Ambigrams, Secret Symbols, & Human Nature

Originally published by Inkport

While researching the history of a word or a concept, very strange things can happen. One such effect is the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (scientifically known as frequency bias) — one of the cognitive biases of psychology. It states that once you look into something, you become more aware of its existence, and it seems to appear more frequently in your everyday life than it did before. Another effect is that your brain starts making connections to things present and past that seem to relate in some way to the thing you’ve just researched. Other times, it seems that the thing you’re looking into has no recorded history at all — and you’re left to search the deep pockets of Reddit and chat forums for answers.

I’ve been recently enamoured with ambigrams. They’re a typographic art form (one you’ve likely seen before) with a fuzzy history. Douglas R. Hofstadter, an American professor of cognitive sciences, coined the term and defined an ambigram as a “calligraphic design that manages to squeeze two different readings into the selfsame set of curves.” You might be familiar with the ambigrams from Dan Brown’s novel Angels and Demons.

What you probably know is that the novel is the first in a series documenting the fictional adventures of Robert Langdon, a professor of Symbology at Harvard University. What you might not know is that Langdon’s character is actually named after John Langdon, the ambigram artist behind the art on the novel’s cover.

John Langdon is one of a small handful of artists who create ambigrams. He started creating ambigrams in the 1970s, and later on caught the attention of young novelist Dan Brown. Langdon’s work was featured in the novel as well as in the film adaptation of Angels and Demons. For both, Langdon drew fictitious ancient ambigrams for a secret society: The Illuminati.

During my research, I discovered that John Langdon wasn’t the first to create these typographic art forms, though their history is not entirely clear. He believed himself to be the first, but there was another — Scott Kim, who was also creating ambigrams in the 1970s. Ambigrams are also known colloquially as “inversions,” which was the title of Kim’s 1981 book on the form. Langdon published Wordplay, another leading book in the field, about a decade later in 1992.

So what was the origin of the ambigram? Surely they had a deeper and more sinister history than the 1970s. I wanted to find ancient Illuminati documents which contained these interesting

symbols. What I found instead was a children’s book.

In 1893, artist Peter Newell (famous for his illustrations for Mark Twain and Lewis Carroll’s writings), published two books filled with illustrations that could be viewed in one of two ways — right-side-up or upside-down. The first book ended with an illustration that read “The End” or “Puzzle” depending on which vantage point you used.

If 1893 was the first recorded use of this concept, then where did Newell find it? There must be history to uncover, I thought. I reached out to John Langdon and asked him that very question. “The word “ambigram” was coined to refer to words that can be read from more than one point of view” he says, “other graphics that look the same from diverse vantage points, I would call ambi-graphics. With that distinction in mind, I am unaware of any intentionally created ambigrams that pre-date Peter Newell’s. But people surely noted and commented on the symmetries of WOW and MOM and NOON and other “natural” ambigrams. If ambigrams were to be discovered someday in the remains of ancient civilizations, I would not be even a little bit surprised.”

Why, then, do ambigrams seem so appealing? They seem to have an ancient aura, like something out of Confucious’ ancient, puzzling code book. Langdon pointed out to me that “symmetry is inherently pleasing to the human eye.” He says, “we see evidence of this in the decorative arts extending back through millennia of human history. One of the basic tenets of good design is the principle of “repetition with variation.” Known as “variations on a theme” in the music world, that principle is fundamental to all the arts. Symmetry is an excellent example of “repetition with variation.” This is something we are generally taught in art class from a young age — that symmetry is good, symmetrical faces are more attractive.

Langdon went on to point out something even more intriguing. “It seems that humans are curious about what something looks like upside-down. We often see babies bend over and delight in seeing the world inverted. Could that instinct be related to the fact that our eyes cast an inverted image on our retinas that our brains must re-invert to understand?”

I was curious. I executed a simple search in Google: “upside-down.”

The term itself comes from Middle English in the 15th century — up so doun. As we know it today, it is defined simply as: “in such a way that the upper and the lower parts are reversed in position.” However, its Middle English meaning is a little more interesting. The term has been recorded with a variety of spellings (upsodounne, upsadoun, upsedoun, etc.) and in a variety of forms. There is even a recording of upside down used as a noun: upswadoune. In the 15th century, upside-down was not just used as a description, it was a thing (any Stranger Things fans with me here?).

The idea of upside-down is one that has been explored heavily throughout history. In particular, it is explored in the Christian conceptualizations of heaven and hell. Why is heaven up and hell down? Heaven as a construct stands for all that is good, sacred, and pure. Hell, then must be the opposite. The image of hell as a fiery world beneath the Earth has existed even since the ancient Greek depictions of Hades. In the Bible, Isaiah 29: 15–17 says,

Woe to those who go to great depths
 to hide their plans from the Lord,
who do their work in darkness and think,
 “Who sees us? Who will know?”
You turn things upside down,
 as if the potter were thought to be like the clay!
Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it,
 “You did not make me”?
Can the pot say to the potter,
 “You know nothing”?

The concept of upside-down is even referenced in Plato’s Gorgias, written in 380 BC :

“For if you are in earnest, and what you say is true, is not the whole of human life turned upside down; and are we not doing, as would appear, in everything the opposite of what we ought to be doing?”

Where does the human fascination with turning the world upside down come from? Partially, it is the human tendency to place things on a binary scale. Night and day, heaven and hell, man and woman. Does this look familiar?

That’s right — the yin and yang symbol is one of the most iconic visualisations of duality. In Chinese philosophy, it represents the way in which opposing forces often fit together and complement one another to create balance and harmony. You might be surprised then, to find out that the earliest documented use of this symbol doesn’t actually come from China — it’s found in Rome.

Do you see what I see? That’s a modified yin and yang on row four. This is a page out of the Notitia Dignitatum — a unique document from the late Roman Empire depicting Roman shield patterns. Where did I find it? The internet, of course. But how did this European symbol come to represent the Chinese philosophical concept of yin and yang? I have no idea, but it is interesting that our modern representation of yin and yang might not be a Chinese symbol at all.

Interestingly enough, I did all this research before receiving this info from Langdon:

“On a more macro scale, virtually every process in the universe exemplifies the yin/yang principle — life/death, darkness/light, ebb/flow, etc. I believe that our aesthetic standards — our ideas of what is beautiful — are programmed into our DNA, arising out of the laws of the physical universe. When we see something from one point of view, there is an almost automatic tendency to expect to witness the opposite. ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.’

This journey is fascinating. Everything seems to be connected — and at this point I am shocked that Langdon’s words led me in the same direction as clicks around the internet. At least I know I’ve headed in the right direction.

You probably won’t be surprised to find out that Dan Brown isn’t the only one engaging with depictions of all things upside-down. Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland is one of the most notable works harnessing the power of the upside-down — portraying it as a way to enter new worlds and realms. Similarly, The Wizard of Oz also plays on this idea. Upside Down (also known as USD) was even the vernacular title of Harry Houdini’s famous Chinese Water Torture Cell escape. And most recently we have The Upside Down of Stranger Things — an alternate dimension identified and named by a group of young kids in 1980s Indiana.

So what is with the human fascination with this concept? In his 2008 conspiracy-ridden book The Secret History of the World, Mark Booth discusses myths associated with the ancient “mystery schools” — the original secret societies. “In mystery schools candidates wishing to join were made to fall down a well, undergo trial by water, squeeze through a very small door and hold logic-chopping discussions with anthropomorphic animals,” he says, alluding to stories such as Alice In Wonderland, as well as the works by the Brothers Grimm and C.S. Lewis. He theorizes that supreme knowledge and enlightenment are what drive us to wonder about the world in new ways — perhaps “upside down.” In the ancient schools, where altered states of consciousness were the key to higher learning, viewing things from a new perspective was the secret to wisdom.

The idea of the upside-down isn’t complicated, but it is fraught with historical and mystical context that paints a very interesting picture of human nature and our curiosity and desire to explain the world around us. Why is it that I find ambigrams so fascinating? Maybe it’s in my very nature to wonder about the upside-down, to wonder about what would happen if the world was flipped on its head.

“Rise up,” the Master said, “upon thy feet;
The way is long, and difficult the road,
And now the sun to middle-tierce returns.”
It was not any palace corridor
There where we were, but dungeon natural,
With floor uneven and unease of light.
“Ere from the abyss I tear myself away,
My Master,” said I when I had arisen,
“To draw me from an error speak a little;
Where is the ice? and how is this one fixed
Thus upside down? and how in such short time
From eve to morn has the sun made his transit?”
And he to me: “Thou still imaginest
Thou art beyond the centre, where I grasped
The hair of the fell worm, who mines the world.
That side thou wast, so long as I descended;
When round I turned me, thou didst pass the point
To which things heavy draw from every side,
And now beneath the hemisphere art come
Opposite that which overhangs the vast
Dry-land, and ‘neath whose cope was put to death
The Man who without sin was born and lived.
Thou hast thy feet upon the little sphere
Which makes the other face of the Judecca.
Here it is morn when it is evening there;
And he who with his hair a stairway made us
Still fixed remaineth as he was before.
Upon this side he fell down out of heaven;
And all the land, that whilom here emerged,
For fear of him made of the sea a veil,
And came to our hemisphere; and peradventure
To flee from him, what on this side appears
Left the place vacant here, and back recoiled.”
A place there is below, from Beelzebub
As far receding as the tomb extends,
Which not by sight is known, but by the sound
Of a small rivulet, that there descendeth
Through chasm within the stone, which it has gnawed
With course that winds about and slightly falls.
The Guide and I into that hidden road
Now entered, to return to the bright world;
And without care of having any rest
We mounted up, he first and I the second,
Till I beheld through a round aperture
Some of the beauteous things that Heaven doth bear;
Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars.

Inferno by Dante Alighieri — Canto XXXIV