A Mysterious Message, Inscribed on a Sword, Found in a River

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A few years ago, a very curious news story broke about an 8-year-old girl pulling a thousand-year-old sword out of a lake in Sweden.

Saga Vanecek — which sounds like the heroine of a YA novel series begging for a Netflix adaptation — discovered the sword while playing in the lake. The Jönköpings Läns Museum estimated that the sword is at least a thousand years old, and could be as old as 5th or 6th century.

No one is sure how it got there, but everyone agrees it’s an amazing find. (And many agree that Saga should now be queen. Hey, there are worse ways to choose a ruler.)

But there’s another story about a sword found in a body of water with an even stranger mystery attached: the River Witham sword.

river witham sword 1

There are actually two River Witham swords — it’s just the right river to go sword-hunting in, I suppose — but we’re talking about what’s known as the River Witham “knightly sword.”

It was discovered in the river in 1825 and turned over to the Royal Archaeological Institute. It is now in the hands of the British Library.

And for more than two centuries, the meaning of the inscription has remained a mystery.

Inlaid along one of the sword’s edges, spelled out in gold wire, curious eyes find the following chain of letters:

+NDXOXCHWDRGHDXORVI+

Is it an abbreviation? An encryption? Or simply patterning in the shape of letters? No solid answers emerged during decades of study.

Eventually, the British Library decided to crowdsource the puzzle in the hopes of finding a solution. In 2015, officials from the library officially reached out to the public to finally crack the code detailed along the blade.

All sorts of amateurs and professionals weighed in, exploring possibilities in Latin, Welsh, German, Irish, Sicilian, and others. They compared it to the medal of St. Benedict and other medieval engravings in search of patterns.

And the British Library shared one contributor’s thoughts as an addendum to their original post about the River Witham sword.

alphen blade

[The Alphen aan den Rijn sword-blade.]

Historian Marc van Hasselt compared the sword to others from the same time period, roughly around the year 1200, and believed it was safe to assume the language was Latin.

He compared the inscription from the River Witham sword — +NDXOXCHWDRGHDXORVI+ — with an inscription on a Dutch sword-blade found in Alphen aan den Rijn, the Netherlands. That blade was inscribed on both sides:

+BENEDOXOFTISSCSDRRISCDICECMTINIUSCSDNI+

+DIOXMTINIUSESDIOMTINIUSCSDICCCMTDICIIZISI+

He explains his thought process:

To elaborate, let’s compare the River Witham sword to the sword from Alphen: both start with some sort of invocation. On the River Witham sword, it is NDXOX, possibly standing for Nostrum Dominus (our Lord) or Nomine Domini (name of the Lord) followed by XOX.

On the sword from Alphen, the starting letters read BENEDOXO. Quite likely, this reads as Benedicat (A blessing), followed by OXO. Perhaps these letter combinations – XOX and OXO – refer to the Holy Trinity. On the sword from Alphen, one letter combination is then repeated three times: MTINIUSCS, which I interpret as Martinius Sanctus – Saint Martin. Perhaps a saint is being invoked on the River Witham sword as well?

Unfortunately, the British Library’s investigation seems to have stopped there after the intriguing contributions of van Hasselt.

But, thankfully, there is always SOMEONE on the Internet trying to solve a seemingly unsolvable mystery. I did a bit of sleuthing and found a post on medium.com, originally posted in February of 2017, with a very through breakdown of a potential solution to the River Witham sword!

river witham sword 2

[A closer look at the River Witham sword inscription.]

The author of the piece, Stieg Hedlund, started by focusing on the W in the inscription, since the classical Latin alphabet didn’t have a W. Surmising that the inscription was an initialism — which is common for Latin inscriptions — he started looking for an aristocratic name starting with W.

Why aristocratic? Well, not just anyone in the 1200s or 1300s could afford a sword with gold wire inscriptions.

He quickly settled on some variation of William for the W, and then narrowed his search to Willem II of Holland, a count, and the initialism CHW on the sword could mean Comes Hollandia Willelmus, his name and title in Latin.

william of holland

Following that line of thought and digging into the history of Willem II revealed that he ruled not only Germany, but the southern Belgian region of Hainault as well.

This gives him “Comes Hollandia Willelmus Dei gratia, Rex Germania et Hainault Dei nutu” to cover CHWDRGHD in the inscription.

When he turned his attention to the first five letters, he agreed with the supposition of Marc van Hasselt and others that it referenced “in Nomine Domini” and the XOX represented the Holy Trinity.

So that covers NDXOXCHWDRGHD, approximately two-thirds of the inscription. What about XORVI?

Well, Hedlund believes the solution lies in Laudes Regiæ, a Catholic hymn most famous for its opening words: Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat! (In English: Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ commands.)

Abbreviated versions of these words were often used by kings and royalty to solidify their position by tying themselves to the church. On a coin issued by Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI in 1384, you can read one rendition of the phrase: XPiσtoC VinCIT XPiσtoC RegnAT XPiσtoC InPERAT.

He believes XORVI is an abbreviated version, reading “XpiσtOσ Regnat! (xpiσtoσ) Vincit! (xpiσtoσ) Imperat!” where the capital letters form the inscribed message.

So, the completed message would read:

(in) Nomine Domini
Comes Hollandia Willelmus Dei (gratia), Rex Germania et Hainault Dei (nutu)
XpiσtOσ Regnat! (xpiσtoσ) Vincit! (xpiσtoσ) Imperat!

Or, in English:

In the Name of the Lord; of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost
Count of Holland Willem by the grace of God, King of Germany and Hainault by the will of God
Christ reigns! Christ conquers! Christ commands!

It’s a compelling case, and certainly the most complete interpretation and explanation I’ve been able to find.

Imagine. All of that in that brief, beautiful, confusing inscription. It’s fascinating, and makes the mind positively whirl with possibilities.

Oh, and if you find any centuries-old swords while you’re perusing the nearby waterways, let me know! We might have a new mystery to solve.


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Making Wordplay Magic with Word Squares!

[The Smyrna word square, uncovered as a bit of puzzly graffiti in 2016.]

Have you ever tried to make a word square, fellow puzzlers? It’s an intriguing twist on crossword-style construction, except the words you place read both across and down in the grid.

For instance, a five-letter word square could read:

WATER
AWARE
TALON
ERODE
RENEW

As you can see, 1-Across is also 1-Down, 2-Across is also 2-Down, and so on. (Appropriately enough, our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles have a puzzle involving this puzzly trope, and they call it “Across and Down”)

Word Squares have been around for centuries. One of the most famous is dated all the way back to 79 AD in Pompeii (though it has been found in other places throughout history), and is known as the Sator Square:

Not only is it a word square, but it’s a palindrome as well!

It’s a neat little linguistic challenge, and as you might expect, they become more difficult to construct the larger they get.

But physicist, computer programmer, and all-around word enthusiast Eric Tentarelli might’ve cracked the code to making word squares in heretofore impossible sizes…

Doing so in Latin.

In the introduction to his WordWays article “Large Word Squares in Latin,” Tentarelli explains:

Large word squares have been pursued in many languages, but large word squares in Latin appear to have remained unexplored, despite the form’s origins in ancient Rome and despite the benefits offered by Latin inflectional endings.

New word squares constructed in Latin are shown to surpass in size those created in other languages to date, most notably by attaining the holy grail of logology: the first known non-tautonymic ten-squares consisting entirely of solid, uncapitalized words in a single language.

So, what does he mean? Well, essentially, people have been able to pull off word squares of impressive size — 8×8, 9×9, and 10×10 — but not without using certain undesirable words and word variants.

Those variants would include hyphenated words, tautonyms (scientific names where the same words is used twice, like vulpes vulpes for “red fox”), and capitalized words, aka proper nouns. Also, some puzzlers have mixed languages in order to create these word squares, similar to crossword constructors getting themselves out of a tough corner by using a European river.

Ideally, you want a word square consisting of, as he says, solid uncapitalized words in a single language.

Like this:

tentarelli

Say hello to the first verified 11×11 word square in a single language.

“I produced these squares by selecting final rows that combined to produce common endings and therefore maximize the chance of completing the rest of the grid.”

By compiling lists from reliable, verifiable dictionary sources and building a database of potential words, Tentarelli gave himself a strong base to start with.

But by choosing Latin as the language of choice, he significantly increased his chances of success. Thanks to “its extensive and overwhelmingly regular system of inflectional endings,” Latin was an excellent choice for word squares, which are commonly constructed by placing the bottom words first and building upward from there.

From David Brooks’ article in The Concord Monitor about Tentarelli’s work:

English has some endings that finish up on many words, “-ING” being the most obvious example. but Latin has plenty more including some that extend to four and even five letters, which makes it easier to find word squares. “In Latin, if the words in the bottom rows combine to produce nothing but common inflectional endings, such as -NTUR or -ATIS, there is good reason to hope the remainder of the square may be filled,” he wrote.

tintorelli 2

[Four 10×10 word squares built from the same three final words.]

It’s honestly mind-blowing and so inspiring to see what puzzlers can achieve by combining their own linguistic insights with the processing power of computers.

Tentarelli has helped push an ancient style of puzzling to places it has never gone before, and he managed to do so in the original language. How cool is that?

And he’s not done. Apparently, he’s working on a 12×12 square now.

There’s no telling how much farther he could go in the future.


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The Future of Crosswords: Multilingual Grids?

[Image courtesy of Seton.]

Anyone familiar with crosswords these days knows that you need more than a thorough knowledge of English to be a topnotch solver these days.

Sure, English is still the basis for the vast majority of crosswords you’ll encounter — even if some weird, unexpected, and obscure words pop in from time to time — but you’ll need a grasp of other languages to complete most grids these days. (And I’m not just talking about European rivers or foreign currencies.)

After all, the Greek alphabet shows up in crosswords all the time. I can’t recall the last grid I completed that didn’t have ETA, IOTA, RHO, or PHI in it. And clues like “Fraternity letter” are rarely specific enough to help you fill the clue on your first try.

[Image courtesy of Greek Boston.]

You need to know your Latin to solve puzzles too. ET TU, AD HOC, DIES IRAE… plenty of words and phrases pilfered from Latin litter crossword grids.

The modern crossword will send you on a linguistic tour of the globe. From “Scottish Gaelic” for ERSE and “Indian nanny” for AMAH to “Kimono sash” for OBI and “German mister” for HERR, you could visit the languages of half a dozen countries in a single crossword.

But if you’re talking about other languages in crosswords, the top two are undoubtedly Spanish and French.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Spanish and French words are so common that Wordplay, the blog dedicated to The New York Times crossword, has entire articles dedicated to Spanish and French words you need to know.

For Spanish, they list entries like BESO for “kiss,” ESTA for “this,” and RIATA for “rope.” (Though they missed TIO/TIA for “uncle/aunt” in their rundown.)

On the French side of things, you get common crossword entries like AMI for “friend,” ROI for “king,” or SEL for “salt.”

(The crew at Crossword Unclued even wrote an article about how often French words are used in Cryptic-style cluing, for fans of that version of crosswording.)

[No, something a little tougher than that. Image courtesy of Mommy Maestra.]

All this multilingual puzzling made me wonder… has anyone tried to create a bilingual crossword? I’m talking about a crossword where a significant portion of the entries (if not half) are from a second language.

As it turns out, constructor Bryan Betancur recently accepted that challenge, creating “Bilingual Puzzle #1.” This puzzle not only features a fair number of Spanish words in the grid — not as filler but as significant entries (which I won’t mention, in case you want to solve it yourself!) — but many of the clues for Spanish AND English words are written in Spanish, ensuring a mental challenge beyond the usual crossword fare.

Yes, it was a confusing solve not to know whether the answer to a given clue would be English or Spanish, but that made it all the more satisfying when I was able to confidentally place words in the grid.

It’s the only crossword on the WordPress Blog “Bilingual Crossword,” but here’s hoping others join it soon.

In the cultural melting pot that is modern society, there’s not only opportunity for inclusivity, but there’s also opportunity for challenging, bilingual crossword grids to pique your interest (and make you wish you’d paid more attention in high school foreign language classes).


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These puzzles deliver!

Puzzles are all around us. They’re in our newspapers and on our phones, they’re lurking in math problems and board games and children’s toys.

But as it turns out, according to an article forwarded to me by puzzler and friend of the blog Cathy Quinn, they’re also on our stamps.

At least in Macau, that is.

Late last year, Macau Post released the latest stamps in their Science and Technology series. Previous editions have featured the Golden Ratio, Fractals, and Cosmology, but this time around, they selected a topic near and dear to the hearts of many puzzlers:

Magic squares.

For the uninitiated, a magic square is a grid where the numbers within add up to the same total in every row, column, and diagonal.

Our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles utilize patterns like this in their Anagram Magic Square puzzle, where a word to anagram accompanies each number in the diagram, eventually spelling out a bonus phrase or quotation.

But at its core, a magic square is about cleverly balancing every element until you reach a harmonious arrangement. It’s a curiously meditative sort of puzzle solving, and I can see how it would appeal to the meticulous nature of stamp collectors worldwide.

Here are the six stamps currently available through Macau Post.

There’s a classic 4×4 magic square grid in the upper left and an ancient Latin palindrome in the upper right, as well as part of a 4th-century Chinese palindromic poem in the lower left and a geometric puzzle in the lower right where the pieces in the inner squares can make all of the designs in the outer squares.

Not only that, but three additional stamps will be released this year, making a total of nine themed stamps, and wouldn’t you know it? The stamps themselves can be arranged to form a magic square when assembled, based on the values printed in the corner of each stamp.

Just another sign that puzzle magic is alive and thriving all across the world.

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