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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Riddle me this!

The spirit of puzzle-solving has always been with us — every problem is a puzzle of some sort, after all — so it’s surprising to realize how relatively brief the history of paper puzzles is in the long run.

I mean, the Sudoku puzzle as we know it first appeared in print in Dell Magazines in 1979, a little over thirty years ago! (Yes, some puzzles with similar attributes appeared in French publications nearly a century before, but the Sudoku as we know it is a modern creation.)

This year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the crossword puzzle. One hundred years! Amazing when you think about it, but also just a drop in the bucket when compared with the span of human history.

So, if the two most famous puzzles are both fairly recent developments, what sort of puzzles kept humans occupied for centuries and centuries before that?

Riddles.

Yes, plenty of wordplay and mathematical games predate the modern puzzles we know and love, like the famous ancient word square found in the ruins of Pompeii that features a Latin palindrome.

But I suspect that riddles were, in fact, our first experiments with puzzles and puzzly thinking.

They appeal to our love of story and adventure, of heroes with wits as sharp as their swords. Riddles are the domain of gatekeepers and tricksters, monsters and trap rooms from the best Dungeons & Dragons quests.

The Riddle of the Sphinx — in its most famous version: “What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?” — has origins as far back as the story of Oedipus and the tales of Sophocles and Hesiod, more than 2000 years ago.

And variations of logic puzzles and riddles have been with us at least as long. Consider the famous “a cabbage, goat, and wolf” river crossing, or the Man with Seven Wives on the road to St. Ives.

Nearly one hundred and fifty years ago, Lewis Carroll unleashed a doozy of a riddle in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, one we discussed in detail in a recent blog post.

In more recent times, one of Batman’s most capable and dogged adversaries has employed riddles to confound and challenge the Caped Crusader.

His debut episode of Batman: The Animated Series features a corker of a riddle: “I have millions of eyes, yet I live in darkness. I have millions of ears, yet only four lobes. I have no muscles, yet I rule two hemispheres. What am I?”

While we’ll probably never be able to trace the history of riddles as definitively as that of crosswords and sudoku, it’s fascinating to consider just how long puzzles in one form or another have been with us.

And so, in the spirit of puzzling, here are a few riddles for the road. Enjoy.

A man lay dead on the floor, fifty-three bicycles on his back. What happened?

Bob walked into a bar and asked for a glass of water. The bartender pulled out a gun and pointed it at Bob’s face. A few seconds later, Bob said, “Thank you” and walked out. What happened?

Rhonda lay facedown in the middle of the desert. On her back was something that could have saved her life. What is it?

Frank did not want to go home because of what the masked man held in his hand. What is the masked man holding?

Joe was dead. Across his back was an iron bar. In front of him was some food. What happened?

[Answers will be posted on Friday!]

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