The Tenet Conundrum

Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster film Tenet is an intriguing tale of secret agents, but the film’s title conjures other secret worlds. Watch the video that takes you into the secrets behind the title.

Elizabeth Debicki and John David Washington star in Tenet
Elizabeth Debicki and John David Washington star in Tenet

Tenet: ten·et [/ˈtenət/] (noun)- a principle or belief, especially one of the main principles of a religion or philosophy. Originating from the Latin word tenere, meaning 'to hold or possess'.

It’s the surname of the man who ran the CIA during 9/11.

Tenet is also the central word of an ancient puzzle that was carved on a stone panel in the Roman city of Herculaneum; the puzzle was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

The restored version of John Martin's Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum
The restored version of John Martin's Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum


The puzzle is known as a square palindrome: it can be read top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top, left-to-right, or right-to-left. Sator, arepo, tenet, opera, rotas. Rotate it 180 degrees and it can still be read all those ways.

Similar five-word puzzles created later came to be known as “Sator Squares” or “Rotas Squares,” and have been found at major Christian sites around the world, most notably at the magnificent Duomo di Siena.

Sator Squares or Rotas Squares
Scholars are intrigued by Sator Squares

What is the significance of these Sator Squares? Scholars have been intrigued by their meaning and existence for generations. The simple translation from Latin gives us, “A farmer (sator) named Arepo sustains (tenet) his wheels (rotas) for his works (Opera).” But why have these words been carved into the walls of major Christian sites and invoked for centuries as part of magic ceremonies?

Sator
Look more closely to find the patterns within

If we dig deeper into other meanings, we can find more secrets and patterns within, and look at what happens when you start to rearrange the letters.

The puzzle contains eight Latin letters. Taking the outer consonants, S, T, R, and the central consonant N, alludes to Saturn, the Roman God of time, agriculture, and magic.

Opera, the Latin word for “works”, becomes opus in its singular form, suggesting Ops, the wife of Saturn and the Goddess of Earth, fertility and wealth.

S T R N pattern
O P S pattern

Arepo can be seen as a Hebrew or Aramaic rendition of Alpha-Omega. These are first and last letters of the alphabet, signifying the beginning and the end.

Rearranging the letters in the sign of a cross creates PATER NOSTER, meaning our father - the first two words of The Lord’s Prayer - and leaves us with a repeated A (Alpha) and O (Omega).

In the bible, Jesus Christ declares: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

Pater Noster letters

What other patterns and secrets can you discover? What future uses might we see for this mysterious word? Only time will tell.

Look for the patterns in the letters


The ability to decode and analyze puzzles are just two of the many valuable spy skills that we all possess.

Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills
, created by a former head of training at British intelligence.

The Tenet Conundrum

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Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster film Tenet is an intriguing tale of secret agents, but the film’s title conjures other secret worlds. Watch the video that takes you into the secrets behind the title.

Elizabeth Debicki and John David Washington star in Tenet
Elizabeth Debicki and John David Washington star in Tenet

Tenet: ten·et [/ˈtenət/] (noun)- a principle or belief, especially one of the main principles of a religion or philosophy. Originating from the Latin word tenere, meaning 'to hold or possess'.

It’s the surname of the man who ran the CIA during 9/11.

Tenet is also the central word of an ancient puzzle that was carved on a stone panel in the Roman city of Herculaneum; the puzzle was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

The restored version of John Martin's Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum
The restored version of John Martin's Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum


The puzzle is known as a square palindrome: it can be read top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top, left-to-right, or right-to-left. Sator, arepo, tenet, opera, rotas. Rotate it 180 degrees and it can still be read all those ways.

Similar five-word puzzles created later came to be known as “Sator Squares” or “Rotas Squares,” and have been found at major Christian sites around the world, most notably at the magnificent Duomo di Siena.

Sator Squares or Rotas Squares
Scholars are intrigued by Sator Squares

What is the significance of these Sator Squares? Scholars have been intrigued by their meaning and existence for generations. The simple translation from Latin gives us, “A farmer (sator) named Arepo sustains (tenet) his wheels (rotas) for his works (Opera).” But why have these words been carved into the walls of major Christian sites and invoked for centuries as part of magic ceremonies?

Sator
Look more closely to find the patterns within

If we dig deeper into other meanings, we can find more secrets and patterns within, and look at what happens when you start to rearrange the letters.

The puzzle contains eight Latin letters. Taking the outer consonants, S, T, R, and the central consonant N, alludes to Saturn, the Roman God of time, agriculture, and magic.

Opera, the Latin word for “works”, becomes opus in its singular form, suggesting Ops, the wife of Saturn and the Goddess of Earth, fertility and wealth.

S T R N pattern
O P S pattern

Arepo can be seen as a Hebrew or Aramaic rendition of Alpha-Omega. These are first and last letters of the alphabet, signifying the beginning and the end.

Rearranging the letters in the sign of a cross creates PATER NOSTER, meaning our father - the first two words of The Lord’s Prayer - and leaves us with a repeated A (Alpha) and O (Omega).

In the bible, Jesus Christ declares: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

Pater Noster letters

What other patterns and secrets can you discover? What future uses might we see for this mysterious word? Only time will tell.

Look for the patterns in the letters


The ability to decode and analyze puzzles are just two of the many valuable spy skills that we all possess.

Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills
, created by a former head of training at British intelligence.

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