|Jasper amulet from the UM collection with|
First, let us start with the word itself. The word παλίνδρομος is Greek for "running back again." A dromas was a runner (cf. a type of camel called a dromedary). Palindromes were often used in magic and could be very flexible in application. They retained their power whether read backwards or forwards. The use of Ablanathanalba was popular particularly on defixiones and amulets, and may have Hebrew origins, according to the glossary to the Greek magical papyri. For sure, it was altogether easier to fit on an amulet than the popular:
iaeô baphrenemoun othilarikriphiae u eaiphrikiralitho nuomenerphab ôeai
Long palindromes such as this are especially tricky and impressive, but let me emphasize that the import of the palindrome often lies in its visual nature. It is seeing the symmetrical nature of the word that gives it some degree of power.
|Digestion amulet from Egypt with the|
iaeô formula. Galen suggested wear-
ing these near your stomach.
Sator Arepo tenet opera rotas.
|CIL IV, 8623 (= Cooley D85)|
The most famous example is a graffito from a column at Pompeii. Of course, much like clouds or ink blots on a page, palindromes are often what you want them to be. The Sator Square carried on into early Christianity in part because one could make out the words:
"Pater Noster A-O"
Our Father (is) Alpha and Omega
Many modern scholars (though the number is waning) continue to argue for the presence of early Christians in Pompeii due to the graffito square. There may have been Christians in Pompeii, but this square is not a Christian construct, in my humble opinion. In any case, the popularity of the square continued on in the middle ages and the early modern period, and crops up in odd places, including this 16th/17th century skull.
One of my favorite examples of wordplay is a theory surrounding two slaves named "Amor" and "Roma." The ingenious Kent Rigsby (If you have time, read this!) suggested a master who loved palindromes and wordplay could name his slaves this. Of course, in the middle ages, "Roma summus amor" was popular. If I ever got a tattoo, it'd probably say that, actually.
As you may be able to tell, it was a lazy Sunday here in the snowy midwest, but I was cheered thinking about these potent palindromes, which continue to fascinate readers even today. Add your favorite in the comments---I'd love to add to my collection.