Magic Words: The Power of Secret Ciphers and Ancient Runes

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In 1590, over a hundred people living in the settlement of Roanoke on the shores of North Carolina disappeared without a trace. Over the years, many people have tried to solve the mystery of Roanoke, postulating on what could have wiped out the unfortunate colonists or driven them away from their adopted home.

The colonists only left one clue regarding their disappearance. A single word carved on the bark of tree: “Croatoan.”

That single word has inflamed countless imaginations over the centuries. People have ascribed so much meaning to those eight letters that they’ve taken a life of their own.

Words have power. Words are power. And centuries ago, words were magic. Here are a few examples of how people sought to channel the magic of words through writing.

Sator Square

The Sator Square is a formation of five different palindromes stacked on top of the other. The five Latin words were SATOR, AREPO, TENET, OPERA, and ROTAS. In English, the words say “He who works the plow sows the seeds.” Aside from being palindromes, the arrangement of the words also reveals that they are repeated when the letters are read from top-to-bottom, revealing the ingenuity of the developers. It’s nearly similar to fill-it-in puzzle books, which are anengaging variation on crosswords.

But what is the history of this cunning cipher? The Sator Square originated in 1st-Century Rome, where it was used by the early Christians to avoid persecution. They used the square, along with other secret signs, to identify one another. The Christian roots of the Sator Square are readily apparent when its full configuration unfolds: the words spell out the phrase “Pater Noster” or “Our Father,” with the A and O representing the Alpha and the Omega.


“Abracadabra” is the stock spell of every child and stage magician. The phrase is so pervasive that a version of it even appears in the “Harry Potter” novels as “Avada Kedavra” or the Killing Curse. Where did this phrase come from?

Some historians suggest that it comes from the word “Abraxas,” which is the name of a demon associated with witches and the magical arts. Others have argued that it’s a bastardization of the Hebrew words that denote the Holy Trinity.

What historians are certain of is that ancient Romans used the phrase as part of a healing spell. In a 2nd century book entitled “Liber Medicinalis,” the author instructs the sick to write the word “Abracadabra.” They should then keep writing it, removing the last letter until the whole word is gone. The superstition implies that diseases and curses will weaken and disappear with each mutilation of the word.

Runic Glyphs

Magician at work

The runic glyphs of Norway and other parts of Northern Europe have always inspired a sense of magic and power. The runes were almost never inscribed on anything other than metal or stone, and this has allowed samples to remain legible even after hundreds of years.

According to myth, Odin One-Eyed gave the gift of the runes to mortal kind, and that each symbol is imbued with magical power. Indeed, the runes have no singular meaning. Instead, meaning is inferred from the context of the inscription. Most runestones still standing commemorate the graves of fallen warriors. Rather a fitting use for the gifts of Odin, who is lord of both magic and war.

The written word still holds a lot of power today. Deals and documents become binding when a name is affixed to them. So maybe the magic of the written word is remains, taking on a new form to fit into the new world.

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