Sarah Bond: Power of the Palindrome

Jasper amulet from the UM collection with
"Ablanathanalba" inscribed.
As I browsed through the University of Michigan magical amulet collection this morning (as one does), I was reminded of the power of the palindrome. Sure, we all know "race car", and perhaps not a few of us have engaged in party palindrome competitions (grad school is a time of great innovation and dorkitude, folks)--but what about the power of the palindrome in antiquity?

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.
One of the most famous instances of a palindrome is the so-called 'Sator Square.' It is an acrostic that takes the palindrome to a new level, and reads: 

Sator Arepo tenet opera rotas. 
CIL IV, 8623 (= Cooley D85)
"The planter, Arepo holds the wheels with effort." 

The most famous example is a graffito from a column at PompeiiOf 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.

1 comment:

  1. Demetri Martin, author of the book "This Is a Book," has a 224-word palindrome: http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2009/02/demetri-martins-palindrome-poem.html

    And the annoying comic-relief "traveling toga salesman" character Salmoneus, from the 1990s Hercules and Xena TV series, is played by Robert Trebor, whose name is an acronym.


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