Crossword Across

Increasingly these days I skim through the pages of news and turn to the puzzle page to pit my wits against those of the crossword compiler, a sign of these troubled times perhaps. As Stephen Sondheim said, “the nice thing about doing a crossword is you know there is a solution”. A spell of studied concentration transforms an initial sense of bewilderment into a glow of satisfaction when the last squares are filled in to complete the puzzle, proof positive that the little grey cells are still in working order.

A fascination with word patterns is not a modern trait. In countries as far apart as Italy, England, France, Syria, Portugal, and Sweden archaeologists have found examples of Sator squares, dating from the second century AD, scratched on walls and tablets. A five-line palindrome using the words sator, arepo, tenet, opera, and rotas, it can be read in four directions from either the top left or bottom right corners, both vertically and horizontally.

Intriguingly, sator and rotas in the first and fifth lines are identical albeit inverted, as are arepo and opera in the second and fourth line, while tenet in the third line is itself a palindrome. Translated, the square’s meaning is anodyne, literally “the sower, Arepo, holds or works the wheels with care”, so was its popularity in the Roman world due simply to the cleverness of its design or was there a deeper meaning to it?

Unscrambling the square, its components create the shape of a cross containing the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer, Pater noster, the vertical and horizontal intersecting at the letter N. This arrangement leaves four letters unused, two as and two os, representing alpha and omega in Christian iconography. The design can be completed by placing an a and an o in the left and right upper quadrants respectively, reversing the arrangement for the lower two quadrants.

Was it a form of code which early Christians used to make themselves known to other believers, in the same way that the sign of a fish was used? This theory has rather been blown apart by the discovery of two Sator squares in the ruins of Pompeii, destroyed in 79AD, pointing to a much earlier origin, although early Christians may have adapted the existing design for their own uses.

Some suggest that it was Egyptian, Jewish, or Greek in origin or had some ritualistic connotations, palindromes being associated in some religious and folk traditions with magical properties. As late as the 19th century the manual of a Dutch doctor in Pennsylvania suggested a patient should eat a piece of bread smeared with butter into which the Sator square had been inscribed as a cure for rabies. I doubt it worked.

The Sator square’s design prompted logologists in the 19th century to develop squares of ever-increasing size. A six-square was first published in 1859, a 7-square in 1877, followed by eight and nine-squares in 1884 and 1897 respectively. Larger squares proved more problematic, a 10-square only possible if reduplicated words and phrases were used and an eleven-square deemed impossible unless words from several languages were allowed. The perfect 12-square remains the logologist’s Holy Grail.

With increased leisure time, at least for some, word puzzles gained popularity in Victorian times, elementary in form and based on the Sator template so that letters read alike vertically and horizontally. The phrase “cross word puzzle” was first used in the American magazine, Our Young Folks, in 1862 while another, St Nicholas, printed connected word square puzzles from 1873. In Italy Giuseppe Airoldi designed a four-by-four grid with horizontal and vertical clues which he called “Per passare il tempo” (to pass the time). It was published in Il Secolo Illustrato della Domenico on September 14, 1890.

Crossword Down follows next week, but in the meantime, why not check out More Curious Questions by following the link below:

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