I’ve always been fascinated with magical word symbols such as the sator square. How did these words become magical? Why are they arranged in a specific shape?
Most of these symbols are magical word squares (as opposed to magic squares that feature numbers–-see Agrippa’s planetary squares). However, some are arranged in different shapes, such as an upside-down triangle or an oval. The word squares are usually associated with British pellars and cunningfolk, as British folk author Gemma Gary recorded many of them.
But while I was researching them, I found that most of these symbols stem from two authors: a second-century Roman physician and an Egyptian Jewish mage from the 14th century. So how did these symbols end up in Britain? That’s what I want to explore in this post.
The Origin of Magical Word Symbols
Many of these magical squares and palindromes were discovered during excavations. The sator square, by far the most well-known of these symbols, was first found in Pompeii. Even some palindromes made with Greek letters were found as far north as Denmark.
However, many can be traced back to the two authors I mentioned earlier. The first is Serenus Sammonicus (birth unknown, died 212 AD), the personal physician to Roman Emperor Caracello Quintus.
Sammonicus practiced many magical remedies that he learned from his mentors and borrowed from earlier occult authors such as Pliny the Elder. His most famous work, Res Reconditae, is a series of five books featuring natural remedies. Most notably, Sammonicus recorded the ABRACADABRA palindrome and ABLANA / ANALBA. I’ll cover both of these later.
The second author is an Egyptian mage named Abraham, or Abramelin (sometimes spelled Abra-Melin). A teacher of Jewish magic, he was said to live from 1362 to 1458, although historians debate whether he actually existed.
Abramelin’s life was documented in the book, The Book of Abramelin. This 17th-century manuscript features 12 parts and hundreds of spells. But it is most well-known for its magical word squares.
Abramelin created these magic squares out of Hebrew words. However, the earliest found version of the book was in German, as he was said to live in Germany. Although the author quotes many Bible verses, he took them from a Roman Catholic version of the Bible, written in Latin Vulgate. To put it simply, these magic squares are made from Hebrew words that have been Latinized.
So how did these end up in Britain? In the 19th century, occultist Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers translated the work into English. Mathers was highly influential. As one of the founders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, he pioneered modern ceremonial magic.
Mathers’ translation, which he titled The Sacred Book of Abramelin the Mage, skyrocketed in popularity during the late 19th and early 20th century. I believe that is how these magic circles ended up in British folk magic.
Given how complicated the history is (Roman > Egyptian > Europe and beyond), I’m going to divide these symbols into two categories: Greek/Latin and Latinized Hebrew.
Greek / Latin Magical Palindromes
Latin word symbols were usually arranged within a square, while ancient Greek ones came in different shapes.
The Sator Square
Translators believe that Arepo is a name, possibly of Egyptian origin. (Arepo appears nowhere else in Latin literature.) So the palindrome translates to “The farmer Arepo has [as] works wheels.” In other words, Arepo plows with wheels, possibly with difficulty due to the connotations.
What does this meaning have to do with magic? Well…nothing, as far as I can tell. The point is less about the literal meaning and more about how the letters are arranged. The sator square is unique in this aspect; most other magical word symbols have relevant meanings. The Romans also had many other similar palindromes, so I don’t know why the sator square became the most popular.
The sator square has been put on walls, doors, churches, houses, and barns. Although it came from the Mediterranean, it has been seen as far north as France. Folk magicians often wrote it on paper and folded it to put in witch bags. The type of paper and color ink depended on the spell.
Speaking of magic, the sator square is a protective symbol. In folk magic, the sator square has also put out fires, cooled fevers, protected livestock, and removed fatigue from travelers.
The Pater Noster Square A-O
The square has paster noster in a cross shape with the A’s and O’s in the corners. The oldest evidence of the paster noster square comes from the second century; it is one of the earliest examples of Christianity in Britain.
Like the sator square, the pater noster square is a protective symbol. It’s sometimes used for healing as well. Think of it as a shortened version of the Lord’s Prayer, which asks God to keep food on the table, forgive debts, and guard against evil.
ABLANA / ANALBA
So what does the palindrome mean? The most direct translation is, “Iahweh is the bearer of the sacred name, the lion of Re secure in his shrine.” Iahweh is an Egyptian name and possibly refers to a deity. Some believe that this name is a version of God's name.
During the 5th century, Christianity was the official religion of Rome, but Pagan beliefs still thrived despite being outlawed. The IAEW-palindrome is a fascinating example of how these religions mixed in the Roman Empire.
Funnily enough, Polish researcher Joachim Śliwa noted that the scribe made a mistake. The author wrote “P” instead of “V.” Throughout history, most examples of this palindrome include the P, meaning that this spelling mistake turned into a widely-used magic symbol.
The IAEW-palindrome has been found in divinatory kits. The symbol likely connects magicians to the Gods and spirits. Sometimes, it is drawn with an Ouroboros around it.
Latinized Hebrew Magic Squares That Ended up in Britain
Most of these magical word squares were recorded in Gemma Gary’s book The Black Toad: West Country Witchcraft and Magic. I don’t know where Gary got these because she often doesn’t cite her sources. But when I researched the words, all of them came from The Sacred Book of Abramelin the Mage. Gary refers to these as British pellar spells, but they were likely used in Jewish magic as well.
The Book of Abramelin lists dozens, if not hundreds, of these magic squares. So I am not going to list all of them. I’m going to focus on a few from Gemma Gary’s books, since these have risen in popularity since the 2010s.
Unlike the previous palindromes, many of these don’t have official names. Abramelin did not name his spells, so I will reference them by their uses. All photos are from Gary's book.
Square for Love
But what does it mean? According to Abramelin, raiah is a female companion. It’s also a popular Jewish name meaning “queen of power.” Haiah comes from Arabic and means “modest,” although it could also be referencing Nith-Haiah, the angel of wisdom and magic.
Igogi is harder to translate. It might reference the Greek word agoge, which refers to the speed of music. If anyone knows Hebrew and can think of a connection, let me know.
I don’t know the translation for this square; this will be a common trend in this section. The Book of Abramelin does not translate all the words, and some of them have multiple meanings. I’m not going to act like I’m a Hebrew expert and try to translate these, but I will list their magical uses.
For Divination in General
According to The Book of Abramelin, milon comes from the Greek milos, meaning “fruit tree.” It might also come from the Hebrew MLVN, roughly translated to “the diversity of things.” Irago stems from the Greek eira, meaning “inquiry” or “question.” Lamal is “probably from Chaldaic,” and that’s all Abramelin says about it. Ogari possibly stems from the Hebrew OGR, “to swallow” or “swiftly flying thing.” Nolim is from the Hebrew word meaning “hidden or covered things.” I’m not a linguist, so I don’t want to try to translate the whole sentence.
Magicians put this symbol on divination tools or in their hat prior to divination.
For Divination, Mirrors and Crystals
According to The Book of Abramelin, gilionin is a version of the Chaldaic word GLIVNM, meaning “mirrors.”
This symbol is placed beneath or in front of the divination tool. People have used it on crystal balls, seeing glasses, magical mirrors, and more.
These magical words either have unknown meanings or are used in an unusual method. All are fairly popular in folk magic and deserve a discussion.
Magicians often write it on paper, fold it, and include it in healing bags. It is also carved into amulets that one can wear. Coral stones, metal, and birch paper are common materials to write it on.
Despite researching these words for days, I cannot find a translation of the word nalgah. If you have an idea, please let me know. But from what I can find, the word relates to spirit power, specifically the power of the serpent.
This symbol is similar to the sator square, and both symbols are written on either side of a charm for protection. It seems to draw upon the power of spirits as well.
The tetragrammaton is the five-letter Hebrew word for God’s name. As a magic symbol, it is actually three words–-or, rather, the same word written in three different languages. The first line is Phoenician, the second is Paleo-Hebrew, and the third is Hebrew.
I’m not going to include a picture because this symbol is unique to Kabbalah, a closed Jewish practice that requires lengthy study and initiation. Although the tetragrammaton is easy to find, you won’t know how to use it unless you understand Kabbalah. I can find information on how NOT to use it, but that’s about it.
Interestingly, ceremonial and folk practitioners got around this by writing the word tetragrammaton. As many know, the word tetragrammaton means “five-lettered word,” so they’re literally writing “five-lettered word” on top of other Hebrew words, assuming that everyone will know what they’re referring to. Here’s an example from Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall:
What Do I Do with this Information?
This post is a general overview of some magical word squares and palindromes. Note that each one needs to be used in a specific way. Don’t assume that one method will work for another one.
I find it intriguing that most authors will list these magical words, but not mention where they came from. In my opinion, that’s a massive oversight. There’s a lot of discourse over the use of Hebrew words in ceremonial and folk magic. Although we will never remove Hebrew from these practices, we should at least give credit where credit is due.
Many have also pointed out that these symbols were probably used before Res Reconditae and The Book of Abramelin. And I’m not disputing that. I believe there is much more associated with these symbols than we currently know. Some words, like abracadabra, may remain undefined forever. Historical evidence for folk magic, especially ancient Pagan magic, is very difficult to find.
Until we discover more, we’ll run with what we know. Those who read Hebrew might have corrections and additions to this post, in which case, please comment! We can always learn more.
Thanks so much for staying with me on this unusually long post. Hope you enjoy!