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The ancient palindrome that explains Christopher Nolan’s Tenet

A puzzle dug up all over Europe holds the key to Tenet — and turns it into more than a movie.

Sator square, Church of San Lorenzo, Paggese, Marche, Italy, 14th century
A Sator square dating from the 14th century at the Church of San Lorenzo in Paggese, Marche, Italy.
DeAgostini/Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is a mysterious movie, one I can’t possibly explain, at least not without a dozen more viewings. (With the Covid-19 pandemic and the film’s only-in-theaters strategy, that won’t be happening any time soon.)

But I was startled to realize that there is one way to unlock it, sort of. It seems that Nolan found inspiration in an unlikely source: an ancient Latin palindrome known as the Sator square that anthropologists have been digging up all over Europe, and that cryptologists and historians have been arguing about, for decades.

I am but a film critic, so I won’t pretend to understand or fully explain the entire history of the Sator square here. But once I realized its link to Tenet, I was able to understand and even respect the movie a bit more. So here’s a brief history of the Sator square, and why I think it’s significant to the film.

The Sator square is ancient, mysterious, and everywhere

The Sator square, in brief, is a five-line palindrome, rendered in Latin, of five words: SATOR, AREPO, TENET, OPERA, and ROTAS.

A Sator square excavated in Oppède, France. The lines read Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas, and the letters S and N are reversed as in an ambigram.
M Disdero/Creative Commons

You can read the square in four directions:

  • Horizontally, beginning in the top left corner
  • Horizontally, beginning in the bottom right corner
  • Vertically, beginning in the top left corner
  • Vertically, beginning in the bottom right corner

That means it’s a four-directional palindrome.

Additionally, the words in the first and fifth lines are the same, just inverted; same for the words in the second and fourth. The word in the third and central line is itself a palindrome. And it is “Tenet.”

I’ll get to how that relates to the movie — beyond the obvious connection to the title — in a moment.

Instances of the Sator square have popped up all over Europe. Two were found during the excavation of Pompeii, the ancient Italian city buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Others have been found in Italy, England, Syria, France, Portugal, and even Sweden, and have been dated from the second century all the way to the 14th. Sometimes they were scratched into walls and tablets; other times they were written in books. (You can read about the history of Sator square discoveries in a number of places.)

Attempting to literally translate the words in the square yields some sort of message about a farmer named Arepo and his plow. But because the square has often been found in connection with churches, chapels, and abbeys, some scholars believe it is Christian in origin. There’s a simple reason for that: If you rearrange the letters, you can get something like this:

A cross which reads Pater Noster in both directions, flanked by two A’s and two O’s.
A rearranged Sator Square sure looks like an allusion to Christian words.
Public domain, drawn from WikiMedia

The words above, arranged to form the shape of a cross, spell out Pater Noster in two directions. Pater Noster translates to “Our Father,” the opening of the Lord’s Prayer, which Christians have prayed together for millennia. The cross is flanked by two A’s and two O’s, which could mean “Alpha” and “Omega,” a Christian reference to God. (Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters in the Greek alphabet, and they are used to signal God’s presence at the beginning and end of history and every point in between.)

One possible explanation for this apparent relation to Christianity is that early Christians, who were persecuted and slaughtered by authorities under the Roman Empire, used the square to covertly signify their presence to one another (much like the fish symbol). Another is that the square was designed to aid the faithful in contemplation, by providing a reminder of the presence of God. During some time periods, the Sator square seems to have been the source of traditional names for the Magi (the three “wise men” who follow a star and bring gifts to the infant Jesus), who are unnamed in the Bible.

However, some scholars have challenged this connection. The discovery of the Sator squares in Pompeii suggests that the palindrome may have older roots in Judaism or another religious sect; few Christians would have been present in Pompeii in AD 79, just decades after the execution of Jesus, and since their religion originated as a sect of Judaism, use of Latin in Christian practice wasn’t yet widespread.

Others have posited that a reference to Greek or Egyptian deities is encoded into the square, or that it is intended for use in incantations — that its palindromes were thought to be imbued with magical properties in some folk and religious traditions. The square has been credited with quenching fires and curing insanity. A 19th-century Pennsylvania Dutch doctor’s manual instructs its reader to inscribe the square in butter smeared on a piece of bread and eat it as a cure for rabies. A Cyrillic version shows up in Orthodox amulets.

Given that the square has appeared at sites whose dates of existence span more than a thousand years, it’s also possible that its meaning has morphed over time, depending on who was wielding it and who was looking at it. (That wouldn’t be uncommon; early Christians, for instance, borrowed the fish symbol from Greeks and Romans.) But whatever the case, the square seems to have a mystical purpose, its many possible readings colliding in a way that points to what’s beyond them. It has served as a kind of mandala — a configuration of symbols intended to direct the viewer’s focus toward something divine or transcendent.

Spoiler alert: Moderate spoilers for Tenet follow.

Is Tenet Nolan’s cinematic Sator square?

The title of Tenet — a movie about people who figure out how to move both forward and backward in time — is a palindrome. “Tenet” is also the name of the film’s shadowy organization that’s trying to keep the world from ending. So the connection between the events of the movie and its title seems clear.

But Nolan didn’t stop at the title or story. The other four words in the Sator square also show up in Tenet: “Sator” is the last name of Kenneth Branagh’s character, a cruel Russian oligarch who is communicating with the future. “Arepo” is the last name of an unseen Spanish art forger whose copies of two Goya paintings become blackmail fodder early in the film. The first scene in the movie takes place in an opera house, where an orchestra is tuning up, and chaos quickly sets in. In one sequence, guards who work for “Rotas Security” try to protect a freeport (a building that’s been acquired by collectors but not yet taxed).

So in a sense, the Sator square is seeded throughout Tenet, woven into its fabric in a way that is easy to miss. Yet it’s unmistakably present, and since the movie itself contains sequences that move, in essence, forward and backward — and are the same yet different when you watch them — it functions, in a way, like a kind of cinematic Sator square.

As I explained in my review of Tenet, Nolan has an abiding interest in the links between the mathematical and physical world and the more metaphysical properties of human existence — properties like love, memory, courage, and belief. He seems to have an intuitive sense that all of these things are connected to the passage of time, and the way it expands and contracts phenomenologically. In movies like Inception, Interstellar, Dunkirk, Memento, and more, he’s been toying with that concept, finding emotion and feeling in the emotionless fabric of the universe.

A man looks through a window with a bullet hole.
John David Washington in Tenet.
Warner Bros.

So it seems to me that Tenet is Nolan’s attempt to join a lengthy tradition of using the Sator square as some mystical or religious center of contemplation — and to draw us into an excavation of the idea of faith itself. The word tenet means principle or belief, especially in a religious or philosophical system. Several times in the movie, its characters discuss faith, fate, and fanaticism. And near the end, Robert Pattinson’s character declares that he has faith — in the mechanics of the universe.

Maintaining enough of a belief in the mechanics of the universe to entrust your life to them — something we all do all the time — seems like solid footing, not on the same level as trusting in an unseen deity or other spirits.

But Nolan likes to challenge our preconceptions. At times he’s proposed worlds where the rules of the universe that we take for granted — about space, dimensions, the human body, the nature of dreams — are bent into strange new shapes. In Tenet, he does this with time and entropy, proposing a world in which humans have figured out how to reverse the natural process of decline and move backward. He is suggesting that the things most of us assume are impossible might just be things we haven’t discovered yet. I think he might be wondering if something that some of us call “God” or “magic” is tied up with all of those still undiscovered mysteries.

So maybe Tenet is Nolan’s way of focusing us on those mysteries, of creating a 21st-century Sator square on a big, bright screen. He’s given us something to contemplate, a puzzle we must return to more than once to begin to apprehend. And whatever my feelings about Tenet, I freely admit: That is pretty cool.

Tenet is playing in select theaters.