The Necronomicon is the name of a fictional book created by H. P. Lovecraft and is often featured in Cthulhu Mythos stories inspired by his works. Some people, however, believe in the existence of an actual ancient text called the Necronomicon which may or may not fit the description given in Lovecraft's writings. Indeed, so convincing were Lovecraft's references to the tome that book dealers were seeking copies of it even during his lifetime.
Lovecraft referenced fictional works in his horror fiction, a practice used by earlier writers (such as Edgar Allan Poe) and common among subsequent fantasy authors (such as Jorge Luis Borges and William Goldman). The Necronomicon was first mentioned in Lovecraft's 1924 short story "The Hound", though hints of it (or similar books) appear as far back as "The Statement of Randolph Carter" (1919). In the stories, the book is dangerous because it is often harmful to the health and sanity of its readers. For this reason, libraries keep it under lock and key.
Capitalizing on the notoriety of the fictional tome, real-life publishers have printed many books entitled Necronomicon since Lovecraft's death.
How Lovecraft conceived the name "Necronomicon" is not clear—Lovecraft himself claimed that the title came to him in a dream. Perhaps he was influenced by Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" and by an unfinished first century astronomical poem by Roman poet Marcus Manilius titled the Poeticon astronomicon. Although some have suggested that Lovecraft was influenced primarily by Robert W. Chambers' collection of short stories The King in Yellow, others believe that Lovecraft did not read that work until 1927 (An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, p. 38)
Lovecraft originally titled the book Al Azif (from Arabic, meaning the sound of cicadas and other nocturnal insects which folklore claims is the conversations of demons) and said that it was written by the "mad Arab" Abdul Alhazred. Among other things, the work contained an account of the Old Ones, their history, and the means for summoning them.
According to Lovecraft, Alhazred wrote the original text in Damascus around 730 AD, but a number of translations were made over the centuries. The Greek translation, which gave the book its most famous title, was made by a (fictional) Orthodox scholar, Theodorus Philetas of Constantinople circa 950 AD. Olaus Wormius (an actual historical person wrongly placed by Lovecraft in the thirteenth century) translated it into Latin and indicated in the preface that the Arabic original was lost. This translation was printed twice: in the fifteenth century, evidently in Germany in black-letter, and in the seventeenth, probably in Spain.
When the Latin translation called attention to the Necronomicon, it was banned by Pope Gregory IX in 1232. The Greek translation, printed in Italy between 1500 and 1550, was probably lost when fire destroyed R. U. Pickman's library in Salem. The Elizabethan magician John Dee allegedly had a copy (an idea suggested to Lovecraft by his friend Frank Belknap Long) and is thought to have made an English translation, of which only fragments survive.
Appearance and contents
Lovecraft made frequent references to the Necronomicon but was very sparing of details about its appearance and contents. It is undoubtedly a substantial tome as evidenced by its presentation in "The Dunwich Horror" (1929). In the story, Wilbur Whateley visits Miskatonic University's library to consult the "unabridged" version of the Necronomicon for a spell that would have appeared on the 751st page of his own inherited, but defective, Dee edition.
The Necronomicon's appearance and physical dimensions are a mystery. Other than the obvious black letter editions, it is commonly portrayed as bound in leather of various types and having metal clasps. Moreover, editions are sometimes disguised. In The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, for example, John Merrit pulls down a book labelled Qanoon-e-Islam from Joseph Curwen’s bookshelf and discovers to his disquiet that it is actually the Necronomicon.
Lovecraft's three direct quotations from the Necronomicon are as follows:
- From "The Nameless City":
That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange æons death may die.
(Later versions of the same quote always read "even death may die".)
- From "The Festival":
The nethermost caverns are not for the fathoming of eyes that see; for their marvels are strange and terrific. Cursed the ground where dead thoughts live new and oddly bodied, and evil the mind that is held by no head. Wisely did Ibn Schacabao say, that happy is the tomb where no wizard hath lain, and happy the town at night whose wizards are all ashes. For it is of old rumour that the soul of the devil-bought hastes not from his charnel clay, but fats and instructs the very worm that gnaws; till out of corruption horrid life springs, and the dull scavengers of earth wax crafty to vex it and swell monstrous to plague it. Great holes secretly are digged where earth's pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl.
- From "The Dunwich Horror":
Nor is it to be thought that man is either the oldest or the last of earth's masters, or that the common bulk of life and substance walks alone. The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, they walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen. Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and guardian of the gate. Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth. He knows where the Old Ones broke through of old, and where They shall break through again. He knows where They had trod earth's fields, and where They still tread them, and why no one can behold Them as They tread. By Their smell can men sometimes know Them near, but of Their semblance can no man know, saving only in the features of those They have begotten on mankind; and of those are there many sorts, differing in likeness from man's truest eidolon to that shape without sight or substance which is Them. They walk unseen and foul in lonely places where the Words have been spoken and the Rites howled through at their Seasons. The wind gibbers with Their voices, and the earth mutters with Their consciousness. They bend the forest and crush the city, yet may not forest or city behold the hand that smites. Kadath in the cold waste hath known Them, and what man knows Kadath? The ice desert of the South and the sunken isles of Ocean hold stones whereon Their seal is engraver, but who hath seen the deep frozen city or the sealed tower long garlanded with seaweed and barnacles? Great Cthulhu is Their cousin, yet can he spy Them only dimly. Iä! Shub-Niggurath! As a foulness shall ye know Them. Their hand is at your throats, yet ye see Them not; and Their habitation is even one with your guarded threshold. Yog-Sothoth is the key to the gate, whereby the spheres meet. Man rules now where They ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now. After summer is winter, after winter summer. They wait patient and potent, for here shall They reign again.
There are innumerable other quotations from the Necronomicon, but those listed above are the only ones written by Lovecraft himself.
In Lovecraft's works, various people and places have copies of the Necronomicon (although it is far rarer than later imitators would have one believe despite its persistent appearances). Copies of the Necronomicon are held by only five institutions worldwide:
- The British Museum (later moved to the British Library)
- The Bibliothèque nationale de France
- Widener Library of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts
- The University of Buenos Aires
- The library of the fictional Miskatonic University in the equally fictitious Arkham, Massachusetts
The latter institution holds the Latin translation by Olaus Wormius, printed in Spain in the 17th century.
Other copies are kept by private individuals. Wilbur Whateley has a copy in "The Dunwich Horror" (1929), which probably went to his heirs after his death. Joseph Curwen's copy in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1941) was likely destroyed by the raiding party that took his life. Harley Warren's version (not mentioned by name but most likely a copy) goes with him to his fate in "The Statement of Randolph Carter" (1919). A version is held in Kingsport in both "The Festival" (1925) and (by implication) The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. The provenance of the copy read by the narrator of "The Nameless City" (1921) is unknown, while the version read by the protagonist in "The Hound" (1924) is likely destroyed by the fire that consumes the rest of his charnel goods.
In the works of Brian Lumley, the occult investigator Titus Crow posseses a copy that is allegedly covered in sweaty human skin.
Etymology of the title
Lovecraft wrote that the title, as translated from the Greek language, meant "An image of the law of the dead": nekros ("corpse"), nomos ("law"), eikon ("image"). A more prosaic (but probably more correct) translation can be derived by conjugating nemo ("to consider"): "Concerning the dead". Another possible etymology is "Knowledge of the dead", from the Greek nekrós ("corpse", "dead") and gnomein ("to know"), assuming that the g can be dropped.
Greek editions of Lovecraft's works have commented that the word can have several different meanings in Greek when broken at its roots:
- The Book of the Dead, derived from Nomicon (Book of Law).
- The Book of Dead Laws.
- A Study or Classification of the Dead.
- Image of the Law of the Dead.
- Book Concerning the Dead.
- Law of Dead Images.
- The Book of Dead Names, derived from onoma (name).
Hoaxes and alleged translations
Although Lovecraft insisted that the book was pure invention (and other writers invented passages from the book in their own works), there are accounts of some people actually believing the Necronomicon to be a real book. Lovecraft himself sometimes received letters from fans inquiring about the Necronomicon's authenticity. Pranksters occasionally listed the Necronomicon for sale in book store newsletters or inserted phony entries for the book in library card catalogues.
The line between fact and fiction was further blurred in the late 1970s when a book purporting to be a translation of the "real Necronomicon" was published. This book, by the pseudonymic "Simon", had little connection to the fictional Lovecraft Mythos but instead was based on Sumerian mythology. It was later dubbed the "Simon Necronomicon".
A blatant hoax version of the Necronomicon, edited by George Hay, appeared in 1978 and included an introduction by the paranormal researcher and writer Colin Wilson. David Langford described how the book was prepared from a computer analysis of a discovered "cipher text" by Dr. John Dee. The resulting "translation" was in fact written by occultist Robert Turner, but it was far truer to the Lovecraftian version than the Simon text and even incorporated quotations from Lovecraft's stories in its passages.
Historical "Books of the Dead", such as the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead or the Tibetan Bardo Thodol, are sometimes described as "real Necronomicons". They should not be confused with the Lovecraft Necronomicon, since their contents are meant to be read or remembered by the dead, rather than to be used by the living to summon the dead. Lovecraft may have been inspired by these books.
Activist Patricia Pulling, apparently believing that the book was real, included a question about it in the publication Interviewing Techniques for Adolescents. In a list of questions to be used by police investigating cult-related crimes, the first question is "Has he read the Necronomicon or is he familiar with it?" (The Pulling Report).
Appearances in popular culture
In all three films in the Evil Dead film series, the Necronomicon is featured prominently. It is said to be bound in human flesh and inked in human blood and contain ancient incantations and burial rites. The cover is wrinkly and brown, with something resembling a face on the front, and the pages contain text in strange characters (a font called "Bullscrit") and drawings of various evil creatures. On two occasions (for the Limited Edition DVD editions of The Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2), Anchor Bay has released replicas of the film's rendition of the Necronomicon. For more information, see Evil Dead. This Necromonicon, however, is identified within the movies as being a Sumarian text. Speaking of films, the Necronomicon also makes a short appearance in Friday the 13th part IX. It appears in the Vorhees family manor. It seems to be a replica of the same book in the Evil Dead trilogy.
The Metallica song "The Thing That Should Not Be" references Cthulhu Mythos, and thus indirectly the Necronomicon, in the following two lines:
- Not dead which eternal lie
- Stranger eons death may die
Metallica (Cliff Burton) also produced the instrumental song "Call of Ktulu" as a tribute to the story Call of Cthulhu.
The "Tome Of Eternal Darkness" from the video game Eternal Darkness is similiar to the Necronomincon while the game itself bears several references to H.P. Lovecraft, Cthulhu Mythos and Edgar Alan Poe.
Commercially available versions
- Al Azif: The Necronomicon by L. Sprague de Camp (1973, ISBN 1587150433)
- Necronomicon by "Simon" (1980, ISBN 0380751925)
- H.R. Giger's Necronomicon by H.R. Giger (1991, ISBN 0962344729)
- The Necronomicon edited by George Hay (1993, ISBN 1871438160)
- Necronomicon: The Wanderings Of Alhazred by Donald Tyson (2004, ISBN 0738706272)
- Lovecraft, Howard P. At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels S. T. Joshi (ed.) (1985, Arkham House, Sauk City, WI) ISBN 0-870-54038-6
- The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
- "The Statement of Randolph Carter"
- Lovecraft, Howard P. Dagon and Other Macabre Tales S. T. Joshi (ed.) (1986, Arkham House, Sauk City, WI) ISBN 0-870-54039-4
- "The Festival"
- "The Hound"
- "The Nameless City"
- Lovecraft, Howard P.Lovecraft The Dunwich Horror and Others S. T. Joshi (ed.) (1984, Arkham House, Sauk City, WI) ISBN 0-870-54037-8
- "The Dunwich Horror"
- Lovecraft, Howard P. A History of The Necronomicon (Necronomicon Press, West Warwick, RI) ISBN 0-318-04715-2
- Harms, Daniel and John Wisdom Gonce III The Necronomicon Files (Red Wheel Weiser) ISBN 1-578-63269-2
- Joshi,S. T. and Schultz, D. E. An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia (Westport, CT Greenwood Press 2001) ISBN 0-3133-1578-7