bone to bone, blood to blood,/joints to joints, so may they be mended,” is simply archaic superstition, even while the 19th century Scottish philologist Alexander Macbain notes that the Gaelic replaced Woden with Christ while preserving the admirable rhetorical parallelism in “Sinew to sinew,/Flesh to flesh./And skin to skin;/And as he healed that,/May I hear this.” Be as skeptical as we want to be about the efficacy of incantation, but any prosaic form of communication in and of itself is de facto a type of charm. Tambiah writes that “words exist and are in a sense agent in themselves which establish connexions and relations between both man and man, and man and the world, and are capable of ‘acting’ upon them, they are one of the most realistic representations we have of the concept of force which is either not directly observable or is a metaphysical notion.” Why be skeptical of incantation when I’ve already used words to make you hallucinate that which is not immediately in front of you? Spell it would seem is the very medium of meaning, and yet we dismissed individual incantations, and so miss the incantatory poetics which define human experience.
No compunctions in seeing Beowulf as poetry, but I’d contend it’s just as much incantation as the Anglo-Saxon metrical charm found in the contemporary 10th century collection of the Lacnunga book. The anonymous cunning man (or woman) of that compendium edited in an England on the verge of the Norman conquest notes that “A snake came crawing, it bit a man. / Then Woden took nine glory-twigs” (that Woden again!) and “Smote the serpent so that it flew into nine parts. /There apple brought the pass against poison, /That she nevermore would enter the house.” And so, some scribe figured out practical magic to invalidate the very Fall, an incantation whose glorious syncretism puts Jewish Eden and pagan Woden into synthesis. As a figurative conceit, it’s just as moving as Beowulf’s cast of pagan Grendel and biblical Cain, an equivalent poetic achievement that should not be dismissed because it appears in a book of practical magic. Especially since all poetry, indeed all language, is practical magic.
The Polish linguist Bronislaw Malinowski wrote that “The belief that to know the name of a thing is to get a hold on it is… empirically true,” with Tambiah, with shades of Wordsworth, explaining that “magical language was an emotive use of language, that magic was born of the emotional tension of particular situations and that the spells, ritual acts and gestures expressed a spontaneous flow of emotions.” Malinowski’s contention is radical in just how prosaic it is – we doubt the efficacy of incantation, and yet we’re presented with examples of its utility every time we open our mouths, every time we type some abstract symbols and it does something in the world; even if, maybe especially if, that something is “nothing” more than making someone experience the illusion of an ingeniously constructed fictional universe. Most importantly, as the linguist Geoffrey Leach has observed, when it comes to sacred language the “uttering of the words itself is a ritual.”
In incantation the words themselves are the same thing as that which they represent. But if I’ve defined all human expression, all language, as fundamentally defined by an incantatory poetics, then a conclusion is drawn – there is no distinction between words and things, and so the proper order of words becomes crucially important. Call it the “Sator Principle.” Had a single letter been off in that square, reality itself would have been different – and so it ever is for all language. We model a particular theory of expression; that the straightforward, the literal, the non-fictional exists only as a vehicle to move meaning from some abstract realm to the world of human comprehension. By contrast, figurative and poetic language is that which is allowed to revel in its own medium, the language which is conscious of itself, which can draw attention to itself and the nature of artifice which defines abstract words. I argue rather that all language is about itself, that the disjunct between figurative and literal is erroneous, as is the opposition between poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction. If the point of language was simply and only ever to convey meaning than individual variations of it would matter less than they do, but so much depends on where the line is enjambed. If even just a letter of the Sator Square was off the palindrome would be broken, and that incantatory effect is true for all language, even literal language. A spell can never be disrupted into not being a spell, it just becomes a different one.
Elegizing William Butler Yeats, W.H. Auden famously declared that “poetry makes nothing happen.” While embracing my own attraction towards dialectic, binary opposition, and paradox, I’d like to proffer the opposite claim – poetry makes everything happen. My formulation is closer to Shelley’s old chestnut that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Strip away the Romantic affectations and the contention to me seems unassailable. Nothing has happened of any consequence in human culture, after the era of homo habilis hitting each other with sticks, except through the intercession of language. When I speak of an “incantatory poetics” that is what I sing of; that all of our words are charms and spells. What the Sator Principle speaks to is the need for rigorously close reading and equivalent composition, for every slogan, aphorism, moto, meme, poem, story, play, novel and essay is fundamentally an incantation; all doing different things and to different effect but all trading in the charged theurgy of that mysterious element known as language. I’m primarily a non-fiction writer myself, plying in that hoary chimera of a genre invented by Montaigne which is neither quite here nor there. But as an essayist, the content of the piece has always been secondary to me (perhaps the critics among you might find that obvious). I do not see the words as mere vehicles for meaning, I see them, as a fiction writer might, as the thing in themselves. Philosopher Roman Jakobson spoke of the various purposes of language, including the “magic, incantatory function,” but this I believe should be understood of all language, and we need a criticism commensurate with the universal incantatory poetics of our very words. To proffer an axiom for that criticism, I affirm an inviolate theoretical principle, “Rhetoric is content; aesthetics is epistemology.”
About the Author:
Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek, and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.