The SATOR Square in Northern Europe

The SATOR Square in Northern Europe

I enjoy studying apotropaic magic – especially when that magic involves the use of shoes. I like trying to uncover the history and rationale behind it, and I especially like to ‘repurpose’ the old charms.

Recently, I’ve been looking at the use of the SATOR square in the Viking Age. For those of you that haven’t already come across this lovely piece of apotropaic (possibly) magic, the SATOR square is pre-Christian in origin, and is a 5×5 square made up of the word and anagram ‘SATOR’. Kinda like this:


As you can see, the square renders the words readable both left to right, horizontally and vertically, and in reverse. The words SATOR, AREPO, TENET, OPERA, ROTAS are Latin, and are most easily translated as meaning ‘The sower Arepo holds the wheels at work”. Now that’s interesting in of itself, but it’s the charm’s popularity in Northern Europe that *really* interests me. Heck, there are even examples of it being rendered in runes (albeit with misspellings that potentially suggest errors from oral transmission). But misspellings not withstanding, I think there’s a good argument to be made that the operation of the SATOR square was considered to have had enough similarities with how Germanic magical traditions were considered to have worked for it to have been adopted as widely as it was. Now I’m not claiming that everyone was cracking out the odd SATOR square as the fancy came upon them, or that it was *common* by any stretch of the imagination. After all, the vast majority of archaeological finds are non-magical in nature, and we are talking about a subset of a subset here. But it’s also a subset of a subset that was found in Sweden, Norway, and Iceland, and which continued to be used in Norwegian and Danish black magic as late as the 19th century.

sator runic

Example of runic SATOR from Gotland with spelling mistake. Instead of ‘Tenet’, here is written ‘Teneth’.

Typically, the SATOR square was used in blessings, for both general protection and more specific protective uses (e.g. protection against lightning, fire, sickness etc). Often, the SATOR charm was an addition to formula or other charm, but even when it was the only charm to be found, I believe it was likely used in conjunction with a spoken/sung/chanted formula or galdor expressing a clearer intent.

When we look at magic from the various Germanic cultures, there are threads of commonality that can be perceived. I believe that one of those threads is that there were temporary forms of magic and long-lasting forms of magic. Magic that would eventually permanently alter what a person had to work with in the future by laying down repeated layers over a period of time. I believe evidence of these long-lasting, more permanent forms of magic can be found in artifacts such as the antler tablet weaving tablet from Lund that wished the weaver’s weeping to ‘Sigvor’s Ingimar’, or the failed love charm of Egil’s saga that only succeeded in making the target sick until it was destroyed. These were magics that involved repeated action, or some form of charm that worked continuously in the background until destroyed.

sator - not really

Tablet-weaving tablet in antler with curse inscription: “Sigvor’s Ingvar may have my bad luck” – From Viking Answer Lady

This is where I think the SATOR square comes in.

Maybe ‘the sower Arepo’ not only ‘holds the wheels at work’, but also keeps the effects of a charm or formula going as well, thus enabling or ensuring that the charm would be continuous and therefore create long-lasting effects?

Furthermore, it’s hard to ignore the symbolism and cultural resonance the imagery of wheels would have had in cultures in which ‘happening’ and ‘being’ were strongly connected with this idea of ‘turning’. If ‘what is now’ is something that is being turned, and you require your intent to be continuously ‘turned’ in order to affect what a person has to work with in the future, then a charm that talks of a sower (one who sows seeds, which may here be viewed as ‘layers’) keeping ‘the wheels at work’ makes a lot of sense.

In terms of modern usage, I haven’t had cause yet to experiment with the SATOR square – I don’t do a whole lot of magic that’s intended to have long lasting consequences, I tend to lean more on the ‘temporary effects’ end of the spectrum. However, if I were to use it, I would use it in addition to another charm or working, as a way of ‘fixing’ the charm to ensure it remains working in perpetuity. Obviously lacking in practical experience here, I’m curious to read about the experiences of others who have used the SATOR square.

If anyone is interested in reading more about the SATOR square, and especially about its use in Northern Europe, I’d recommend checking out Runic Amulets and Magic Objects by Mindy MacLeod and Bernard Mees

Modern Apotropaios

Typically, when we think about magic, we think of it as being the domain of the magical or ritual specialist – as being some occult domain that was forbidden to the average person, and that there was some unseen line that wasn’t to be crossed.

That there was such a line, is indisputable, but it wasn’t as clear cut as a line between ‘magic’ and ‘absolutely NO magic’. In fact, there was often an entire body of folk practice that was magical in nature, but that somehow did not cross the line in most cases.

One type of folk practice, known as ‘apotropaic magic’, or magic focused on ‘turning away(evil)’ was (if the numerous finds of apotropaic items in old houses are anything to go by) widely practiced by people that in all likelihood were not magical or ritual specialists.

From shoes up chimneys and dried cats buried in walls, to horse skulls under floors, witch bottles, and mysterious marks made on fireplaces, apotropaios spanned from the gruesome to the seemingly odd. But what, if anything, can we take from these practices today?

Old Shoes in Chimneys

When I was at college, there was a tree in the local park called (unsurprisingly)’The Shoe Tree’. It was a large tree, with eye-like knots covering its wide trunk, and in its branches were hundreds of pairs of shoes. Nobody really knows how it started, but by the time I was studying in the area, it was something of a local tradition for people to knot the laces of their old shoes and throw them into the branches. It was so popular that the local authorities had to periodically come and remove batches of shoes from the branches lest the tree itself be damaged. There was something very eery about that tree, and its branches filled with the shoes of people living and dead. To think of all the daily wear, all the footsteps taken, all the places visited, and all the aspects of human life that might be imprinted on those shoes is just fascinating to me. So innocuous, and yet ever present.

Which is one of the main characteristics of apotropaic magic. In all cases, the apotropaic items were innocuous in some way (mostly through concealment or careful placement), but they were always present, always there to work in the background.

An old shoe superstition is that one should not be buried with one’s shoes lest the spirit be trapped in the coffin with the body, the implication being that the shoes function as some kind of ‘spirit trap’, and conceivably, the apotropaic chimney shoes performed the same function. There is a long tradition of trapping spirits, especially evil ones in shoes in English folklore, and as a practice, we can date it back to the 14th century and Sir John Schorne and his reputed trapping of the devil in a boot.

However, while I am going to focus on the use of shoes as protective devices, as this survey by June Swann demonstrates, there were probably many traditions attached to the keeping of old shoes in homes, and that they weren’t just kept in chimneys.

In the modern day though, many of us don’t have chimneys to put shoes up, but I don’t think that makes them irrelevant to us. In my own case, I’ve used them to trap bad dreams (tied to my bedpost with a written charm stuffed inside), and have found other places to hide them. I also like to take my shoes off at the door and keep them in a rack in the near vicinity.

Because of how often a person wears them, shoes are such a useful magical tool and can be combined with charms and knot spells laced into the lacing holes.

Dried Cats and Horse Skulls

This category is probably the hardest or even least desirable for us to recreate in the modern day. Typically buried in the walls or floorboards, and positioned post-mortem as though on the hunt, it’s not clear whether dried cats for apotropaic purposes typically died because of natural purposes, or were killed specifically for the purpose. Regardless of cruelty issues though, the rationale behind the placement of dried cats in walls, and horses in bell towers or under floors, appears to have been the same.

In folklore, both are animals that are credited with the ability to see that which humans cannot typically see, and while the protective/hunter aspect of a horse is less obvious to me than that of a cat (especially with the positioning of some of the cats into ‘hunt positions’), it would seem (especially with the connection between the horse skull and bell tower – bells being believed to scare away evil spirits), that both cat and horse were considered protective.

Interestingly enough, while the cats are very widespread, the horse skulls have been found in England, Wales, and Ireland, but not in Scotland. One has to wonder if it’s not so much a quality of the horse itself that’s being invoked in the use of horse skulls, but rather something or some protective being connected to horses in some way, and one that wasn’t to be found in Scotland at that.

As I mentioned before, it’s far less desirable for us moderns to go round killing cats or horses for either apotropaic purposes, or even those of a foundation sacrifice. However, I see nothing wrong with the settled family that loses a beloved pet cat, drying or preserving that cat and then encasing it in the walls of the home to serve the same purpose. And although I do realise that many would think that macabre, I think it’s no more odd than say funeral jewellery! If you can source a horse skull ethically, I’d say go for it there, too.

Hearth Marks and Written Charms

Along the theme of ‘innocuous but always present’ are what were previously called ‘Witch Marks’ but are now known as ‘Ritual Marks’ so as to avoid any confusion with the kind of ‘Witch marks’ that were used to identify Witches in the middle ages. Generally found along hearth lintels, wooden ceiling beams, and doorways in houses pre-dating the 18th century, the meanings of these marks are not entirely clear. Commonly these marks include the letters ‘W’, ‘P’, ‘M’, ‘V’, circles, and ‘daisy wheels’ (compass drawn flowers in a circle, not unlike what you might see in a hex sign). One characteristic which is common is that in a lot of cases, they’re either carved somewhere that is not so easy to see, or can only be seen if you know where to find them and are shining a light directly on them.

This idea of hidden magical symbols that work in the background is something that has been noticed by runologists in their examinations of certain runestones and the existence of runic cyphers such as branch runes, or beard runes (!!) in order to obscure the meaning of inscriptions. I could probably do an entire blog post and more about the hidden or concealed aspect of magical runic inscriptions, but for now, I’m just going to stick to what I have and follow up with how we as modern Heathens can take this information and use it to create our own ‘Ritual Marks’ in our homes.

Many modern Heathens make use of bindrunes, and I would say that they would work perfectly as ‘Ritual Marks’ in this way. Many of the extant examples of ‘Ritual Marks’ that we have to this day, are a combination of the letters ‘V’, ‘M’, and ‘W’ with intersecting lines. In his paper, ‘Ritual Marks on Historic Timber’, Timothy Easton makes the case for these particular marks as being a kind of invocation to the Virgin Mary for her help and protection. I think we can look to a runic inscription on a bracteate found in Sjaelland here for our inspiration here.


I’m not the Sjaelland bracteate, but I’m a type C, so at least you have that!

The bracteate, Sjaelland-II-C dates back to the Migration period (around 500 AD), and carries the following inscription in Elder Futhark runes:

hariuha haitika : farauisa : gibu auja : ttt’

Roughly translated, this is taken to mean, ‘Hariuha I am called: the dangerous knowledgeable one (also translated as ‘travel-wise one’, ‘danger-wise one’): I give luck.’

Typically, the final ‘ttt‘, or triple tiwaz runes, are interpreted to be an invocation of Tyr, however the inscription not only seems to be referring more to Odin, but is found on a type-C bracteate, a type of bracteate which is generally interpreted to depict Odin and a quadruped.

Regardless of how we interpret it though, the key elements are clear and useful to us:

*Reference to a luck-giving god/goddess (either through reference to a quality of the god, written in the first person, or through triple repetition of the first rune of the deity’s name).
*The formula ‘gibu auja’ (I give luck).

So, for example, you might want to go with ‘ttt gibu auja’, or write something narrative as though the god is giving the message ‘gibu auja’ to you. In this way, you’re making use of two traditions: that of the apotropaic Ritual Mark, and an attested runic formula.

AbracadabraAlso in the ‘written’ category is the written charm, which again, were pretty widespread. However, unlike the other types of apotropaic practice here, also had a negative application should the practitioner so wish. Charms for protection, and charms for cursing have both been found. Often, these charms take the form of a prayer calling upon divine protection of land, livestock, and loved ones. Sometimes they’re augmented by magical formulae such as the Abracadabra triangle or the SATOR square, which although these formulae are not Germanic in origin, were not so dissimilar from the ‘thistell, mistell, kistell’ formula (thistle, mistletoe, casket) which was rendered thus:

þmk iii sss ttt iii lll

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMoreover, the similarity of concept was such that the Norse adopted the Abracadabra and SATOR formulae into their own practice. (1)

In one case, one charm was found hidden in a bottle, however you can get pretty creative with this. Some friends of mine wrote charms and then plastered them into the walls of their new home, other people *ahem* write them directly onto the walls when the wallpaper is being replaced so that they’re hidden by the wallpaper for another few years. For those that paint rather than wallpaper, charms can be written in ballpoint pen on the wall and then easily painted over, thus sealing the charm onto the wall in a way that no one will see.

Witch Bottles

Beginning in the 16th century and most popularly in the stone wear Bellarmines of the time, the witch Bottle is quite a common find in old homes. Generally containing urine and nails,but also smashed glass and sometimesBellarmine_jug00 even human hair, the witch bottle is often misunderstood by modern witches.

Nowadays, a cursory glance of recommended uses for witch bottles on the internet gives the impression that it’s often taken to be protective in a general sense, as opposed to the directed counter-curse that it originally was.

The original witch bottle was created with a specific person in mind,and in many cases it was designed to hurt the person you believed to have cursed you so that they would remove the curse from you. For extra effect, it could be boiled to provide extra discomfort for the witch in question.

In my opinion, the witch bottle works best with that specific person in mind, especially if you are able to get something of them to personalise the bottle with, however it does also work well as a kind of ‘absorber’ and destroyer of ‘negative energy’ (urine performs the function of destroying malefic magic in several folklore traditions), especially when buried under the threshold of a home, or at any other potential entry point.

Making a bottle is simple enough, and sadly never depicted in the kind of TV shows that depict witchcraft – which is a shame – Alyssa Milano trying to get pee into a bottle or mason jar for a Witch bottle would have made great prime time viewing…

Other Apotropaic Practices

Throughout the ages, be it dried cats, witch bottles, or charms plastered into the very walls of your home, people have always sought to find ways to protect their homes from less tangible threats. In the modern day, the hanging of crucifixes, placement of bibles, and use of the dreaded white sage are perhaps most common among mainstream folks. In PA, there is the added heritage of the hex sign magic. Amulets may be made from natural materials believed to have certain inherent properties e.g the use of rowan crosses bound with red thread as a protection against baneful wights (typically fae). Personally, I’ve used all kinds of measures at various addresses, from bottles, to rune-marked stakes driven into the ground around a property. Were I to ever settle down in one place, maybe I’d consider including any pet cats that pass over or take other equally permanent measures.

Final Word

Whatever you use though, always remember that concealment was a factor for good reason. There has always been a power in secrets and mysteries, hell, one of the meanings of the word ‘rune’ itself is ‘secret’. More pragmatically though, to keep silent is to stay protected, whereas to let others know what you have and where, is to give them a way to figure out an ‘in’ should things turn sour.

And then before you know it, you’re trying to aim piss into a mason jar…

To read more about Apotropaios and see some cool photos, go here

1. Runic Amulets and Magic Objects -Mindy MacLeod, Bernard Mees Pp. 139 – 152

Heathen Prayer: The Art of Speaking Runes

What do you think of when you think of the word, ‘prayer’? Perhaps you envisage a person piously kneeling in church, or even rocking at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem? Maybe you even think of the Muslim with a prayer mat, or the Sufi worshippers swirling in their billowing robes?

But what about Pagans and Heathens? Do we pray? Should we pray? And how should that prayer ‘look’ in comparison to the prayer of other religions?

A while ago, I posed the question of prayer on a group that I frequent – it’s a lovely group, very calm, and a lot of the members find it supportive. A lot of the respondents said that they did indeed pray, and then we went on to have a wonderful conversation about prayer. However, there were a few that expressed views that they don’t pray so much as just ‘talk to the gods, ancestors, and wights’. This isn’t unusual either. Throughout the years, I’ve seen the prayer question come up in both Heathen and Pagan circles over and over again, and the ‘I don’t pray, but talk to the gods’ response is one that I’ve seen come up a lot.

But what is prayer, and what was it for Heathens?

Many of the sources we have for the Heathen period were written by Christians, in some cases centuries after conversion. With this in mind, when we examine these sources, we have to treat them with some degree of caution and bear in mind that we’re reading these events as presented through the filter of a Christian worldview.

The ‘Heliand’ however, is pretty unique in that it’s the Christian gospel written in a way that the Heathen Saxons could understand it. In other words, it’s the story of Jesus adapted to the Heathen worldview. Through comparing the rendering the ‘Heliand’ gives, with the actual Christian gospel, I believe it’s possible to discern aspects of the Heathen worldview.

When it comes to prayer, and the way it is introduced in the ‘Heliand’, the difference between the Christian version and the version as rendered for Heathens is obvious.

In Luke 11:1, the introduction to the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ is short, and with the expectation that the reader will already understand what is going on:

“One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

In contrast though, the ‘Heliand’ presents prayer very differently:

“Our good Lord”, he said, “we need Your gracious help in order to carry out Your will and we also need Your own words, Best of all born, to teach us, Your followers, how to pray – just as John the good Baptist, teaches his people with words every day how they are to speak to the ruling God. Do this for Your own followers – teach us the secret runes.”

– Song 9

Runes are prayers? Next you're going to tell me these aren't runes anymore!

Runes are prayers? Next you’re going to tell me these aren’t runes anymore!

With those words, ‘teach us the secret runes’, or ‘gerihti us that geruni’, the normally ineffectual wish-prayer of the pious, is made understandable within the context of Germanic culture as a kind of spell of great performative power; the word ‘geruni’ conveying both the ideas of secrecy and petitioning.

From the importance of skalds and their craft ( that often bordered on the magical) to the belief that certain combinations of words could have a magical effect, the idea of the power of language, is something that permeated Germanic culture. In the Old English medical texts, certain prayers such as the ‘Pater Noster’ (the Latin name of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’) are considered to heal when said a certain number of times, and texts like ‘Solomon and Saturn’ often advocate the same prayers as war-spells for in battle.

But none of this really sounds like the Judeo-Christian idea of what a prayer is. The word ‘prayer’ itself derives from the Latin word ‘precari’, and has the Proto Indo-European root ‘*prek’, meaning ‘to ask, request, or en

treat’. In a sense, the asking and entreating does form a part of these formulaic ‘rune-prayers’ from Germanic tradition:

‘Give us support each day, good Chieftain,
Your holy help, and pardon us, Protector of Heaven
Our Many crimes, just as we do to other human beings
Do not let evil little creatures lead us off
to do their will, as we deserve’

– Excerpt from the Lord’s Prayer, Heliand, Song 19

But there is never really a sense with Christian prayer that the prayer itself is a kind of magical formula, or a ‘rune’ to be used as a form of magic in of itself. Christian prayer hinges on the entreaty, on the benevolence of the being you’re entreating. However, not only did Germanic prayer make that entreaty to the higher, as a subject might go to a King, it was also powerful in of itself. In other words, the formula and language used were important.

So while the word ‘prayer’ might not hold up within a Germanic context, at least not in the same sense as prayer in other religious traditions, a sense of respect, formality, of formula, and tradition does.

For health, for protection, for battle-victory, and for support – these were all reasons to make these entreaties and use these inherently magical formulae, these were the reasons that made sense to the Germanic tribes. There was no asking for ‘our daily bread’, which would have rendered the asker little more than a beggar, and asking for forgiveness is replaced by the more judicial ‘pardon’ from crimes.

So where does that leave us as moderns? Do we still call it ‘prayer’? How often should we do it? And if we bear in mind that a prayer was believed to hold an inherent magic based in the words used, how would this affect the prayers we come up with?

Ultimately, it is up to each individual to decide how often they pray or…I dunno… speak runes? However one thing is clear to me; the formal and formulaic is not the sole domain of Christians, and when coming up with our prayers or ‘runes’, we should take as much care as possible, and never forget that we are addressing the Holy Powers.


The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel – Translation and Commentary by G.Ronald Murphy. S.J.
The Lacnunga
Solomon and Saturn
The Holy Bible NIV