Palindromes and Magic Words

[Palindrome, written as an ambigram.]

Regular readers of PuzzleNation Blog know that I am a history buff. I love delving into the past and exploring the myriad ways that language and puzzles have evolved over the centuries. Whenever puzzles tie into a moment in history, whether it’s wartime cryptography or rumors of crossword espionage, I’m immediately hooked.

And it turns out that palindromes have been around far longer than I previously suspected.

Palindromes, as you probably know, are words, phrases, or sentences that can be read the same way backwards and forwards. From “race car” to “Madam, I’m Adam” to “Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog,” palindromes are a classic example of wordplay.

One of the most famous palindromes 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:

SATOR
AREPO
TENET
OPERA
ROTAS

Not only is this a working palindrome, but its use of five-letter words makes it a word square as well, since it can be read left-to-right in rows and top-to-bottom in columns, as well as in reverse in both directions.

Another ancient palindrome has been uncovered recently on the island of Cyprus, and the amulet on which it appears dates back nearly 1500 years!

The amulet has multiple pieces of religious iconography on one side, including references to Egyptian and Greek mythology.

On the other side, there is a palindrome written in Greek:

According to LiveScience.com, it roughly translates to “Iahweh is the bearer of the secret name, the lion of Re secure in his shrine.”

It’s believed that the amulet was meant to protect the wearer from danger, illness, or harm. And the palindromic nature of the inscription was key to the amulet’s supernatural potential.

Although word games and wordplay have seemingly always been popular in one form or another throughout the ages, it’s worth mentioning the power many assigned to words.

These weren’t simply displays of linguistic trickery or deftness, these were incantations or wards.

These were magic words.

In Jewish mysticism, words were said to give life to the Golem. The word “abracadabra” was originally used to ward off malaria. Invoking the name of a god and utilizing these carefully chosen words to do so combined some potent magical elements.

And once again, a puzzly moment in history offers an opportunity for greater understanding. Aren’t puzzles great?

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“Do nine men interpret?” “Nine men,” I nod.

I’ve written about Bletchley Park and the efforts to crack the German ENIGMA code several times now, both from a historical standpoint and a cinematic one with the recent release and Oscar success of The Imitation Game.

Bletchley Park was the home of world-class codebreakers, chess players, and crossword solvers, but as it turns out, there was one more type of puzzle that the Bletchley Park crew mastered: palindromes.

In their spare time, they had competitions to create new sentences that could be read both backward and forward — like the title of today’s post, one of my all-time favorites — and mathematician Peter Hilton was far and ahead the most gifted when it came to crafting these palindromes. (His penchant for the puzzle was even mentioned in his obituary in the British online magazine The Independent.)

Perhaps you’ve seen his most famous creation, one of the world’s longest palindromes, composed during one sleepless night at Bletchley Park:

Doc note: I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.

From an article on Vocabulary.com:

Incredibly, the young codebreaker did not use paper or pencil while composing his epic palindrome. He simply lay on his bed, eyes closed, and assembled it in his mind over one long night. It took him five hours.

It all started, apparently, with a contest to best a well-known palindrome: Step on no pets.

Two days later, Hilton responded with the cheeky “Sex at noon taxes.”

And they were off to the races, competing to create longer and more elaborate palindromes. It’s not known how many of the Bletchley Park alums were involved — whether Alan Turing played remains a big question mark — but it’s been said that the competition, instigated by mathematician John Henry Whitehead (nephew of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead), helped spawn the golden age of palindromes.

Some estimate that more palindromes were written in the ten years after Bletchley Park’s competition started than were published across the world in the more than three hundred years that preceded them.

That’s one heck of a legacy.

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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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