The Magic Square of Bonaguil

Perched on the top of a hill between the valleys of Théze and Lémance rivers Bonaguil Castle is the commanding outcome of one man’s boastfulness: Bérenger de Roquefeuille (1448- 1530), “nobleman powerful and magnificent lord” as he called himself, Baron of Bonaguil.
Berenger de Roquefeuille dedicated 30 years of his life to the rebuilding a former 13th century stronghold that he transformed into the formidable fortress, impregnable by a medieval army. The magnificent fort, which can still be admired today (but with the changes added in the 18th century by another of its famous owners, Marguerite de Fumel) did, irony of the fate, never go through any assault.
The Bérenger de Roquefeuille character remains in the history as that of a headstrong, ruthless aristocrat not only because he erected Bonaguil ignoring the ban imposed by King Charles VII on building private fortifications, or because he did not mind sending archers in his town of Castelnau-Montratier in order to impose some taxes but also because he was apparently an unkind father (he had 12 children by his wife Anne Guerin du Tournel) who did not allow – according to the legend – his daughter Marguerite to get married to her sweetheart and preferred making her disappear.
The legend – called “The White Lady of Bonaguil” or “La dame blanche de Bonaguil” in French – goes that each evening of the month of November there are sightings of a woman, all dressed in white, crying while walking through the castle (our guide said that he never saw anything nor he has heard cries during the long November evenings!)
By far less known then the “Dame Blanche” legend but actually existent, the “magic square” also known as “ROTAS” or “SATOR” square, can be seen among the other graffiti discovered in 1973, by chance, by two archeologist Gilles Séraphin and Daniel Frugier, next to the window of the 4th level in the Grand Tower of the castle.
All the graffiti date from the end of the 16th century and the 17th century and are – with 2 exceptions: a heraldic lion and a person’s name that are written …in blood – engraved in the lime applied in the 15th century by the then castle lord and builder Berenger de Roquefeuil.
These wall writings that are not only numerous on the two walls on each side of the window but form a strange crowd, many overlapping or interlacing with the others. The historians agree that they represent a splendid testimony of the life in the castle during more then one century.
Among all these wall inscriptions the “magic square” surely stands out.
The ROTAS quadrangle is concept known since the first century Christian era.
In 1927 its representation was discovered in ruins of Pompeii, which was buried in the ash of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. It is present also in other different sites like Mont Saint Michel and Saint Michel de l’Aiguile chapel in France, Cirencester in England and Dura-Europos in Syria.
The square consists of 5 rows of Latin words:
SATOR
AREPO
TENET
OPERA
ROTAS
and can be read top-bottom, bottom-top, left-right, right-left exactly the same.
The words can be literally translated: “The farmer Arepo works a plough”.
The AREPO word not being a known Latin word it was given many significations: like the name – as it was in the Eastern Roman Empire – of the one of the sheppards in the nativity story or the name of one of the 3 Magi (again according to a Byzantine Bible).
The square was attributed throughout the centuries many interpretations.
Sometimes the rectangle whose words contain the same letters as the words PATER NOSTER is considered a cryptic sign by which the first Christians – who were facing persecutions – were recognizing each other.
Others attributed the square magical evil protection powers or believed it was used in invocations by the alchemists during the metal transmutation.

For more information and pictures of Bonaguil click here

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