We Found Some Ancient Puzzly Graffiti!

[Image courtesy of Patheos.com.]

The other day, I was perusing Crossword Kathy’s daily news post, and I stumbled across an article with this provocative title: “Ancient crossword puzzle found in Smyrna

Naturally, I clicked, being something of a puzzle historian. (I also looked up “Smyrna” because I wasn’t sure precisely where that is. Turns out it was an ancient Greek city, now known as Izmir, a city in Turkey.)

This puzzle was found on the wall of an old basilica in the marketplace (or agora, for the crossword fans in the audience), and dates back to somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 years old.

[Image courtesy of Patheos.com.]

According to the person in charge of the excavations, Akin Ersoy:

It looks like an acrostic. The same words are defined both top to bottom and left to right in five columns. The word ‘logos’ in the center is said to have been used by a Christian group to communicate with each other during times of oppression. We want to consider this as a puzzle because there are benches in front of these wall paintings. The lives of those who were working here are depicted in these paintings.

Unfortunately, calling this a crossword is a bit of a misnomer. The puzzle is a 5×5 grid where the entries read both across and down. This isn’t a crossword, it’s a word square.

[Pictured above is perhaps the most famous word square in history,
known as the Sator Square. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

The Smyrna word square consists of five words, and some researchers believe there’s a Christian message or some religious intent behind the square.

[The full text of the Smyrna square.
Image courtesy of Cryptotheology.wordpress.com.]

The middle word, Logos, for instance, is shaped in a cross, and is believed to represent the incarnation and work of Christ.

But whether this is a religious message or simply some impressive puzzling that has stood the test of time, it’s fascinating to turn up more examples that puzzles in some shape or form have been with us not only for centuries, but for millennia.


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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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