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This post may have some spoilers of the movie, Tenet.

Tenet is not an easy movie to understand. And I mean that in more than one sense. If you know Christopher Nolan’s wonderful Memento, and his Inception and Interstellar, you will have some idea about the sort of mind bender you are in for. But, secondly, the dialogue is difficult to understand – I’ve spoken to people a fraction of my age; it’s not my ears. More than the sound mixing decisions, I suspect that we are hearing some of the dialogue in reverse.

Tenet is obviously a palindrome title – therein already lies the clue to the nature of the movie, moving backwards and forwards in time, even to being able to form pincer movements in doing so.

But some of us also recognise that ‘Tenet’ forms the middle line of the Rotas (or Sator) Square:

This is a palindrome in four directions.

And it is not difficult to see that rearranging the letters results in:

“Pater Noster” (Latin: Our Father)
A O – first and last Greek letters

Like the fish, the Rotas/Sator Square seems to be a hidden message for Christians at a time when Christianity was illicit.

The earliest ROTAS/SATOR Squares we have are in Pompeii.

The first of these was found in 1925 on the bathroom wall of the house of Paquius Proculus Publius and his wife. It is of poor quality.

The image (on the left) is another ROTAS/SATOR Square discovered in Pompeii in 1936 in a public place near the amphitheatre.

This particular piece of graffiti begins well with ROTAS and OPERA, but then TENET was forgotten and the person began with AREPO, stopping after a couple of letters and then beginning again to put TENET over the mistaken start.

These Squares, obviously, were there prior to the burying of Pompeii in 79AD.

The Square appears all over Europe right through the Middle Ages.

Each of the five words of the Square is present in Tenet, the movie. In fact, ‘Tenet’ is not only the name of the movie and of the main character, but also the organisation saving the day. Although meeting yourself from a different time is a no-no in the movie’s thesis, your future self can start an organisation of the same name and send someone else back to help your past self…

Don’t miss that “tenet” means “a principle or belief, especially one of the main principles of a religion or philosophy.” And time-travel movies (of which this is a great example) inevitably deal with our actions, free will, and… And this is a massive battle of good vs evil…

Rotas – the construction company that built the Freeport, a storage facility for art that was used as a tax haven.
Opera – too obvious.
Arepo – the fake Goya was by the Spaniard named Thomas Arepo.
Sator – the Russian oligarch and antagonist, Andrei Sator.

You also notice that the final battle is ten minutes – ten minutes forward and ten backwards! TENET – get it?!

Oh – and Pompeii is mentioned in the film…


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2 thoughts on “Tenet”

  1. This word square also occurs in a medieval manuscript that I’m currently editing for the Henry Bradshaw Society! Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 41.

    The main text, copied shortly after the year 1000 in an unknown southern English scriptorium, is the Old English version of Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation.” But in the course of the first half of the eleventh century, an owner of the book filled its margins with many texts unrelated to the Bede. I’m mostly interested in the hundreds of Latin liturgical texts it contains (including many chants for the Divine Office). But there are other things that the owner copied into the book: Old English sermons, some poetry, magic spells, a recipe…

    AND, the “Sator arepo” word square!

    You can see a scan of the whole manuscript at “Parker Library on the Web” (https://parker.stanford.edu/parker/catalog/qd527zm3425). The “Sator arepo” formula occurs on page 329, in the outer margin, lines 13 and 14. It’s not written as a square, but the words are preceded by a cross and divided by raised dots:

    + Sator . arepo . tenet .
    opera . Rotas .

    Now I’ll have to see the film for sure…

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