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Exploring the Sator Square: Meaning, References, and Significance in Christopher Nolan’s Film Tenet


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Exploring the Sator Square

Exploring the Sator Square

In 2020, Christopher Nolan released his complex film, Tenet. The story revolves around a CIA agent who investigates an arms trafficker named Sator, who possesses the ability to manipulate time. Using machines that reverse the entropy of objects, Sator can travel in reverse. Luckily, the protagonist, accompanied by Agent Neil (played by Robert Pattinson), also acquires this technology to thwart Sator’s plans. The film has many intricate elements, with characters moving in both directions like a palindrome. This concept, along with the name of the antagonist, is inspired by the mysterious Sator square.

But what is the Sator square?

The Sator square is an engraving found across Europe in places like Pompeii, Manchester, Portugal, and Hungary. Its true meaning remains debated, but it consists of five words, each composed of five letters, arranged into palindromes: Sator, Arepo, Tenet, Opera, and Rotas. These words can be read in multiple ways, from left to right, top to bottom, and in reverse. From this arrangement, two sentences emerge: “Sator Arepo Tenet” and “Rotas Opera Tenet.” They respectively translate to “The sower holds the plow” and “The wheels drive the work.” These two sentences represent two contrasting principles, which are intertwined through Tenet, the central word of the engraving.

References in the film Tenet

The film incorporates references to the Sator square. The word “Tenet,” serving as the title and central concept of the film, reflects the structure and significance of the palindrome. “Sator,” as mentioned before, represents the sower or creator. In the film, the antagonist Sator believes himself to be a demiurge. The other terms, such as “Opera,” represented by a building in the opening scene, “Arepo,” another character, and “Rotas,” the name of the antagonist’s company, also make appearances. Additionally, Pompeii, the supposed origin of the square, is mentioned multiple times. Another reference lies in the core principle of the film, connected to the two Latin phrases mentioned earlier. The prominent N in the Tenet poster symbolizes the machines capable of traversing time in different directions.

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