Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Sator square

The Sator square is a square that reads the same forwards, backwards, upwards and downwards:

The square has been found at many places around the world: on amulets, carved into walls or stones, written on disks used for extinguishing fire, and so on. Its first known appearance is in the ruins of Pompeii. The square was found in a building that was decorated in a style that became popular since the year 50. Pompeii was covered in ash from the Vesuvius in the year 79, and it follows that this example is almost 2000 years old. This makes the square one of the oldest known palindromes.

What does the Sator square mean? Except for `Arepo', scholars mostly agree on the meaning of the individual words. `Sator' is the seeder, sower, or begetter. It is also used as a metaphor for God, not necessarily Christian, but also Roman. `Tenet' is a verb, and means it, he or she holds. `Opera' is often considered to mean with effort. It is related to opus or opera, which means work. Finally, `Rotas' is generally considered a noun, meaning the wheels. But it might also be a verb meaning turn. Nobody has ever found a word in Roman, Greek, Etruscan, or any Indo-European language that explains `Arepo'. Some people think that it is a name, others that it stands for plough, misspelled to fit the palindrome, and yet others that it is just nonsense. For a long period, people thought the square had a Christian meaning by rearranging the letters into two Pater Nosters in the form of a cross. The Pre-Christian Pompeii find crushed this theory. If Arepo is a name, the Sator square might read: `The sower Arepo holds the wheels with effort', and if it stands for plough, you might get: `God holds the plough, but you turn the furrows'. According to John Cullen, this could have been a motto for farmers in Roman times. Most explanations I have read call the Sator square an ancient meme, with as much meaning as the sentence `all your base are belong to us'. In 1937, the Italian Antonio Ferrua probably gives the best explanation for what the square means: `Esattamente quello che si vuole'(!) E basta di questo argumento (it means exactly what you want it to mean. And so much for that argument!). The Sator square is an example of a meme that went viral long before the internet.

Here is an instance of the square I found in the library in Skara, Sweden, written by an unknown author probably in Stockholm, Sweden, in the year 1722. It starts with Rotas instead of Sator, just as the first appearances of the square. For some reason the version starting with Sator has become more popular.

Because it is a palindrome, the Sator square was thought to have many healing effects, curing snake-bites, headaches, jaundice, and many other illnesses. Medieval books mention the square as a cure for fever and insanity. Interestingly, although we now know that using words to cure an illness is of little help, we humans do use palindromes to repair our body. I will say more about this in a later blog post on palindromes in DNA.

The amount of human effort gone into explaining the meaning of the Sator square is unbelievable. Since 1889, when Francis John Haverfield described a find of the square in a Romano-Bristish building in Cirencester, there has been a steady stream of articles on the Sator square, and the total number of articles easily surpasses a hundred. Rose Mary Sheldon recently published a 54-page annotated biography of the literature on the Sator square: The Sator rebus: An unsolved cryptogram? Charles Douglas Gunn wrote his PhD thesis on the square at Yale in 1969. He suggests that the square was written by a Roman who wanted to take palindromic squares one step further from the misformed four-letter word square Roma tibi subito montibus ibit amor, meaning `For by my efforts you are about to reach Rome, the object of your travel'. He wrote software to generate all possible five-letter Latin word squares. These squares take up more than a hundred pages in his thesis. He concludes that the Sator square is the best.

Cheng I Sao

The most successful pirate of all time controlled a fleet of more than 1,500 ships and upwards of 80,000 sailors — and she did it all without the help of facial hair.
To start with, Ching Shih (1775–1844) was only her stage name; it simply means “Widow of Zheng”.  Her real name and her history prior to 1801 are completely unknown except for the fact that she was a prostitute in one of the famous floating brothels of Canton.  She was captured in a raid by the powerful pirate Zheng Yi, commander of six pirate fleets, who appears to have known her professionally before the raid because his men were specifically instructed to bring the 26-year-old beauty to him.  He had fallen deeply in love with her and proposed marriage, and she agreed on the condition that Zheng Yi grant her 50% of his profits and command of one of his fleets.
Artist’s conception of Ching Shih (origin unknown)
Ching I Sao (“Wife of Zheng”), as she was then known, quickly won the respect of her men and her husband drew upon her shrewd advice to increase his power; his family had been noted pirates since at least the mid-17th century and the cunning former whore advised him to use that reputation in combination with intimidation to build an alliance of pirate fleets which until that time had engaged in self-defeating competition.  By 1804 this alliance, known as the Red Flag Fleet, was the most powerful pirate force in China; it was comprised of over 1500 ships and ranged all the way from Korea to Malaysia.  In 1807 Zheng Yi was killed in a typhoon, and his widow (now called Ching Shih) quickly made a pact with Chang Pao, the late commander’s chief lieutenant, which placed her in absolute command of the fleet with him as her executive officer.  The deal appears to have been leveraged by her sex appeal, because they became lovers and later married (though sources vary as to whether this was before or after her retirement).
Ching Shih realized that in order to maintain control she had to establish strict discipline lest the men believe that a female commander could be defied with impunity.  She therefore imposed a code of behavior far more severe than the pirate “articles” common in the Spanish Main:  disobedience, theft, desertion, dereliction of duty, cowardice and rape of female prisoners were all punishable by beheading.  Her power grew at a frightening pace, and within a year the Red Flag Fleet boasted two hundred oceangoing junks of twenty guns each, eight hundred small ships, dozens of riverboats and over 17,000 men; it was one of the largest navies in the world and nothing could stand against it.  She extorted tribute from merchants all over the China Seas and from coastal towns from Macau to Canton, and became a de facto government in her own right; soon she began to impose taxes and levies and enforced her own laws.
This sketch from 1836 imagines what Ching Shih might have looked like in battle.
Clearly, the Chinese government could not ignore this, so in 1808 it sent a fleet against Ching Shih; she easily defeated it, capturing 63 ships and impressing hundreds of sailors into her navy (those who remained loyal to the Emperor were beaten to death with clubs).  Further attacks were equally unsuccessful, as were the attempts at rebellion by subject villages (which were burned to the ground and saw all their men slaughtered).  In desperation, the Chinese government asked for help from the British and Portuguese; their forces, too, were defeated by the harlot admiral.  By 1810 the government was forced to admit defeat and offered a general amnesty to all pirates who would give up their ships and arms.  Ching Shih was no fool, and saw her opportunity to quit while she was ahead; accordingly, she appeared unannounced at the official home of the Governor-general of Canton and negotiated an incredible deal:  she and all her men were given full amnesty and allowed to keep all of their loot, any of her men who wished to join the Imperial Navy would be allowed to do so, and Chang Pao received a lieutenant’s commission.  Ching Shih thus retired from piracy at 35 and opened a combination casino and brothel which she operated until her death at the age of 69, survived by at least one son.
Ching Shih was quite probably the most successful pirate who ever lived; not only did she defeat all attempts to stop her and make staggering sums of money, but she also managed to keep all her profits and transition into a respectable business when she was still quite young.  And considering that the half-share in the pirate fleet which set the stage for her eventual control of the whole was essentially a price for her favors, I think it’s fair to say she was among the most successful prostitutes of all time as well.  She didn’t become an empress as Theodora did, but she essentially made herself a queen, foiled the efforts of the three greatest navies in the world and died a peaceful death as a wealthy, successful, respected businesswoman at a ripe old age.