The Mystical City of Adocentyn
How a medieval editing choice created an occult legend about a city that never was.
Note: Over the summer, I will be highlighting on Substack some of my overlooked and less-read cultural and historical essays and blog posts that deserve a second chance. The essay below first ran on my blog in 2016 in a slightly different form.
As part of the research that eventually became my 2021 book Legends of the Pyramids, I investigated the story of the 85 statues that Hermes Trismegistus allegedly built at the Mountains of the Moon in order to regulate the flow of the Nile. In reading a book about the history of Hermes Trismegistus, I found that the author made reference to this story, but seemed to know it only from its appearance in the Picatrix, a Latin translation of an eleventh century Arabic text called Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm. The book has an odd history, having been written sometime in the 1000s before being translated into a now-lost Spanish text by order of Alfonso X around 1256-1258, and then from Spanish to Latin sometime thereafter. As a result of its retranslation, the book acquired some odd readings, but what is more interesting is that, like its near-contemporary, the Akhbar al-zaman, it is not an original work so much as a composite of older material.
The author, who writes that he took the following account from “the ancient wise men and their books” give his story of Hermes and the statues in the following abbreviated way in Book 4, chapter 3, followed by a description of a fabulous city. The translation is mine, from the Latin edition:
The third chapter, in which we tell of what the Chaldeans held as the profundities and secrets of this science, and what they had to say about it.
As a matter of fact, the magi who admitted themselves into this science and these workings were Chaldeans; and moreover, they are held to have been entirely perfect in this science. Indeed, they assert that Hermes first built a certain house of images, from which he was able to ascertain the magnitude of the Nile from up against the Mountain of the Moon; but he made this house for the Sun. And he used to hide himself there away from humanity in such a manner that no one there with him was able to see him. Indeed, this was the man who built, in the east of Egypt, a city which was twelve miles in length, within which he constructed a particular fortification, which in its four parts had four gates. In the eastern gate he placed the form of an eagle, in the western gate the form of a bull, in the southern gate the form of a lion, and in the northern gate he built the form of a dog. Into these he caused certain spiritual energies to enter, and from these their voices would speak; neither could anyone enter through these gates except by their command. And in this place he planted trees, in the middle of which he set up a great tree which bore fruits of every type. At the summit of this fortress he had a certain tower built, which attained the height of thirty cubits, on whose summit he ordained a round apple, whose color changed every day over a period of seven days. At the end of the seven days, it returned to the color it first had. Every day, this apple covered the entire city in the color, and thus the city was resplendent each day with that day’s color. Around this tower was a circle, in which there was an abundance of water, in which many kinds of fish lived. In a circle around the city, he appointed diverse images which changed, and through which the inhabitants of the city were made virtuous and cleansed of their infamy, wickedness, and sloth. This city was called Adocentyn. Its people were learned in the ancient sciences, their profundities and secrets, and the science of astronomy.
The author uses two words to describe the object atop the tower: pomum and malum, both of which mean apple, though perhaps a more figurative meaning was intended. I am not familiar enough with medieval Latin to know, but I could not find reference to a figurative use. We will discuss this more later.
Hashem Atallah provided an English translation from an unspecified Arabic version in 2002, but the text that he used differs markedly from the Latin, adding a great deal of material after the above passage, but leaving out material, such as the fish and the cleansing of sin, that appear in other Arabic texts (and thus wasn’t made up by the European translators), suggesting that the Latin edition derives from a separate recension from whatever Arabic text Atallah used.
It is rather fascinating to contrast this version with the one that I translated from the Akhbar al-zaman, which seems to preserve a better reading of the story:
Shāon of Ashmun
They say he was the first Hermes, the one who built the palace of statues, which measured the volume of water of the Nile and is located in the Mountains of the Moon. He also built a temple to the Sun. On this subject, the Copts relate many extraordinary traditions, which boggle the mind. He became invisible to men, being in the midst of them. He built al-Ashmun. This city is said to have located to the east of Egypt and had a length of twelve miles; it was topped by a fortress, in which the priest built a vast palace; there he raised columns and circles. At the foot of the mountain, he founded another town called Outiratis where he placed many wonders. It had four gates, one on each side. He placed on the east gate the image of an eagle; on the west gate, the image of a vulture; on the north, he put the image of a lion, and on the south, the image of a dog. He made the spirits the guardians of this city; they warned the governors whenever a stranger approached, so that no one could enter without having received permission. He planted a tree that bore all kinds of fruit, and he built a lighthouse whose height was eighty cubits; at the top he put a dome that changed color every day; it assumed seven colors over the seven days of the week, and then it returned to its first color. The inhabitants took on the color that the dome assumed. Around the lighthouse, the king dug a pond where many fish lived, and he fixed around the city all kinds of talismans, to prevent dangers. They also called this city the city of barsak, after the name of the tree that was planted there. [Manuscript variant: It was called the city of ’Elyūs, that is to say the dawn; and the dome of the dawn rose on an assembly in front of this city.]
Incidentally, all the material that Atallah’s Arabic translation adds after this account appears in the Akhbar al-zaman in the various sections on King Al-Walid. All of these versions are drawing on the same corpus of traditional material, which must derive from a now-lost older book from before 1000 CE.
Murtada ibn al-‘Afif gives the same story two hundred years later in identical words, with some additions that seem to be later interpolations. John Davies translated it into English from the French translation:
As for Savan the Asmounian, who they say was the ancient Hermes; he it was that built the House of the Statues, by which the measures of the Nile are know, and built to the Sun a Temple in the Province named Basta; and also ordered the building of Asmounia; and in the like manner that of the City of Basre in Egypt, which was twelve miles in length, above which he caused a Castle to be made. He also built Danae, where he established the Schools and the Recreations. ’Tis also said that he built the Pyramids of Behansa, where the women were in favour of his Daughter, and that he there erected Pillars, on which he raised a Tower of fine Glass, which might be seen from the City of Gainosamse. He also built on the descent of the Eastern Mountain in Egypt a City which he named Outiratis, that is in the Coptick Language, The King’s Favourite, and put into it abundance of miraculous things. Among others he ordered four Pyramids to be made on the four sides of each Gate, and caused to be set on the Eastern Gate a Tower in the form of a Turret or Steeple, on which there was the Figure of a Black Eagle; and on the Western Gate another Tower like the former, with the Figure of a Bull; on the Maritime Gate the like Tower, with the Figure of a Lyon; and on the outer or Southern Gate another such Tower, with the Figure of a Dog. He sent into these Figures Spirits that spoke; so that when any Stranger came into that City, at what Gate soever he entred, the Figure upon it made a noise, and the Inhabitants knew thereby that a stranger was come into their City, and immediately they seiz’d on him whereever he were. He planted there also a Tree which shaded the whole City, and bore all sorts of Fruits. He also raised in the midst of the City a high Watch-tower, the heighth whereof was fourscore Cubits, according to the measure of that time; and on the top of it a little Turret, which every day assum’d a different colour till the seventh day, after which it re-assumed its first colour, wherewith it filled the whole City. About this Watch-tower he disposed a great quantity of Water, wherein there was bred abundance of Fish. All about the City he set Talismans, which diverted all inconveniencies from the Inhabitants; and he called it the City of the Jovians, that is, Enchanters. There was in it for him a great Tower for the exercise of the Sciences of Magick, wherein he caused Assemblies to be made. It was seated on a mountain opposite to the City. God smote the Inhabitants of it with the Pestilence, so that they all died, and so ruin’d it, that there is not any track of it to be seen.
Murtada’s version adds a bit about the destruction of the city, but this seems to be a bit of piousness added to give Islamic cover to a story that otherwise would seem to celebrate pagan magic. Murtada tends to be a bit more moralistically Islamic in his storytelling than the earlier Akhbar writer and the Picatrix writer.
It seems pretty clear that the European translators of the Picatrix didn’t quite understand the material. The 2011 translators of the Picatrix, working from the Latin rather than the Arabic, replaced “apple” with “sphere,” while the French translator of the Akhbar al-zaman, from which I translated, gives the same object as a “dome.” Murtada (or the French translator of him—his Arabic doesn’t survive) simply omitted the object altogether. I think it’s pretty clear that it wasn’t an apple. Atallah’s translation of the Arabic version confirms the reading of “lighthouse” and “dome,” as in the Akhbar. I will confess to being a bit baffled how the Latin translator ended up calling the city Adocentyn, when the English translators inform me that the Arabic renders the name al-Asmunain (also transliterated as al-Ashmunain), which seems to be the same as the Akhbar’s Ashmun.
But here is where it gets weird: Modern occultists took their knowledge of the story from the Picatrix and thus have declared Adocentyn a key to mystical knowledge! We find references to it throughout so-called magickal literature. There is even a whole (if tiny) order, the Ordo Astrum Sophiae, founded in Minneapolis by a Gnostic priest and which is based on this story! “In sum, the legend of Adocentyn embodies the purpose of this House of the Ordo Astrum Sophiae: to raise up its initiates into the Light of the Glorious Star of Regeneration through the Hermetic Gnosis of the House of Sacrifice.” While I didn’t quote from it because I don’t like the way the authors rendered the Latin, the 2011 English translation of the Picatrix by the astrologers and magicians John Michael Greer and Christopher Warnock, incidentally, was published by an outfit (apparently their own imprint) calling itself Adocentyn Press.
Imagine what these occultists would think if they knew that in the Akhbar al-zaman there are dozens upon dozens of similar magical city stories. The order, though, uses the legend of Adocentyn for a good reason: Because of the influence of the Picatrix, Adocentyn cast a long shadow over Renaissance humanism, inspiring utopian literature. It has been suggested that it was an inspiration for The City of the Sun, the allegorical philosophical work of Tommaso Campanella, which similarly featured a quartered city and seven mystical lights. Even the name “City of the Sun” recalls Hermes’ temple of the Sun. Some have gone so far as to credit the city with inspiring all of the Western utopian tradition, all from a brief sentence about talismans that negate sin.
Such things came about entirely because the author of the Picatrix took one magic city at random from the body of fantastical literature about Egypt, from which the author of the Akhbar al-zaman, working from the same source texts, was much less discriminating.
Of course, fringe literature picked up on this with little understanding of the source texts or that the story exists outside the Picatrix. Robert Bauval, writing in The Secret Chamber Revisited (2014) and The Secret Chamber (1999), claimed that the twelve miles of the sacred city are “none other than the vast twelve miles or so of desert near Cairo in which are found the great pyramid fields of the Memphite necropolis.” This is almost certainly false, given that the Akhbar al-zaman speaks of the pyramids only a few lines later in the same chapter. Similarly, in The Master Game (2011), Bauval and Graham Hancock claim that Adocentyn is not just another city but part of a “sacred land fashioned in the image of the cosmos,” and evidence of a cult of Freemason / Nephilim / magicians, as though the medieval legend (possibly based on Hermetic magic and astrology) were proof of the real history of ancient Egypt. The authors, in their books, take the note that the Arabic name of Adocentyn was al-Asmunain as evidence that the city is identical with El-Ashmunein, ancient Hermopolis, a cult center of Thoth, who was identified with Hermes. It is possible that the names are related, but given how many variants of “Ashmun” appear in Arabic myths of Egypt (because, among other reasons, Hermes / Thoth was called the Lord of Eshmun in Antiquity), I wouldn’t put any great weight on this specific city. Ashmunein appears in al-Maqrizi as the site where Surid built stone water basins so large that they could not be traversed in a day. It doesn’t seem to be the same place, or at least the legendary city is a fantastical version of it. Anyway, the Akhbar al-zaman, which is generally more reliable, says that the city was Outiratis, which Murtada confirms, indicating that the Picatrix story has conflated the two parts of the preexisting legend, that of Ashmun(ain) and Outiratis, into Ashmunain.
Hancock and Bauval know the text only from the translation offered by Dame Frances Yates in her classic book on Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), and therefore are unaware that Yates’s translation is not correct. She, for example, translates the Mountain of the Moon (Montem Lune) as “motion of the moon,” which isn’t supportable when comparing to other version of the text. Other variations occur. According to her notes, she seems to be working from the German translation of the text, presumably because the Latin had not yet been edited and published when she wrote. According to her own book, she also, apparently through her ignorance of the Arabic literature, believed the passage to be the work of the Picatrix’s author, and saw it as unique in Hermetic literature, praising its celestial wisdom. To repeat: There were dozens of similar stories back then, and this one is important only because it managed to get noticed by European occultists and humanists.
The lesson, should there be one, is that one shouldn’t base a whole system, be it utopianism, ritual magic, fringe history, etc., on a translation of a translation without checking the other primary sources first.
I noticed the singular line "And he used to hide himself there away from humanity in such a manner that no one there with him was able to see him."
It reminded me of 'Zalmoxis, the Vanishing God' by Mircea Eliade.