Coptic papyrus amulet with encrypted sator text and magic signs


Link to the papyrus:


Storage location: Austrian National Library, Papyrus Collection
Inventory number: G 40906 Pap
Material: Papyrus
Dating: 5th century or later
Origin: Egypt
Dimensions: 12.3 x 6 cm
Inscription: Sator formula in secret writing

The papyrus is inscribed on one side with repetitions of the sator formula. The entire text is monoalphabetically encoded. Each letter of the alphabet is replaced by another character or letter. In the center of the amulet is one of the most frequently attested ancient magic signs: the eight-pointed star with ring endings.

The sator formula reads:


It forms a palindrome and can be read forward, backward, sideways and from top to bottom, or bottom to top. In ancient magic conception it flows infinitely and has no clear beginning and no end and thus also no point of attack. Moreover, the TENET in the middle is itself a palindrome and can be read forward and backward.

The earliest evidence was found in Pompeii and can hence be dated before the year 79 AD, when Vesuvius destroyed the city.

The sator formula was used for protection. Its translation is much debated and controversial. At this point, the abstract of an article from 2000 by Herbert Stein is quoted, which on the one hand gives an overview of previous research, and on the other hand looks at the formula from a new perspective, the psychology of religion. As with all articles, it is important to turn on critical reading mode. The paper is available for free via JSTOR if you register as a private user.

The Sator square is a widespread palindrome: It may be read like a grid from left to right and vice versa, from top to bottom and vice versa. For nearly 2,000 years, it has been serving above all for magic purposes, among other things for healing sick persons, furthermore as a magic fire extinguisher. The sequence of letters was a riddle and invited contradictory attempts to solve it. The author pleads for not taking it only as a challenge for the riddle-solving mind, but also for reading it in the bustrophedon way, i.e. bidirectionally, as the ox turns when ploughing. Doing so, a swaying rhythm would result. The cruciform middle as a cosmological cross, however, would symbolise absolute stability, and thus the complex unity would lead to „mountains moving“ faith. In research with the random generator working with Strontium 90, the Schmidt-machine, resulted that such a mental state is indeed favourable for psychokinetic effects (von Lucadou). So far, magic can be accompanied by science today. But the mystic consciousness expressed by the central TENET remains out of the positivistic science’s reach and demands a different kind of religious psychology for its articulation.

Herbert Stein, Das Sator-Quadrat: Magie, Mystik und Wissenschaft, in: Archiv für Religionspsychologie, Vol. 23 (2000), Seiten 209-219. (Link unter Literatur)


The key question about this amulet is: Why was the formula encrypted? Was the client / owner in an environment where the open wearing of the Sator formula was punishable or dangerous in other ways? What other reasons could there have been?


Concerning the artefact:
H. Harrauer, Die Sator-Formel in Geheimschrift, in: Weber, E. / Dobesch, G. (Hrsg.), Römische Geschichte, Altertumskunde und Epigraphik. Festschrift für A. Betz zur Vollendung seines 80. Lebensjahres, Wien 1985, S. 299-301.
C. Kreuzsaler, Kat.-Nr. 34: Sator-Quadrat in Geheimschrift, in: Zdiarsky, A. (Hrsg.), Orakelsprüche, Magie und Horoskope. Wie Ägypten in die Zukunft sah (Nilus 22), Wien 2015, Kat.-Nr. 34, S. 107 (mit weiterführender Literatur).
H. Harrauer, H. (mit einem Beitrag von Horak, U.), Papyri, Pergamente und Papiere als Zeugnisse des Alltags, in: Ruprechtsberger, E. M. (Hrsg.), Syrien. Von den Aposteln zu den Kalifen (Linzer Archäologische Forschungen Bd. 21), Linz 1993, S. 365-389.
E. M. Ruprechtsberger (Hrsg.), Syrien. Von den Aposteln zu den Kalifen (Linzer Archäologische Forschungen Bd. 21), Linz 1993, S. 470-471 (Pap. 12).
H. Buschhausen, U. Horak, H. Harrauer, Der Lebenskreis der Kopten. Dokumente, Textilien, Funde, Ausgrabungen. Katalog zur Ausstellung im Prunksaal der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek, Wien 1995, S. 52-53, Nr. 64.
Concerning the Sator-Formula:
Herbert Stein, Das Sator-Quadrat: Magie, Mystik und Wissenschaft, in: Archiv für Religionspsychologie, Vol. 23 (2000), Seiten 209-219.


Friedrich Focke, Sator arepo. Abenteuer eines magischen Quadrats, in: Würzburger Jahrbücher für Altertumswissenschaft, Bd. 3, Nr. 2 (1948), 366-401. Kostenlos als PDF über die Universität Heidelberg verfügbar.

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