Why Nolan’s Next Movie Is Titled “Tenet” — and It’s Not Just Because It’s a Palindrome

Tenet. It’s the title of Christopher Nolan’s upcoming blockbuster involving time travel and international espionage. On first hand you may think that the title was merely chosen for being a palindrome (a word that can be read from both left and right), but the actual origin goes back to an ancient Latin word sequence.

“Tenet” is the middle word of the “Sator Square” (also called the “Rotas Square”), a sequence of five, five-letter Latin words all creating a palindrome sentence. It was first found on stone squares in the remains of Pompeii and later discovered in other places around Europe and the Middle East. It goes as follows:

“SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS”

The exact translation has been up for debate, but the known words broadly mean the following:

“Sator”: founder, seeder, planter (noun)
“Arepo”: not known, possibly a name
“Tenet”: to comprehend, to posses, to master (verb)
“Opera”: work, labor, effort (noun)
“Rotas”: (someone) rotates (something), turns something (accusative verb)

One possible translation suggests the sequence refers to a farmer named Arepo rotating his plough.

A Sator Square block on an 8th century wall in Italy.

Just a coincidence? Three exhibits suggest otherwise.

First, the prologue and expected opening sequence for “Tenet” attached to some IMAX screenings of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” begins and is set inside an opera house, likely referring to the fourth word in the sequence.

Second, the word “Tenet” rotates around the screen in both the movie’s first trailer and poster, likely referring to “rotas”.

The third and perhaps most obvious exhibit is that the film’s production manager handed out custom replicas of the Sator Square in the form of a cube puzzle as gifts to crew members.

Adam Chambers, a “Tenet” crew member, posts about his gift on instagram.

So that’s where the title comes from. Why Nolan chose it or how “Arepo” or “Sator” connect may only be discovered when the film releases this July.

But so far it’s clear that Nolan took some inspiration from this ancient palindrome sentence for his time-related spy thriller.

Image credit: Melinda Sue Gordon / ©2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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